William P. Young
Windblown Media, 2007
It’s perhaps something of an understatement to say that this book has caused something of a stir. For a book originally written for the author’s children, with no real intent to publish it further it has sold a lot of copies. On 6 July 2008 it was number 5 in amazon.com’s bestseller list. It hasn’t as yet made such an impact in the UK ranking ‘only’ 671st best selling book on amazon.co.uk. It isn’t available on the book depository site yet.
The story focuses, as Mark Driscoll puts it, on ‘Mack in the Shack’. Mack’s daughter is abducted and apparently cruelly killed in a shack. As a result Mack suffers from a great sadness. One day he receives a letter supposedly from God asking him to meet at the shack. The remainder of the book tells of Mack’s transformation on meeting God as Trinity. The Trinity is portrayed as three persons: ‘A large black woman’ called Papa, ‘A small, distinctively Asian woman’ whose voice sang; ‘this wiry-looking was maybe of person of northern Chinese or Nepalese or even Mongolian ethnicity. It was hard to tell because his eyes had to work to see her at all’ (p 85), and Jesus ,‘He appeared Middle eastern and was dressed like a laborer, complete with tool belt and gloves’ (p 84). It is this depiction of the Trinity that has caused such a theological stir and accusations of heresy.
Despite selling so well – or perhaps because of – there have been a number of objections to the theology lying behind it. One of the most vociferous is Mark Driscoll. Driscoll describes the book as being about the Trinity – it’s not; although the Trinity appears a lot. It is the story of a wounded person being transformed by the love of God as revealed through a trinity.
Driscoll has four main objections. In what follows I will make a 'knee-jerk' response to his points.
1. It makes a graven image of God
To show God the father as a human being is wrong – it is ‘graven imagery’. If this were the case then what about C S Lewis’s Narnia series, God/ Jesus is portrayed as a single lion, is that too a graven image. And what about the descriptions of God in the Bible? Isn’t Young doing the same as them? He hasn’t constructed some metal monster, or even a painted image does this mean that any art that depicts God is breaking this command?
2.It’s goddess worship – God appears as a black woman called ‘Papa’.
God reveals himself as a father, we should worship him as father claims Driscoll. But yet God does sometimes reveal himself in feminine terms: cf Is 49:15 and El Shaddai – the all sufficient one – shad is translated 24 times in the OT as breast, a mother’s breast is all sufficient for her children. Humans are also created in the image of God male and female.
There is some truth in this accusation – at times the Trinity is depicted in modalistic terms. Particularly the point where Papa reveals the nail scars on his/her hands. Young commenting on this say he had in mind 2 Cor 5:19. Though this is a misinterpretation of this scripture.
The view of the trinity in The Shack is more tri-theism (the idea that there are three separate Gods) than modalism.
4. The Trinity is in a circle of relationship
Driscoll is showing his theological colours here- he seems to accept the concept of subordination within the Trinity. Young does not as this quote shows:
Papa speaks: ‘Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command or ‘great chain of being’ as your ancestors termed it. What you are seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us.’ (p 122)
Subordination is a doctrine that maintains that there is a hierarchy within the Trinity. It was popular among Platonist church fathers such as Origen, it fitted in with the great chain of being. Subordinationism is making a comeback among evangelicals in recent decades (eg in Grudem’s Systematic Theology). Primarily, I suspect to provide a basis for the complementarian model of the family. Not surprisingly complementarins are not happy with The Shack; egalitarians seem to like it, it is for sale at Christian for Biblical Equality site.
A rejection of subordination is not however heresy! See for example the work of Kevin Giles who maintains that subordination is a deviation from orthodoxy.
Most of the objections against The Shack I suspect would evaporate if basic hermeneutical principles were used. What type of literature is The Shack? It is certainly not a systematic theology or a monograph on the Trinity! It is a work of fiction, a novel. What is its primary focus? It is not to teach us about the Trinity, it is to show the love and grace of a triune God. I suspect that if 99% of all Christian were asked to describe how they understood God as Trinity they would fall into some error, be it modalism, tritheism, sabellianism, arianism or …. .
Since reading The Shack I have had more discussions with people about the Trinity than in the last decade! That can’t be a bad thing. Love it or hate it The Shack can’t be avoided – flawed as it is it can be the basis for excellent basis for theological discussion.
Further discussion can be found here
Mark Driscoll from You Tube
Al Mohler (against)
Tim Challies's review (against)
Regent College (moderate for)
Beholding him video review (part 2 here)
The Shack review - accuses The Shack of universalism
A response to some of the heretical accusations is here by Wayne Jacobsen
Interview with Young