Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Shack, Mark Driscoll and the Trinity


It’s been a while since I wrote here, but I want to get back on the train of blogging here and there. Lots going on in my life, which I’ll save for another day. Today, the topic is a book that many of you have probably read at some point – The Shack by William Paul Young.

Specifically, I came across a YouTube video of local Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll very pointedly telling his flock to not read the book if they hadn’t already. Let’s just say he’s very strong in his opinion of the book – and I want to give this blog post in response to his thoughts. If you haven’t seen the video yet, here’s a link to his book review given at Mars Hill Church.

His main thesis is that “the book is about the Trinity”. All of Driscoll’s points then follow from this theme – that this book is specifically about the Trinity and is attempting to help us understand its inner workings. If you’ve read The Shack, that really isn’t true. Sure, there are parts of it which are about the Trinity and represent the author’s own take on the Trinity. But at its very core this book isn’t bout the Trinity and isn’t a 250 page essay building a theology about the Trinity. That isn’t the purpose at all. The Shack is a book about relationship, God’s love for us, forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion. It’s about a God that loves us enough to die for us – and wants Him to be our everything and depend wholly on him in a beautiful, reconciled relationship. This book is much, much more than “about the Trinity”.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s grant Driscoll’s position that this book is about the Trinity, or at least that the portion which is about the Trinity is enough to warrant a strict warning against reading. Driscoll gives four arguments, and I’ll cover each one as presented.

Argument #1 – This book violated the Second Commandment to not make a graven image of God

In other words, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Does The Shack violate this? I really don’t buy this argument from Driscoll. To defend his point, he states that the book takes God and makes him part of creation; that it takes the invisible God and makes him visible, and quotes a verse in Romans which states that we shouldn’t serve created things.

In all honesty, this argument just doesn’t hold much weight. The book is not making God into a created being – it constantly upholds that God is strictly not part of creation! Never does it suggest that God was created. The verse in Romans that Driscoll quotes is irrelevant. As for taking an invisible God and making him visible (in order to create something to worship), that simply isn’t what the book is doing. The Shack isn’t giving us a new god to worship, and isn’t making a graven image or idol in any way shape or form.

Driscoll argues at the end of this point that we can display God only as displayed in the Bible - as Jesus, or as a dove, per the New Testament. This argument also doesn’t hold much weight. That God can’t choose to represent himself however he wants (a burning bush, a thunder/lightning cloud, a pillar of fire, etc), including as a woman or a man, isn’t an argument I buy. Even if it was inadvisable to represent God (physically) as something other than what we see in Scripture, God portrayed in The Shack isn’t a graven image.

Argument #2 – The Shack promotes goddess worship

This argument is the weakest of the four that Driscoll brings up. He essentially says that, since God is shown as a woman, the book becomes one about goddess worship. He doesn’t go very far in trying to defend this position, and it’s not worth going very deeply into this. I think the best case I can make against this argument is to let The Shack speak for itself. Here are two quotes which directly address this issue, and show why this doesn’t approach goddess worship:

“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 that you call me ‘Papa’ is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into our religious conditioning.” (p. 95)

“The man standing next to [Mack] looked a bit like Papa; dignified, older, wiry and taller than Mack… ‘This morning you’re going to need a father.’” (p. 220-221)

This really sums up the argument – The Shack isn’t about goddess worship. In it, God decides to take on a form to break religious stereotypes about how He looks. I don’t see an issue in that, and I rather liked how this book decided to portray God.

Argument #3 – The Shack espouses the theology of modalism

In short, modalism is “the belief that the Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son and Holy Spirit are different modes or aspects of one God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three distinct persons in God Himself.” (Wikipedia is wonderful!)

In short, that God took on the form of Jesus and died for our sins, that God takes on the form of the Holy Spirit, and takes on the aspect of being God as well. The Trinity isn’t three distinct parts in modalism, and that is where the heresy lies.

So, does The Shack promote modalism? This argument was perplexing to me. In honesty, I wonder how Driscoll got this idea out of this book. I’m not going to judge if he read it or not – there are some unclear parts - but this seems to be tough to read into the book if you look at it as a whole.

Here is a quote which specifically addresses – and refutes – modalism within The Shack:

“‘There are three of you, and you are all one God? Did I say that right?’

–‘We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, a father and a worker. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is full and entirely the one”
(p. 103)

Put simply, this book doesn’t espouse modalism. Yes, I agree that this book does have issues where sometimes it is ambiguous and there may even be some places where it approaches modalism. This is unfortunate, but is not a sign that this book is modalistic – page 103 specifically addresses that. I can write an entire blog post on how this book represents the Trinity and its values and shortcomings, but that isn’t for this space. The Shack isn’t modalistic, and that’s enough for argument #3.

Argument #4 – The Shack denies hierarchy within the Trinity

This is, I think, the strongest argument that Driscoll brings up in contest of The Shack. Much of Young’s book does emphasize that there is no hierarchy within the Trinity. He lays this out specifically here:

“Mackenzie, we [the Trinity] have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command…What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power…Hierarchy would make no sense among us” (p. 124).

Well, that’s a pretty clear point that Young is making. So, does this mean that The Shack is something we should disregard and not read, as Driscoll suggests?

Driscoll argues that Jesus stated a chain of command when he says the Father sent him here (John 5:37, 6:57) and that he could only do what the Father does (John 5:19-20).

This argument made me pause for a second to think. It does seem that there are several instances where Jesus prays to God, asks God for his blessing, and even asks to not die on the night He is betrayed. At first glance, this does seem to be a strong Scriptural theme which negates Young’s view of the Trinity in The Shack. How can this be reconciled?

The one weakness I see in this argument is that, after some research, it seems that there is quite the debate among various Christian theologians and thinkers regarding a hierarchy or structure within the Trinity. There are arguments on both sides and this is far from settled.

For the side which would side with Young’s interpretation, all the verses which refer to a hierarchy are from Jesus while he was living as a human in our world. This hierarchy can be explained as a temporary situation which existed while Jesus was limited here on Earth. Jesus was limited in other ways – he had a physical body, he needed to eat, drink, etc – and this could be a different manifestation of the limitations which Jesus took on coming to be with us.

There are books written about this topic – I only want to argue that this point is in contention, and it’s OK to disagree on this point. Each side does have good arguments and it’s something I want to look into further after reading this book. This isn’t as settled as Driscoll presents in his talk, and this weakens the argument.

Perhaps you have some thoughts? Are there an other scriptures which seem to suggest a hierarchy within the Trinity? Let me know - as I said I want to find out more about this and perhaps you can point me in the right direction!


So, there are the four arguments which Driscoll presents if this book is specifically about the Trinity. Numbers 1-3 do not seem to be valid complaints against the book, and number four is, at best, under contention.

On top of all of this, as I stated at the beginning, this book is not “about the Trinity” as Driscoll states. It’s about much, much more than that. In light of that, there is no really good reason to recommend against reading this book – even the arguments specifically about the Trinity don’t hold up too strongly.

This book is one which I highly recommend reading. It’s doing a wonderful work between God and I, helping me see him as less monolithic. I have felt for a long time that praying to God was like praying to my bedpost – I struggle with the relationship feeling personal. This book is one more way that I feel a few of the mental bricks in the wall between God and I are getting chipped away. And if that’s what the book accomplishes for you, it’s worth the read – even if there are a few theological holes or ambiguities on the pages.

More thoughts to follow on whatever else is on my mind – this was a long post but it deserved that!