June 01, 2009

The Trinity and THE SHACK

by Debra Dean Murphy

If you are a savvy and astute reader of Trinitarian theology who can elucidate the fine distinctions between, say, Augustine and Origen or Moltmann and Marshall or Zizioulas and LaCugna, you may or may not be up on the latest (actually, the only) treatise on the Trinity to capture the popular imagination: a little self-published tome called The Shack.

But you should be. Not because it’s a good book—it isn’t. But because, as indicated above, its sales are in the stratosphere. It is loved—fiercely loved—by an astounding number of Christians of all stripes.

The Shack has struck a chord, I think, because most people have not learned much about the Trinity from their participation in church life—or at least they think they haven’t. (“Trinity Sunday,” in an odd way, keeps the doctrine of God’s triunity remote, exotic, and “special”—something to be observed this one day of the year and expounded upon with clunky analogies).

But the Trinity permeates the church’s life and witness. When we baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we name the Trinity as the church’s “determining reality” (Miroslav Volf). In the Eucharist, the gathered community “incarnates and realizes its communion within the very life and communion of the Trinity” (John Zizioulas). The justice, equality, freedom, and generosity that we seek to embody in our common life all have their source in the Trinity, in which “none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; but the whole three Persons are co-eternal and co-equal” (The Athanasian Creed).

People who read Augustine and LaCugna know this. But the people in the pews are reading The Shack. Those who love systematic theology—it’s beauty, order, symmetry—can critique this pop-treatment of the Trinity without breaking a sweat. But we (theologians, pastors, preachers, educators) have done a poor job of communicating how it is that all we do as Christ’s body the Church is shaped by the pattern of love-in-communion that exists among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Until we’re able to communicate this in imaginative, engaging ways—that is, until we’re able to help others see (in worship, in preaching, in missions, etc.) that they already “know” what the Trinity is, people will go elsewhere for their theology; they always do. And while they may find fragments of wisdom and truth (as The Shack surely contains), they will have an incomplete picture, a distorted view, blurry vision.

And we will find ourselves, every year at this time, wearily dusting off that mysterious, ancient relic known as the doctrine of the Trinity, putting it on public display with a few corny examples to try and explain it, only to happily reshelve it again when the day is thankfully, finally over.


Anonymous said...

Your comments are helpful. But what about the realities of God that are not represented by the doctrine of the Trinity? Isn't it possible that people like the shack because it doesn't contain the word "doctrine"? Just a thought.

The Charismanglican said...

The Shack isn't so bad. It's 'therapeutic apocalyptic' vision actually made me tear up (I'm a wuss).

Perhaps The Shack is a sign that people actually could find the inter-relationships of God interesting.

It might be the theology version of a popcorn summer movie, but you can still have a great conversation over drinks after the movie.

Debra Dean Murphy said...

I agree that people probably like "The Shack" because it's jargon-free--no talk of doctrine, per se. I have spoken to many fans of the book who say they never thought of God in terms of a black woman (Father), a laid-back carpenter dude (Son), and a slight, sparkly Asian woman (Spirit)--and they like these surprising depictions of the divine. I'm all for broadening our understandings of God, but the three "personedness" of God does not mean that God is three people.

And while the author does get a few things right in terms of classic Christian teaching re the Trinity, it's precisely his therapeutic vision of Christianity--and of heaven, especially--that needs to be challenged.

But it's true that the book has people talking and asking questions. And if it leads to some deeper wrestling with topics like the Trinity, that's a good thing.

Jim said...

..."they will have an incomplete picture, a distorted view, blurry vision." They will have that doubly when those systematic theologians get finished with them.

Maybe "The Shack" is a form of "folk art".

Is it a requirement of seminary training to become less and less like the people you serve so that you can spend the rest of your life trying to become more like them?

Dale said...

The bigger problem with The Shack is it's almost entirely individualistic: Just me and God. There is no real place for or need for the church. We can discuss what it does or does not say about the of the trinity, but as Ekklesia project members we should be troubled by its vision of a faith without church or community with fellow believers.

Aaron said...

"Amen" to Dale's comment. Whatever else he does with the Trinity, the church seems to be forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Any book that can get people understanding a subject as mind-boggling as the Trinity has to be good. Why denigrate something that makes people talk about it? Sour grapes??

Anonymous said...

Seems that if people are talking about the Trinity or their beliefs as a by-product of reading the shack then maybe it's a good thing. Hopefully those of us that make up the "body of Christ" will be able to help those folks that are seeking and questioning as a result of reading this book. It sure sparked some deeper thinking and talking in our small corner of the world.

Anonymous said...

I wish I wrote The Shack. I wouldn't even mind being torn apart by systematic theologians with a high ecclesiology.

Nola Byrum Boezeman said...

Wow! A lot of great comments.

I didn't love "The Shack." But, I did lead a 3 week discussion on it at my church. Even though there are some problems with the book, it (as I don't think you are disputing) contains some great topics for discussion. One senior woman in my group even told us that reading the book caused her to rethink her long-time supportive position of the death penalty. This led us to a discussion of the reasons why our denomination, RCA, takes a stance against capital punishment. We also talked about universal salvation, feminine imagery of God, being spiritual vs religious, & (of course) the Trinity. But, I don't think your point is so much to bash "The Shack" as it is to make your readers think about what kind of job the leaders and teachers in the church are doing if so many readers of "The Shack" fall in love with it without being able to think critically about the inherent theological problems.

Pastor John said...

We can't expect everyone to do everything for us. Any denominational writer will be "wrong" to others of a different persuasion. Whatever makes people think, whether it's "The Shack" or Rob Bell's DVD's or something else is a good thing. Our people expect the church to have answers (or they should)and we should be prepared when they do. Start where they are and draw them closer to God. Isn't that God's call for all of us?

Kara said...

Why do we have such a hard time speaking with imagination and art about the depth of what we believe? "The Shack" took a stab at it, and for doing so with imagery people can be gripped by, huge kudos to it. Now it falls to the church - to preachers and communities of believers - to allow ourselves to play with the ideas, with words and images and actions, to recognize that we can't summarize (or God would cease to be God), we can only dive into the mystery and be encountered by it. Why do we have such a hard time doing it in a way that captures people's imagination? Or that speaks to people's experiences and longings?

Debra Dean Murphy said...

Thanks for all the feedback. Just a couple of final thoughts:

I'm not so much interested in tearing down "The Shack" (forgive the pun). I'm more interested in why Christians generally--across the spectrum--can say so little (and seem to care so little) about God's triunity.

To take issue with something I said myself in my earlier response: It's good when a new book gets people talking. But the book's content does matter deeply. Sloppy writing can encourage sloppy thinking. We can be glad that people are talking more about the trinity. But it would be even better if the book creating the buzz were a really good one.

Is all this sour grapes? No. Am I envious of how many copies "The Shack" has sold? You better believe it! Would that lowly theologians like myself saw those kinds of numbers at!

Cara A. said...

Thanks. You just identified the motivation behind the book I'm writing: a jargon-free presentation of the Trinity *as embodied in communal Christian life,* with stories of Christians who are formed by Christ, taken up into trinitarian life and so are empowered to transform their society.

Can I quote you in my introduction?

Cameron said...

It is not uncommon to meet Christians who seem annoyed with the lexicon used in theological discourse. Do not use the words: adiaphora, apophatic, Arianism, consubstantiation, and etceteras as these are unnecessary to discuss.

An anti-intellectual paradigm is growing evermore within evangelical faith culture that finds theology and the study of G-d, unworthy and superfluous. The foundation to this anti-intellectual theology is the supposition that theological and philosophical studies, specifically, do not have a role in the development of a practical faith. Paradoxically, spiritual illumination does not come from an overt existentialist philosophy, rather passive or proactive readings of scripture, oftentimes-legitimate sermons offered from a knowledgeable pulpit or discussion groups. Though many Christians oftentimes achieve an understanding of a type of evangelical theology, the concepts of promoting theological dialogue and both philosophical progresses are inconsequential, or trivial at best.

“But we (theologians, pastors, preachers, educators) have done a poor job of communicating how it is that all we do as Christ’s body the Church is shaped by the pattern of love-in-communion that exists among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Until we’re able to communicate this in imaginative, engaging ways—that is, until we’re able to help others see (in worship, in preaching, in missions, etc.) that they already “know” what the Trinity is, people will go elsewhere for their theology; they always do.”

While communication of the Trinity through worship, preaching, and missions can certainly solidify the understanding of a Christian’s faith in the communion of the Godhead, so may a reading of “Augustine On the Trinity” – the lack of theological and philosophic instruction continues to debase complex dogma that could otherwise be comprehensible or more deeply understood by a majority of Christians. As evangelical theology continues the create images of white bearded professors in ivory towers. Christians will continue to be misguided by theological ‘works’ such as, The Shack.

Chris said...

as a rule of habit, i never tab anything the best, the greatest, or the ultimate authority.

no matter how wonderful, how amazing, or how influential, i always reserve my fullest accolades.

with that in mind i feel comfortable recommending The Shack (and recommending it very highly).

however, i would always issue a disclaimer stating that the book is fiction and is meant to be taken as just that: fiction.

i dont believe The Shack was ever intended to serve as a modern-day treatise on the Trinity.

i think for a nonbeliever it is a useful tool for communicating the love and grace of God, and for a believer it is a helpful reminder of the forgiveness we are blessed with.

arguments concerning univocal, equivocal, and analogous theories of knowledge aside, i think The Shack does a good job in displaying the accommodation, adequation, and condescending of God to humans, that we might worship Him in truth, since we are incapable of worshiping Him in entirety (He being the Archetype and we being ectypal, are prohibited from doing so).

so whats the big deal?

its a good book, read it and enjoy it.

nobody ever said it was a seminary text on systematic theology.

without sounding too postmodern or emergentish, its a good conversation starter.

its a good opportunity to engage those who have read it in discussions that could lead to further theological and doctrinal topics.

however, lest we be pegged as liberalized fools, it is prudent to bear the Word of God close to our heart and our mind always:

1Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

1 John 4: 1-3

The Charismanglican said...

You know, this reminds me of a conversation I read about between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Upon reading Screwtape Letters (which was dedicated to him), Tolkien said to his friend something to the effect that he was neither a pastor nor a theologian and had no right to create such a book.

Lewis' response was that until theologians and pastors write these type of books he would have to.

We have a dearth of solid theological thinking.

But we also have a dearth of creativity.

For all it's faults, I'm glad Lewis wrote Screwtape.

Anonymous said...

As a non-christian who skimmed through it, I was surprised at how childish it is. Do Christians really have such a provincial and unsophisticated view of spirituality and theology? It seemed to be written for 12 year olds.