January 22, 2021

Ben Witherington Reviews “The Shack”

I’m very glad that Dr. Ben Witherington has gotten around to reviewing William P Young’s The Shack on his blog, and has given a very balanced, critical and generous review. This is exactly what we need, as opposed to what we got from some of the reformed reviewers who found Young guilty of “goddess worship” and completely missed what kind of literature they were reading.

Dr. Witherington has actually read the book and goes to the heart of the serious and important questions the book raises about its key storyline: God’s involvement with tragedy.

I’m also glad to see he has detected the anti-institutional church aspect of the story. I recommend The God Journey podcast frequently, but I also say just as frequently that I believe Jesus started a movement that has some institutional aspects.

All in all, the best reading and analysis so far.

Not to take away any traffic from Dr. Witherington’s blog, but feel free to comment on his review here. Please don’t just give us your pronouncements, either way. Interact with his thoughts. In fact, here’s a good sample to start with:

In other words, the answer to the question of why tragedy happens in the world is not just because God won’t violate our wills, or just because our wills are bent and fallen, and we are the orchestrators of our own tragedies. It’s far more complicated than that. If God’s relationship with us is at all like a relationship between a good parent and petulant child, then yes there are times when the human will is and must be violated to rescue the child from disaster. Thank goodness my parents cared enough about me to do that on occasion. On most occasions loving and leading and modeling was enough. On some occasions it was not.

The God of the Bible is not just a wistful wooer of fallen humankind. The God of the Bible is an intervener and a Lord over all. And while we are at it — the Jesus of the Bible is not Mr. Rogers — he said he was coming back to judge the quick and the dead, as the Book of Revelation makes so very evident. Nor is the Holy Spirit just the one who gives us holy goosebumps, the Spirit is the Spirit of holiness and a refiner’s fire of sanctifying influence.

In closing, he says

I am thankful for this novel, and its strong stress on the relational and deeply personal nature of our God. I am equally thankful for the message that God is much greater than we could ever think or imagine. I like as well the emphasis on love and freedom, rightly understood, as well as its admission that not all roads lead to God, for Jesus is the way. But on its next lap around the revising track, and before it goes into somebody’s movie, it needs to make a pit stop for some more theological tune ups.

Your comments on Dr. Witherington’s review are welcome below.


  1. Hello,

    I just discovered you, and have never posted before, but I sent a friend my reaction to Dr. Witherington’s comments, and he suggested I present it here. So, for what it’s worth…

    There is a simple answer to Witherington’s first criticism, something we’ve been saying for awhile now. That is, organisms have structure and order for the purpose of quality and vibrancy of life. If that formula is reversed, the organization becomes life-destroying and needs to be dispatched. Yes, the skill that goes into a work of Art – or the labor of love that is a Church fellowship – is impressive, but you don’t fall down and worship the painting once you’ve beheld it. Rather, you worship the Source of the skill in the painter’s hands and vision in his mind, without whom it would all mean nothing.

    Then, what is all this heresy talk? I did a search and found at least three of my own that I could slap on Witherington’s criticism: Arianism, Macedonianism, and Subordinationism. The point is, the creedal statements are relatively short for a reason. As soon as you start expounding on God’s nature at length, and especially if you try to present an imaginative portrayal of an encounter with him, you immediately drift into this nebulous world of “heresy”. The early Christians had many more important things to say that evangelicals totally ignore.

    “Law, order, rule, commandments are not inherently the source of the human problem in the Bible”. No, they’re not – there a symptom of the problem. Lose the disease, lose its symptoms as well. But this, like many disagreements I had with this section, come from a reading of the Bible that many are not willing to accept. My hermeneutic is becoming increasingly Christocentric, relationship-oriented (with the authors and the Spirit), and “acultural” (or beyond culture). You either agree with N.T. Wright, that all of Scripture is culturally conditioned to one degree or another, or you don’t. If it is, then we must read the spirit (and Spirit) of the text that is beyond even the author’s culture, that is behind and before all culture.

    Surely Ben sees that for Mack, the shack is the Damascus Road. Of course God actively intervenes sometimes, but more often than not he lets people die and kill. If the truck is with ultimate reconciliation, well, I’m sorry, but it’s not beyond the scope of possiblity, and it’s even suggested by a few passages of Scripture. Most people can’t handle the implications of true freedom, responsibility, and the insecurity that comes with them. So it apparently is here. Not surprisingly, many couldn’t handle Bonheoffer’s “religionless Christianity” either.

    In light of my current understanding of “proper” parenting (or at least parenting of older children), this statement – “God is always intruding into our affairs, like a good parent should when his children are as wayward as we are” – seems especially suspect. We should always be available, and perhaps even a little forward, in our guidance of our children. But this approach seems to me likely to create resentment, and unlikely to be inspired by the model of God as parent. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but BW does seem to imply that God sometimes creates the tragedy. I must admit this is something I’m unsure about, and continue to struggle with. To my mind, though, the biggest flaw in the Shack’s theology is the severe diminishment of tradition (and all its attendant mystery), which of course can be a significant source of Grace in the believer’s life (even though it can be reduced to life-killing rules as well).

    Overall though, I’m not sure to whom this sort of thing – “The God of the Bible is an intervener and a Lord over all. And while we are at it—the Jesus of the Bible is not Mr. Rogers— he said he was coming back to judge the quick and the dead, as the Book of Revelation makes so very evident” – speaks, or for whom it would inspire a desire for God’s presence. Not me. Is it even possible for God to be “too loving”? The whole thing smacks of, to quote the co-author, “doctrinal policing”.

  2. Ben said in his review, “Spontaneity is not particularly more God-like than something that was planned before the foundations of the world and executed over a long period of time. And why we should think an organism like the church needs to normally be completely spontaneous in order to be ‘alive’ is a mystery. Perhaps it is an over-reaction to spending too much time in moribund or unwell churches.”

    I like that and agree with it. I also liked the book well enough, but don’t think that it will become a “Christian classic.” I have watched a couple interviews online done with the author and have read some of his other writings online and I do see him as a dedicated, committed follower of Jesus. He’s the “real deal” as they say.

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