I Liked "The Shack"

by Sandra Ostapowich

There’s a LOT of hype out there about this book, and it usually starts like this: “Well I haven’t read the book and don’t want to read the book, but here’s my opinion about what I’ve heard about this book…” Or: “So-and-so from this branch of theology liked it/didn’t like it, and that tells me everything I need to know about the issue.”

I’ve been taught some pretty wackadoo theology in my lifetime. And it’s a hobby of mine to read books and watch “religious” movies just for the fun of ripping them to theological shreds. On the other hand, I’m just as eager to find nuggets of good theology out there for public consumption as well. So I was skeptical and had low expectations of The Shack because there’s rarely good stuff out there, but I also had an open mind – willing to consider a perspective I hadn’t before, and to think in new ways. 

On both counts, I wasn’t disappointed.

Generally speaking (because I could go on and on and on with specifics – my book is full of post-its and underlining!), The Shack is a bit like Pilgrim’s Progress in that it is not so much the plot line that is important but the dialogue between the different characters. In The Shack, the main characters are Mack Phillips and God – “Papa” or El-ousia, Jesus (as Himself), and “Sarayu” (a.k.a. the Holy Spirit). In a very small nutshell, Mack has a vision in which he spends a weekend hanging out with the Triune God at the dilapidated shack where his young daughter was molested and murdered – but in the vision, it’s a beautiful lakeside cabin.

What I really enjoyed about The Shack was that complex and substantial theological questions are handled in a very accessible and Gospel-filled way. This book tackles issues like the “otherness” of God, the problem of evil, original sin, relationship, the Cross, reconciliation between God and mankind, the Trinity, grace, freedom, love, and forgiveness in dialogue. As one who prefers to learn and teach through dialogue rather than lecture, I appreciated the conversational give-and-take as Mack’s understanding develops.

I was taught by the late, great Gerhard Forde that you can talk about theology, even talk about Jesus Himself and everything He did all day long, but until it is made personal – until it’s all for you – it’s not the Gospel. It doesn’t do anyone any good to talk about how Jesus died and rose unless Jesus died and rose for you. That personal aspect of the Gospel and the centrality of Christ’s work is made abundantly clear over and over again in The Shack. Every doctrine – even the Trinity itself, is explained as being for us. That one was new and different for me to think about, yet so consistent with the larger picture I’m surprised I hadn’t thought of it sooner.

Young is big on relationships. It’s a very strong theme throughout the vision. God’s relationship with Himself in the Trinity, and His relationship with us (only possible through Jesus), and our human relationships with one another. God didn’t create relationships to be hierarchical, but so that we could serve and love one another. Relationships are meant to be free, mutually submissive, and loving. And at the center of it is Jesus, Whose death and resurrection reconciled God to the world.

Some have suggested that The Shack is “emergent” because of its emphasis on personal relationship with God and its anti-institutionalistic stance on religion. This, no doubt, appeals to proponents of that movement. And while that may be true, I don’t think it’s entirely accurate. My impression is that Young does a great job with the Gospel, the for you behind everything God does, the problem of evil, submission, love, forgiveness, and even the atonement – better than I’ve probably ever encountered outside the Bible and Small Catechism. Salvation’s achievement is clearly taught and proclaimed in The Shack. Where it falls short is in the delivery of salvation and God’s gifts for us in Christ through His instituted means of Word and Sacrament. For this reason, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone I wouldn't be willing or able to have a continued conversation with.

And that’s my biggest beef with The Shack – it stops short. Over and over and over and over again, Young emphasizes God’s desire for a relationship with all people through Jesus, as well as the fact that only He can and has done everything necessary for that to happen. But the reader is never told where she may go to continue that relationship aside from looking to her own feelings, “visions”, impressions, private revelations, dreams, etc. I don’t think Young would be opposed to finding God where He has promised to be for us – in His Word and Sacraments. My guess is that he just doesn’t know about it, or understand that God is present and continues the relationship in tangible, external ways. So, his readers probably won't know about it either.

The problem with failing to address the delivery of God’s gifts for us is that it also leaves the reader wondering if we are being taught universalism in this book. Clearly, The Shack teaches universal atonement (so do we). But when there is no concrete delivery of the benefits from that atonement achieved for everyone through the means of grace, there is nothing to be rejected and therefore no real consequences for rejecting all that God has done for us. Young deftly dodges questions about this issue when interviewed, and carefully avoids it in the book. Strangely, for all his emphasis on everything being for us, Young seems to be ignorant of just how Jesus makes Himself concretely for us.

However, that’s exactly where we, as Lutherans especially, can step in and pick up the ball. We know where the Lord continues to come to us on a regular basis to give to us of Himself – not because we follow the rules better than other churches, or because we have the best rituals, but because that’s what He has promised to do for us. He has not only reconciled us with Himself through Christ’s death on the cross for our sins, He nourishes His relationship with us through His Word and through the daily dying to our sinful nature in Baptism, and through the nourishment of His own Body and Blood. We don’t have to go to a rundown shack and hope to have some sort of visionary encounter with God in nature, or our trust in our own feelings in order to have a relationship with God today. We know that the Lord comes to us, to love us, to forgive us, to give us His gifts, and to serve us every week in clear and tangible ways. He says so and His Word is True.

Sandra Ostapowich serves on the Higher Things Board of Directors as Secretary. She is Christian Education and Youth Director at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Loveland, CO.

Created: September 2nd, 2008