Heart & Mind

The Shack Chat

San Diego and St. Paul profs appear coast-to-coast in popular "Chat" events.

Volume 22 No 2 | Spring 2009

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Alumni and friends of Bethel Seminary San Diego gathered twice in recent months to hear Bethel Seminary Professor of New Testament Mark Strauss, Ph.D., and Bethel Seminary Associate Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy Steve Sandage, Ph.D., dialogue about the issues raised by William Young’s best-selling novel The Shack.

Altogether, more than 330 people attended “The Shack Chat” discussions held at the seminary chapel in San Diego and at Whittier Area Community Church in Whittier, Calif. Six other Bethel-hosted “Chats” in Minnesota, Illinois, and Florida featured pairings between Sandage and Bethel Seminary Professor of Theology David Clark, Ph.D., or Bethel University Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies Jim Beilby, Ph.D., drawing crowds totaling more than 1,700.

The Shack: Fiction and Theodicy

The Shack by William P. Young has been an amazing commercial and literary success. Though rejected by several major publishers, the book was eventually self-published by the author and has sold more than four million copies since its release in May 2007. Today, it remains No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for paperback trade fiction. Making a profound impact on millions of readers, the book has prompted lively discussion in churches, small groups, university courses, internet chat rooms, and supermarket check-out lines.

Young’s novel has received remarkable praise as well as vociferous criticism. Eugene Peterson, former professor at Regent College and translator of The Message, writes, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.” Christian singer and songwriter Michael W. Smith says, “The Shack is the most absorbing work of fiction I’ve read in many years; [it] will leave you craving for the presence of God.” Among the dissenters are those who claim the book is “heretical” (Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and author of On Who Is God, among other books); a “hut of deception” (James B. De Young, professor of New Testament language and literature at Western Seminary); or “undiluted heresy” (Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).

So what should we make of The Shack? There are two points that we initially should keep in mind. First, the book is a work of fiction, a story that uses metaphor and allegory in an effort to grasp theological truths. All metaphors are incomplete and, to a certain extent, inadequate. Second, the book is a theodicy, a defense of God’s goodness in the context of the existence of evil. The back cover of the book acknowledges this: “In a world where religion seems to grow increasingly irrelevant, The Shack wrestles with the timeless question, ‘Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?’” Since the “problem of evil” is one of the most profound, difficult, and perplexing issues theologians ponder, we should not expect the book to provide easy, airtight answers or offer solutions that will please everyone. The Shack should be seen as an illustration of one man’s wrestling with very difficult questions.

This, I think, is one of the reasons the book strikes such a chord with so many readers. All of us face suffering in life. Most of us see injustice, pain, and evil in the world and wonder why God doesn’t stop it. The Shack tries to give an answer, or at least to start a conversation about the issue. Rather than judging the book as either good or bad, I will briefly discuss a few areas of theological concern that have been raised against it.

The Nature of the Trinity

The Shack presents the Trinity in a unique way. God the Father is “Papa,” a large and gregarious African-American woman; the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman named Sarayu (Sanskrit for “air” or “wind”); and Jesus is (appropriately) a young man of Middle-Eastern descent. While some Christians have been bothered or offended by this representation, in my opinion it is one of the least controversial aspects of the book. The Shack makes it clear that this is merely metaphorical language. Papa (the Father) says to Mack, the book’s main character, “Mackenzie, I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning” (p. 93). All human language about God is to one degree or another metaphorical and inadequate. God is not a man, but pure spirit (Numbers 23:19; John 4:24).

More disturbing to many, perhaps, are the accusations that the book teaches Modalism, an ancient heresy claiming that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one person who manifests himself differently at different times. Papa has scars on her wrists (p. 95), apparently from the crucifixion. At one point Papa says, “When we three spoke ourself (sic) into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human” (p. 99). But scripturally, neither the Father nor the Spirit became a human being. The Son did. Is the book saying that God the Father died on the cross, or only that the Father experienced the Son’s pain because of His love for Him? Is the book saying that the Father and the Spirit also became human (which would be Modalism), or only that God in His fullness entered human life (see Colossians 2:9)? While these statements could be viewed as theologically false, they also could be judged as imprecise – though not heretical – theological language.

The Doctrine of Salvation

Another area of theological concern about The Shack is its teaching about salvation. At one point Papa says, “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it” (p. 120). Is the book saying that Christ’s death was not necessary for our salvation? Papa’s statement, like the one discussed earlier, could be understood in two different ways: either 1) that God might choose not to punish sin, which would contradict God’s justice (Romans 6:23), or 2) that punishment doesn’t have to be God’s direct action; sin has inevitable consequences. Again we have a theologically questionable statement, but one that could be interpreted in two different ways.

I could cover a variety of other issues in The Shack that some have criticized as theological heresy (universalism, role-relations in the Trinity, etc.), but these also are issues that supporters of the book see as a depiction of a character legitimately wrestling with biblical and theological questions. Rather than do this, I simply encourage all Christians to read The Shack while employing the same spirit of discernment with which they should examine anything in life. Learn from this novel, wrestle with it, pray over it, and most importantly, test it against the authority of God’s Word.

Relational Spirituality and Post-Traumatic Forgiveness

William P. Young’s book The Shack is a work of fiction, but it also engages numerous themes that are currently prominent in the fields of psychology and marriage and family therapy. I will briefly comment on four areas that are relevant to our work in the Center for Spiritual and Personal Formation and the Marriage and Family Therapy department at Bethel Seminary.

Relational Spirituality

The Shack highlights the relational dynamics of spirituality or the reciprocal connections between our human relational experiences in life and our relational images of God. Mack, the protagonist of the book, is abused as a child by an alcoholic father who quotes Bible verses while beating him. Mack goes on to develop a “love/hate relationship” with “the God that he suspects is brooding, distant, and aloof” (p. 10). After his daughter Missy is abducted and murdered in a run-down shack in the woods, he tries to remain numb and hold onto an “unfeeling faith” (p. 65). But he is haunted by the “Great Sadness,” an ever-present dark shadow of despair. When he receives a note in the mail inviting him to go to the shack to meet “Papa” (his wife’s affectionate name for God), his spiritual defenses are torn down and his deep relational conflicts with God intensify.

A large body of empirical data now supports a relational view of spirituality, suggesting that our images of God are influenced by relational experiences with parents, caregivers, and other significant attachment figures. I believe God exists beyond our psyches, but human experiences of God are mediated by our psychological structures and relational templates. The Christian tradition has always affirmed an embodied and incarnational view of spirituality, whereas Gnostic movements have tended to promote a spirituality that bypasses psychological and relational embodiment. Our research with students at Bethel Seminary has found significant correlations between relational styles with others and with God, and this has been useful in our spiritual formation work.

Trauma and Relational Transformation

The Shack suggests that relationships are sources of both suffering and healing. Mack represents a character who can be read as re-traumatized by the death of Missy. He runs away from an abusive family-of-origin experience and develops an attachment to his wife and kids. The traumatic loss of his daughter generates symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress, including nightmares of helplessness in trying to save Missy. But this trauma reactivates his earlier experience of victimization in life, creating the destabilization that can lead to either despair or transformation. The story describes his journey into the forest to face the shack, the site of his darkest trauma. Paradoxically, he is invited to meet God in the place where God might seem most absent.

In our book Transforming Spirituality, LeRon Shults and I developed a model of relational spirituality that also suggests transformation is typically preceded by an intensification of anxiety and darkness.1 Crucibles of spiritual transformation are shaped in relationships where we face the anxiety of deep existential dilemmas. In Mack’s case, this involved authentically facing the God who allowed his tragic loss and wrestling with his profound hurt and mistrust.

Research tells us that simply re-experiencing trauma is not transformative and can even be destructive. The key is to re-experience trauma in the context of a healing relationship. In this shack transfigured into a lovely cabin, Mack encounters members of a multicultural Trinity who relate to him with the compassion and intimacy he has been missing. He enters into deeper self-confrontation because God joins him in his questions rather than punishing him for having questions. Mack’s trust in God is healed as a secure attachment is formed. It is likely quite rare for someone to experience such profound transformation during a weekend alone with God in a cabin. But I have the privilege of watching many students and clients move through life-changing transformation, usually over months and years, involving relationships with other people.

Gender, Culture, and God Images

Mack is surprised to encounter the Trinity as an African-American woman, an Asian woman, and a Middle-Eastern man, and confronts the reality that his implicit God images “were very white and very male” (p. 93). While doing the Bethel-sponsored “Chats” in various cities, I heard numerous audience members struggling with the depiction of God as female, not white, or both. When I asked some African Americans and Asian Americans about this, they have tended to say, “What’s the big deal?” And then they have gone on to ask whether the book depicts cultural caricatures and stereotypes.

Psychologically, images of God communicate something about self-identity. For a white male like me, embracing the biblical texts that depict God maternally and a theological understanding of the God of all races can work against the spiritual narcissism of social privilege. For oppressed populations, such as women and persons of color, images of God as female and non-white may confer recognition of the imago Dei for those who have suffered the dehumanization of sexism and racism. The rapidly increasing need for Christian leaders to mature interculturally and in gender relations has made these important issues in seminary training.2

Forgiveness

Finally, the book illustrates connections between relational spirituality and interpersonal forgiveness. Mack’s hatred of the man who killed his daughter has roots leading back to his original perpetrator – his father. While this novel might be idealistic in portraying forgiveness as a weekend process, the overall picture does fit with empirical research showing that a warm, authentic attachment with God is associated with higher capacities to forgive others.3 Conversely, primary images of God as distant and punitive are rarely conducive to forgiving others.

Sociologically, Young’s perspective also seems to fit within the restorative justice movement, where the goal of justice is to both attend to the suffering of victims and to potentially repair broken relationships in community. Retributive justice approaches are more forensic than relational and define justice as punishment. Young’s idea of Mack meeting with the serial killer would sound questionable even to restorative justice leaders, but I believe he is aiming for a relational view of justice consistent with his relational spirituality.

Overall, the psychology of The Shack points to the possibility of a post-traumatic form of forgiveness. It is not fair to compare the challenges of forgiving others pre-trauma and post-trauma. The overwhelming anxiety of trauma actually dis-integrates neurobiological pathways. And when victims are simply told they “must” forgive their perpetrators, it can activate a sense of coercion that feels much like the initial injury. This is analogous to the empathic failure of Job’s so-called friends who told him to repent for his tragedy. But when people like Mack experience a relationship that combines Divine solidness and compassion, attachment templates can heal in ways that re-integrate capacities for forgiveness. Perhaps a good use of The Shack, whether we like Young’s theology or not, is to reflect on our own capacities to compassionately sit with those who have suffered traumatic loss. 

1.Shults, F.L., and Sandage, S.J. (2006). Transforming Spirituality: Integrating Theology and Psychology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

2. Sandage, S.J., Jensen, M.L., and Jass, D. (2008). Relational spirituality and transformation: Risking intimacy and alterity. Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, 1, 182-206.

3. Davis, D.E., Hook, J.N., and Worthington, E.L., Jr. (2008). Relational spirituality and forgiveness: The roles of attachment to God, religious coping, and viewing the transgression as desecration. Journal of Psychology & Christianity, 27, 293-301.