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FINDING GOD IN THE SHACK
Roger Olson’s Book Review of The Shack
The Shack, by William P. Young, has been a bestseller. It has also been a lightning rod for criticism and unfairly so, I believe. I reviewed The Shack in 2008. But what I didn’t know was that there is much more to this book than meets the eye. Much of it’s message has been misinterpreted. No few reviewers have called it heretical. Thankfully, I was not quite as hard on this book as other reviewers have been. But, after reading the paperback review by Roger Olson, in his Finding God in the Shack, it is time for me to, of a sort, eat crow, with a side dish of humble pie. Here’s why I think I greatly misjudged The Shack.
When The Shack came out in paperback in 2007, it received critical acclaims and critical reviews. Some even called the book heretical and un-biblical. They, and I, to an extent, could not have been more wrong. The Shack was not intended as a theological study of the triune nature of God. Much of this unfair criticism was because it was too abstract. The personages of the story are intended to resemble, but not be exactly like, the Holy Trinity: God The Father, God The Son, and God The Holy Spirit. All God and All co-equally God.
For centuries Jesus’ Divinity has been questioned. The Bible says (John 1) that He Is God, The Word. Some might asked how can Jesus have been fully human and fully God at His coming to earth in a manger? How could Jesus have been fully 100% human and still 100% God. That’s 200%, right!? But if we use an analogy, we can clear this up. I was born in America, in Wichita, Kansas. If someone asks me, if I’m a Kansan, I would say yes…100%. But I am also 100% American. That doesn’t add up to 200%. I am both an American and a Kansan.
The Shack, I believe, is the author’s attempt to clarify the relationship between humans and the triune God. It describes the relationship between mankind and the Trinity, cohabitating inside of the believer. I believe in my first review of The Shack, I was unduly influenced by the criticism of others. I believe it is my responsibility to correct and concede that my own view of this book in an earlier review left out some critical issues. Basically, I am saying that I could not have been more wrong about it. But I had a huge number of others who I had company with. This concession is credited to Roger Olson in his book Finding God in the Shack.
My first mistake was giving to much weight and credence of other’s who have been critical of The Shack. I did not see what is obvious to me now, that the author was describing the intimate involvement of God, in each of the three separate personages of God. The characters in The Shack have particular characteristics that are representative of The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit.
In The Shack, Mack grieves the loss of his precious daughter, Missy, during a mishap on a lake. Mack partly blames himself for the rape and murder of his youngest daughter by his inattentiveness during the lake accident. The Shack, addresses specific issues over the grieving process that humans endure when they face tragedies, and particularly when losing a child. Mack is angry that God has allowed this to happen and He wonders why does God allow such suffering in the world?
What is now apparent, was not earlier so, until I read a book that reviewed The Shack. Roger Olson’s, Finding God in the Shack, does a marvelous job of reading between the lines. An exegesis of extraordinary proportions. It should have been obvious to me that each character represented each member of the God family. The Shack was intended, I believe, to be a story; an analogy much like Jesus used in His parables while teaching His disciples difficult issues (Olson, P. 13).
In The Shack, the author obviously is trying to show how very difficult a loss of such magnitude is to endure. What Mack calls the Great Sadness. To lose, perhaps his most prized earthly treasure, the youngest of his three, was more than he could bear. And anger was the result. A lost sense of trust in God.
Roger Olson’s, Finding God in the Shack, points out that there are some problematic areas in The Shack. Mr. Olson says that “…we are supposed to believe that God really appeared to Mack as a Trinity of the Three distinct personages of God” (Olson, p.12). However, The Shack’s real point might be that God is worthy of our trust. This change in perspective is life-changing, in that we must endure times of seemingly unbearable grief. Jesus is ever with us and is along side of us, always present, even if we feel Him there or not.
The Shack, is not biblical theology necessarily, but the story flows so well, you aren’t even aware that you are learning about God and His trustworthiness. You get so involved in the story that you are learning of God’s nature, in incidental ways. You learn of God’s compassion and love without even realizing it.
One example of this was Mack’s own forgiveness of his father, who was terribly hard on Mack. A wonderful story of forgiveness, and reconciliation with his abusive father. This acknowledgement of Mack forgiving his biological father is representative of The Father’s forgiveness of our sins, due to the atoning, supreme sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The Father has forgiven Mack and all Christians. It speaks of God’s forgiveness, unconditionally and His acceptance of us. Mack’s forgiveness of his father is reflective of our being forgiven through the propitiation of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.
If you have ever read The Shack, the you might see how this story exudes a strong sense of God’s sovereignty. That “all things work out for the best” (Rom 8:28) and that today’s suffering is “not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us” some day (Rom 8:18). It doesn’t say all things are good, but all things will work toward the good in us.
Even the bad things that happen to us work effectively for us in this life. Even tragedies will work themselves out, but we are at present between the here (and sometimes hell) and the heaven. If our perspective is that God is sovereign, and that Jesus is present with us, and those dearly departed children right now, allows us to endure this present life with trust in God and filled with hope of a joyful reunion with our dearly departed loved ones.
I agree with Roger Olson’s point of view, in his book Finding God in the Shack, the Mr. Young is saying that Jesus is ever present with us and that God, “…can bring good out of…” our present suffering (Olson, P. 16). The healing balm of God’s trustworthiness, the change to an eternal perspective, and today’s grief is placed against the backdrop of heaven.
There is also comfort in knowing that God actually suffering with us. I had never even thought about this before. God suffers with us. The Shack also speaks directly of the evil and suffering in the world, coming as a result of human consequences or humans choosing their own way. God’s non-intervention is His respect for human freewill. As was said in ancient Israel’s period, just prior to the kings, where everyone did what was right in their own eyes.
Mack asks a question in The Shack that humans have been asking since they were created. Why does God allow suffering? Why doesn’t He stop it? Because this would interfere with human’s freewill (Olson, p. 26). God is respectful of mankind making up their own minds. Innocent children and babies die, like Mack’s own little princess. He begins to question God. Since God is sovereign, and knows the future, is this part of the plan of God? Taking a young child’s life? In His sovereignty, does He plan and help to carry out such things?
I actually believe that The Shack is intended to, as Mr. Olson says, “…correct our folk images of God and replace them with more biblical images (Olson, p. 33). God is not a harsh judge, or a grandfatherly “hands-off” God. In Mr. Young’s The Shack, he seems to “…want to change our image of God (Olson, p. 34). God’s character is not unsearchable. Mr. Young gives us a glance at His Divine Nature, His knowable attributes, His traits and His character.
The Shack states the often quoted, “Where were you God when I needed you most?” Why all the tragic events, rape, murders, torture and death? Mr. Young finally sees God’s perfect love as not forcing His will on others (Young, p. 145). Mr. Olson says it is “out of love [that] God limits Himself” (Olson, p. 46).
There are some problematic areas in The Shack. For example, it’s hard to accommodate the author saying that God’ love doesn’t force our own freewill to fit His. And The Shack’s character, Mack, saying that God is submitted to us. I, like Roger Olson, think it should be just the opposite in that we must submit to God and trust the outcome to Him, who knows the ending (Olson, p. 47). Jesus came to serve, yes, but not to become subservient to us. He is Lord of Lord and King of Kings: Our Master, not my Master. But this may have been Mr. Young’s way of saying that God is here for us.
An important part of The Shack is that God has no pleasure in the death of anyone. He says, “turn and live” and choose life (Ezek. 18:32, John 3:16, II Pet. 3:9, I Tim. 2:4). God gives us a clear warning to choose life; no evil. We are asked to pray for God’s will, but Mack asks indirectly, why we need to pray if God has already predestines everything? He concluded that God is in charge, but not responsible for evil.
Mr. Young’s story is almost like Mack putting God on trial for crimes against humanity. But God is unfazed by this. In fact, He points the finger right back to humans who own responsibility for going their own way (Olson, p. 59). God is not responsible for evil in the world, Every human who has ever lived is responsible, including me. Regardless, Mack says that God has a great fondness for uncertainty and so asks how can an all-knowing God, knowing the ending from the beginning, allow evil?
Mr. Young, by appearance, seems to say that Christ died for all humans, Christian or not (Olson, p. 71), even Missy’s rapist and murderer. It sounds like God has already forgiven Missy’s murderer, called Lady Killer, even if the murderer has not asked for forgiveness (Olson, p. 72). That is a hard concept to swallow. God is, in effect, telling Mack that the cross is supposed to mean that all humans are forgiven, regardless of what sins they committed or whether they are repentant or not. I say it seems that way. But is Mack really saying this? I don’t believe so.
Mr. Young might be really saying through Mack that “…implies that God doesn’t consign anyone to hell” (Olson, p. 77). The author would have God still pursuing people in hell and hoping they’ll relent or that God never abandons the sinner, even in hell (Olson, p. 78).
If we look between the lines, The Shack seems to be about evil and redemption. That in our fallen state we “…need God’s power to change us” (Olson, p. 79). Absolutely right on the mark, theologically. Evil is described as the absence of evil and darkness is the absence of light (Olson, p. 82). Humans are fully dependent upon God, but the further and further that we depart from God, the more evil and darkness grow. “Sin is humanities declaration of independence from God” (Olson, p. 82). It is actually called self-idolatry to declare what is right and what is wrong for ourselves. We then become judge and jury over God, just like Satan tried to usurp God’s authority and was caste out of heaven.
What I noticed is that The Shack emphasizes voluntary free will responses by humans, rather that God’s work produced in us (Olson, p. 87). Paul says that it is by God’s spirit and power that we can have good works, so we can’t really brag about it (Eph. 2:8-9). But Mr. Young makes is sound like it’s voluntary and human-caused, which conflicts with God’s drawing us to Christ first. God is loving us first, even while we were sinners and drawing them to Jesus by His spirit (John 6:44).
Part of trusting God is leaving vengeance to Him (Olson, p. 96). The Shack’s author implies that God simply forgives people, regardless of the condition of their hearts (Olson, p. 96). This theology is not biblical. But Mr. Young isn’t writing a book on doctrine. He is writing a book on human suffering experience. It’s okay to stay angry at a person and be angry or questioning God, even if you’ve forgiven the offending party (Young, p. 227). Is God angry with us? Not if we have come to Jesus as our Savior and Lord. He is angry with the unrepentant thought but this angry is really righteous indignation.
In The Shack, Mack almost sounds like church is not important. It’s only important to follow Jesus (Olson, p. 120). However, the Apostle Paul wasn’t building a long list of Jesus followers, he was planting churches. His letters were to churches, not individuals. Even the book of Revelation, a Revelation of Jesus Christ, not John, refers to a message to the seven churches, not the list of Jesus followers.
I think the greatest concern for Mr. Olson, in his review of the Shack, was that of church is not necessary for salvation. True enough, but churches are what Paul planted, and Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against it; not against Jesus followers.
The conclusion is that I would highly recommend The Shack and the book review in paperback of Finding God in the Shack by Roger Olson. He, like I do, think this is just a story of evil and repentance and why God allows suffering and that He can ultimately be trusted. Mr. Olson says that The Shack is “…inspiring but not inspired” (Olson, p. 142). It is not intended to be a theological study, but an analogy for why there is pain and suffering in the world. It is not “blatantly heretical” (Olson, p. 144). It is not designed to be systematic theology by a systematic analogy (Olson, p. 147).
I greatly misjudged The Shack. I was wrong. I would greatly recommend this book to any Christian or non-Christian. Even the paperback, Finding God in the Shack, which is a review of The Shack.
If you’ve read The Shack, then you must read Finding God in the Shack. I believe it is both of these authors desire that you do seek, and do finally find God…anywhere you might be. The Shack was not written to be taken literally on every point of theology, but to show how God deals with humans in a fallen world, by analogy (Olson, p. 147). How He redeems humanity. And how this redemption has been provided by Jesus’ supreme and ultimate sacrifice for all of mankind. Not that all of mankind will seek and acquire redemption, but that God desires to have an eternal relationship with all humans. Now, if they will only accept it.
Olson, Roger E. Finding God In The Shack. Copyright, 2009. Intervasity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
Young, William P. The Shack. Copyright 2007. Windblown Media, Newbury Park, CA.
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