Not long ago, I resolved to read and review “The Shack” (Windblown Media, 2008). Then I learned that my son already had done both. Our views matched. So I’m interviewing him for this column. Stephen E. Witmer (Ph.D., Cambridge) was born and raised in Piscataquis County. He now serves as senior pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Mass., where he lives with his wife, Emma, and son, Samuel.
DEW: What is “The Shack?”
SEW: “The Shack” is a runaway best-seller authored by William P. Young. The book came out of nowhere and climbed to No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list for [more than] 29 straight weeks. More than 5 million copies are in print. Plans are in progress for a feature film.
DEW: Why is “The Shack” so wildly popular?
SEW: For a number of reasons. Not least is the book’s gripping premise. Several years after the abduction of his young daughter, Mackenzie Philips meets and talks with God in the abandoned shack where [his daughter] was murdered. The book consists mostly of these conversations, which address the problem of suffering and evil in a way that is neither glib nor cavalier. One of the achievements of the book is that, despite its engagement with serious issues, it is quite easy to read. It is a novel, not a weighty theology book.
DEW: Can Christians automatically endorse this book?
SEW: It’s not quite that simple. While it’s good that many people who don’t normally think about God are doing so as they read “The Shack,” (being introduced to a God who rules the universe, reveals himself through Jesus, and invites all people into a personal relationship with himself), the book makes other assertions that are of concern.
DEW: For instance?
SEW: I’ll mention two.
The first one relates to the nature of God. The Bible (and therefore, orthodox Christianity) teaches that God is three and God is one. Each member of the Trinity — God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit — is fully God, but is not the other members of the Trinity. This teaching is not an arcane theological quibble; it has been affirmed for 2,000 years and is crucial to Christian orthodoxy. You can’t understand God properly if you don’t understand this doctrine. For instance, God the Son died on a Roman cross, but God the Father did not. God the Father is not a human being and cannot die. Because God the Son became fully human, he could die. If these distinctions between the three members of the Trinity are obscured, all kinds of huge misunderstandings result.
In several passages, “The Shack” blurs these important distinctions between the three persons of the Trinity. The book implies that all three persons of the Trinity became human. This is false. God the Father and God the Spirit did not become human. Only God the Son became human. Several passages in the book seem to suggest that somehow God the Father was crucified. That is not true. Only God the Son was crucified.
Second, “The Shack” exhibits a flawed understanding of human relationships.
Many people today dislike the idea of authority and submission in relationships. They find gender roles within marriage, submission of children to parents, and submission of Christians to church leaders distasteful. The Bible does not support this modern view. On the contrary, Biblical writers endorse proper authority and sub-mission within the home, the church, and society as a good and beneficial thing. The ultimate ground for this is that authority and submission exists within God himself: God the Son gladly submits to God the Father and always has.
“The Shack” suggests that there is no authority or submission within the Trinity, and that the exercise of authority in government, business and marriage is a mistake and a “waste,” causing people to miss the wonder of relationship. This understanding of human relationships is catastrophic in its results; destroying marriages, parent-child relationships and churches.
In these important respects, “The Shack” seems more closely aligned with non-Christian modern values than with Biblical values.
DEW: What is your overall assessment of “The Shack?”
SEW: “The Shack” is a fairly well-written novel and a thought-provoking book. If read carefully, it may help some people grow in their understanding of God. However, it may also confuse readers who mistake what it says to be Christian orthodoxy. My advice to readers: be careful. In many cases, “The Shack” presents God faithfully. In some cases, it clearly does not.
The Rev. Daryl E. Witmer is founder and director of the AIIA Institute, a national apologetics ministry, and associate pastor of the Monson Community Church. He may be reached at the Web site AIIA.ChristianAnswers.Net or by e-mail at AIIAInstitute@aol.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.