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Seminary prof defends The Shack Robin Russell, Mar 6, 2009
Finding God in the Shack Roger E. Olson IVP Books (February 2009) Paperback, 160 pgs.
By Robin Russell Managing Editor
In the first of what will likely spur many copycat responses to William Paul Young’s best-selling 2007 novel The Shack, this book by a Baylor University seminary professor gives mostly a thumbs-up while raising some theological concerns.
Written by theology professor Roger Olson at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, the book attempts to defuse concerns over The Shack’s unorthodox depictions of God and the Trinity. Dr. Olson correctly points out that much of Mr. Young’s novel is actually quite biblical, even though the fictional account uses no traditional church language or theological doctrines.
He recounts his own “great sadness” through grief and loss, and says Mr. Young’s novel rings true about God’s character as unchanging, even when life seems arbitrary. The Shack’s explanation of evil being due to God’s restraint amid human free will is spot-on, he says.
He also says the novel is theologically sound on its message about sin and salvation.
The Shack will most challenge those who find their identity in the Christian religion, he says, rather than as followers of Jesus, who appeals even to those outside Christianity. The novel even implies, he says, that religious institutions can hinder one’s journey as a follower of Christ.
Dr. Olson doesn’t hesitate, however, to point out where he disagrees with the novel’s details, including whether God forgives everyone unconditionally, whether God is ever disappointed with us, and the importance of church as community.
“I question some things Young puts in God’s mouth, believing that they might lead to heresy if taken to an extreme,” he writes. “I don’t think these completely undermine the book, but they need a question mark placed over them.”
Dr. Olson also points out that the novel’s account of salvation centers on “heartwarming” restoration of relationships, but leaves out the biblical notion of regeneration, or being created anew by the Spirit of God.
And Mr. Young seems to neglect “prevenient grace” by implying that humans can respond rightly to God’s invitation “without any special help from God.”
But while Dr. Olson says some Christians “think it’s their duty to ferret out error in virtually everything,” he urges people of faith to instead affirm the novel as uplifting and helpful for theological discussions. A helpful study guide is included in the appendix.
Besides, he adds, a lot of the complaints over the novel are because of certain denominational, rather than biblical, standards.
“Without pretending it is flawless, fans of the book can defend its basic truthfulness and even its power to correctly change people’s thinking about God,” Dr. Olson writes.