Book Discussion – The Shack

Why might an Orthodox Christian read The Shack?  Why might it better not to?  Fr. Anthony shares and evaluates many of the critiques of the The Shack, putting it within the context of evangelism.  Enjoy the show!
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Book Discussion on The Shack (10/19/2017)
St Sophia Seminary Library
Fr. Anthony Perkins

  • Thanks for inviting me! Nikolas Kotar coming on 11/16; Song of the Sirin.
  • Why this book? It is a book about Christ that has sold over twenty million copies. The movie came out in March and came out on DVD this Summer.
This is the front cover art for the book The Shack written by William P Young.

This is the front cover art for the book The Shack written by William P Young.

By way of an introduction: how does Orthodoxy relate to the culture?

  • What did Orthodoxy do with and in the culture of Ukraine?
  • What should Orthodoxy do with and in the culture of the USA?
  • Should we be more wary of Orthodoxizing American Christian symbols than we were of Orthodoxizing pagan symbols in Rus’-Ukraine?

The Shack is polarizing. Why? For theologians, I think it has to do with how comfortable each is with “the edges”. Explain edges. Explain core.

  • Other things polarize Christians. Here’s a fun one: halloween.
    • Is it okay for Christians to opt out of halloween? Of course!
      • Healthy approach. Culture of death, fear, vandalism. Risk aversion.
      • Unhealthy approach. Blanket condemnation of imperfect culture.
    • Is it okay for Christians to participate in Halloween?
      • Healthy approach. Because part of it is okay and there is an okay way to do it (discernment).
      • Unhealthy approach. Uncritical acceptance.
  • Is it okay to opt out or read books like The Shack? Same thing!

Prophetic Impulse: Understand & Serve Truth (great commandment?)

Pastoral Impulse: Understand & Serve People (part two of great commandment?)

Evangelism? Requires both. It also requires going to the edges; that is where people who need to be evangelized are. We have to know them and use their words.

[Small note: there’s also some knee-jerk opposition to books like The Shack. Instead of asking “what can I learn from this person or thing” we often ask “what can I find wrong in this person or thing?”]

— begin review of review of a good critical/risk-averse review –

Department of Christian Education (OCA; Bulletin Insert)

The book’s trinity bears no relation to the Triune God, or to the teachings of the Creed. God the Father (in the book a motherly Afro-American woman who is called “Papa”) tells Mack, “We don’t need power over the other…Hierarchy would make no sense among us.” But Christ’s obedience to His Father is not based on power, but on trust and love. To assert that hierarchy must be based on one person having power over another is simply wrong.

We’ll set aside the observation that “the book’s trinity bears no relation to the Triune God”; the author is exaggerating to make a point (ironically, this is something I see the book is doing). As for power and hierarchy, it seems that either the book is wrong about the relationship amongst the Trinity OR it mis-specifies what a hierarchy is when it has that “Hierarchy would make no sense among us”. Because it is not a work of systematic theology, it really could be either one. The irony is that The Shack is specifically written to show that relationships must be built on “trust and love” rather than power. Within the context of the book’s message (and the order of my my Orthodox mind), I automatically added “[THAT KIND OF] Hierarchy would make no sense among us.” The author has noted that power corrupts almost of all our human institutions (“Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you”); he is trying to get us to imagine or allow for the possibility of a relationship that was mutually re-enforcing. Rather than a chain-of-command and the exercise of authority, there is the same will. Here is how Fr. Thomas Hopko put it in the rainbow series book, Volume 1 – Doctrine and Scripture (

One God: One Divine Action and Will

Since the being of the Holy Trinity is one, whatever the Father wills, the Son and the Holy Spirit will also. What the Father does, the Son and the Holy Spirit do also. There is no will and no action of God the Father which is not at the same time the will and action of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

In Himself, in eternity, as well as towards the world in creation, revelation, incarnation, redemption, sanctification, and glorification—the will and action of the Trinity are one: from the divine Father, through the divine Son, in the divine Holy Spirit. Every action of God is the action of the Three. No one person of the Trinity acts independently of or in isolation from the others. The action of each is the action of all; the action of all is the action of each. And the divine action is essentially one.

Young is arguing against an understanding of that dogma that would have the Father imposing his will on the other members of the Trinity; that would be our fallen instinctive understanding. It’s a useful corrective, even though saying that “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.” God the Father begets the Son and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. They are equal in divinity and one in essence.

“The Shack” also muddles the distinctive acts of each Person of the Trinity. Papa’s wrists bear scars, and Mack says to Papa, “I’m so sorry that you, that Jesus, had to die.” But Scripture tells us that Jesus, not the Father or the Spirit, died on the cross. By diluting this truth, the book could undermine an uninformed reader’s comprehension of the depth of Jesus’ love for us. He willingly died shamefully, painfully and alone so that we could have eternal life!

On the other hand, the book never says that God the Father was incarnate or that He was nailed to the cross. This was a visual part of the book’s point that Jesus Christ was never alone and that God “feels” the pain of His Son. Did Christ die alone? Does the compassion the marks on Papa lessen the reader’s appreciation for Christ’s death. Perhaps. But one of the book’s main points is that God is with us always. Unfortunately, much of the water that should be carried in the person of Christ gets moved to God the Father. What we really end up with is two Christs; kind of like with The Ancient of Days.

Some have praised this book for its down-to-earth way of depicting God and His purposes. But presenting the almighty Lord as a pal with whom we can be familiar and casual is dangerous. We are not God’s equals; we are His creatures. Nor are we in a position to demand explanations from Him, as Mack does.

Is it wrong to ask questions of God? Of the Church? Is Mack’s anguish and challenge so different from the Psalmists? The point on God our buddy is a good one. Although the approach is scriptural (No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. St. John 15:15) and serves as a necessary corrective to an idea of a second story God, many Orthodoxy suspect that Protestants do not take the glory of God seriously. Orthodoxy embraces both the humanity of God (icons, sacraments) and His glory (our Revelation architecture and worship). Given the way our psychology works, those who want only to fear God will not really notice His humanity in the icons or sacraments; for them, the Shack is a useful corrective. HOWEVER, several times it downplays and even has God speaking against ritual (once this was in the context of a meal). This really is problematic; no one supports ritual as a replacement for authenticity – but it is a much better vessel for that authenticity than pretty much anything else. Which is why God ritualized the New Covenant with mankind!!!

Readers also say the book comforted them in sorrow. But we have real stories of real people to inspire us in dark times. Mother Maria Skobtsova and Father Arseny are just two Orthodox believers who struggled with great loss, yet forgave their persecutors and persevered in trusting God.

This is a strange critique as it is a bit of a non-sequitur. Of course there are many examples of saints who suffered and forgive, and we are inspired by their examples and strengthened by their prayers. But that does not mean that “imagined stories” (as opposed to the “real stories” the essay recommends) are not useful. We wouldn’t be talking about this book if so many millions had not read it and found Christ’s healing through it. Fiction can do things that straight theology and even the lives of the saints cannot (not the least of which is to be accessible).

The clericalism of Orthodoxy really hurts our ability to witness Christ to people in a way they will understand. I think that if it were up to many priests teaching and ministry would be confined to the divine services, prescribed prayers, and the Church Fathers. Oh, and maybe Russian books and movies like Ostrov and The Brothers Karamatsov (both of which I love, but the latter of which is not accessible in the way The Shack is).

Most of all, we have the Trinity, not an imagined one but the One shown to us through Jesus Christ, who as we remember today can even make simple fishermen “most wise.”

Yes, the Holy Spirit can make folks wise enough to keep away from popular heterodox Christian fiction, but we cannot trust that He will make them wise enough to read them with anything like discernment.

— begin review of review of a good critical/risk-averse review –

Other critiques that also have some merit.

  • Anthropomorphizing God the Father: Could use a strong dose of apophaticism! If you are going to do it, then using Papa is a great way, though. There is NO good way to depict God the Father. I’m about as concerned about this as I am about icons of the Holy Trinity.
  • Tritheism: Risks losing site of the unity of God (not just a unity of fellowship, but of Essence). The Bible runs this risk on occasion too, though; as when God the Son talks/prays to God the Father. I’m not all concerned about this.
  • Mysticism/New Age: Attendance at church services is more of a sign of Mack’s healing rather than part of it. He was actually saved through his mystical experience of God in a dream. We have a strong appreciation for the mystical and while we are NOT new age, Orthodox books like Christ the Eternal Tao show that living with God in a one-story house can be pretty mystical and look pretty pagan/new age.
  • Universalism: implies that God is saving everyone. Note the interaction with Mack’s father towards the end. Young considers himself a “hopeful universalist”. This is what some Orthodox are. None are save except by Christ; God’s desire that all be saved. Christ died for all of us; there is hope that all will be saved through him.
  • Anti-ritual and anti-religion: “Without any ritual, without ceremony, they savored the warm bread and shared the wine and laughed about the stranger moments of the weekend.” (p. 260) Twice, Papa tells Mack that “nothing is ritual.” This is a bit much. Even so, do we understand what it means that the Eucharist is a meal? That there is a reason that bread and wine and a communal dinner were chosen as the greatest way God would manifest himself to us? But still, it is an over-correction. And if it leads people to think that visiting a Shack (or dreaming about a Shack) is a better way to meet God than Church and the Holy Eucharist, then we have a serious problem. But for the Orthodox reader? Worship, Church, and the Eucharist are the context from which we read, not something being challenged. The stories of St. Anthony don’t have a lot of Church or Eucharist in them. Every story doesn’t have to have everything in it. I think that for most people, The Shack offers enough good to weigh against the risk (and even the most Orthodox books carry risks!).

Why might it be worth reading? What did the book get right?

Here is a wonderful quote from The Catholic World Report movie review of The Shack ( );

Despite these occasional frustrations, it’s striking how orthodox and thus counter-cultural The Shack can often be. Heaven, Hell, Sin, Penance, the Afterlife, and Redemption are all very real and must be faced with courage. There are tangible consequences to breaking God’s law and even a beautiful burial scene that suggests the importance of sacramental Christianity. It’s hard to place the theology of The Shack in any particular camp; it’s enough to say that while it gets many things right, it also wants to stay relevant in a way that compromises its overall message.

I suspect that THIS is what people read it for. It isn’t heresy that makes it attractive: it is the reality of God in the midst of our struggle, of His great love for us, and the healing that He offers to all of His children.

It is a compelling story that all of us can relate to.

It gets a bit long winded with theology, but the story is well told.

It gives us all hope; the right kind of hope. The world is full of hurting people. God wants to heal us and them.

It corrects some of the more egregious heresies out there about God and Christianity.

So how would it have been different if an Orthodox Christian had written it?

The beauty of ritual; the scene of people and their lights was a time to do that. Young is not liturgical and has anti-traditional biases, so I suspect this is as close as he could get.

The guardian angel as guide. Would not “meet” God the Father or God the Holy Spirit directly; face to face. Could still meet wisdom, walk on water, etc.