Thursday, March 19, 2009

"The Shack" by Jurgen Moltmann

I know the cover says it is by William P. Young but it's really by Jurgen Moltmann. I'll explain.

Someone recently lent me a copy of The Shack. I've read several negative reviews of the book but thought it would be beneficial to review the book myself. As a piece of literature it was mediocre--it reminded me of several other books I've read in the "Christian book" genre. There isn't much character development. The literary devices used are kind of interesting but the characters themselves are not.

The book has a lot more with theology than the average Christian fiction book. When I read some of the negative reviews I thought that they were perhaps making too much of some of the passages in the book. After reading the book, I'm not sure that the judgments of the reviewers were always correct but it is clear that The Shack definitely has a theological agenda.

At its core the book is about God and the problem of evil. On this particular topic it does a reasonably good job. There are many books on this topic but this is the only work of fiction that I've read that deals with it directly. I did not necessarily agree with everything the author said about God and evil but the author seems to follow St. Augustine's line of reasoning and is operating within the bounds of historic Christianity.

I wish the same were true for the rest of the book and all the other issues that are addressed. God the Father is revealed is portrayed in the book as an African-American woman because the main character has too much baggage with his own earthly father to deal with God as Father. It is true that God is neither male nor female but He has chosen to reveal Himself as Father. There are passages in Scripture where God is said to comfort us a mother comforts her child but God never speaks of Himself as mother. He compares certain activities which He performs as being like something a mother would do but never says, "I am your mother." The author of the book seems to be addressing some of the debates that come up when women have had very negative experiences with their fathers and it is asked if it is appropriate for them to call God "mother." Later on in the book, God the Father does reveal Himself as a Father when the main character is ready.

It's hard to imagine falling before the god in The Shack in compete and utter terror in they way we often see people in Scripture react when they come in contact with God.  The author is rightly critical of the modern evangelical concept of God as just some abstract being but substitutes it with  another false picture of God as my buddy.

Some of the reviews accused the book of teaching modalism--the idea that God is one person who expresses Himself in three different modes of operation. When I first started reading the book I was surprised because the book really seemed to be teaching an opposite error--Tritheism. Tritheism denies the oneness of the essence of God. The book presents us with a Trinity without order and without unity--it's all about relationship. 

As I read on, I did find some modalism. Papa (God the Father) is often said in the book to have scars on his wrists from the crucifixion. This is an old heresy associated with modalism known as Patripassianism in which it is taught that God the Father suffered on the cross. The book makes several statements supporting patripassianism.

As I mulled this over in my head, I started thinking how very odd it was that somebody would try to teach both Tritheism and modalism at the same time. Then it hit me--that's exactly what Jurgen Moltmann did.

Moltmann's Trinity was all about relationship. Moltmann also taught that the Father suffered on the cross. Moltmann taught a form of panentheism which is less explicit in The Shack but can still be found there. Far more explicit in The Shack is Moltmann's transexual god--a motherly Father and fatherly Mother. Just like Moltmann, The Shack is also opposed to order in marital relationships. Moltmann and The Shack both have deep-seated problems with authority. It's hard to imagine how Moltmann's god or the god of The Shack would cause some of the reactions to God that we find in Scripture. In Scripture we find people falling in terror before God because of a knowledge of their own sinfulness. We find Moses being told that no man can see God and live. We find the Apostles describing themselves as slaves of God. It's hard to imagine any of this happening of the god found in the The Shack is the true God.

The Shack portrays God as an egalitarian and even a feminist who thinks we would all be better off if women ruled the world (although we would still have problems just not so many wars). The Scriptures are pretty clear that God has given men and women different and complimentary roles and placed them in a certain order. This cannot be explained as God giving in to the culture. Jesus was not afraid to go against the culture of His day and God certainly was not.

I've seen some reviews that accuse the book of teaching universalism. I don't think that's true. The book does speak of Jesus saving people who were Muslims, Buddhists, Republicans, Democrats, etc. but denies that there are many paths to God. Jesus says that He goes down many paths to get people. What is unclear is what happens to those people once they are in relationship to Him. The book never really answers the question. The book does say that Jesus has no interest in making them Christians. 

I'm not clear on whether or not some of these people know they are in relationship with Christ according to the book. I'm not sure if they remain Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. according to the book. It seems irresponsible for the author not to flesh out what is meant in the book. The statement shocks and make people think, but doesn't really give any answers. My guess is that the author believes that there are some who are united to Christ but do not know it.

The god in The Shack is also very anti-institutional. Jesus has no use for the church according to The Shack. I do not deny that institution does become bad when it becomes the goal but it is not evil in and of itself. Anytime two or more people get together for anything, some type of institution will develop. In the book of Acts we find that the church met and decided to appoint deacons--this was an institutional act. The Apostle Paul says that God has appointed some to be teachers and some to be pastors and some to function in other capacities in the church which tells us that people in union with Christ are not to live in isolation but to serve one another in the body of Christ. According to what Jesus said in Matthew 28, the church is called to make disciples of all nations. They do this by baptizing and teaching. Being brought into communion with the Triune God is not just based on some feeling, it is based on objective acts. If it were all based on feeling and we were honest with ourselves we would all be in despair. Jesus never says that He makes disciples through the teachings of Muslims and Buddhists.

And this brings us to another similarity between The Shack and Moltmann. Both make assertions without any real Scriptural support. They don't take the time to address opposing viewpoints. What we end up with is a god who looks an awful lot like the person writing about him.

Anyhow, I could go on forever but others have written plenty and I just wanted to offer my own observation about The Shack/Moltmann connection. For a good critique of Moltmann, other theologies of the Trinity, and great suggestions for developing a doctrine of the Trinity, I highly recommend The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham.

Given the book's popularity, I think pastors should read this book so they know what some in their congregation are probably reading. It is also interesting to see what Moltmann's concept of the Trinity would look like if you ran into Him/Her. Perhaps someone should write a book showing what all the various models of the Trinity would look like if you ran into them. I do think that pastors should also be careful in how they address those who are reading the book. Many have been recommended this book after suffering a great loss and shouldn't be attacked for reading the book.

I hope this review was helpful in understanding the theology of The Shack. I tried to deal with the book as charitably as possible. There is a forum which is dedicated to the discussion of the book. I posted some comments there but received no response, so I assume that my interpretation of the book is correct. If you read the threads, you will find that the author does not seem open at all to anyone who disagrees with him. In his biography he says that he is no longer a member of any church body because he doesn't think any would have him. I think the real problem is that he will not have the church.


Nigel said...

Thanks for this helpful review - I agree with it but feel that Young DOES conclude that there will be those of other faiths who will be in Heaven - this is because the Jesus of The SHack says he has no interest in making them Christians viz being conscious folllowers of him - surely that is what the Great Commission is all about?!? I have just watched a UK TV programme called The Day Jesus Died, all about the various views on the atonement. The presenter (a historian who had sort of done her homework, although totally ignored Augustine and dismissed any punishment theory a la the Reformers)concluded by saying that each view had elements of truth for its own time and favoured Moltmann's view for our own - which perhaps explains the popularity of The Shack! But the god of The Shack is not the God of the Bible and you are right to highlight this. I hadn't realised that Young cannot find a church that accepts him - even with all the emergent churches in the US< that speaks volumes...

Jill Lamar said...

I find it difficult to understand why you and so many others have taken the time to criticize the theology of a bestselling NOVEL. It is a work of fiction, not a theology text or even a self-help or how-to book. A novel is a work of fiction that may or may not posit truths, but ultimately takes the reader on a journey unique to each reader. I read The Shack before it was widely available. I read very little Christian fiction, but am a wide reader of contemporary literary fiction. What I found in The Shack which is not in evidence in any other contemporary fiction is the picture of a loving God. Yes, aspects of His nature are missing from this novel, as they would be in any work that's not a comprehensive picture of Him. I have found The Shack to be a perfect book to recommend to someone who has been deeply wounded in life, often by authority figures (incest, domestic violence victims, refugees). It is a great first step to getting them to pray, read the Bible, and gradually form a more accurate picture of the one true God.

Chuck Wiese said...


As the website for the book indicates, the book is designed to show us how God relates to humanity. So by its own marketing, the book opens itself up to theological criticism. I think it's also clear from reading the book that the author is creating a fictionalized account of Moltmann's theology. If you read my blog, you'll know I'm also critical of other "Christian" media as well. I'm no fan of the Sherwood films movies that tell you that if you turn your life over to Jesus everything will be dandy and your boss will buy you a new car. Most "Christian" fiction is just absolute rubbish.

The Shack intends to tell us how God relates to us but omits all the ways in which God promises to relate to us. God promises to bring us healing through the preaching of the Word and through Christ's body and blood in the Lord's Supper. God does not promise to meet us in the woods and does not promise many of the things that the god in the Shack promises.

I think the author of the Shack has identified a real problem in the Christian church but his solution is just as bad as the problem he identifies. What we need is better pastoral care in our suffering where the pastor is able to apply the Gospel to us in our unique situation. I'm thankful that I have found that. But Young has completely removed himself from the church. Young has given up the false god of legalism for a god of his own imagination and directing others to do the same.