I had been hearing about The Shack for quite some time. A couple of months ago, at the annual A.W. Tozer Seminary’s faculty conference, several of my colleagues (who are pastors of churches around Northern California and Nevada) mentioned the book and the splash it was making. The reviews were mixed though generally favorable. After I returned home I went online and read several reviews. Most were negative, some decrying its portrayal of the trinity as heretical because God the Father is not portrayed as male (one nationally known pastor identified loosely with the emergent church movement decried this as goddess worship! [only later did he admit that he had not even read the book—but that is an ethical question for another time]), others because the picture of God (Trinity) was one of mutual love and mutual submission rather than hierarchical, still others because the picture of the death of Christ was explained in terms other than those of penal substitution. I talked with one of my close friends, a pastor in the Bay Area whose take on the book was entirely negative—it was New Age. He described the portrayal of the Father and the Spirit as “Oprah” and “Tinkerbell” respectively. With such negative input, why bother even to read the book? Others however testified that they experienced a profound shift in their understanding of God and his grace and love. They had seen a picture of God in the story that had transformed their spiritual lives. (BTW on one website I found a critic who said that because so many people were being profoundly spiritually affected, the book must be a work of the devil!)
I am by nature skeptical, but I believed that I had an obligation to read it. I read it with a critical eye. The Shack is a novel, a story about a Christian man whose daughter was brutally murdered by a serial killer on a family vacation in the wilds of rural Oregon several years before the story begins. Since his daughter’s death he had entered the Great Saddness. This depression had hung on and profoundly affected his relationship with his wife, his two remaining children, and with God. He received an invitation in the mail one day for him to visit the shack where his daughter was murdered—it is signed by God!
I won’t go any further in describing the story. I want instead to turn attention in a different direction. Note, I was reading carefully about the portrayals of the trinity in light of all the criticism I had heard. What I discovered was well within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy. In fact, the concept of the Trinity mirrors the teaching developed in the early centuries, reflecting in many cases the assertions laid down by the great fourth-century bishop Athanasius, and the three great Cappadocian fathers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus. These four stand as the foundation of Trinitarian understanding as understood by the Eastern Church. They were all ardent defenders of the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325), and the Cappadocians were instrumental in the reaffirmation and further clarification of Trinitarian understanding at the council of Constantinople (A.D. 381). (Athanasius had died before this council.)
About 20 years ago one of my colleagues at Western Seminary began teaching seminars on the spiritual life, throughout northern California (his ministry has since burgeoned and gone international). His starting point for spiritual life was grounded in the relational nature of God as Trinity. I told him at the time (as an observation not a criticism) that his concept of the trinity was Eastern Orthodox. He didn’t want to hear that. “No,” he insisted, “it’s biblical!” (At that time he had never read any patristic writings, i.e. the early church fathers.) He was (and is) a biblical scholar.
Over the years he has come to recognize what I told him nearly two decades ago. While our western view of the trinity is, from a practical perspective, only a verbal affirmation which we do not understand and certainly cannot begin to comprehend rationally, the Eastern Church understands the trinity as profoundly personal and relational. Their understanding is that we are called into intimate experience with this tri-personal God whose central attribute is love (which implies acceptance that is experienced on an emotional level).
To extend this further, the Eastern understanding of salvation involves healing of the soul. Evangelicals have often viewed the day to day outworking of salvation in terms of finding a verse that somehow speaks to every problem, quote the verse and move on. Lest you think I am exaggerating here, I have witnessed this phenomenon in several different churches. I have seen individuals in gut-wrenching emotional pain given a verse as a band-aid when what was needed was emotional/spiritual life support. We have looked to a cognitive knowing of the truth as opposed to experiencing the transforming power of love and grace.
The Shack is a story: a story of emotional/spiritual trauma and its aftereffects. The author, William Young calls it a parable (not an allegory) about redeeming tragedy in life. To be understood, like every work of literature, it must be read on its own terms—why did the author write; who was he writing to and for. A poem cannot be interpreted like a scientific journal article. Asking a text to answer issues it is not addressing is fundamentally wrong-headed and leads to seriously skewed inaccurate conclusions. We also need to seriously come to grips with the reality that no one (not even ourselves) is totally orthodox. As one theologian observed over a century ago: “No one is totally orthodox save God Himself.”
We need to learn how to read fiction. In some respects the response to The Shack by many in the evangelical community mirrors the response to Frank Perretti’s, This Present Darkness published in 1986. While it was decried by theological reviewers as theologically unsound it was a publishing phenomenon in the evangelical world. Unfortunately it was read by reviewers (and not a few of its fans) as a theological textbook for spiritual warfare.
The Shack is not a work of theology; it is fiction, a story. It is a story about encounter with God. As such it treads ground that angels may fear to tread. But it is a story/parable that is brutally honest with God about pain and suffering. These are questions most of us don’t dare to even ask lest we be struck down by lightning. Yet, we find in scripture that Job was not struck down for confronting God. It was “God’s apologists” (Job’s three “friends”) who earned His ire.
Post Script: I wonder, if C.S. Lewis were alive today and publishing the Chronicles of Narnia if he would be accused of idolatry since Aslan, who is blatantly a Christ figure, is a lion!
For a discussion of The Shack with the author and the Faculty of Regent College the MP3 can be downloaded from Regent College Bookstore: http://www.regentaudio.com/product_details.php?item_id=801
For a look at some of the reviews: