Spoiler: If you haven’t read The Shack by Wm. Paul Young and don’t want to know anything about it that might take away from your initial experience, please be aware this post might not be for you. I discuss elements of the story, but I don’t give it all away.
I recently finished reading The Shack and I found it to be, as a whole, a beautiful story of how God desires to enter into our most painful situations and transform them by His presence. The way Young depicts the interactions within the Trinity caused me to stop and consider more deeply the perfect communion found within God Himself. In fact, as soon as I finished The Shack, I picked up Fr. Michael Gaitley’s book The ‘One Thing’ is Three: How the Most Holy Trinity Explains Everything. After reading about the communion of the Trinity in intimate detail, I was filled with a desire to learn more about our Trinitarian God.
The general story line of The Shack is about a man named Mack who has experienced great suffering and loss. He receives a note from God asking him to come to an old shack to spend the weekend with Him. When Mack does this, he enters into an incredible encounter with the living God and grows in an understanding of each person of the Trinity.
The main aspects of Young’s story I found to be edifying. It was simply some of the side details or conversations that made me wonder if he was critiquing Christianity as a whole or specifically Catholicism. Or, at least, his perception of what the Catholic Church teaches or is. There are a handful of elements that struck me as a direct rebuke of Catholicism. The two I want to focus on are ritual and institution.
There is a beautiful section where God involves Mack in “devotions” after a shared meal. Rather than producing a Bible to read from, Mack is surprised when Jesus reaches across the table, takes the Father’s hands, and speaking honest, loving words of adoration. It reinforces the reality that devotion is entering into a loving relationship with God, not something that is merely rote or filled with words. After another meal, Mack expects the same thing to happen.
“What about devotion?” asked Mack.
“Nothing is a ritual, Mack,” said Papa…
What is so wrong with something being a ritual? There are a couple other places where ritual is portrayed as unsavory and in conflict with God’s desires. I could agree with this if ritual meant that something was insincere or done merely out of habit. However, that is not what a ritual has to be. Sometimes rituals are the best way to enter into something that is far above us. Like the Mass or marriage, we follow a religious ritual because we are connected to something bigger than just ourselves.
The Catholic Church is known for saying the same Mass over and over and over again. My students will sometimes question why they need to go to Mass each week when it is simply the same thing they heard the previous week. But if we understand the sacrifice of the Holy Mass as it actually is–the priest in persona Christi re-presenting the sacrifice of Jesus at the Last Supper and consummated on the cross at Calvary–then we would realize that nothing else would be a fitting memorial.
Yes, it is a ritual. But Jesus also said “Do this in remembrance of me.” Why reinvent the wheel every Sunday when Jesus has given us His very self and asks us to share in this sacrificial meal? More than new praise and worship songs (which I appreciate in a specific context), the Mass prayed throughout the ages unites us to the earliest followers of Jesus Christ. This isn’t a bad type of ritual, but rather a ritual that unites Christians across space and time.
The other aspect that Young critiques in his story (through the words of Jesus) is the presence of institutions.
“Mack, that’s because you’re seeing only the institution, a man-made system. That’s not what I came to build. What I see are people and their lives, a living, breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings and programs.”
And a little later, Jesus (in the story) continues his rebuke of institutions in a very direct way.
“You’re not too fond of religion and institutions?” Mack said, not sure if he was asking a question or making an observation.
“I don’t create institutions–never have, never will.”
Here is where I will disagree with this literary Jesus so as to remain steadfast to the biblical Jesus. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Though I will agree that institutions can be misused and that people can seek power instead of service, that doesn’t change what Jesus did in the Gospels. Christ created an institution (and Christ is a man, so I guess the Church is a “man-made institution”) and He established a hierarchy to allow people to enter into relationship with Him. The main focus isn’t meant to be on the hierarchy or the existence of an institution. Rather, the institution exists so that we may come to know and believe in Jesus Christ and by doing so be saved.
“Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you.”
In an imperfect world, this is certain to happen. Institutions are filled with humans who are sinful and fallen. Yet despite the mess we make, Christ can move through this and use institutions and hierarchies to make His name known. The end goal, lest we forget, is for all people to enter into relationship with the living God. Someone must make Him known to us, revealing to us how God has revealed Himself, if we are to follow Him.
Faith is a personal act–the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself. But faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others….Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 166)
This “great chain of believers” is what allows us to know Christ who lived on earth hundreds of years ago. If an institution or a hierarchy made this possible, why should that cause distaste? I think Young’s problems with hierarchies and institutions is that he knows they can be misused. Yet he doesn’t give them the credit they deserve.
This Bible that he clings to would not be present to him 1900 years after Jesus walked the earth had not an institution compiled the many books, translated and copied them, and held them as sacred enough to protect and preserve over the years, despite persecution and death. This institution held councils to discuss beliefs and establish sound doctrine so that he would have the luxury years later to take and reject what he desires.
So while I understand that institutions should be critiqued and called to be virtuous, I cannot agree that Jesus is dismayed that the Church He established has a structure and a tangible presence in the world.
Believe it or not, overall I appreciated the way The Shack made me re-consider the loving communion found within the Trinity. And it motivated me to read more about the Trinity and a growth of such desire seems only to be good.
Have any of you read The Shack? What did you think? I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I am curious if the parts I appreciated the most will be present or portrayed the way I expected.
One thought on “The Shack: A Catholic Critique”
I just finished reading The Shack. And, although I recognize the limitations of a view that doesn’t include the depth of Catholicism, I thought this was one of the most beautiful novels I’ve read. I will re-read it to better absorb some of the many nuggets of simple faith in it. The Trinity is expressed in unexpected ways that lead Mack to God, and I am enriched in my Catholicism by having read it. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to comment here.