The Trinity and THE SHACK

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—its 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.

19 Responses to “The Trinity and THE SHACK”

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  1. The Charismanglican says:

    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.

  2. Jim says:

    …"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?

  3. Dale says:

    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.

  4. Aaron says:

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

  5. Anonymous says:

    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??

  6. Anonymous says:

    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.

  7. Anonymous says:

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

  8. Nola Byrum Boezeman says:

    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.

  9. Pastor John says:

    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?

  10. Kara says:

    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?

  11. Debra Dean Murphy says:

    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!

    • Debra, I stumbled on our comment on “The Shack ” (after all these years) and am glad that you have said the things you have.
      Watered down theology creates watered down Christians. The Trinity is a crucial doctrine to understand for Christians. It teaches us a foundational truth about God that, when embraced in all its purity, points toward the real Jesus, without whom there is no salvation. Thank you for standing like you have. God bless you.

  12. Cara A. says:

    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?

  13. The Charismanglican says:

    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.

  14. Anonymous says:

    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.

  15. Jimmy Moor says:

    I appreciated a good bit if what The Shack had to say about the Trinity (realizing as I read it that it would probably be heavily critiqued by systematic theologians). But the reason I wept as I read it was that it was the story of a hurting man who had a transforming encounter with the living God. I was a hurting man, and I needed that message.

  16. Annie says:

    I don’t think it’s the jarring portrayal of the Trinity that attracts people to the Shack. It’s the portrayal of a God that’s personal, touchable, relatable, that’s unlike the distant Force we find in the places we call church.

  17. Bart Breen says:

    Complaining about The Shack and contrasting it to Systematic Theology is something of a false dichotomy. The Shack is to Systematic Theology what Jesus’ Parables are to Dogma. They’re simply not in the same genre or all that well or easily compared unless you’re just looking to be critical for the sake of being critical.


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