My wife and I returned refreshed and renewed from our lengthy vacation. We visited family and then cruised the beautiful waters of the Caribbean. The generous folk of the Sycamore View Church of Christ had given us a travel voucher from AAA in appreciation for our ministry with the church in 2007. We finally used it, and it was truly renewing.
My favorite part of cruising, other than sharing time and places with my wife, was reading on the deck of the ship with the Atlantic in front of me, my wife beside me, and shaded sunlight beaming around us while feeling the gentle breeze of God’s creation. That setting could make even a bad book tolerable.
So, what did I read? Here is one…and I will tell you about others in future posts.
Roger Olson, Finding God in the Shack: Seeking Truth in a Story of Evil and Redemption. It is, of course, no substitute for reading The Shack, but it is a sympathetic reflection on the theological themes present in Paul Young’s modern parable. While I have already blogged at length on the novel (the first in my pastoral series is here and the first in my theological review is here), I read this book for several reasons. First, I am speaking on The Shack for three different venues in June and July (a bible class at Woodmont Hills [beginning this Sunday], a Wednesday night series at Harpeth Hills [beginning this Wednesday], and at the Lipscomb Summer Lectures on July 2-3). So, it was a way of reminding myself of some themes and hearing another perspective. Second, I respect Olson’s scholarship in historical theology (especially since he often cited my dissertation on Arminius in his recent book on Arminianism) and consequently I thought I would receive a balanced, thoughtful assessment of The Shack (which I did).
There was much I liked about the book, but I was also somewhat (mildly) disappointed. Olson reviews The Shack positively. He does not think Young’s parable is heretical in relation to the Great Tradition of the church (the ecumenical councils), though he recognizes that many of its points would be heretical within some denominational traditions (e.g., Reformed theology)–and even Olson’s own writings have been regarded as heretical by some on some of the same points that The Shack would be condemend (e.g., human freedom). If Olson is critical of The Shack‘s theology, it is on issues like prevenient grace, regeneration, ambiguous atonement theology and ecclesiology. But his criticisms are rather mild.
My disappointment, however, was with the ahistorical reading of the novel, that is, there was no consideration of Young’s own purpose, background or metaphors for his journey. There was little recognition that the “shack” functions as a metaphor for the woundness of one’s life and the journey of recovery toward healing.
I understand that a novel may stand alone without an author’s background providing the hermeneutical frame for reading it, but this publication gives us hints and clear clues that we should read this novel within the frame of Young’s own life. For example, it was written for his children so that they could understand how his vision of God had changed through his redemption as a fallen minister. The acknowledgements at the end reveal that the “shack” is a metaphor for the soul’s woundness. Indeed, in Young’s own life, the “shack” is his own murdered childhood (Missy).
If we don’t understand that, then we will misread the intent of the parable. While Olson recognizes that the novel is not a “systematic theology,” he does tend to read it through the lens of a discipleship manual or, as he put it, “trusting God, following Jesus and being transformed” (p. 123). But this misses the point, I think. The Shack is about Young’s recovery journey, about his own redemption, through an encounter with God that is telescoped into two-day dream. It is not a discipleship manual, nor an ecclesiology, nor a systematic theology. It is an expanded parable of a Jobian prodigal son who returns to discover the Father’s love. I think Olson misses the metaphor and thus the real impact of the redemptive story Young narrates, especially about Young’s own life.
Another example of this is how one perceives the ending. For some, as it was for Olson, it was “all sweetness and light” (pp. 129ff). Though recognizing the parallel with Job, the “happy ending” is off-putting because it is disconnected from the reality of Young’s own personal recovery. His children recognize their father’s “happy ending”–it is his real story. His vision (the way he thinks about God, relates to God and experiences God) changed his life and God recovered him for ministry through this novel. It is not everyone’s “ending,” but it is Young’s.
Despite this, however, Olson’s book is a light (too much so perhaps for my tastes) review of The Shack‘s theology in the light of biblical and historical concerns as well as existential realities. He reflects on the themes through Scripture but also in the light of historical theology. He recognizes the criticisms of the book–yields to a few of them (very few), but ultimately recommends the book as a way of walking through significant themes that daily challenge believers. I would recommend Olson’s book as a healthy interaction with Young’s novel.