Friday, September 04, 2009

Wrestling Match - Mark Driscoll vs. The Shack

Few figures in American Christianity have managed to draw as much controversy in the last couple of years as Mark Driscoll, Senior Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and William Young, author of The Shack. So when I recently came across a video clip of Driscoll talking about The Shack I couldn’t resist giving it a watch.

As a matter of disclosure I have read both The Shack and some of Driscoll’s writings as well and I am currently reading one of Driscoll’s recent releases - Vintage Church. As one who is in the process of planting a church right now I can say that few books have stirred the fire for church planting the way that Driscoll’s “Confessions of a Reformission Rev.” have. As for The Shack, I read that book about a year ago and found it a refreshing and insightful read that dealt with difficult questions concerning suffering and even the doctrine of the Trinity among other topics. As with other authors such as C. S. Lewis, Gene Edwards, Hanah Hernard (Hinds Feet on High Places), and even John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress) the method of using fictional literature as a means of getting to the heart of theology seemed to me to work quite well.

Spoiler alert: If you have not read The Shack this next section of the blog will not make as much sense, so I would recommend reading it before continuing this blog so you have a bit more context.

In this Corner Mark Driscoll...
I wasn’t surprised to see that Driscoll was an outspoken critic of The Shack being that he is consistently a pretty outspoken critic on many issues. While I certainly don’t agree with many of Driscoll’s points of contention with The Shack I think the very nature of the critique raises questions about the relationship between theology and art and is thus important for consideration for artists and theologians. I will sum up the points of the argument and then give my own commentary and then propose a way forward for those of us who are creative people of faith. Here are the main points of Driscoll’s argument:

1. The whole purpose of The Shack is the Trinity.
I would disagree with Mark Driscoll on this because while the Trinity is central to this book, some of the main points have to do with wrestling through bad things happening to the innocent and finding God in the midst of tragedy.

2. The Shack makes a graven image of God by representing God the Father as a Black woman named Papa.
This seems to me to be the weakest of Driscoll’s arguments against The Shack for many reasons. First the very scriptures often refer to God in ways that compare him to attributes in creation:

Psalm 17:8 says, “Hide me under the shadow of your wing”. It is mother chickens that will hide her chicks under her wings. So is the Psalmist saying that God is a mother chicken? No. The psalmist is using an analogy to illustrate our relationship with God.

How about Psalm 23? “The Lord is my shepherd…” Is the Psalmist actually saying that God is a literal shepherd? No. He is getting at a relationship.

Finally Jesus was known to refer to the Father as vinedresser or farmer (John 15). Was Jesus creating a graven image by referring to God as a farmer? Not in the least. In reality he was helping folks understand their connection to God in a deeper and richer way.

It makes me wonder if Mark Driscoll even read The Shack because it is obvious that Papa (God the Father in The Shack) had a purpose in revealing himself as a black woman in the first part of the book and then as a middle-aged white guy with a pony-tail towards the end of the book. While this is certainly a fictional account it is not inconsistent with what we encounter in the Bible. God reveals himself to Israel sometimes as a husband, sometimes as a judge and sometimes as a warrior and yet sometimes as a more nurturing figure. The key in all of this is that it is God revealing himself to people for His purposes. It is very clear to me that this is what was going on in The Shack. God had a purpose in revealing himself to Mack the way that he did at different times and the purpose is made clear.

I think that making the point that William Young is leading people into idolatry with The Shack is quite a stretch.

3. The book encourages goddess worship since it represents God the Father as a woman.
This again ties back into my previous argument so I won’t continue it here but I don not think this book promotes goddess worship at all in any way. To make such statements misses the point and the very arguments set out plainly in the book.

4. Mark Driscoll goes on to accuse William Young of pushing the heretical teaching of Modalism that stands in opposition to Trinitarianism because it doesn’t respect the three-ness of God but instead blurs the lines. He cites the line in The Shack where God the Father states, “I am truly human in Jesus.” Driscoll makes the point that God the Father was never human only Jesus.

Again, I think that Mark Driscoll was missing the forest for the trees. Modalism was never a remote possibility to me when I read this book. Even the line that he was referring to was more about what Jesus referred to as “I am in the Father and He is in Me” than of blurring the lines of their distinctness in the Trinity, that though the three persons of the Trinity are completely distinct they are intimately connected in ways of understanding which we cannot even comprehend.

5. The last point that Mark Driscoll makes is that the book shows a version of the Trinity with no sense of hierarchy that it just gives a picture of a never-ending circle of love. He cites the passage from The Shack in which God tells Mack that hierarchy “only makes sense where there is sin”. He sees this as a big problem because Jesus obviously showed deference to the Father in his earthly ministry and that the New Testament seems to point very clearly to the idea that the Spirit points to Jesus, Jesus points to the Father.

Of all of Driscoll’s arguments this is the one that is the strongest in my opinion. I think that we Americans naturally tend to be much more egalitarian than most cultures and think of equality as one of the highest virtues there is. So this view of God as having no sense of hierarchy is appealing to some of our highest ideals in this culture. That said, it may be a stretch to put this ideal on God and thus on anything else in our world that exhibits hierarchical leadership.

If the Trinity is hierarchical it is not in a sense of power-over but in mutual love. So rather than throw hierarchy out altogether I would say that in the Trinity we see hierarchy apart from corruption—authority in love.

Closing Thoughts / A Way Forward
In the end I think The Shack has helped so many people begin to grapple with theology because it does so by way of art, speaking the language of the heart. Just as Jesus bypassed technical, theological language and arguments of the Pharisees with simple illustrations from nature and the culture, William Young has helped people into a deeper conversation about suffering, God, and the Trinity by speaking with language and pictures that connect with people in some of their biggest questions about faith and suffering and relationship with God.

This very discussion brings up how important theology is, particularly for those of us who create art whether music, writing, or painting. We must continually wrestle with theology in community and create art from that place. Our world desperately needs theologically sound artists who can communicate in the language of the heart so that folks who would never pick up a Bible commentary or theological text might begin to grapple with some of these larger issues themselves. I am grateful to William Young for writing The Shack and communicating in such language for the very reason that he is getting the conversation going in places where it has been stuck for a long time. Here’s to wrestling!


Anonymous said...

Honestly, you lost me
@ 2 min. 15 sec.
into the video link for "the shack"

please, don't exclude pagan influence on modern Christianity
in your view?...

Chad said...

Crispin, you were able to put very clearly what I have felt about the relationship between art and theology for a long time. Really enjoyed reading this and will use the commentary you provided when recommending this book.

Berteau74 said...

I understand Driscoll's effort to teach the church at large about doctrine. It's been my experience that your average church goer (or even lay leader) are not educated on the finer points of why they believe what they believe.

Since many Christians don't know heresy when they hear it, I can understand what he was trying to get across in the context of teaching on doctrinal issues. I think it would be a mistake to give book like The Shack an unqualified recommendation. Assuming that people know the difference between symbolism and literalism is to ignore the many heresies that have crept into the church worldwide, largely unnoticed (e.g. the gnostic teaching of escaping this world for some ethereal spirit existence).

Instead of vilifying the entire text though, Driscoll could have pointed out what The Shack is useful for and what you want to be aware of when reading something that is allegorical in nature.

I think you make some excellent points about where he's going overboard in his analysis. The real irony here is that Driscoll is guilty of the same thing of which he's accusing William Young, namely, overreaching in some areas in an attempt to illustrate a point.

Thanks for publishing this very thought provoking blog...

Gary Marble said...

Interesting post. I have been writing a critique of The Shack. It has been a challenge to try and make proper distinctions between allegorical, metaphorical and literal.
I admit it is difficult to stomach a big black female father, and the easy thing to do is to call The Shack goddess worship. But the problem of The Shack is not goddess worship; when you do get to the literal point of Young's metaphorical anthropomorphisms you find a view of the Godhead that is the heresy (I know the H word is hard for some to take) of Monarchianism and under that more general heading it contains aspects of the heresies of Patripassianism and Modalism). I know big words, but look them up and see if I am wrong.
A man named DeYoung has written a critique of The Shack called Burning Down The Shack. DeYoung is, or was a personal friend of Young's and he documents that Yoing has embraced a Christian version of universalism called "Universal Reconciliation."
It seems to me that much of the odd theology in The Shack is Young's attempt to fit many categories of theology in this particular form of universalism.
I try and bear this out in my critique. If you are interested please check it out at I would love some feedback and perhaps you can point out some weak areas in my criticism of this book.
What did you find insightful?