Back in April of 2009 I offered a response to Pastor Mark Driscoll’s 8 minute response to William Paul Young’s bestselling novel The Shack which has sold over ten million copies. Driscoll’s screed, which was posted on Youtube and viewed hundreds of thousands of times, accused The Shack of four major heresies including modalism and goddess worship. I rebut both of those spurious charges here in what was originally a two-part article.
Before jumping into the article however, I’ll add a footnote to the story. After writing this critique I spoke with Young and he told me that Driscoll later admitted to Young that he had not read the book when he reviewed it. As indefensible as this action was, learning of it actually helped my opinion of Driscoll. You see any Christian leader who could find modalism or goddess worship in The Shack would have to be either completely incompetent or maliciously misrepresenting the book. The discovery that Driscoll hadn’t read the book thus saved him from outrageous incompetence or malicious representation. However, it was not quite a matter of escaping between the horns of a dilemma since it still meant he reviewed a book he hadn’t read. But we should show some sympathy since heresy hunters like Driscoll are under great pressure to render informed opinions on everything for their faithful flocks. We can’t seriously expect them to read everything they review, can we?
Anyway, without further ado, here is the article digitally remastered :).
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In my last post I promised to turn to two criticisms launched against The Shack by one of the fifty most influential pastors in America. That pastor is Mark Driscoll, one of the leading Reformed spokesmen in the country today, author and pastor of the booming Mars Hill Church in Seattle. I am concerned here with a 7-8 minute excerpt of Pastor Driscoll’s teaching his church in which he offers a short and sharp critique of The Shack. The reason I’m focusing on this clip is because it has had a big impact on the internet, having been viewed over 170,000 times on youtube. And because the clip charges Mr. Young with heresy four times over. And because it is utterly without substance. (Nor is my critical engagement with it a strawman. I have heard no more substantial criticisms from other well known critics of the book including blogger Tim Challies and Al Mohler.)
Does The Shack teach modalism?
I am going to discuss here one of Driscoll’s charges, namely that The Shack offers a modalistic (and thus heretical) understanding of the Trinity. (Modalism is a heresy, rejected at the beginning of the third century, which interprets Father, Son and Spirit as the exact same person acting in three different ways in history.) If The Shack teaches modalism then it is indeed in grave error. But does the charge stick? Here’s what Driscoll says:
“It’s modalism! It’s a heresy. Papa says at one point, quote, ‘I am truly human in Jesus,’ end quote. That’s not true, that’s modalism. The Father was not born of a virgin. The Father did not die on a cross. The Son died. Modalism says the Father became the Son and the Father became the Spirit. The Trinity says they are distinct, they work together. The Father sent the Son. The Son died and rose and the Spirit was sent to indwell and regenerate us.”
Let’s first note that Driscoll has not made as strong a case as he could have. In addition to the statement that he quotes (found on p. 201) we have the even more disturbing statement by Papa: “When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.” (p. 99) How should we understand these statements? Do they indeed constitute a denial of the Trinity?
Before jumping to a decision, let me introduce one caveat. Every Christian who seeks to articulate the Trinity is attempting to find the right balance between the unity or oneness of God and the distinction or threeness of God. However, this is a very difficult balance to maintain. As a result, theologians concerned to be fully orthodox have often found themselves charged with blundering near to one or another heresy. (For instance, Karl Barth was charged with veering toward modalism, while Jurgen Moltmann over-corrected for this error and for his efforts was called a tritheist – believing in three Gods.) So if we think that a fellow Christian has failed to attain that elusive optimal balance in affirming both the oneness and threeness of God our attitude should not be that of “Gotcha! You’re a heretic!! Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah!!) Rather, it should be a careful and gentle correction in the “as iron sharpens iron” spirit.
So what if The Shack did veer toward modalism? That might warrant pastors warning against an imbalance at that point in the book and offering a gentle correction. Only if the book is flagrant in its espousal of a heresy would a shrill response like Driscoll’s be warranted. But the passages quoted above, while regrettable, are also ambiguous. It seems to me then that at the most these passages should be red flagged and prompt further discussion and enquiry. The book does not clearly teach modalism.
But we can go further, for the book actually denounces both modalism and tritheism. Consider the words of Papa: “We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father, and worker. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one.” (p. 101) This denial of God being one individual with three attitudes is an explicit disavowal of the very doctrine that Driscoll accuses the book of espousing.
This leads me to a disturbing question. How could one of the fifty most influential pastors in America claim that a book teaches modalism when the book explicitly denounces modalism? I am left with the following possibilities. (1) Driscoll is malicious. He is intentionally deceiving people as to the content of The Shack. (2) Driscoll is incompetent. He does not know how to read a book. (3) Driscoll is irresponsible. He ventured an opinion without having carefully read the book.
I am open to hearing further suggestions, but for now I’ll cast my vote with (3). As I am unwilling to say Driscoll is either malicious or incompetent, I will conclude that he didn’t read the book carefully. And who hasn’t offered an opinion on a topic prematurely? The difference is that whereas our ill found opinions are offered over a coffee break to a few colleagues, Driscoll’s were offered to a church of thousands and then uploaded to the internet.
The moral of our tale is that we should be careful only to venture our opinions based on the evidence. Of course the same goes for Driscoll. Although in his case a retraction and apology for Mr. Young would be nice too.
Perhaps the single most controversial aspect of The Shack is the display of God the Father as an African-American woman named Papa and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman named Sarayu. Mark Driscoll’s concerns about this narrative feature are striking indeed:
“It’s goddess worship! If God the Father is really God the mother, that changes everything! That means when Jesus prayed ‘Our Father in heaven’ he should have prayed ‘Our Mother … in the Shack’.”
“Someone will say ‘but God’s not male or female, he doesn’t have anatomical structure.’ Understood.”
“But the truth is if God reveals himself to us as father we are to honor him as Father. And if we say God the Father is now a woman we are not worshipping God. We’re worshipping goddess.”
No, the book neither promotes nor depicts goddess worship, and the claim that it does would be recognized as foolishness by anyone who had a passing familiarity with the literature on feminist “goddess worship”. There is simply nothing in common between the radical post-Christian feminist theology of a Mary Daly, or even the more moderate syncretism of a Rosemary Radford Ruether, and the theology of The Shack. The difference is even greater when we remind ourselves that we are talking here not about a formal theological proposal but rather about a novel which has been described by the author as an extended parable. Charging The Shack with “goddess worship” is as vacuous as referring to single payer health care as “communism”: it is a mere scare tactic devoid of substance.
Not surprisingly, Driscoll complements his empty charge with a misrepresentation of the book’s contents. He claims that The Shack is seeking to substitute traditional reference to God the Father with reference to God the mother. But this is simply false. Papa says “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you.” (93)
Thus the book is not suggesting that we replace reference to God as Father with God as Mother (as if God is “really” a mother). On the contrary, it is challenging Mack (and us) not to lock God into one narrow set of images, be it one role, ethnicity, or gender. As Mack reflected, “Since there were three of them, maybe this was a Trinity sort of thing. But two women and a man and none of them white? Then again, why had he naturally assumed that God would be white?” (87)
This again leaves us with the problem of interpreting Driscoll. And again I will assume that he is not maliciously trying to misrepresent the content of The Shack, nor that he is grossly incompetent. Once again this leaves me with the conclusion that he irresponsibly rendered a judgment on a book he had not read carefully. In doing so he has unfortunately quashed a very important discussion. In misrepresenting the book and making false charges against it, he has misled his congregation. And by shutting down the conversation (he advises his congregation not to read The Shack) he has lost a valuable tool of theological conversation.