The Shack — It’s a Novel, but Not Just a Novel


The novel, The Shack, is coming out as a movie. So it is time again for Christians to have discernment about this material.

Many Christians have written previously about the false teachings in The Shack. Those who have defended it have given three main defenses:

  • It is just a novel. It is not meant to teach religion.
  • Don’t be so nitpicky. No book is perfect. Any errors of doctrine in it are small matters.
  • It really helped me with my own tragedy, loss, or pain.

In this article, we will consider whether, simply because something is a novel, it does not teach religion. In future articles, we will consider the other questions.

Yes, it is a novel, but not just a novel.

Story or narrative is a very commonly used way of teaching religion. David and Goliath. Daniel in the lion’s den. Joseph’s coat of many colors.

Zaccheus was a wee, little man,
And a wee, little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree,
For the Lord he wanted to see.

Jesus teaches in parables, many of which are simply stories, like the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. Pilgrim’s Progress is a novel, but not just a novel. Chronicles of Narnia. And so on. The mere fact that it is a novel does not stop The Shack from teaching religion.

The Lord sometimes commands that a story be told and retold, to teach religion. He might even command the construction of a monument, to make sure the story gets told. Through Joshua, He command the Israelites to take twelve stones out of the Jordan river and set them as a monument,

that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you shall answer them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. (Joshua 4:6-7)

If stories can’t teach religion, then why do we tell our children Bible stories?

The same is true for theatre. The Dictionary of Word Origins (John Ayto, Arcade Publishing, New York, 1990, p. 526) says:

A theatre is etymologically a place for “looking at” something. The word comes down via Old French theatre and Latin thedtrum from Greek theatron. This was derived from the verb theashai “watch, look at”, whose base thea- also produced English theory. It was first used in English for the open-air amphiteatres of the ancient world; its application to contemporary playhouses dates from the end of the 16th century.

A theatre is a place for “looking at” a “theory.” That is how the Greeks used it, to teach philosophy and religion.

The origins of theatre are in religion. Theatre is believed to have evolved from religious rituals. For example, early people acted out natural events like changes in the seasons to try to understand them. Early dramatizations involved moving rhythmically and painting parts of the body. A second theory about the origin of theatre says it evolved from Shamanistic rituals, where instead of representing the supernatural, the actor becomes a medium through which the supernatural speaks. That is, spirits possess the actors, and the acting teaches. While in the first theory, rhythmic movement is used, in this second theory, highly energetic, perhaps even trance-state dance takes a more prominent place.

From about 3500 B.C. in Egypt, drama became more than just religious ritual. The themes, however, still were religious and would be for a long time to come. Priests acted out stories of, for example, what happened to souls after death.

Being born in Sidney, Montana and growing up in Williston, North Dakota, from childhood I always have been well aware of the Passion Play in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Its 70-year run in an amphitheater in Spearfish came to an end in August of 2008. Several times the troupe traveled to Williston where I was able to see it. Passion plays like this were not invented in South Dakota nor in the 20th Century.

The “Abydos passion play” was performed annually in Egypt from about 2886 B.C. to 400 A.D. It tells the story of the killing of Osiris by his brother Seth and Osiris’ resurrection. This play is typical of themes of the period which include birth, death, and the cycles of the seasons.

The theology of the theatre in such plays is used by critics of Christianity to say that Jesus is nothing special, and in fact that the story of his resurrection is just made up by imitation of the passion plays.

In Greece, the “orchestra” was a large circular or rectangular area at the center part of the theatre, where the play, dance, religious rites, and acting took place. In roughly the 6th Century B.C., theatre became freer of the ritual aspect of religion, and the themes of drama expanded to include history, morals, and politics. But religion still was a major theme. The Greeks used theatre as a pedagogical device to teach the piety of Greek religion. Once Greek society “went liberal,” relative to their traditions, irreligion also became a theme in Greek theatre. Religion and irreligion.

The Romans degraded theatre from the Greek ideal. (Obviously, this is an over simplification, but necessary for purposes of brevity.) They created secular, non-religious performances that were crudely dependent on jest, slapstick, wit, wordplay, and song. Translating a certain set of Roman plays in high school Latin class, I remember spontaneously exclaiming, “This is just a TV sitcom.” That earned me the only compliment I ever got from my Latin teacher.

During the reign of Emperor Nero, Rome persecuted Christians. Mime was used to ridicule the Christian religion on stage. When Christianity was legalized, all performers of mime were excommunicated. In the 6th Century A.D., all theatre was closed.

Drama arose again, however, in the Church. The visit of the three Marys to the empty tomb of Jesus was shown through action, impersonation, and dialogue. By the 11th and 12th Centuries, the Easter play was followed by dramatizations of the Nativity and other Bible stories.

In the 15th and early 16th Centuries, the Mystery plays were important. These were about 50 short plays, each enacting a Bible passage, presented over two to three days. Priests originally organized these, but after awhile, they were taken over by varies relevant guilds. For example, a play about Noah’s ark would be enacted by shipbuilders.

Most Christians in the West probably have heard of the morality plays. Many have seen these as being, in essence, sermons depicting the struggle between good and evil.

In continental Europe, during the 16th and 17th Centuries the Roman Catholic Church established the Jesuit Schools. These produced school plays on all kinds of biblical themes.

In the late 16h Century and the 17th Century, Protestants used plays to mock Papist religion.

In 1590 England, a law was enacted prohibiting playwrights from dramatizing religious issues. This law was not made against something that cannot or does not happen. Theatre teaches religion. It “looks at” “doctrine.” Though I do not endorse such a law, I also don’t endorse the ignorance that theatre cannot or does not teach religion.

The Puritans gained power and in 1642 closed all theatres and forbade all dramatic performances. With the restoration of Charles I, theatre re-emerged, but in a detectibly more secular form. Puritanical influence in the British colonies in America prevented the development of theatre here until the early 18th century. This historical sequence sets up today’s Americans for the notion that theatre is secular. We have let the unique effects of Puritanism filter our perception of what theatre is.

Lutherans of all people should not be bamboozled by this. Religion, philosophy, and morals always have been staples of theatre.

The movie, The Shack, is promoted as spiritually comforting and inspiring. Its producers are marketing it to pastors. One of my Facebook pastor friends noted, “They sent me an invitation for a special pastors’ screening on March 1st at 7:00 p.m. Yeah, I guess they seem to have missed that that is when many clergymen (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Anglican, etc.) are engaged in observing Ash Wednesday with the members of their congregation.” With permission, I quote from the email he received.

​As an influencer in your denomination, we want to give you the first invitation to attend an exclusive free VIP pre-screening of The Shack.

​With over 22 million copies sold, and 105 weeks spent on the New York Times and 49 weeks on the Globe and Mail’s best-sellers list, The Shack arrives in theatres on Friday, March 3rd.

The Shack shares the story of a father’s uplifting spiritual journey. After suffering a family tragedy, Mack Phillips [Sam Worthington] spirals into a crisis of faith. After receiving a mysterious letter, Mack journeys to the shack and encounters an enigmatic trio of strangers led by a woman named Papa [Octavia Spencer]. Through this meeting, Mack finds important truths that will transform his understanding of his tragedy and change his life forever.

Although there are some that feel the story presents tensions with scripture, many have appreciated the story’s parable and The Shack has served as the cornerstone for many readers’ journeys of healing and a reconnection with God.

The Shack provides a compelling platform from which to engage in a discussion and exploration of who God is, and how he cares.

The producers write to my friend as an influencer in his denomination. But the significance of that, the reason they selected him, is not religious, right? They are not looking to gain any influence in his denomination through him, are they?  The producers themselves say, the movie is a platform to engage in discussion and exploration about who God is and how he cares. But that’s not religion, right?

The Shack is a novel, but not just a novel. The movie is a movie, but not just a movie. This movie does what theatre always has. It provides a place to look at a theory. The book contains many extended didactic dialogues, conversations that teach religious doctrine. The author himself says,

Please don’t misunderstand me; The Shack is theology. But it is theology wrapped in story, the Word becoming flesh and living inside the blood and bones of common human experience.

William P. Young, Foreword in Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. xi). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

Of Baxter’s book, Young says, “If you want to understand better the perspectives and theology that frame The Shack, this book is for you.” Id., p. ix.

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