Not many people have read books on the Trinity or theodicy (that is, the attempt to justify God in view of the apparent problem of evil), but millions have read William Young’s The Shack. Many readers can’t stop raving about the book, while others accuse the author of heresy. What is needed, perhaps, is a theologian’s assessment of the novel.
I was introduced to Randal Rauser’s Finding God in The Shack by my late mother. The book appears to begin well, with the theologian setting out the challenge, ‘Few pastors know how to preach the Trinity, fewer church goers know how to pray the Trinity, and almost no one knows what it would mean to live the Trinity.’ The first chapter goes on to explain how ‘God stoops down to our level and interacts with us as if he were a human being, and he does it so we can come into relationship with him.’ He also offers a helpful response to critics of The Shack who insist either that it draws insufficient distinction or else too much distinction between the Father (Papa), Son (Jesus), and Spirit (Sarayu). Rauser rejects all charges of modalism and tritheism, arguing that The Shack is explicitly Trinitarian. He writes that Papa’s claim, ‘I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one’ parallels a thirteenth-century definition of the Trinity as ‘one supreme reality … incomprehensible and ineffable, which is truly Farther, Son and Holy Spirit; at once the three persons taken together and each of them singly.’ He is probably not being unduly harsh when he suggests that many of the book’s critics ‘would do well if they could articulate this mystery as well as the book they criticize!’
That said, I often felt the author treated The Shack as though it were written with the same level of authority as the divinely-inspired Scriptures, for instance looking to The Shack rather than the Bible to ‘provide us with some insight into’ the question of pluralism, while elsewhere concluding a list of biblical examples with one from The Shack, ‘You see this when Philip, upon asking Jesus to see the Father, is informed that he is seeing the Father in Jesus (John 14:9). You see it when the early Christians are warned that lying to the Holy Spirit is lying to God (Acts 5:4). And you see it when Mack has a conversation with Papa about limitation and then later Sarayu refers back to the conversation as if she had been speaking with him (106)!’ I also detected more than a touch of postmodern relativism in some of his assessments, as in the unsatisfying chapter considering hierarchy and submission: ‘it may be that the appropriateness of the book’s depiction of God depends on who reads the book and what prior conception of deity they bring to it.’
More worryingly, for someone who is supposed to be a theologian, he is both careless and inaccurate, most worryingly in his claim that Calvinism teaches that ‘God is not all-loving’. He confesses to finding Calvinism ‘nearly incomprehensible’ but quite clearly has failed to understand it, which rather disqualifies him as a dispassionate theologian and fundamentally undermines his chapter ‘The biggest problem in the universe’. Thus he unquestioningly accepts the premise that 'as all-loving, God would want to prevent every evil' rather than measuring this against the Bible's assertion that 'in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.'
Ironically, Rauser goes on in the succeeding chapter ‘Finding hope in God’s pain’ to quote Calvin in support of his arguments on the atonement as salvation from the wrath of God – a key doctrine in Christian faith that he rightly observes is absent from The Shack. In fact, in explaining the need for propitiation, sacrifice and reconciliation in the gospel, it almost seems to be a different person who writes, ‘God simply leaves rebel human beings to their own sinful wills to be punished by the consequences of their own choices.’
Whether you’re one of The Shack’s fans or critics, Rauser is surely right when he observes, ‘The Shack will not answer all our questions, nor does it aspire to. But we can be thankful this has started a great conversation.’ Popular books, like films – as we were reminded yesterday (see Up to Expectations?) – are works of art that provoke ethical reflection and provide a vital point of contact as we seek to engage with contemporary society. If Young's best-selling novel causes you and your friends to discuss issues such as the Trinity and theodicy, it is surely a welcome addition to our bookshelves. However, quite how much Rauser adds to that discussion is still up for debate.