Note: For the regular viewers, this week’s post is fucking huge.
So The Shack is a Christian book that got read by heaps of people and then got heaps of blowback for doing theological things that were interpreted in a particular way. I don’t like talking about The Shack, because most of the arguments that people put forward against it are boring. However, I accidentally read this post on a theology blog that I follow, and now my blood’s up, so, ugh, I guess we have to talk about The Shack. You don’t have to actually read the initial post – I’m going to go through it point by point, so you can read it if you want to check I’m not taking things out of context or whatever.
So quick background on the story, in case you know nothing about it. A dude’s daughter gets killed, he gets really dark about it and blames God, who then invites him to the site of his daughter’s death. Once he arrives, God shows up as three different people (God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit), and there’s a whole bunch of emotional healing that happens and eventually he stops blaming God. That seems like a reasonable thing for a Christian to write about, right? Well.
“But this is where my first criticism comes in – our need is for something that is not merely satisfying, but true.
Buddhism can be satisfying. Mormonism can be satisfying. Atheistic materialism can be satisfying. But they are not true. And neither is The Shack.”
Okay here’s point one. I don’t like people who attack The Shack because they do this particular thing that irks me. They put forward a reading of The Shack and say ‘This reading that I have put forward contains bad theology, and therefore this book is bad.’ Alright, well, your interpretation of the book’s theology means that it’s bad, but what about other readings? Are there any interpretations or theological doctrines according to which the book is actually fine?
This is a thing we’re going to come back to repeatedly throughout this post, so let me lay this out. Personally I like The Shack. I think there are interpretations of The Shack that can be bad, but that’s not a particularly useful argument. The same is true of anything. There are interpretations of Paradise Lost that can be bad. There are interpretations of the Bible that can be bad, and the Bible is literally the Word of God. Obviously ‘I can find a bad interpretation of this book’ is not a productive argument. It might be better to ask ‘In which ways can we interpret this book so as to appreciate the religiously faithful witness that it provides?’ If we can put forward a functional reading that is theologically faithful, okay, well, suddenly it’s not actually ‘untrue’ after all. Further, if we can say ‘Here is the faithful way to interpret this book and here’s a bunch of ways that you might misread it’ – well, then you’re basically affirming what the book gets right, and rejecting bad or lazy readings.
This is why I don’t like people who attack this book – because their basic argument is ‘This book can’t be read as a faithful theological account’. That’s a very easy argument to overthrow: you just read it in one way that’s theologically faithful, and suddenly everybody else is categorically wrong. Now, we might say ‘This book has lots of misleading or confusing or needlessly difficult aspects that obscure its ability to witness’, and maybe that’s true. But also that’s not balling out and saying ‘heigh ho the shack is an untrue book’.
“My next big picture concern is the number of people who have said to me, ‘You read this for the story, not for theology.’ I really cannot understand this sentiment… The Shack is deeply theological. And it is deeply theologically flawed.”
Point Two: this^ quote is basically correct. Yes, The Shack is deeply theological. That is a correct claim. Is The Shack deeply theologically flawed? Well, see point one, but that’s a more reserved claim than saying The Shack is untrue. If we’re saying it’s difficult or problematic or weak on certain theological points, well, those are all reasonable things to say. I don’t know if I agree, but okay, fine.
The thing about people reading it for the ‘story’ and not the ‘theology’ is super interesting. Let’s draw a quick distinction between three types of things.
Type 1: Parts of the book where it’s basically just two people talking about religious doctrine, which, yeah, is basically a weak cover for just explicitly talking about religious doctrine.
Type 2: Parts of the book where stuff actually happens, and that stuff actually serves as its own form of theological witness.
Type 3: Details of the book that are technically plot, but aren’t really theologically charged, like the fact that the protagonist has $15.13 in his pocket when he leaves home.
Okay so the basic argument of the writer here is that people are focusing on the plot (types 2 and 3) and ignoring the explicit theology (type 1), and the explicit theology is deeply flawed. I would like to counter that some of the plot (all the parts that are type 2) is in itself theological, meaning that you can’t draw this easy distinction between plot and theology. For example: when Mack meets the Trinity, all of them are patient and kind and loving in the face of his anger. That’s plot, but it’s also theological – so you can’t say ‘Oh these people are reading the plot and ignoring the theology’. That’s daft. It’s also unhelpful, because the writer is missing the point. If readers are hooked on the plot, and they’re hooked on the theological implications of the plot (for example, the implication that God is loving and kind and patient, or other implications which we’ll discuss in the next paragraph), then that’s the theology that you need to pay attention to. It’s the theology that is resonating with readers and causing them to read this book and motivating their affection for the real legitimate God.
“My next complaint, and this might be the most serious one, is that The Shack undermines biblical revelation because a central theme of the book is that biblical revelation is insufficient. Papa explains to Mack that she appears to him as a woman because that is how Mack needs God to appear. But this is entirely contrary to biblical revelation is which God always reveals himself as Father!”
Point Three: Okay. Background. I’ve actually heard the author of this book, Wm. Paul Young, talk about his intentions with the book and how it ties into his personal life story. He describes the book as a metaphor for his personal recovery in the wake of his abusive father, compressing the journey of something like twelve years into the space of a weekend. Also note that yes, God the Father does appear in the book as a big black woman.
So the writer’s argument is that The Shack “is saying that the Biblical revelation of God as Father is inadequate, so lets create another revelation.” That ‘other revelation’ is God as a big black woman. Given that premise, let’s look at the specific scene that this writer is referring to. This is the start of Chapter 6, ‘A Piece of π’:
“‘You must know,’ he [Mack, protagonist, stand-in for author] offered, ‘calling you ‘Papa’ is a bit of a stretch for me.'”
God asks Mack why that’s the case:
“‘Or maybe it’s because of the failures of your own papa?'”
“‘Maybe it’s because I’ve never known anyone I could really call ‘Papa”.”
Okay. So why is God the Father appearing like a big black woman? Obviously God the Father isn’t a big black woman, because God the Father has no physical form, no sex, and no race. So when God appears as a big black woman, is that meant to prove that the author is trying to create a new revelation of God as Woman, or Mother? Well, what does the book say?
“‘Mackenzie [this is God speaking], I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature.'”
Yup, okay, we just said that. That’s also Genesis 1:22, so good Biblical quoting there.
“‘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 that you call me ‘Papa’ is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling back so easily into your religious conditioning.'”
Okay, so it’s clarified that God the Father is only ‘appearing’ here, rather than in any ‘real’ sense being actually legitimately a big black woman. Alright, well, fair enough. But what’s this ‘religious conditioning’? Is she trying to say that the biblical witness is inauthentic!?
“She [God, with the understanding that ‘she’ refers to the biological sex that God the Father is here appearing in, rather than denoting any inherent characteristic of God the Father, who, as noted, is beyond gender and sex] leaned in forward as if to share a secret. ‘To reveal myself to you as a very large, white grandfather figure with flowing beard, like Gandalf, would simply reinforce your religious stereotypes, and this weekend is not about reinforcing your religious stereotypes.'”
Okay, so it’s just about stereotypes. Let’s consider Mack’s childhood. He was abused by his father. He has an image of fathers in his head, and that image is of failures and disappointments and emotionally and physically abusive men. Calling God ‘Papa’ is a bit of a stretch for Mack, because if God is perfect and wonderful, then God doesn’t fit with the stereotype of fathers that Mack has in his head. How do we know that’s the author’s intention? Well:
“She [God again] looked at Mack intently. ‘Hasn’t it always been a problem for your to embrace me as your Father? And after what you’ve been through, you couldn’t very well handle a father right now, could you?'”
Note the lower-case ‘f’ for the second ‘father’ there. God’s not talking about Himself as Father in that sentence, He’s talking about the idea of earthly fathers and what they suggest for Mack personally. Mack resists the idea of God as Father due to his experiences with his own father. By appearing as a woman, God the Father skirts Mack’s resistance to God’s identity. And again – how do we know that’s the author’s intention? Well:
“Somehow, the way she had approached him had skirted his resistance to her love.”
So okay, no, the author is not trying to create a new revelation. He’s not supplanting God the Father with God the Mother. If he’s doing anything, he’s talking about how the idea that God is not actually an old white male parent, as God seems to exist in Mack’s stereotype (“he was embarrassed to admit to himself that all his visuals for God were very white and very male”), helped him personally deal to the trauma of his own father and eventually embrace God in His true identity as God the Father.
“Related to this is the books total disregard for the Bible’s warnings against creating a graven image. I think we struggle to grasp the importance of this as we live in a visual culture in which we assume that everything can and should be represented visually. But God the Father cannot be represented visually! At the end of the book, in a section titled, “the Missy project,” there is a stated aim to produce a film of the book. When this happens (as it undoubtedly will) we will have a false representation of God on our screens – false because God will be an Oprah Winfrey type figure, and blasphemous because it will be a graven image.”
Okay so this is the reason the post was dredged up in the first place. The Shack has been made into a movie now, so the author is reposting this because haha it did undoubtedly get turned into a movie and now his fears have all come true. However!
Point Four: Okay so this is actually quite complicated. The basic claim here is that “God the Father cannot be represented visually.” It’s a claim that actually rests partly on your denominational background. One of the things that happens in the Reformation is that although the Catholics are fine with images as ways to think about and focus on God, the Protestants kick the shit out of images. We can see that heritage coming through in this quote: God the Father, according to this writer (who yes is a Protestant), cannot be represented visually. It’s fine for the writer to believe that, but it’s not actually something that Catholics or the Orthodox church would necessarily agree with, and it’s not even something all Protestants agree with. For example, I’m a Protestant, and I think that’s silly.
However, silly or not, it’s still complicated. Let’s talk about the theology of images. It starts in the Old Testament with the Ten Commandments. The line ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol’ is the relevant one here – ‘idol’ can also be translated as ‘graven image’, which is what the writer here is afraid of. No graven images! It’s one of the Ten Commandments. So imagine you’ve got a rock, and you draw a face on it and say that it’s like the face of God, and it’s a way for us to focus our attention on God. The major concern is that this object will become more important than the actual God it’s directing us to. That’s a legitimate fear. There are similar fears raised for sung worship: in Music in Worship, by Joseph N. Ashton, we read that congregational music can potentially become more important than the God you’re supposed to be worshipping.
“In congregational music we may be so concerned with the mechanics and act of singing… that we become unaware of anything else. Singing in church then becomes merely an engaging exercise.” (p122)
Ugh, mere engaging exercises. I hate those. If you’re all caught up in the song, you’re getting dragged down by the actions of your physical body, when you should be sending your thoughts to God, up above. That’s the sort of rhetoric we’re employing here – and it’s the same rhetoric used to talk about images of God. You can’t use them, because the image itself might become more important than the actual God. Of course, the Catholics clearly aren’t all that bothered by the idea. Are they idiots? Have they not encountered our superior Protestant theology? Well, in point of fact, many Catholic theologians have raised and recognised the same concern. They don’t think it’s so bad that they should stop, but they’re aware of the issues. Here’s R. Kevin Seasoltz, a Catholic liturgical scholar:
“The two Protestant charges against the representation of God and the saints were blasphemy and idolatry. Claims were made that it was blasphemy to represent God anthropomorphically…”
Hey, that sounds like a thing we’ve heard before!
“…though it could be argued that God had become incarnate in Jesus, and that in Jesus were to be found a truly authentic icon of the invisible God and consequently a justification for making copies of the true image.”
Oh. Right, uh, well, okay then. That’s from A Sense of the Sacred, p170. So the Catholics are fine with it, although in talking about the Reformation, Seasoltz also raises a number of points favourable towards the Protestant attitude:
“First, Protestants were committed to the primacy of the Word of God and the human responsibility to listen whenever God speaks… The primary means by which God’s Word comes to people is by preaching and the sacraments. They felt that the production of sacred images was the result of inadequate preaching. Calvin maintained that images were dangerous intermediaries and that behind the images were potential idols; he was so insistent on this point that he proscribed images… A second reason for the Protestant attitude toward sacred images was their conviction that God’s presence was not to be found in either monuments or images.” (p170)
Alright, well, both of those concerns are legitimate, although if Catholics agree on both of those points and still are comfortable with sacred art, maybe there’s something else going on? Any Catholic will tell you that God doesn’t actually exist in the image – that is, if He does, it’s only in the sense that He is everywhere. If they use it as a reference point, and they’re taking on board and aware of all these Protestant criticisms, my position is that we should let them get on with it. So no, when the author makes this argument, it’s not necessarily an incorrect argument. It is, however, culturally wired into his own particular Christian tradition and is by no means shared by every other Christian tradition running around on the planet. It’s also more of a criticism of the film, rather than the book.
So the writer tries to claim that the book version of The Shack has a total disregard for graven images, but the book doesn’t have any images of God. It’s just words. And if you’re going to argue that it’s wrong for books like The Shack to represent God with words, then you also have to exclude Narnia and Paradise Lost. If representing God with words is inherently wrong, it’s wrong for everybody, not just the books you don’t like. Alternately, when talking about Narnia, the writer argues that “And – importantly – even that imagining is biblically faithful as Jesus is described in the Bible as a lion!” Well, if representing God with words is okay, but you have to represent Him accurately, then the issue isn’t with the medium, or the form of representation. You don’t mind if God is represented in words, you actually just don’t want God to be represented incorrectly. In that case, see point one. Finally, if the argument is more that the book ‘wants’ to be made into a film, well, my copy has a page on this ‘Missy Project’, but it says nothing about a film, so I don’t know where that claim comes from.
“The Bible often uses metaphor to help us get a picture of the character of God. E.g., We all recognize that when the Bible says that God is our rock it does not mean God is the result of volcanic or sedimentary activity – it is a metaphor for the constancy and reliability of God. So metaphor is good – actually it is vital. Without metaphor we would be stumped in trying to put words to something that is beyond words.”
“But The Shack is not metaphor.”
“In the foreword the conceit is sown that this is a true story – we are encouraged to read it as if it were a true account of real events.”
Oh. Okay, let’s talk more about this.
Point Five (nearly there!): So in the foreword, the author (‘Willy’, or William Paul Young), tells us that he is ostensibly recording the experiences of his friend ‘Mack’ (the protagonist), who is a real person who literally exists and literally had all these experiences. This is patently untrue. The experiences recorded are the condensed experiences of the author – we talked before about his twelve year journey being condensed into a weekend. So it’s a sort of veiled spiritual autobiography. As this writer says, then, yes: we are encouraged to read it as if it were a true account of real events. That said, there’s also a bunch of suggestions that Mack’s experiences were a sort of extended hallucination. He cracks his head slipping over at the start of the book, and it seems to be implied, to me, that the whole thing could potentially be a ‘Dorothy’ dream – a story that seems true and has significance to the protagonist but did not literally take place as a series of historical events. Also, uh, if you read a book where a man literally meets God Himself, the returned Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit in human form, and you think that book is a literal account of entirely factual historical events, you’re a berk.
So yes, the conceit is sown that this is a true story, and yes, it’s arguably misleading that the preface is part of the fiction, although really you should still know better. Also, fictional prefaces are by no means a new thing: see James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and even arguably Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for examples where the introduction or framing device is fictional and pretends to not be. The Shack is metaphor. It doesn’t have METAPHOR plastered across the cover in bright pink neon lighting, but let’s use some common sense.
“And the story is not a string of metaphors saying, “God is in someway like X” but a narrative description of the Trinity which explicitly says, “This is God.” The Shack is wrong in its description of the Trinity, and this is very dangerous ground.”
Okay so I’m an English major and I don’t think you understand how metaphors work. Point Six: Metaphors say one thing is literally another. ‘The sun is a great golden coin.’ That’s a metaphor. The sun is obviously not a literal coin, but the metaphor directly claims that it is a coin as a form of comparison. What you’re talking about is a simile. In a simile, you say ‘The sun is in some way like a great golden coin.’ A simile is a type of comparison that makes its nature as comparison explicit with the use of ‘like’ or ‘as’. The Shack is a string of metaphors specifically because it says ‘This is God’.
I’m not going to go into whether or not it’s got bad Trinitarian theology, because honestly I don’t care. Trinitarian theology is infamously difficult. Let’s cut the guy some slack: obviously he knows that God isn’t literally three different people, and he’s trying his best to communicate the Trinity in terms that are suitable for human understanding. In point three I established that no, The Shack actually isn’t trying to extend God’s self-revelation by positing God as inherently female. I did that by paying attention to the text and quoting a bunch of lines that explicitly tell you how God as big black woman is meant to be understood. I’m not going to go through and do the same for the book’s Trinitarian theology, because I’m about to hit 4,000 words and my normal limit is a thousand, but given that one of the fundamental concepts of the book has been demonstrably misunderstood by the writer, I’m unwilling to extend a great deal of trust to the comment on the so-called misrepresentations of the Trinity.
Let’s summarise quickly, and then I’m going to go and have some dinner. Point one, The Shack might be true, and I don’t think you’ve put enough effort into a close and holistic reading of the text. Point two, the story is itself theological, and I believe probably hosts the sort of theological points that is motivating many people to read it. Point three, it doesn’t undermine biblical revelation; you just didn’t read the text carefully enough. See point one. Point four, yes, graven images are complicated and you may be right to distrust them, but words are not images and I swear if anybody tells me that you can paint a picture with words I will punch them in the face. Point five, this is a fictionalised autobiography, a sort of veiled set of metaphors for Paul Young to talk about his spiritual journey. Point six, that’s not how metaphors work. Now I’ve just hit 3999 words and I’m never going to talk about The Shack ever again.