The Shack

There’s a book sweeping the Evangelical landscape called “The Shack“. I finally got a chance to read the book this Christmas. The book is about a man who encounters all three persons of the Trinity while on a weekend visit to a shack in the woods. Going into my reading of the book I was aware of some controversy surrounding the book which somewhat colored my reading. I had listened to a review of the book which I think did a great job of hearing out the books supporters and detractors.

http://familylife.edgeboss.net/download/familylife/earreverent/ear-0012.mp3?rss_feedid=536

I heard someone once say that it’s okay to like bad music, it’s just not okay to think it’s good. That’s the way I felt about this book. The author breaks some fundamental rules of fiction and the level of editing the book received highlights how unexpected its’ success was. It’s not a “great” book but I really enjoyed reading it. After I accepted the book’s shortcomings I enjoyed the beautiful way God chooses to interact with the main character and help him walk through pain.

For a Mormon audience I think the book does a great job of showing how Evangelicals think about the ways in which the Trinity acts with one another, what the personalities of each member is like, what Heaven is like and our solution for the problem of pain and suffering. There was nothing in the book that I that I hadn’t heard before, but in a fictional setting the truths come alive in a much more vibrant manner.

After reading the book I think the theological controversies surrounding the book are pathetic. The author presents the story as nothing but fictional. It is not a text book on Systematic Theology.  The author makes sure that God explains why he is representing himself in a human form and why he is limiting himself in one way or the other and all of those reasons play to the story. I don’t think you could seriously walk away from the book convinced that God the Father is a black woman named Eloise.

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41 thoughts on “The Shack

  1. I haven’t listened to your sound clip yet, Tim.

    [mild spoiler]

    I wonder how many people complained about the fact that two of the three members of the Trinity are represented as women in The Shack. Puts a smile on my face just thinking about it.

  2. I went to the library and read the first couple chapters during my dinner break a short while ago. If I continue it, it will be because of this blog. The writing quality is lousy.

  3. I always hate books the first couple of chapters anyways. Persevere Eric! It picks up steam. I actually thought of you at one point in the book.

  4. I actually thought of you at one point in the book.

    Hmmm. OK, I’ll go to the library tomorrow and remember to take my card with me.

    The book shouldn’t take too long to read.

  5. Tim,

    I am wondering how you can endorse the Trinitarian portrayal of God in The Shack recommending it to Mormons as a way to understanding of how Evangelicals think about the Trinity and then in the next sentence dismiss the “theological controversies” as “pathetic”? It is particularly the un-trinitarian portrayal that raised such controversies. It has been pointed out that the “theological controversies” in this book go well beyond God the Father being portrayed as a “black woman named Eloise”. To brush them off as such without acknowledging book that the book tends to a modalistic, anti-monarchial and universalist portrayal of the Trinity misses the point that raised the controversies.

  6. C. Michael Patton called The Shack “decently written, thoroughly engaging, and theologically sound.” Here’s his review.

    He posted another note defending the book from some of the complaints about its theology here.

  7. Gundek have you read the book?

    Hearing the reviews I could have just as easily condemned the book for being “modalistic, anti-monarchial, and universalistic”. But the author didn’t develop any of those themes to the point where I could say he was endorsing or teaching any of those heresies. To each one of them you could show me a quote in the book that may start to point in that direction but he never follows the path down the road. There is one line in the book that “sounds” modalistic, but there is much much more of it that is contrary to modalism.

    The very premise of the book sets him off on some trouble by putting words in the mouth of God that God has never expressed. That alone and nothing else could be enough to decry the book. But he’s telling a fictional story, so we’ve got to give him a little wiggle room to tell that story.

    I recommend clicking on those links Jack just provided. He does a much more thorough job of speaking to your complaints.

  8. Tim,
    Yes I read the book, I found a copy in a USO while stuck waiting for a flight. I have also read the links to Michael Patton’s reviews.

    I don’t think that anyone can argue that the book is not patripassianist and that while patripassianism is not a heresy it is outside of orthodoxy and lends to modalism. It is interesting that Michael Patton addresses the modalism charge by pointing to the Eastern Orthodox ignoring the “anti-monarchial” or “anti-hierarchical” themes in the Shack that run counter to the Cappidocian Fathers. If he is going to appeal to the East shouldn’t he do so consistently?

    Patton points to this quote in the Shack against modalism “We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father, and worker. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely one.” Read this carefully, is this honestly an orthodox denial of modalism?

    There are other issues, a breakdown in the uniqueness of each person of the Trinity, a confusion of perichoresis with the incarnation of Christ, equating God as an action and not a being, etc. But this is not the point of my comment.

    Had you said “the shack was great, read it.” I would not have commented or pointed out the theological problems in the book. But you recommended this book to Mormons as “a great job of showing how Evangelicals think about the ways in which the Trinity acts with one another, what the personalities of each member is like…” and then dismissed theological critiques as “pathetic” because it is a work of fiction. In one sentence you are recommending that Mormons read the Shack to see “the truths come alive in a much more vibrant manner.” And in the next you are saying that the Shack is not a systematic theology and is “nothing but fictional”. All I am trying to do is understand how you can get around these two claims.

    Please note that I did not say the Shack teaches heresies or call it heretical. I think it unquestionably presents multiple competing errors in its presentations of the Trinity in the form of fiction and should be read with discernment. I personally wouldn’t recommend the Shack to come to an understanding of the Trinity because of these competing errors and am only wondering what makes you recommend this to Mormons.

  9. Are you a sock puppet for Aquinas?

    I didn’t recommend the book because I think it’s an excellent, systematic treaties on the inner workings of the Trinity. I recommended it because it’s a popular piece of fiction within Evangelicalism that will give Mormons an understanding of how Evangelicals think about the Trinity and the problem of pain at a popular, fictional level. I think the book does a good job in the context of its genre and I think Mormons who read it might find an uplifting message to boot.

    If we need must use words like “patripassianist” to give Mormons an understanding of the Trinity we’ve got a communication problem. I’m not going to recommend a source that speaks at that kind of technical accuracy for the overwhelming majority of people.

    I said the theological complaints against the book were pathetic because they are incredibly nit-picky and irrelevant to the overall theme of the book. I’m holding to that. It is very difficult to discuss the Trinity in any format without presenting “multiple competing errors”. It is a very fine line to walk in accurately defining God. I think the book does as well, if not better, than most Evangelicals of drawing a picture of the relationship found in the Trinity. Where the book is in error it does so in passing and the problem is nuanced.

    I agree it, like all books, must be read with discernment. If Christians start saying things like “that’s not what it says in ‘The Shack’ I’ll probably become more critical of its influence.

  10. If Christians start saying things like “that’s not what it says in ‘The Shack’ I’ll probably become more critical of its influence.

    Awesome quote Tim. Now if we can just get other Christians to stop reading the Bible in light of the Creeds, and stop having conversations where they say, “That’s not what it says in the Creed.” we’ll be making some progress.

  11. PC you know that we were saying those same thing before the Creeds were written right? It’s not like the Nicean Creed was written and Christians started getting these crazy ideas about the Trinity.

  12. Of course I’m aware of that Tim, but neither is “The Shack” the originator of some of the semi-heresies that Gundeck has large words for. “The Shack” is merely the popularizing, normalizing agent, and just as you rightfully point out, no Christian should read the Bible through the lens “The Shack” I merely point out that the lens of the Creed as a popularizing agent makes the viewpoints no more true than “The Shack” does to the others.

    Obviously ancient-origin doesn’t make something true. If it did, Bible scholars are agreed we would all be truly polytheistic, with a pantheon of competing gods, arguably the oldest viewpoint…

  13. It’s not like the Nicean Creed was written and Christians started getting these crazy ideas about the Trinity.

    But neither is it possible, in my view, to make a convincing case that the New Testament writers believed in the current creedal understanding of the Trinity.

    In any case, I checked out the book from the library last night. I hope to read it over the weekend.

  14. psychochemiker,

    Patripassianist is a big word, with a simple meaning, the Father did not suffer on the Cross with Christ. Or from the Latin “the Father suffers.” It’s not my word it’s Tertullian’s and predates the creeds.

  15. Tim,

    No I am not a sock puppet for Aquinas, but I struggled with the doctrine of the Trinity for years before I became a Christian. Maybe my own struggles with this have colored my thinking but there is a lack of Trinitarian theology in broader evangelicalism. I know that I can come across as a know it all judgemental jerk. And honestly I wish I could express myself in a way that this didn’t happen but this is the God of all creation we are talking about.

    Thank you for your thoughtful answer. Just to clarify I don’t think that we need to use technical language to convey the truths of the Trinity but at the same time I don’t think we should use a book that presents a flawed example of the Father suffering on the cross with Christ to convey thoughts about suffering and the Trinity, even if it is fictitious.

    I understand that you think that this is “incredibly nit-picky and irrelevant to the overall theme of the book” but I disagree, the major themes of the book are the Trinity and suffering, the author presents the patripassian error (the Father suffered with the Son) in developing these themes. I also think that in order to show the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity there is a breakdown in the uniqueness of each person of the Trinity (as a form of semi-modalism) directly applied to the incarnation of the Son.

    I don’t see any subtly or nuance in these errors, they are as bold as the scars on the arms of the characters. Some people defend the Shack by attaching themselves to particular orthodox declarations or falling on the disclaimer of fiction, but as a very close Eastern Orthodox friend said, “You Protestants and your drivel.” I think the shear volume of books sold and the fact that you are even recommending it shows that it has an influence, without being quoted as orthodoxy, despite being a work of fiction. But we are going to disagree, and I think in this case men of good faith can disagree without throwing the “H” word, so I will thank you sincerely for the time you took to answer my comment.

  16. Tim, I would be with Gundeck on this issue. There has got to be better fiction out there for us to enjoy.

    Interestingly, this book has been an inner family discussion. My sister loved the book. I didn’t.

  17. There has got to be better fiction out there for us to enjoy.

    well I wholeheartedly agree with you there.

  18. I finished reading The Shack a short while ago. Following are 10 reactions in no particular order. I’ll avoid any major spoilers:

    1. I wish it had been better written. The book could have been a masterpiece, but it fell far, far short. I’m not really all that critical of the author; he didn’t write it originally for publication. Despite the book’s poor writing quality (although probably no worse than most other self-published books), I can see why the book has been inspiring for many.

    2. The book mentions Mormons! He did so in neither a positive or negative way, but it was still surprising to see the word there.

    3. The focus of the book is dealing with theodicy, the problem of evil. I find the author’s “solution” quite consistent with LDS views (including mine). To simplify more than a bit, the viewpoint is that evil (and pain) are an outgrowth of the fact that God has given us humans free will, and that free will (or “agency,” to use LDS lingo) is something God ferociously protects.

    4. I take no issue with the author’s anthropomorphic portrayals of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is fiction, a parable, so I’m comfortable with granting the author a great deal of latitude here.

    5. Theologically, I take strong exception to the author’s explicit portrayal of a nonhierarchical Godhead/Trinity. While for practical purposes, since the members of the Godhead/Trinity are fully unified in purpose, and I would agree that the human trappings of hierarchy aren’t present so that there is a “circle of love” (to use the author’s phrase) in the Godhead/Trinity, to me it is as clear as can be from Scripture that Jesus carried/carries out the will of the Father. Whether that’s a hierarchy or something else, I don’t know, but to me it’s clear that that aspect of the relationship among the members of the Godhead/Trinity is different than what is explained in the book. (Yes, this is fiction, and I grant latitude for fiction. But in this case the nature of the relationship is explicitly defined by at least one of the God-characters, and it’s that definition I’m taking exception to. I don’t take exception to the way they behave toward each other.)

    6. Some evangelical critics have criticized the book for being modalistic. It’s not. In fact, I find the book’s view of the Godhead/Trinity in that aspect very similar to the LDS view, which is anything but modalistic. I don’t understand where this criticism is coming from.

    7. Some evangelical critics have criticized the book for being universalistic, or at least inclusivist. I found it to be universalistic/inclusivist in the same sense that Mormonism is (and that’s one aspect of Mormonism I especially like).

    8. Some evangelical critics have criticized the book for being anti-church. It’s not.

    9. The author’s view appears to be that growth in the Christian life is found in relationships, not in following rules. I think he’s basically right.

    10. I like the way the author portrayed the importance of forgiveness.

  19. Thank you for that thoughtful analysis, Eric.

    Regarding point 5, I would wager that Young is not a Trinitarian subordinationalist (i.e. the Son is eternally and mandatorily subordinate to the Father). I’m not either, for that matter. It sounds like Young has egalitarian leanings and egalitarians usually reject Trinitarian subordinationism. Those who reject hierarchical Trinitarianism usually hold that the Son’s subordination during his earthly ministry was temporary and voluntary.

    There was just an exchange on the matter in the Fall 2009 issue of the Trinity Journal between Kevin Giles and Michael F. Bird & Robert Shillaker. I would say that the subject is hotly debated among evangelical theologians today.

  20. Glad you liked it Eric.

    I do think that Mormonism offers a bit of a different take on the problem of evil in that the pre-existence gives all of us a bit of the “blame” by choosing this particular plan.

    I think to say that Jesus is subordinate but it wouldn’t change the way he and Papa interact in the book is trying to have your cake and eat it to. If it would make zero difference to how they interact, then why is the distinction so important. Can’t Jesus do the will of the Father and not be subordinated to him? I’m not really arguing for either side of the debate as much as expressing my disinterest in it.

  21. Jack said:

    I would say that the subject [the relational subordination of the Son in the Trinity] is hotly debated among evangelical theologians today.

    And Tim said:

    Can’t Jesus do the will of the Father and not be subordinated to him? I’m not really arguing for either side of the debate as much as expressing my disinterest in it.

    If I were an evangelical, I don’t think I’d see it as a important issue one way or the other, although to me the Bible is quite clear on the matter. I do think it’s important in LDS theology, though, and is related to why some LDS critics have argued that we don’t believe in the full divinity of Christ. And it’s related to the filoque clause that created a huge historical (and ongoing) split in Christianity. Obviously, it’s an issue that has been important to theologians. In my view, though (to echo what Tim kind of suggested, maybe), I’m not sure it’s all that important in how we live our lives or how we relate to God, especially in the light of the Trinity’s/Godhead’s unity of purpose.

    On another issue, Tim said:

    I do think that Mormonism offers a bit of a different take on the problem of evil in that the pre-existence gives all of us a bit of the “blame” by choosing this particular plan.

    I wouldn’t put it that way, although you do use fudge quotes. I think a more accurate way of stating it is that Mormons emphasize that free will, and implicitly suffering and even the Fall, was part of our Heavenly Father’s plan from the beginning. I don’t know what The Shack author would say about that, but he clearly places a strong emphasis on the importance of free will, and I think that emphasis would resonate with any LDS who read this book, certainly more so than its other theological aspects would.

  22. Jumping in a bit late here…

    I read it way back over the summer. My two pennies worth.. we evangelicals just don’t know how to handle a piece of popular fiction. We have to either embrace it wholeheartedly or attack it.

    IMHO, it was a good quick read. I enjoyed it, but I’m not going to use it for deep theological debate. The fact that topcis like “patripassianism”, the filioque clause and subordinationism of the trinity pop up when discussing the shack, proves to me that we just can’t seem to read a piece of fiction and take it as a fictional story in which a grieving father finds hope and comfort in his restored faith. We need to dive into the aspects of what that faith actually is, hence perhaps losing the forest through the trees ?

    But then again… that’s just the opinion of a non-theoligically educated bloke on the block

    In Him
    Mick

  23. I read the Shack last month. It touched me deeply on many different levels. It is a fantastic book, and yes it is controversial in Christian circles. I believe it’s fictional, and the author never asserts to it being “doctrine”. I love the image of ” papa ” and Jesus.

    Beautiful, beautiful book.

    My 16 yr old son read it, and it helped him to understand the trinity.

    I highly recommend the book,

    gloria

  24. [SPOILER ALERT]

    I read “The Shack” 6 months ago and couldn’t put it down.
    I had mixed feelings while reading it. There are some beautiful passages throughout the book, and I loved how the author’s theological and philosophical views matched many of my own.
    But….
    At times the writing was hokey and I didn’t care for some of Mack’s dialogue and questions. (I felt irritated when the author seemed to dumb it down for the reader with Mack’s questions to God)

    But I suppose anyone who tries to personify the Trinity is going to fall short and make the reader uncomfortable.
    I appreciated what the author attempted and if people are offended by God appearing as a woman, then they missed the point of it.

    Although the Trinity seems to get the most attention from comments I read, the overall message of the book for me was the powerful scene where Mack thinks he is going to judgment but instead is placed as a judge. He is forced to choose 2 of his 5 children that he is going to spend eternity with in heaven and the other 3 he must send to hell. He is shown which of his children would be the most likely choice for hell based on their sins:

    “I am only asking you to do something that you believe God does. He knows every person ever conceived, and he knows them so much more deeply and clearly than you will ever know your own children. He loves each one according to his knowledge of the being of that son or daughter. You believe he will condemn most to an eternity of torment, away from his presence and apart from his love. Is that not true?”

    Mack, like any loving parent, can’t choose which of his children to save or condemn.

    He begs God to take himself as a sacrifice to save his children.

    “now you sound like Jesus.”

    Reading that section again makes me tear up. That one scene beautifully conveys my belief in how the atonement of Christ enables us to forgive and heal, and God’s unconditional love for each of his children.
    That was the pinnacle of the book for me.

  25. [SPOILER ALERT]

    A few other thoughts I wanted to share….

    I have to disagree with the person who said the author’s mention of Mormons was not good or bad in the book.
    I thought it was a big positive for LDS when he included them in all the religions that were saved in heaven. Don’t LDS think EVs see them bound for hell?

    I also loved this passage from the book:
    (I’m paraphrasing here)

    Mack: “Does this mean that all paths lead to you?”

    Jesus: “No, it means that I will search every path to find you.”

    Love that!

    I think the trouble most Mormons will find with this book is the very strong comments against authority based religions. There were some stinging quotes on that section. (that I found myself agreeing with)

    I read The Shack with a group of LDS ladies for book club and most of them disliked it. On the positive side they said it helped them understand the Trinity much better, but on the negative side they did not like the Universalist non works based salvation message.

    Before I read it I asked a friend who had finished it what she thought. Her comment was (*insert grimace)
    “it’s one of those “everyone gets into heaven” books and it doesn’t matter what sins or good works you do.”

    I do not understand how she could have read the same book I did. She missed the whole point of the story. 😦 Another LDS woman in my group (a Utah native) got halfway through it and told us she would not finish it because it contained things that were offensive and troubling to her! LOL

  26. You may have intended this as a rhetorical question, but I wanted to answer it anyway. 🙂

    A Mormon views salvation as the gift of eternal life, which Christ gave to all sinners so in that sense no. All those who “kept their first estate” will be resurrected.

    I would say LDS believe more in a works based glory, and only those who have obeyed and lived a higher law (including LDS temple ordinances either in mortality or by proxy) can return to Heavenly Father’s presence and be given the opportunity for exaltation.

    But, is it really salvation if you do not return home to your Father in Heaven? That is the question you have to ask LDS. In that sense, then I would have to agree that Mormons believe we are only saved by our works. To a Mormon it is a form of hell to be separated from one’s eternal family with no chance of progression/creation. I’ve often heard from fellow Mormons who feel that there will be gnashing of teeth and misery for those that are placed in lower kingdoms because they can’t progress.

    My own personal belief (I’m a New Order Mormon now) on salvation is that God loves each of us unconditionally, and He will do everything in His power to bring us back home. But there are still conditions we must meet in order for Christ’s blood to atone for our sins: forgiveness of all who have harmed us, and repentance. The door will always be open, but we must knock. Without charity, we cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

    We are all sinners. If our hearts are full of charity for our brother and we have truly met those two conditions, we would never feel (as the woman I quoted did) that others do not deserve to be in the same place we are. A Christian would cry for mercy on behalf of the sinner.

    During a discussion with some LDS women on The Shack, I mentioned the Prodigal Son parable and how it came to my mind when reading Mack’s anger with God and his desire to condemn the killer to hell. I asked the question of myself “am I the servant who will rejoice when the murderer repents and welcome him with open arms to our family, or will I be the older brother who expects him to be placed in a lower kingdom/hell?” One of my LDS friends admitted she used to feel entitled to a greater reward than others because of her obedience to the gospel.

    One of my all time favorite books on mercy and forgiveness is “Cry the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton. It moved me to tears.

  27. But, is it really salvation if you do not return home to your Father in Heaven? That is the question you have to ask LDS. In that sense, then I would have to agree that Mormons believe we are only saved by our works.

    Not this Mormon. The scriptures are quite explicit that it’s grace that saves us.

    I’ve often heard from fellow Mormons who feel that there will be gnashing of teeth and misery for those that are placed in lower kingdoms because they can’t progress.

    They may “feel” that, but it isn’t what the scriptures themselves teach. Even the lowest kingdom of glory is described a place whose glory surpasses understanding.

  28. Thanks Bridget Jack Meyers! 🙂

    Hi Eric,
    I’m pleased to find another Mormon who doesn’t believe in a works based salvation.

    So you believe a murderer who meets the conditions of the atonement (either in this life or the next) will be saved in the Celestial Kingdom through Christ’s payment of blood? Just want to make sure I understood your grace comment correctly. It was confusing when your last comment referenced the lower kingdoms since is not true salvation if we are not with God in the end. (unless you believe there will be progression between the lower kingdoms)

  29. So you believe a murderer who meets the conditions of the atonement (either in this life or the next) will be saved in the Celestial Kingdom through Christ’s payment of blood?

    I expect to see St. Paul in the Celestial Kingdom, so why not?

  30. I actually think that reviewer has a false notions of Christianity as well (no defense of The Shack in this regard). There is a difference between faith and belief. Satan and his demons have certain belief in God; they lack faith.

    A visitation by God would not in any way diminish or weaken “true” faith.

  31. “Now that Young has described what he believes, his fans would do well to return to The Shack, for he has settled many of the debates. Does The Shack teach universalism? Absolutely. Does it encourage people to turn to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith? Is it meant to compel people to come to deeper confidence in the Bible? Is it a book that will persuade people to join and serve a local church? No, no, and no. Years ago when I reviewed The Shack I said, “Despite the amount of poor theology, my greatest concern is probably this one: the book has a quietly subversive quality to it. Young seems set on undermining orthodox Christianity.” “Seems set?” Now we know he is set. He is set on revoking and replacing the very pillars of the Christian faith.”

    http://www.challies.com/book-reviews/what-does-the-shack-really-teach-read-lies-we-believe-about-god

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