No, THE SHACK Still isn’t Heresy

You might remember an earlier time, when we were all more innocent and bright-eyed, until a self-published novel about the Trinity fell from the sky and exploded all over the Evangelical Christian blogosphere. I’m speaking, of course, of The Shack by William Paul Young. For a good three months, hardly a link could be clicked that someone wasn’t criticizing the book for being heresy (and almost half the critics had actually read the book!).

That time has come and gone, but thanks to the forthcoming film adaptation of the novel, the controversy has arisen from its grave. Like George A. Romero’s best (read: most disgusting) creations, these heresy hunters are back, their arguments decidedly worse for the wear. So it’s time to put these foolish objections in the ground one more time and hope we don’t get splattered too much in the process.

What’s the big deal? Defining some terms.

If you never read The Shack, it’s a novel about Mac, a man who’s asking a question as old as faith itself: if God is loving, then why do bad things happen? In the midst of his grief, Mac goes to a cabin in the woods, and rather than encountering deadites, he encounters the Trinity. Each person of the Trinity has assumed a form with whom Mac can interact – the Father, “Papa”, is a matronly black woman. Jesus is a thirty-something Arab man and the Holy Spirit is a vaguely Asian female. The whole book is a series of theological reflections couched as conversations between Mac and the Trinity. It’s a lot of fun. The writing is not particularly good, but there are some fun and provocative ideas in here.

Second, what is heresy? In the Church, heresy is contrasted with orthodoxy, which means to think rightly about God. So heresy is thinking wrongly about God. In Christianity, orthodoxy is bound by the creeds of the Church councils – most often the Apostles’ and Nicene. Because The Shack deals with the Trinity, you’d think the critics would go to the creeds, but that’s not the case at all. That should be a giant red flag. Orthodoxy discussions that aren’t grounded in the creeds are – at best – personal attacks thinly veiled as spiritual opposition.

With that in place, there are two major reasons (as far as I can tell) people are calling The Shack heresy.

1. People don’t know how fiction works, apparently

It’s sort of a running joke among pastors that if you don’t want to preach heresy, just never talk about the Trinity. This is a complex, difficult doctrine that took the brightest minds in the Church more than three hundred years to work out (and they were much closer to the historical Jesus than we are!). The same can be said of writing fiction about the Trinity.

But we pastors do preach about the Trinity and fiction writers do write about the Trinity and there’s a big difference between a sermon and a novel. The Shack is a work of imagination that seeks to explore God’s relationship to the world. Young did not write an academic treatise on the nature of the Trinity. If he had, we’d be in heresy territory.

Creative, fictive representations of the Trinity are not automatically heresy, as critics are now claiming.

By far the most bizarre critique I’ve seen floating around the internet is brand new since the release of the film. As best I can tell, it was released into the wild by neo-Calvinist blogger Tim Challies and then repeated ad nauseam ad absurdum by his apparently innumerable minions. That critique is that, because the film features humans playing God the Father and God the Spirit, it breaks the second commandment.

Stop that! Enough heresy talk!

I was not aware Tim Challies had converted to Islam. Islam has strict prohibitions about representing God or the prophet Mohammad in art (which is why so much Muslim art is abstract). Christians have been representing God in art basically forever. Challies’ position is either inconsistent or unChristian.

This critique is genuinely baffling. Challies (and his drones) steadfastly assert that any human playing God is a violation of the commandment against making images of God. This is simple foolishness. If these critics were consistent, they would also complain about Morgan Freeman (Bruce Almighty), George Burns (Oh, God!) and the Monty Python boys. They would write hateful tirades against Michelangelo and the myriad other Renaissance artists who depicted God the Father.

If these critics were consistent in their iconoclastic tendencies, there would be a conversation worth having. As it is, they’re blatantly, unapologetically  inconsistent, which only reveals what they actually dislike about the book.

The bloggers doth protest too much. Their problem is that they don’t like the book’s depiction of God as a black female. They’re baptizing their disdain in poorly interpreted Scripture.

Challies, to be fair, makes a convoluted, inane attempt to justify how The Shack is not the same as The Chronicles of Narnia, but it ultimately comes down to the fact that even Neo-Calvinists aren’t allowed to dislike C. S. Lewis without sacrificing their fan-base.

2. Not being Calvinist is not the same as Heresy

Seriously you guys. Chill out.

This is a problem the fundamentalist, resurgent Neo-Calvinism can’t seem to get straight: Calvinism has only been around since the 1500s. This new radicalized version is only a few decades old (popularized by John Piper, Tim Challies, Mark Driscoll, and basically everyone in the unfortunately named Gospel Coalition).* Literally billions of people at this point have come into a relationship with God outside of the needlessly myopic strain of Christianity these guys teach. But suggest women are equally gifted and called to preach and teach? Point out the backward, bloodthirsty theological systems overemphasizing Penal Substitution as the only theory of atonement creates? Suggest God actually died for everyone (like the Bible states repeatedly), not just a chosen few?

(It’s worth noting that Piper, Driscoll and even Al Mohler have been silent leading up to the film’s release – only Challies has made any noise I’ve seen. But the arguments being resurrected against The Shack all go back to their comments when the book was originally released).

A survey of the various invectives leveled against The Shack then and now reveals that the vast majority of the criticisms are precisely of this variety:

Rejecting Penal Substitution as a Theory of Atonement

Young is among the many who reject Penal Substitution (as taught by Neo-Calvinism) as anything but a badly rendered biblical theme strained through a 16th-century Swiss legal lens. Penal Substitution is the idea that on the Cross, the Father was punishing Jesus (penal) for the sin of humanity (Jesus was a substitute for us). There are some ways to understand Penal Substitution that are in keeping with the larger biblical witness (and that don’t ultimately make God look like a divine child abuser). N. T. Wright’s excellent new book, The Day the Revolution Began is a great place to start, as are this book and this one.

The important note here: Penal Substitution as a coherent theory of atonement didn’t even exist until the 16th century. So not believing in it can’t be heresy. 

Hierarchy in the Trinity

Another confusing heresy charge you’ll hear is that The Shack teaches there’s no hierarchy in the Trinity – the Father, Son and Spirit all submit to each other in mutual love. This is a complicated topic (here’s a great series of blog posts on it), but suffice to say: what’s at stake for the Neo-Calvininsts in this debate is authority. Their churches are autocratic hierarchies where the lead pastor functions as a father figure for the congregation (yes, it’s super unhealthy, and see “Maleness of God” below).

Because Neo-Calvinism reads authoritative hierarchy into the Trinity, they’re able to appeal to said hierarchy to structure their churches. This is a clean illustration of the maxim, “We are what we worship.” Piper, Driscoll and friends worship a God who has a male authority figure who wields absolute power over those below him. So they create churches, consciously or unconsciously, that imitate this image of God.

But this is far from the only way to understand the relation of persons in the Trinity or how authority works. It’s probably painfully obvious by now I disagree with the Neo-Calvinists on all these issues.

The important point is that rejecting a hierarchy of authority in the Trinity doesn’t make you a heretic. 

Universalism

The other charged leveled against The Shack is one of universalism (which, while debatable, still isn’t heresy!). While Young himself might be a universalist (I wouldn’t know; I’ve not met him to ask), the theology of The Shack is most certainly not. The quote most often cited is where Mac asks Papa if all roads lead to Heaven. Papa replies,

Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.

Somehow, heresy hunters are sure this is universalism. But it’s not. This statement in no way denies the exclusivity of Christ. It simply observes that God is not bound by the structures of the institutional Church. Anyone who’s spent any time in the company of those outside the Church or on the mission field knows this to be true. God is constantly at work, all over the place. If God can use astrology to lead Persian magicians to the Christ child, then certainly God can speak to a faithful Muslim in a dream and send them to a Christian friend to learn more about Isa (the Muslim name for Jesus). I have a friend who works with Syrian refugees in Lebanon who has attested to this happening again and again.

Claiming that God can work through anyone or anything to bring people to faith in Christ isn’t universalism. It’s grace. 

The other bit that gets the Neo-Calvinists worked up is that The Shack denies Limited Atonement. Limited Atonement is one of the 5 points of Calvinism, which claims that Jesus only atoned for the sins of the Elect. The Shack insists (along with pretty much every Christian who’s not a Calvinist) that when the Bible says God died for the whole world, “world” means “world” not “a randomly chosen elect group of people”. That’s mostly based on the Greek word used, kosmos, which in many places means “world”, but everywhere else also means “world”. Again, denying Limited Atonement isn’t heresy.

The Maleness of God

Since Neo-Calvinists are complementarian, their theology has to justify their exclusion of women from positions of authority. Most often this is done by affirming God’s maleness (as when Piper infamously claimed Christianity has a “decidedly masculine feel”). That this is still a conversation in 2017 strains credulity, but some churches continue to insist on relegating women to second-class status. Of course they’re upset God is portrayed as a woman.

But just to be clear: in Scripture, God is both male and female. Even Jesus, as the incarnation of divine wisdom, is both male and female (read Proverbs 8-9 and John 1). It’s not heresy to portray God as a woman unless it’s also heresy to portray God as a man.

So there you have it. The Shack is a piece of fiction that happens not to align with Neo-Calvinist beliefs.

None of the heresy charges have anything to do with the creeds of the Church, which dismisses them out of hand as heresy. If you’re a Neo-Calvinist, you probably won’t like The Shack. Also, since it stars Sam Worthington and Tim McGraw (?), there’s a good chance you won’t like it even if you loved the book.

Bottom Line: The Shack isn’t heresy. It’s probably not going to be a great movie. But it’s not heresy.

Author: JR. Forasteros

JR. lives in Dallas, TX with his wife Amanda. In addition to exploring the wonders that are the Lone Star state, JR. is the teaching pastor at Catalyst Community Church, a writer and blogger. He's haunted by the Batman, who is in turn haunted by the myth of redemptive violence.

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  • Thanks for this post. I like how you give enough background to catch everyone up but the post is not bogged down with info. Amazing read. Thanks!

    • Gracias, amigo 🙂 I stressed for a while about how to find the right balance. Afraid I still went to snarky. But I’m gratified you read and enjoyed!

  • Nice job. You set things up such that anyone who disagrees with you must have converted to Islam, is a “Neo-Calvinist” puddle of pond scum, and therefore shouldn’t be heard. It doesn’t matter that the insults you’ve thrown into the mix essentially torpedoes the credibility of your logic.

    • mattmikalatos

      So you agree with it except for the tone? I’m not clear what you’re saying.

      • No. I find it difficult to bother agreeing or disagreeing because of the faulty assumptions made.

    • Maybe… but not a heretic!

    • I never called anyone pond scum. And I guess we disagree that calling someone a Muslim or Neo-Calvinist is an insult. I have lots of friends who are both.

      We disagree about a lot of important theological issues. But neither group are heretics (because Muslims don’t claim to be part of the Church and Neo-Calvinists don’t teach anything the creeds disavow).

  • Doris A Bedsole

    I agree with your message. From the best of my understanding God did not require the substitution death of Jesus. The people at the time di. Apparently they can’t handle the truth. The truth about God . Their fallen nature required the death penalty to those who did not believe as they did. Sounds familiar of late.

  • BrendtWayneWaters

    Well written. Replying to a couple specific pieces:

    “It’s worth noting that Piper, Driscoll and even Al Mohler have been silent leading up to the film’s release – only Challies has made any noise I’ve seen.”

    I don’t find this surprising at all. Challies has a hair-trigger mouth. When literally everyone (even the TGC guys) were celebrating Chuck Colson’s life’s work (right after he died), Challies dropped a big steaming Romophobic pile on Colson’s grave. He even noted that everyone else was silent on the criticism side of things. (Gee, Tim, ya think that might have been a clue?)

    “certainly God can speak to a faithful Muslim in a dream and send them to a Christian friend to learn more about [Jesus]”

    Change “Muslim” to a more general “non-Christian” and that’s *exactly* what happened to Cornelius in Acts 10.

  • MyoungSr

    I have read and re-read your post. I still am bewildered. Yes, bewildered. What kind of lense are you using?

    I keep getting lost in the thought that I have know so many guys who sound like you and how the trajectory of their lives say something much different from what they profess…or does it?

    Word and concepts matter. The plain Truth of Scripture is, well, plain. But you have found ‘another way’ that makes sense to you.

    So, use your unnecessarily conflated words and sentence structures and enjoy your dance around your voodoo poles you call Christianity and draw as much attention to yourself as possible for this too shall end and you will be left alone wondering.

    And by the way, Heresy is any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs. A heretic is a proponent of such claims or beliefs.

    • Hi M.,

      Thanks for your thoughts. “Heresy” as utilized by the Church for the last 2,000 years (give or take) has been specifically bound by the Creeds. So again, you can disagree about these issues (obviously we do!), but you can’t call someone a heretic or place them outside the Church.

    • Also, I’m not sure what you mean by my “voodoo poles”… are you referencing the fact that I love to smoke chicken? Because I do, and it’s delicious. My treat if you’re ever in the Dallas area!

  • Jimmy Chisholm

    Under “The Maleness of God” you reference Proverbs 8-9 and John 1 to demonstrate that God describes himself as both male and female. Could you expand on that? I read the passages, but I’d like to hear your thought process a little more.

    • Sure Jimmy!

      I have no idea how much background you have in Scripture, so I’ll assume not much, that way if you DO, you can just ignore all the stuff you already know 😀

      Short answer: Jesus (biologically male) is the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, who shows up in the Old Testament as Lady Wisdom (personified as female). So even the Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity, preserves the fullness of all gender, mirroring Genesis 1:26-27.

      Long answer: In John 1, the gospel author is drawing on 2 different traditions to introduce Jesus to the audience – one Greek, the other Jewish. By calling Jesus the Word (Greek: logos), John is drawing on a Greek philosophical tradition that goes back to Plato. It’s super interesting but not relevant to this particular conversation. The Jewish tradition is easier to miss (unless you’re Jewish and well-versed in how Jews understand the Torah). So let’s take a big detour to the creation story and Mt. Sinai.

      Genesis 1 is the story of how God made the world. It’s a process of forming (Days 1-3) and filling (Days 4-6) the “formless and empty” that exists in 1:2. The Jews understood creation as God inviting the disordered world to have form and function. This all happened by God’s loving command – “Let there be… and it was.” The Jewish people see the world as sustained by God’s constant divine command. God’s creative words flow through all of creation, sustaining, forming, filling.

      The Exodus story understands Israel through the lens of Genesis. The slaves are like the “formless and empty” – they are not a people (formed by a national identity) and they have no land (they ‘fill’ no space of their own). Sinai is where God forms them. God says, “If you will be my people, I will be your God.” They agree, so God gives them the torah. We usually interpret torah as “law”, but that’s really the worst word. A better word is “instruction”. My favorite is “way”. These are essentially the forms of the covenant. This is how Israel is God’s people. By following this Way, they become the people of God. (And obviously the Promised Land is how they are filled, but again, not germane to this conversation.)

      Now: Israel’s Wisdom tradition is all about God’s torah. They understand torah to be the Way God created us to live. In the same way God created water to flow downhill and trees to grow a certain way, in the same way photosynthesis and mitosis and DNA and all that other stuff functions, humans have a Way we were created to be. The difference is, unlike the rest of creation, we can choose. Will we follow our torah or will we make our own way? (Genesis 3 spoils that answer, obviously).

      So in the Wisdom tradition, “wise” and “foolish” take on specific meanings. “Wise” means to live as we were created to live. To live in accordance with God’s torah. And “foolish” means everything else. To go our own way. To follow other gods. To follow ungodly leaders. Proverbs 8 personifies Wisdom as a woman, calling to Israel like a mother or a faithful wife. Particularly beginning in 8:22, you see how the sages imagine her role in creation. She is the divine word by which God creates. God uses Wisdom/torah to design the world and our place in it. Wisdom is the means by which the world takes shape. And everywhere in the wisdom tradition, Wisdom is female. Obviously not biologically, since Wisdom doesn’t have a body. But Wisdom is female to probably a greater extent than it’s safe to say God is male, since God is not exclusively male (again, not biologically).

      Now, if you’re still with me, back to John 1. If you read through John 1, you can see the gospel writer drawing on Jewish wisdom tradition. Jesus is divine Wisdom. Or better said, John helps us see that Wisdom is actually the second person of the Holy Trinity, who formed the world and sustains all things, and who then took on flesh as a tabernacle among us.

      One other cool bit: John 1:1-18 is what scholars call a chiasm. It means that the whole text forms a sort of V, with the first and last verses at the top, and verses paralleling each other as they get toward the middle. (That’s super confusing, so here’s a link that breaks it down). The chiasm in John is a V, with Jesus beginning in Heaven, coming to Earth and returning to Heaven (in 18, he’s “at the breast of the father”). Contrast that with Moses, brought up at the end as lesser than Jesus. Moses does the opposite. His journey is a ^… he begins on the ground, ascends Sinai to be with God, then returns to the Earth. BUT: John makes a strange statement for someone who knows the Torah so well. He says “No one has ever seen the Father except the Son.” We know Moses “talked to God as one man talks to another, face to face.” (Exodus 33:11). John knew this too. So why this verse?

      This is super cool: John is insisting here that when Moses ascended Sinai to receive the torah, he spoke not to the Father, but to the Son – who remember is the divine embodiment of the torah. So Moses received the written torah from the living Torah himself (herself in the OT!). This is also why, when the Son takes on flesh, he is the perfect human. He lives as we were created to live because he is the literal embodiment of the Way we were created to live.

      All of this to say: in the arguments about gender in the Church, some folks point to Jesus as proof God is inherently and exclusively masculine. But Genesis 1 is clear that the image of God is male and female, and I think it’s pretty awesome that, when taking in the whole sweep of Scripture, even Jesus, from the eternal perspective, is both male and female, in accordance with the Scriptures!

      Sorry that was so much. I hope that was helpful! Let me know if anything wasn’t clear or if you have more questions about where I’m coming from, or want to debate/kick some of the ideas back and forth.

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  • John Allen Strand

    Well written, one thing I believe that is being left out of most topics is; “How can we use this to best lead people to Christ?” Do I agree with all parts of the film or book, No. But it does start people on the path to ask questions. Instead of pointing out flaws as many have done use it as a teaching tool. I am a pastor, and even my wife when we walked out stated that the portrayal of the trinity helper her to comprehend it a little better. She loved the fact that “Papa” tells Mac, (My paraphrase) I came as someone you would listen to, not a father whom you had no respect for and could not relate to. God comes to us as needed in our hour of need. Use the film and the discussion that comes from it to plant, water and even harvest a seed for the Kingdom of God. If we look for negative that is all we will find. look for the positive.

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