Friday, June 11, 2010

"The Shack:" A Theological Evaluation

This past Sunday, I continued my series on contemporary fiction in Christian perspective by focusing on Wm. Paul Young's The Shack in my adult Sunday School class. Here is a brief outline of that presentation.

The Shack
has been an incredible publishing phenomenon. Originally self-published, it has sold over 5 million copies in the first two years. It has been translated into dozens of languages and a major movie is in the works. Where did this book come from?

The author was a missionary kid who suffered child abuse and later had a crisis of faith & found healing outside the institutional Church. (He is not a member of a Church today. He is "spiritual" but not "religious.") He wrote it to explain his faith to his children and never expected it to be widely read.

What is it About?
A man named Mack receives a note in his mailbox from God inviting him to visit a shack in the woods where Mack’s daughter Missy had been brutally murdered by a sociopathic killer two years previously.

He goes and meets the Trinity in the form of “Papa” (a large African-American woman), Jesus (a middle-Eastern man) and Sarayu (a slight Asian woman) and he spends a weekend being healed of his grief. On the way home he is in a car accident and gradually recovers – eventually leading police to his daughter’s buried body.

That is the bare outline, but what is really about?
It is really an invitation to think about religion, God, evil, salvation & church in a whole new way. Some say that we should not expect consistent or correct theology from a novel but this is disrespectful to the power & potential of fiction, not to mention the stories of the Bible itself. But the author admits explicitly that his intent is to teach people better theology than they now have. Evangelicals are split on this novel with some calling it heresy & others embracing it. So what do we make of the theology in this novel?

The Good
1. It presents theology as relevant, interesting and well worth discussing by ordinary people.
2. It stresses and makes powerfully apparent the wonderful love of God.
3. The novel presents the doctrine of the Trinity in ways that make us think without necessarily falling into outright heresy.
4. It takes seriously the reality of evil & all the problems that arise from that recognition.
5. It is not afraid to admit that there is such a thing as mystery (eg. why God allows evil & what good will ultimately come out of it) & the need for faith.

The Bad
1. The book rejects all hierarchy and submission in God, the Church and the world as inherently evil rather than seeing it as redeemed in Christ.
2. The idea that we are all forgiven already and the only issue is whether we accept that forgiveness places all God’s work in the past. This renders God passive in salvation and makes salvation into a human work. There is no room for calling or regeneration.
3. The rejection of the idea that God judges sin and the effective elimination of the wrath of God.
4. The teaching that the Father suffered along with Christ on the cross instead of turning his back on the Son as the Son bore our sins decenters (or possibly eliminates) the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement.
5. The denigration of the institutional Church as if Christ rejects it is inconsistent with the New Testament.

An Example of a "Third Way" Movement
It appears to mingle elements of conservative Evangelical and liberal Protestant theology together in a “new” recipe. As such, it is part of what I call “Third Way Movements” along with such movements as the Emergent Church and Open Theism.

Third Way movements are usually pursued by Evangelicals who have become dissatisfied with their traditional theology. They accept at least part of the liberal critique of Evangelicalism – often beginning with politics. Then they seek to blunt the rough edges of traditional theology where it clashes with the world. Some of the most common issues they focus on are:
(1) the penal-substitutionary doctrine of atonement
(2) the wrath of God, judgment and hell
(3) the social gospel and poverty,
(4) evolution and Genesis 1-11
(5) feminism, equality of the sexes and egalitarianism
(6) biblical inerrancy and authority
(7) re-thinking homosexuality

As can be seen from this list, the agenda is taken from the world; it focuses on points the contemporary world had difficulty accepting. The issue is more social acceptance by the world than intellectual difficulties as such.

The Shack attacks hierarchy instead of seeking the redemption of hierarchy. It minimizes or defines away the wrath of God on sin and makes it unclear why Jesus had to die. It makes salvation into a human work in which we must respond to a passive God and what He has done in the past. It is anti-institutional and reduces the Church to the level of a human institution and it promotes individualism over community.

What can we learn from The Shack?
1. We can learn to read critically & carefully
2. We can gain a new appreciation for the love of God – we agree with The Shack’s view of God’s love as far surpassing our expectations
3. We can gain deeper insight into the nature of God as Trinity
4. We can learn how to understand people in grief
5. We can learn how to trust God even when we don’t & can’t understand why certain things happen.

What do we need to beware of?
1. Not to lift up the love of God by downplaying the wrath of God
2. God is not a “buddy” or an “equal” but the High & Holy One
3. Hierarchy & authority is being redeemed not destroyed
4. Salvation is faith in what God is doing now as well as what He did in the past
5. The cross is about Jesus bearing our sin, not just about revealing God’s forgiveness
6. The Church is necessary for salvation & the Christian life: where else do we hear the Gospel?


Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Thanks Craig. I just read that book recently and I didn't quite know what to make of it. I guess what I appreciated mostly was that although I didn't agree with all of it, it did make me think outside my little box.

My sympathy to you and yours.


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Gordon Hackman said...

I appreciate the even-handedness on display in this evaluation. Most responses to "The Shack" have either been super affirmative but seem to miss potentially serious problems in it, or have been shrilly condeming while seeming to miss why it is that the book speaks to so many people.