Randal Rauser is associate professor of historical theology at Taylor Seminary, Edmonton, Canada. Author of several books and articles on theology, he is releasing a book to help readers dig into the theology behind the images and writing of The Shack. Though many have charged author Paul Young with heresy, Rauser believes that Young’s writing challenges anyone in church leadership to communicate theology in ways that are more understandable and less scholarly.
How did you first encounter with "The Shack?" Did someone give it to you to read?
Randal: I first heard about the book last April. I had a pastor contact me saying it was going like wildfire through his congregation. So a few months later in the summer, I picked up my copy and read through it. I was certainly aware of some of the content prior to coming to the book. I wasn’t swept away emotionally like some people, but I was really impressed by it.
Coming from the pen of someone who I guess is broadly evangelical, it struck me that he went places that you typically think an evangelical wouldn’t go.there’s a really refreshing honesty about it. I can see why people are intrigued by it, because there’s so much in there.
I was really impressed by the layers of theology in the book. From what I’ve seen, Paul Young is a little self-deprecating about his own theological understanding, as is Mack in the book. Mack went to seminary but didn’t get much out of it. There’s a lot of seminary-level theology in there, but it’s packaged in a way that most seminary professors could only dream of being able to communicate. I thought it was a very impressive book.
Whether it’s been the theology professor or the pastor, it’s always been the failure of leadership to communicate effectively a lot of these profound theological truths and how people can make the connections with their daily lives. So often a sermon will end up being simply therapeutic on the one hand without a lot of theological content. Or it may simply in some circles be a tight theological treatise, but be impenetrable to the average person on the pew. Either way it fails.
So in a way, I think this book has been sort of a reprimand to many theologians and pastors. He’s showing them they can be communicating powerfully, and he’s reminding us of the power of story. Evangelicals have often been suspicious of story.
The book is filled with references not only to "The Shack," but to scripture as well. It’s very in-depth. How long did it take to research and write?
Randal: I was under a little bit of a time constraint. I read The Shack in the beginning of July, and I committed to doing a couple of seminars at churches in the fall on this topic. After the first seminar in September, it was such a good positive experience. People came dazzled by The Shack, and what I helped them do was read it more critically and get so much more out of it. They came somewhat skeptical to it, but went away with a positive experience.
That prompted me to think a book on the topic would be really helpful. So at the end of September, I proposed a book to Paternoster, the publisher, and they wanted it in a month. So basically, I wrote the book mid-semester in a month. It’s sort of like pouring water into a glass that’s already filled with rocks. Every last crack of my month was filled with writing the book.
How did reading "The Shack" change you as a communicator, teacher, and theologian?
Randal: It has provided a great point for me to engage with people and has given me that much more material to bring people to issues like the doctrine of the Trinity and the problem of evil. It has left some of these issues at the center of my mind, and reinforced the whole problem of evil.
My own daughter went missing for an hour a few years ago, and in the intervening couple of years, that fact had sort of receded into the back of my consciousness. This book brought back to me the raw emotion I experienced in that hour, thinking my daughter had been abducted and murdered. Then for me to contemplate that hour stretching into weeks and months, what would that do to my faith?
In that sense, the book wasn’t so much a smack in the face, but it planted seeds that have been slowly germinating in my own life as I’ve continued to wrestle with what that kind of experience of evil would do to me.
What do you hope to see happen in people’s lives as you help them dig deeper into the theology in "The Shack?"
Randal: I think many people have first of all been liberated in many ways in their thinking about God. One of the criticisms about the book is that God has been created in our image, that He’s sort of some jokey pal that we can hang out with and there’s no sense of the awe and majesty and transcendence and wrath of God. I think there’s something to that, but I also think we shouldn’t be too hard on anyone. Nobody’s going to be completely successful at capturing every attribute of God in a discussion of God.
What the book has done is liberated people so they don’t have to be tied to any one image. It does challenge all of our images of God and says that none of them are completely accurate. The fact that Mack comes to the shack and realizes that all of his images of God are very white and very male.
We all have fallen into this trap of bringing God down to our level and putting him into this little box. Once you do that, you emasculate God and limit Him. You say, “These are the boundaries you can work in.” When the book deconstructs that at the level of thinking of God as only a white male, it implicitly does that in all other areas too. To think that God is simply there to actualize us in our day to day lives and not challenge us is challenged in the book as well.
I think that any idol can fall victim to that, and I think that many people have been liberated from their idols. They are starting to think, “God is so much more than I thought He was.”
I also think that personally, as an Armenian, I struggle with the Calvinistic theology that sees God ultimately as electing some for salvation and others for damnation. I certainly understand where Calvinists are coming from. One of the things I try to do is put things in personal terms and ask myself questions like, “Is it possible that the God I see as the very embodiment of love in the highest degree could have elected my daughter for damnation for His greater glory, to manifest His justice eternally?”
I just can’t do it. I can’t go there. I know some Calvinists would say I created God in my own image, that I’ve reduced Him to my level, but that’s just not what love is to me. I think, like Mack, that the God of the shack, who is especially fond of everyone, is the God that is revealed in scriptures.
The phrase “God is especially fond of you,” illustrates God’s love as so intimate and personal. It seems like theology has been the drier side of faith. What’s your encouragement to people who have read The Shack and will read your book going forward? What tools do we use to do that?
Randal: Calvinists may respond that this is just a warm fuzzy feel-good theology and that’s all it is. But I think that at the heart of it, it’s a profound and deeply disturbing claim that God is especially fond of everyone.
If God is especially fond of Missie and Mack, God is especially fond of The Little Ladykiller. And that’s a very disturbing claim. And God expects us to be very fond of The Little Ladykiller eventually, to be brought into that place. That’s where the book leaves us, with Mack being challenged to extend forgiveness to the person who took his daughter away.
When I was growing up, I lived near the Pacific Northwest, and we got the Seattle TV stations. I remember hearing every day about this person called The Green River Killer. He was a serial killer who had killed more than 70 women in the Pacific Northwest.
Gary Ridgeway was caught in 2003, and they had a sentence hearing for him. At the hearing, they had victim impact statements that I saw. There were people whose daughters, sisters, and so on, had been brutally assaulted, raped and killed by this guy. Some of them said, “You’re going to burn in hell for eternity,” and other things, and he sat there with his head bowed.
But one guy got up there and said, “God told me to forgive. He didn’t say who to forgive, He just said forgive.” And suddenly, this person Gary Ridgeway, who’s supposed to be a sociopath, had big tears rolling down his cheeks. I thought at that moment that forgiveness is the most powerful force in the universe. And that’s the heart of what it is to be especially fond of everyone. That’s very challenging.
I think that’s where the book leaves us as well. And we have to start with forgiving God, just like Mack had to do. He had to be brought to the point of forgiving God, and then go and receive forgiveness, then go and extend it. It leaves us in a very challenging place.
Are there other misunderstood doctrinal issues that could be helped by someone writing a book similar to "The Shack?"
Randal: I think one would be ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. Personally, I think that’s a weak point in The Shack. There’s no doubt that relationship is the heart of the church, but it’s almost like that’s all there is in The Shack. There’s no discussion of any further dimension to the church. I think the danger there, often in some evangelical traditions this has been the case, where we think the church is this sort of voluntaristic association. It’s simply a group of people who happen to be Jesus followers.
There’s something more than that when we talk about the church as the temple of the Holy Spirit or the Body or the Bride. These are very holistic images, and if they could be explored in a way that people could grasp how the church fundamentally challenges Western individualism, it would be great. We also need to see how the church should be challenging consumerism and all sorts of other forces in our society, I think that would be a great place to explore and take to the next level.
Ironically, I think that would only strengthen his emphasis on relationship in the book and explore more holistically how some of the traditional ways church has been done, including the role of bishops, how that can be part of relationship. Even the institution can be part of the church as an organic unity of relationship.
I would also say that the issues Paul Young explores here could be the topics of innumerable books written to explore them. This is the depth of an ocean.
Have you considered writing a novel yourself?
Randal: Back in grades 1 and 2, if you had asked me, I would have told you that when I grew up, I wanted to be an author. For me, author meant writing stories. Now I am an author. It’s not the primary way I make a living, but I do get to write books.
I think my strengths are not so much in writing story, but it is crucial to bring in story. Too often in the type of writing I would be doing, there’s not enough story in it. I think the more images you can give people to make it real and vivid, that’s powerful. I don’t have the kind of skill Paul Young does to write a full novel, but I’m happy to take the kind of images he draws and weave them into prose work.