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Finding God in The Shack by Randal Rauser

August 15, 2015

GGITSMany Christians confuse ‘conservative’ with ‘orthodox’ theology. They’re not the same. Orthodoxy is a big, generous room whereas conservatism is stifling and narrow. That is why The Shack caused such a commotion among the less-well-read and less intelligent evangelicals. (I note that one reviewer didn’t even reads the book but still felt able to pontificate about its shortcomings.)

This book sets out to put the record straight by explaining the theology behind the Shack and it has some useful discussion questions, entitled ‘digging deeper’, at the end of each chapter.

And anyone who quotes Harold S. Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People and Elie Wiesel’s Night has my approval.


“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. “After all, it is through wrestling with new ideas that one learns to deal with the nuance and complexity that characterize an intellectually mature faith. The Shack will not answer all our questions, nor does it aspire to. But we can be thankful that it has started a great conversation.”

“theology can enrich our understanding and experience of God. And that includes the experience that many have cherished reading The Shack. The fact is that beneath the surface of this compelling story is an inner structure of equally compelling and beautiful theological themes.”

“if we become too committed to one or another image of God, it can become an idol for ourselves and a stumbling block for others. As for The Shack, 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.”

As Sallie McFague has put it: “The theologian must take his or her models with utmost seriousness, exploiting them for all their interpretive potential and yet, at the same time, realize they are little more than the babble of infants.”‘

“ I would like to focus on the use of the word silly for a particular people’s point of views. Everybody has what is called a plausibility structure; we all have sets of background beliefs through which we process and assess evidence. When you call something silly, you are merely saying, ‘Relative to my plausibility structure that isn’t within that structure.’ That’s merely a comment on your own psychology, there’s nothing more to it so I don’t find that very helpful,”

So even though Papa, Jesus and Sarayu already know every detail about Mack’s family, they have decided not to draw on that knowledge. In this way they are able to deepen their relationship with Mack through conversation.

Any parent will be able to appreciate what Papa, Jesus and Sarayu do for Mack. Everyday when a father picks up his five-year-old from kindergarten, the first thing she wants to do is teach him all the things she learned that day. “Daddy, guess what?!” she earnestly begins from the back seat. “Did you know that bears sleep all winter? It’s called hi-ber-nay-shun!” And on it goes for the entire drive home. Of course Daddy already knows that bears hibernate, and he knows most everything else she tells him too. But even so, he never brings his knowledge into the conversation, and for obvious reasons. Although she views the conversation as a way to educate her father, he views it as a chance to be close to the child he loves.

Christians may continue to debate the use of icons. But the figurative accommodating descriptions of God that we find in Scripture could well be described as literary icons—icons that we read. Scripture certainly paints some vivid word-pictures of God. (Think again of the God-as-a-dragon image of Psalm 18!) Just as the user of painted icons must never confuse them with the reality they represent, so we should not confuse the literary icons of Scripture with literal descriptions. Instead, we should always keep in mind their function as accommodations to our limited intellects. As John Calvin put it (with a touch of impatience): “For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us?”‘ That is, just as a nurse or mother accommodates the limitations of an infant with baby talk, so God accommodates to our limitations by describing himself within the range of human experience, often by speaking as if he were a human.

Since orthodox Christians are unwilling to accept that con­clusion, they have typically dealt with these difficult inferiority texts by limiting their application to Christ’s humble state in The incarnation in which he emptied himself of his divine status (Philippians 2:7). That is, Jesus is not lesser than the Father except in the limitations of the incarnation. And while he is omniscient in his divinity, as a human he did not know the day or hour of his return. But if we can marginalize these inferiority texts this easily, why not extend the same treatment to the Christ and Spirit submission texts? Hence, we could say that the Son and Spirit assumed a submission to the Father only in the world while it could just as well have been the Father who adopted the submissive role. The Shack seems to say something more radical yet. While it is true that the Son and Spirit submitted to the Father, in doing so they were not merely stepping down from the glory of divinity for a time, but rather were expressing the very nature of God. True leadership is found in the one who submits: “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?” (Luke 22:27). As such, in coming into the world to serve humanity, the Son and Spirit were expressing the glory of God no less than the Father.

When God re­deems the world, predation will cease and be replaced by peace among animals and persons alike (Isaiah 11:6-9, 65:25). It is unfortunate that The Shack didn’t explore this theme in its vision of a renewed and restored creation.

That relatively minor quibble aside, The Shack draws us beyond our own suffering and sin to contemplate the place of our salvation within a universe that God desires to save as well. God promises not only to answer the groans and wipe the tears of his beloved human beings, but of his beloved pale blue dot as well (Colossians 1:19-20).

See also

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