“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” 2 Corinthians 13:14
When it first came out in 2007, I read William P. (Paul) Young’s The Shack. Not surprisingly, this popular Christian book generated a great deal of discussion, and some of it vitriolic. Because the movie is coming out this week, I’m seeing quite a bit of discussion about the story, again some of it rather vitriolic. I want to address some of the major objections I hear and perhaps shed a little light on what I think the book is and what it is not.
The most often heard objection to The Shack concerns its depiction of the Trinity. The story portrays the main character, Mack, visiting a shack that was the site of a horrible crime. He there meets God, in three persons, literally.
The Father, appears to him as a large, African-American woman who goes by the name Papa. The Son is Jesus as you might expect to see a typical first-century Jewish man, though clothed in contemporary work clothes. The Holy Spirit, is a woman, that goes by the name Sarayu, a Hindu word that means wind or breath. The book consists of conversations Mack has with all three at once or individually.
Now, the quickest way to be labeled a heretic is to try and describe the nature of the Trinity. God’s oneness combined with His separateness is so slippery that theologians created the word trinity to describe God’s nature. Efforts at being specific are fraught with theological pitfalls, and someone is always ready to help you fall into a pit.
One of the most energetic critics of the book claimed that Williams was promoting modalism, a theological term, which like most theological terms, makes us professional theologians sound like we know a lot more than you. This teaching dates to the late second century, and states that God is one (so far so good), and that He appears in three different roles (and there is the problem). Modalism on the human level is that I am a husband, father, and friend, but obviously I cannot be all three separately at once. The error of the teaching is that in the Bible, God is all three at one time, separate and co-equal. The Trinity is one substance but three distinct persons or personalities. Modalism emphasizes the unity at the expense of the tri.
Far from promoting modalism, the book actually depicts very creatively a basic truth about God. God is three persons. This criticism can only come either from someone who has not read the book or who simply does not know what modalism is.
A second broad criticism is that the book is scripturally incorrect. Just about anything reduced to writing can be scripturally incorrect in that it conflicts with some part of Scripture, or someone’s interpretation of Scripture. As I’ve written elsewhere and often, it’s a mistake to think of the Bible as offering a unified and systematic theology. For the most part, the Bible is a story. Very seldom do we find anything in the Bible close to what we find in theology books. That’s not to belittle or dismiss theology books, but it does suggest some limits to our attempts to systematize the Bible and then judge any other ideas against our systems.
I write this as a rather traditional Christian, and one that has a doctorate in Greek New Testament. I did not devote years of study to the New Testament text to then decide it doesn’t speak with authority to my life. I believe the Bible, and you’re not going to “out-believe” me when it comes to the Bible. So if what I’ve written so far gets your hackles up, just calm your hackles down.
One of the things I chiefly believe about the Bible is that it has broad and rich language and imagery. The nuances are many and deep. This variety doesn’t diminish its fundamental unity about a good and loving God. The Bible provides a lot of stories in The Story as a way for people to find their story in it, and align more closely their story with God’s desire for them. Having said all of this, I think Young presents a good story that drew on some very important New Testament teachings in a very creative, interesting, and thought-provoking way.
Space does not allow a survey of all the places where I thought he got it right, but I do want to mention his main thesis. One of the most puzzling and challenging scriptural truths is that God loves each of us deeply. Grace is amazing. Frankly, words fail when I try to elucidate “God is love” or even “God so loved the world.” What Williams has done is give us a story that depicts that love. I found it charming.
As for some other teachings, Williams was extraordinarily orthodox in his affirmation of Jesus as the agent of creation, the Spirit as active and personal, the impossibility of a literal separation of Father and Son on the cross, the fact that all roads do not lead to God, and the necessity of our forgiving one another.
Paul Williams was not really attempting to describe specifically what the Trinity is. The Shack is not a documentary, nor is it a theology book. The book is a story, an illustration, an analogy, and any of these descriptions when pressed very literally will tend to break down at some point. Of course The Shack has weaknesses, but I simply don’t find any weaknesses so objectionable that I would tell someone to stay away from it. Grace is best understood inductively. That is why Jesus told stories like the Prodigal Son, and, if you recall, that story was highly criticized by some very religious folks.
So relax and read the book and go see the movie if you want to. You may or may not like it. But you certainly will not be endangering your soul. You just may feel closer to God. Bottom line, I just don't think God gets offended by some of the things we get offended by.
By the way, I’m not a movie reviewer, and I have not seen the movie. However, I have seen the trailer, and based on that I give the movie 3 ½ halos (out of 4).
Dr. Terry Ellis
February 26, 2017