Essay / Theology

Making the Most of The Shack

Shack slice How should a theologian respond to a popular book that includes unsound teaching? The popular book I’m thinking of is The Shack, by William P. Young. After getting dozens of questions about The Shack, I wrote a review of it in early 2009. Actually, I wrote five reviews of it, in five different voices, partly so nobody could accuse me of not understanding that IT’S JUST A STORY! GAH! DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT CHARACTERS ARE? So I wrote reviews as a a naive believer, a worried theologian, a literary snob, a haiku artist, and Dr. Seuss. None are quite me, but you can probably guess which one is closest.

But I also wrote five reviews because the book really put me in a divided mind. Mostly, I do not like that Shack of Mack. It’s wall-to-wall doctrinal confusion in there. Then again, a lot of people have been touched by it, and some of them have been able to warm up to God and become interested in theology as a result of this little work of fiction. (Note that I did not say they would read the Bible or go to church. One of the main problems with the book is that it contains nothing that would draw anyone to church, and only a few hints that would draw them to Scripture.)

So when it comes to the choice between cursing the darkness and lighting a candle in The Shack, I’m an inveterate darkness-curser. The glass is obviously half empty, not half full. If somebody asks me, “Should I read The Shack,” I blurt out, “Of course not! Why would you? Have we no good books to read? Have all the copies of Packer’s Knowing God suddenly vanished from the face of the earth?” Count me in with Tim Challies, whose early and lengthy review warned plenty of people not even to go in there, and with Al Mohler’s recent column anatomizing the book’s errors and pleading for discernment.

But there are other questions, such as “Since I already read The Shack and kind of liked some of it, how should I think about it?” And there are other kinds of theologians out there, who are less prone to curse the darkness and more prone to taking advantage of the fact that people who like The Shack are excited about theological subjects.

One such theologian is Randal Rauser, who sees the popularity of The Shack as a great opportunity for theological education. He has written a book called Finding God in the Shack (not to be confused with a similarly-titled offering form Roger Olson). It’s an easy read at 160 pages of conversational prose (“I sat down to read The Shack after receiving a number of inquiries from pastors and seminary students who had read or heard about this publishing phenomenon,” he begins).

Rauser’s main point, it seems to me, is that in an age when nobody’s talking about theology, a theologian ought to make the most of the fact that there is a mega-bestseller out there with theology at its core. It doesn’t make sense to Rauser to spend the morning attacking The Shack and then spend the afternoon wondering why nobody cares about theology. Fans of The Shack have tended (following the book’s own marketing stance) to protest that it’s not a theology book, it’s a story. One of Rauser’s friends insisted, “It’s a novel, and you can’t get theology out of a novel!” But Rauser insists, rightly, that The Shack is both:

William P. Young recognizes that the best way to engage spiritual disinterest and theological skepticism is not through a lecture, but a story. And so page by page he draws us into conversation on the topics that ought to be at the center of our attention: What happens after we die? Why is there death and evil? What is the meaning of life? Who is God? And as we follow the story, we have become theologians perhaps without even knowing it. (p. 4)

Rauser’s project is all about getting the conversation started, and handing out some theological resources to the people involved in that conversation. In fact, he builds his book around “six conversations inspired by The Shack,” inviting the reader to imagine moving from table to table in a coffee shop with various spirited discussions of the book happening at different tables: on the gender of God, on authority in the Trinity, on suffering, on the death of Christ, and so on.

Since Rauser has decided to make the most of The Shack as an occasion for theological instruction, his attitude throughout Finding God is consistently positive, warm, open, and encouraging. He studiously avoids any censoriousness or scolding, and any idea is welcome in the discussion. His method is to use the novel’s own categories to introduce a topic, and then to engage it with Scripture, doctrinal terms, historical precursors, and logical analysis. Even when he discerns an error, he usually points it out as a problem in general terms, leaving open the question of whether The Shack itself can be said to teach that error. Only on a couple of occasions does Rauser explicitly disagree or say that Young has misguided his readers –and one of those occasions is on the final page, when he wishes that the Trinity were being more consistently vegetarian in their meal hospitality!

The whole point for a book like Finding God in the Shack is to keep the conversation going, and it is written with consistent gratitude that the conversation has been started at all. That’s the kind of theologian Randal Rauser is.

Other kinds of theologians, maybe grumpier kinds, maybe me, are more inclined to say that the mere fact of conversation is not sufficient reason for applause. “Yes, people are talking,” we might say, “but they’re saying unbiblical, unhelpful, and dangerous things.” In particular, I have found that some of Young’s favorite topics are the conceptual equivalent of flypaper: once you’ve engaged them, no amount of wrangling can disentangle you from the mess. For details, see the ten points offered by my “worried theologian” persona in my earlier review. Some theologians who might be interested in helping the conversation reach a sound conclusion are nevertheless not eager to see a conversation get off to such an unpromising start.

As an aside, it’s no surprise that there haven’t been any “How to Make the Most of The Shack” books or articles by Calvinists. The Shack is a theology book, and the doctrines it is most committed to seem specifically designed to shake off Reformed theology. Parts of it seem designed to make Calvinists go nuts. Only a theologian who is reasonably comfortable in a climate of anti-Calvinism could sustain this extended dialogue with The Shack, and Rauser manages to do so. (As with so much anti-Calvinist polemic these days, Young overshoots his Reformed target: John Wesley could school him in the doctrine of providence, for instance. But I digress…)

Early on, Rauser says

I have been especially disheartened by the advice of some influential Christian leaders not to read the book. It is true that The Shack asks some hard questions and occasionally takes positions with which we might well disagree. But surely the answer is not found in shielding people from the conversation, but rather in leading them through it. (p. 17)

I don’t know if this will especially dishearten Rauser, but my own recommendation is that if you haven’t read The Shack, don’t do it. On the other hand, if you’ve already read it (or your friends have), and you want to join the conversation and make the most of it, then pick up Randal Rauser’s Finding God in The Shack. If you have to go in there, take a theologian.

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