Wineskins Archive

January 8, 2014

Book Review: Finding God in the Shack (Jul – Aug 2009)

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by Alan Cochrum
July – August, 2009

Finding God in The Shack
By Roger E. Olson
IVP Books, $15

“The shack itself looked dead and empty .…

“The memories and horror of the last time he stood at this door came flooding back and he hesitated before pushing it open. ‘Hello?’ he called, not too loudly. Clearing his throat he called again, this time louder. ‘Hello? Anybody here?’ ”

Of course, that’s THE question when it comes to William P. Young’s bestselling novel, The Shack. Whom does grief-filled Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips meet at the Oregon site where he once found evidence of his young daughter’s murder?

According to the story, none other than the Creator of the Universe – in the form of a trio consisting of a stocky African-American woman who calls herself Papa, a Middle Eastern man named Jesus and an Asian woman styled Sarayu.

And that’s just the beginning – from there, Young’s narrative delves into the nature of God, divine sovereignty vs. free will, salvation, forgiveness, the environment and the viability of non-Christian religions. Nothing controversial, you understand.

Enter Roger E. Olson. “I believe The Shack is more than a religious novel; it is a true story,” he writes in Finding God in ‘The Shack.’ “It’s not true in the sense that I believe the events described actually happened but in that the story basically fits human experience and what the Bible says.”

Olson examines the flashpoint questions that Young’s tale raises. Is God really “in control”? How do the Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate? Does God forgive everybody, and if so, does everybody (including child abusers) go to heaven? How does God view our religious beliefs and institutions?

Not surprisingly, Olson sees both good and bad in the novel. “The Shack communicates great truths about God that are both biblical and resonate with experience,” he writes. “I question some things Young puts in God’s mouth, believing that they might lead to heresy if taken to an extreme . . . I don’t think these completely undermine the book, but they need a question mark placed over them.”

With its high view of human freedom and its broad view of divine forgiveness, The Shack is guaranteed to make true-blue Calvinists’ hair stand on end, and Olson tackles both issues. “I’ve heard preachers say that whenever something bad happens to us we should thank God because it is part of his great plan to bring about a greater good for his own glory,” he writes. “That sends shivers down my spine.”

Young’s book blames evil squarely on humanity’s abuse of free will. “It’s a world of sin and evil,” Olson states. “But did God plan it this way? Did God cause it to be this way? Most emphatically no. Evil, the God of The Shack tells Mack, is here because of ‘the will to power and independence’ in human beings.” Olson argues for this formulation: “God is in charge but not in control.”

Divine mercy? Olson writes that according to the novel, “God is so good that he has already forgiven all humans for everything they have done or will do.” (Young does qualify that view by differentiating between forgiving people and being in relationship with them.) Olson salutes Young’s portrayal of God as the loving Father of the Prodigal but sees the novel as too dismissive of divine disappointment, wrath and punishment: “The Shack is absolutely right in what it affirms about God, but absolutely wrong in what it denies about him.”

As for the novel’s casting of the Godhead as a black woman, a Jewish man (not so strange) and an Asian woman, Olson says that The Shack is not a book of systematic theology but rather a God-oriented story – one like Jesus’ parables depicting God as a landlord, a shepherd or a woman with a lost coin. “Are these pictures of God heretical? Only if we take them too literally.”

Not surprisingly, Olson argues that “the most profound and troubling [passage] in the entire book” involves this declaration from Jesus: “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions.”

Olson sees this passage as informed by the novel’s “distinct aversion to institutions and systems, which more often hinder rather than help authentic Christian faith.” In the context of the whole book, he argues, the message is not that “all roads lead to God” but that “many people who are not organizationally Christians are Jesus followers because they love him and do his works.” The dissection is informative but probably will not satisfy readers who think that Young’s hand should have been called more strongly.

Although it tackles deep and complex topics, Finding God in ‘The Shack’ is written in a simple and easy-to-read style. Olson raises pertinent points for both foes and fans of the novel.New Wineskins

Alan Cochrum

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