Thoughts on ‘The Shack’ (Part 3 of 3)

This is my third and final article in my series of assessing the ever-popular book, The Shack, and not only that, but considering the critique of others against the book (click here to read the first article; click here to read the second article). As I stated in my first article, numerous Christians have had major problems with the book and its theology, and thus, I have also decided to address the statements and negative reviews of others. And so, whereas I thought I would simply be addressing two issues in this article, I now recognize there are rather three major heresies that people allege are to be found throughout the pages of The Shack:

  • Modalism (or more specifically, patripassianism)
  • A faulty Trinitarian view (specifically the nature of the submission of the three persons to one another)
  • A faulty representation of the Father

Modalism and Patripassianiasm

So, here we go again with another big theological word – modalism. What is it? This was a heresy that was initiated a long, long time ago by a guy named Sabellius. Modalism basically rejects the historical, orthodox concept of the Trinity – God as eternally existing in three distinct persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and rather sees these three as different modes or forms of the one and same God. To break it down further, what it practically means is that God is only one person (not three) who appears to us in three different forms or modes. From the perspective of modalism, the Trinity is wrong and unbiblical. God is not three in one but rather one who can appear in three different forms. It sounds similar, but it’s really not. Whereas orthodox Christians believe God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit all at the same time, modalism teaches God is the Father at times, the Son at other times and the Spirit at even other times. All three cannot exist at the same time.

Three specific quotes that people are quick to point out as espousing modalism are as follows:

“When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human. We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed. Even though we have always been present in this created universe, we now became flesh and blood. (p99)

“But we were all in him [Jesus]. He reflected my heart exactly. I love you and invite you to love me.” (p186)

“Keep in mind, Mackenzie, that I am not a human being, not in my very nature, despite how we have chosen to be with you this weekend. I am truly human, in Jesus, but I am totally separate other in my nature.” (p201)

At first glance, one would easily think that these words present modalism. But let me remind us of this: At first glance, without considering the whole of Scripture together, I think people could possibly read modalism into Scripture. That’s probably what Sabellius did long ago. But, we have to consider the whole of the Biblical text, for that is good hermeneutics. And when we do so, we see God as three in one, rather than one God in three forms at different times.

And so, to read the words, ‘But we were all in him [Christ],’ the modalism bells go off in our heads. Or to hear Papa state, ‘I am truly human, in Jesus,’ might also sound the alarm. But, just as I would encourage us to consider the whole of Scripture, so I would suggest we do the same with The Shack. Listen to these words:

“Then,” Mack struggled to ask, “which one of you is God?”

“I am,” said all three in unison. Mack looked from one to the next, and even though he couldn’t begin to grasp what he was seeing and hearing, he somehow believed them. (p87)

“But what difference does it make that there are three of you, and you are all one God. Did I say that right?”

“Right enough.” She grinned. “Mackenzie, it makes all the difference in the world!” She seemed to be enjoying this. “We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father, and worker. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely one.” (p101)

It could not be more plain and clear that these two quotes from p87 and p101 speak of the orthodox Christian belief of the Trinity – one God existing in three eternal persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This statement caps it off, ‘I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely one.’ It seems to me that The Shack is not trying to support modalism, but rather historic, orthodox and Biblical Trinitarianism.

Yet, people may ask, ‘Well then, what did Young mean in those three quotes above from p99, 186 and 201?’ Though I am not Young, I think I might have an idea of what he was getting at.

In The Shack, for the Father to say, ‘When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human’ (p99), or, ‘But we were all in him [Jesus]’ (p186), or even, ‘I [Papa] am truly human, in Jesus’ (p201), I think what Young is really trying to communicate is the intricate connectedness between the three persons of the Trinity. Young had already penned these words, ‘I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely one’ (p101). Thus, I believe he recognizes the difference and distinct personhood of the three. But, as I reminded us frequently in my second article of the series, if we keep in mind the purpose of the book – to present the relational nature of the Trinity, both with us and within themselves –Young’s statements will make more sense. And that is what I believe Young is underlining with these questioned statements. He is trying to get us to see the beautiful interconnectedness between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Though the Father was separate from the Son, there was a since in which He was there with the Son, in Christ’s human life, because of their unique relationship from all eternity. It’s quite like Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

For though absent in body, I am present in spirit…(1 Corinthians 5:3)

Paul was not with them in body, but he could convey to the church that he was actually with them in spirit, in heart.

Could Young have chosen better wording? Sure. But I do not think the author is trying to advocate modalism, for even consider that Mack always had a meal with all three at the same time. They were all three, along with Mack, around the table. Three persons, one God. I think Young holds to such a Trinitarian view. I do not think this is worth labeling Young as a heretic.

Yet, people will go on to point out a couple of more passages from The Shack in claiming that the book heralds patripassianism, which is a form of modalism. Patripassianism was the label that the church father, Tertullian, gave to modalism. This specific heresy taught that it was the Father who suffered on the cross in the form of the Son. Remember, from a modalistic standpoint, God cannot be all three persons at the same time. Thus, it was the one God, who had previously been in the form of the Father, who then became the Son and suffered on the cross. This is patripassianism, and this heresy has been rejected from the early centuries.

So, where do people claim to find such teaching in The Shack?

Papa didn’t answer, only looked down at their hands. His gaze followed hers and for the first time Mack noticed the scars in her wrists, like those he now assumed Jesus also had on his. She allowed him to tenderly touch the scars, outlines of a deep piercing, and he finally looked up again into her eyes. Tears were slowly making their way down her face, little pathways through the flour that dusted her cheeks.

“Don’t ever think that what my son chose to do didn’t cost us dearly. Love always leaves a significant mark,” she stated softly and gently. “We were there together.” (p95-96; another reference can be found at the bottom of p102)

Again, at first glance, from simply, and only, reading these words, I can possibly see hints of patripassianism. But, we’ve already considered how Young showed the distinct personhood of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, what I think Young is trying to get across to us is how it hurt the Father very deeply to see His Son suffer on the cross from His (the Father’s) own judgment and wrath that was poured out on Christ. I believe the nail prints in the wrists of Papa was a unique, literary tool to convey the message of the pain it caused the Father in having His Son suffer. They all knew it was necessary, but it still hurt the Father.

Now, does the Father have nail prints in His wrists? Well, of course not, since the Father is not, in His essence, a human being with wrists. He is spirit in His essence (John 4:24). But in this theophany, or God-appearance, of the Father, Young chose to have Papa’s wrists marked with the nail scars to make a point – that point being that the Father was affected in His own heart by what took place at the cross. The Father did not specifically suffer on the cross, but He was there, in a sense, and it broke His heart to see His Son suffer as He (the Father) poured out such wrath on sin.

Again, it’s quite like Paul’s words to the Corinthians about being with them in spirit, though absent in body. And he also said the same elsewhere (see Colossians 2:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:17).

In the end, my conclusion is that The Shack is not presenting modalism or patripassianism. I believe Young holds to the orthodox view of the Trinity. Could he have changed a few words around to help alleviate any questions? Sure. But considering the challenging nature of the book, I think he was fine to leave it to ruffle some overly dogmatic feathers.

Faulty Trinitarian View

I have already dealt a good bit with the claims that The Shack teaches modalism, or a faulty view of the Trinity. So what I want to specifically look at in this next section is in regards to those who see the book as teaching an unhealthy view concerning the nature of submission between the three persons of the Trinity.

So, on to the book to see where such allegations originate:

“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’re 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. Actually, this is your problem, not ours.” (p122)

“That’s the beauty you see in my relationship with Abba and Sarayu. We are indeed submitted to one another and have always been so and always will be. Papa is as much submitted to me as I to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her. Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.”

Mack was surprised. “How can that be? Why would the God of the universe want to be submitted to me?”

“Because we want you to join us in our circle of relationship. I don’t want slaves to my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me.” (p145-146)

What has been the historical stance of the church is that the three persons of the Trinity are equal in essence or nature, since all three persons are part of the one Godhead, but that they are not equal in function. This, by many, has been termed functional hierarchy within the Trinity. Certain passages as follows are quoted to build the case:

When all things are subjected to him [Christ], then the Son himself will also be subjected to him [God the Father] who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:28)

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Corinthians 11:3)

Both of these passages speak of Christ, the Son, being ultimately submitted to the Father.

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me [Christ], for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-14)

This speaks of the Spirit’s submission to the Son in that one of His major roles would be to glorify the Son.

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my [Christ’s] name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)

But when the Helper comes, whom I [Christ] will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (John 15:26)

Both of these Scriptures point out that it is the Spirit that would be sent from the Father and Son, thus, showing that the Spirit is willing to yield to them.

Again, this teaching is referred to as functional hierarchy. Remember, this does not negate their equality in nature, since they are all three part of the one Godhead. Rather, it speaks of the subjugation in the function, or roles, of the certain members to the others. It’s not something we can get our head around perfectly, but I would say this understanding seems to be in line with Scripture. Some relate the concept to that of a husband and wife. They are both equally human beings created in the image of God, each one imagining God in their own special way (Genesis 1:27; Galatians 3:27). Yet, in function and role, the Scripture calls for the woman to submit to the father’s headship in the family (Ephesians 5:22-23).

Thus, though all three – Father, Son and Spirit – are equal in essence as part of the Triune God, they have all three decided that the Father would take the main lead, the Son would willingly submit to the Father, and the Spirit would willingly submit to both the Father and Son. Hence, we speak of the Son as the second person of the Trinity and the Spirit as the third person of the Trinity. And, I would highlight the word willingly in their submissive roles. They are not in competition, nor does the Father gloat over His ‘lead function’ within the Godhead. They love each other sacrificially and willingly, thus, there is a willingness in the submission of the Son and Spirit.

Therefore, you can see some people being disturbed with these words found in The Shack: ‘We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us,’ (p122) or, ‘Papa is as much submitted to me as I to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her’ (p145-146).

In response to this, I again can only continually express the nature of the book and main thesis of the author – the relational nature of the Trinity amongst themselves and with us. You can see such an emphasis with statements like these from the above quotes: ‘What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power,’ (p122) and, ‘Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect’ (p145-146). Young is really challenging our stuffy boxes of religion concerning God and our own practice of our faith. Even as Christians, we love our systems, structures, edifices and organizations. As a leader within a local church, I confirm that there is nothing inherently wrong with such in the church. But sensing Young’s desire to challenge our understanding of the relationship within the Trinity and amongst ourselves, I am not too bothered with his words.

Sure, as I stated in the previous section, Young could have chosen better wording. Nonetheless, I don’t believe he is trying to lay out any specific heresy in regards to the functioning nature of the Trinity. And, as a side note, I don’t think we have to get to upset over this statement either: ‘Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way’ (p145-146). It is part and parcel of Young’s desire to show that the Almighty, though transcendent, loves relationship with the ones He has created. Thus, we go on to read these words on the same pages, ‘I don’t want slaves to my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me.’

God is not ‘submitted’ to His creation. Yet, Young is emphasizing that God is not one to force Himself upon humanity, but rather wants to relate to us just as He relates with Himself – in relationship! No doubt this is uncomfortable to the hyper-Calvinist, but then, that only proves that Young was able to accomplish what He sat out to do.

A Faulty Representation of the Father

No doubt that this has been the greatest problem The Shack has caused for Christians. To find God the Father revealed as an African-American woman named Papa has left many feeling quite uncomfortable, if not outright angry. There are many arguments against portraying the Father as such:

  • God has revealed Himself as Father, not a womanly, mother figure.
  • Making God in the image of any human is blasphemy in accordance with Exodus 20:4, where God states, ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’

In regards to the Father, Papa, being revealed as an African-American woman, I think Young, through the character of Papa, answers this specific accusation:

She [Papa] picked up the wooden spoon again, dripping with some sort of batter. “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 women, 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 so easily back into your religious conditioning.”

She leaned 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.”

Mack almost laughed out loud and wanted to say, “You think? I’m over here barely believing that I’m not stark raving mad! Instead, he focused on what she had just said and regained his composure. He believed, in his head at least, that God was a Spirit, neither male nor female, but in spite of that, he was embarrassed to admit to himself that all his visuals for God were very white and very male. (p93)

God, in His essence, is neither male nor female, right? God does not have a male nor female reproductive organ. Sorry, He just doesn’t. I wouldn’t say God is asexual, but rather that He embraces the qualities that He gave to both men and women. Where do you think man got his man-ness from? Where do you think woman received her woman-ness from? From their Creator, right? Of course! In the beginning, God was able to create them male and female with both genders being created in His image because He carried the characteristics of both (Genesis 1:27). But it is in His creative act that He decided to put some of them into one sex of humanity and the others in the opposite sex. We both image God. One doesn’t image God more than the other. We both equally image the one who crafted us out of the dust. It is quite beautiful if you really think about it. No doubt we have our different functions, as I discussed earlier. But we are still both equally created in His image. And God is not genderless, but rather I believe He holds both in His essence. And the artist in Him gave certain characteristics to woman and other features to man.

Now, there is no doubt that God has made ‘Father’ as one of the main ways He reveals Himself to us. And that is, itself, beautiful. I love pondering that our God is a Father. The word is quite distorted in our day, yet we are not privy to such, as I am sure each generation has had its lack of true and godly fatherhood. But the revelation of God as Father speaks of intimacy, love, tenderness, strength, leadership, provider, and so very much more.

Yet, at the same time, there is no doubt that God has revealed Himself with women characteristics. I almost don’t want to go down the line of quoting Scriptures that prove God has revealed Himself in the ways of the female, but for the religious who love the Scripture quotes, I do so. Jesus compared Himself to a mother hen longing to gather her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23:37). The psalmist speaks of trusting God from his mother’s breast (Psalm 22:9). No doubt David is not saying God is a woman, but I can only imagine that he had pictured in his mind that, as a baby trusts in the mother’s goodness as he/she silently receives milk from her breast, so can we envision ourselves ‘gently sucking from the breast of God’ as He cares for and provides for His people. ‘Gently sucking from the breast of God’ – does that make us uncomfortable?

And, if you read the entire quote from p93, you again see the author’s intent. God, the Father, is trying to break down Mack’s boxes. Mack, as well as many a Christians, probably see God as an old, white, bearded Gandalf. What better way to shock this overly static and religious view of God out of us than by God showing up as a woman, and an African-American woman at that? No doubt it did its job – in Mack and us!

For those who have a problem with a female theophany (God-appearance) of the Father, let me ask this question: Would you have had a problem if the Father had been portrayed as a black, African man? If so, why? If not, why?

I am only reminded of first-century Palestine when the Messiah actually showed up. He sure looked nothing like they imagined! They knew exactly what the Messiah was supposed to look like when He put on flesh and lived among them. But when He actually did this, it did not fit into their systematically built boxes. And guess who got upset the most and pointed the finger of blasphemy at Christ – the religious leaders. Ouch!

Or consider how the Holy Spirit manifested as a dove (Matthew 3:16). If we didn’t have that one record early on in the Gospels at Jesus’ baptism, and then someone decided to use the picture of a dove to illustrate the heart of God, and more specifically, God the Holy Spirit, I am sure the same people who claim blasphemy for The Shack would also contend with such at the author’s use of the dove. Whew…I’m glad we have Matthew 3:16.

In all, I think the author does well to explain the intent with these words: ‘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 women, 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 so easily back into your religious conditioning.’

I don’t think Young is trying to ask us to pray to God, our Mother. Rather, he is challenging our boxes we’ve set up in regards to God and how He might choose to reveal Himself. And you know what, God the Father is probably never going to incarnate. That was the Son’s, the second person of the Trinity’s, job. But, in The Shack, Young has the Father manifest in the form of a woman to ultimately reach Mack beyond what Mack’s own preconceptions would allow (Mack was just struggling to refer to God as Papa, as most of us as well). And, for me, this is most beautiful. I am sure God is very willing to go to certain measures, outside of our own formulated thoughts about God, to reach us. It might be through a donkey, it might be through a dove, it might be through a movie, or any other such possibilities. In The Shack, God was willing to become an African-American woman to win the heart of Mack. For me, that is quite refreshing.

Yet, there is no doubt that people will say, ‘It’s not so much that God the Father was an African-American woman in the book, but it’s rather that the first person of the Trinity was made into a human image. This is outrightly defying Exodus 20:4 – You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’

Many will go on to point out that Scripture clearly states that no one has ever seen the Father (Exodus 33:20; John 1:18; John 5:37; John 6:46; 1 Timothy 6:16). Thus, we should not try and form the Father into such an image. No doubt, no one has ever truly seen the Father. But I think the emphasis of Scripture is not that we have never seen Him in any way, but that we have never seen Him in all His glory, especially noting Exodus 33:20 and 1 Timothy 6:16.

Interestingly enough, Jesus did state that if anyone has seen Him, they have seen the Father (John 14:9). Again, this is not to embrace modalism and say that the Son is the next mode of God. But there is a reality that, if we have looked at, heard and read Jesus’ words, then we have received a taste of the Father. Jesus was the reality of God taking on flesh. I would argue Jesus was a veiled representation of God, for if they had seen God in all His glory as fallen creatures, there would have been a big problem (hence Exodus 33:20). Nevertheless, Christ was still a manifestation of our great God of glory.

No doubt that God is to not be falsely imaged, as Scripture tells us. But also consider the theophanies (God-appearances) of God in the Old Testament. I know it is easily explained away by saying that they were pre-incarnate manifestations of the Son. And I am ok with that. But the reality is that the Old Testament theophanies were actual manifestations of God. Whether we can actually build a case that they were manifestations of the first person or second person of the Trinity, I don’t think we can go down that path. Nonetheless, they were manifestations of our God who had come to us in a human form, a human image, if you will.

Ironically, I believe we let C.S. Lewis off the hook with a lot of literary license that does not fit perfectly into nice and neatly packaged theological boxes, but contend that Young is to be burned at the stake (As a side note, I like Lewis). Is Christ really a lion? No, but it is interesting to consider what Christ would be like if He manifested as a lion. No doubt the studied theologian will remind me that Christ is called the Lion of the tribe of Judah in Scripture (Revelation 5:5). Therefore, it’s ok. But I encourage you to go back and read the Chronicles of Narnia and see if Lewis’ portrayal of this lion fits nice and neatly into your understanding of Christ. I will go ahead and let you know in advance that Aslan will not find his way into your box, for ‘he is not a tame lion’.

In the end, I again share this: God the Father is probably never going to incarnate and manifest in human flesh. That seems to have been the role of the Son. But, all Young is asking us to do is consider what it would be like if the Father, the first person of the Trinity, did do such, and specifically in the form of an African-American woman. No doubt it’s a challenge, even to me, as I also found myself asking if this was ok in the beginning. But, I’m sure you can see I have resolve over it, hence my articles.

It’s interesting to ponder the One who holds within Himself the characteristics of both sexes He created. He is such a wonderful, eternal One. And, again, I think Papa did a good job helping us get over our own theological hurdles with these words: ‘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 women, 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 so easily back into your religious conditioning.’

Thus, my long review ends on The Shack and, even more, assessing the claims of heresy that have come from other Christians upon such a literary work. Did it fit into my God-box? No. And, though I am a studied theologian, yet maybe not as studied as you, I am kind of glad it didn’t fit into my box. I can only imagine that, if it did, it would have helped develop some kind of ungodly pride in me.

My recommendation is that we not burn the book and ask other Christians to keep it off their shelves, as we did with The DaVinci Code and The God Delusion. This book actually can teach us something true about God – the relational heart and nature of the Triune God with Himself and with us. Does it teach us everything, and everything perfectly to my taste? Nope. But I did drink from a wonderful cup of relationship and grace, a cup that reminded me of the One that would go out His way to draw close to me and draw me close into His arms.

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