William Paul Young self-published his novel The Shack in 2007, and little more than a year later it was a best seller. I did not read the book. A friend whose judgement I respect read part of it and she said that as a piece of literature it was poorly written–but many other of my churchy friends read it and found it praiseworthy. Some absolutely raved about the book.
In 2008- 09, The Shack was a bit of a sensation in Christian circles. Because of its unconventional portrayal of the Trinity and its somewhat New Age spirituality it was roundly criticized by conservative theologians as heretical. One of the major charges was that it preached the doctrine of Universalism — that is that in the end all will be saved and spend eternity in heaven with God. And this because God’s love and mercy trumps righteous judgment.
At the height of the novel’s popularity, Young spoke at the megachurch I attend: Northland – A Church Distributed. He didn’t just give a speech, he presented for several hours — long enough to have a lunch break. I found him to be a compelling speaker — very charming and exceptionally articulate. His presentation was more or less an extended testimony. He spoke about his early years growing up as a missionary’s kid. He also told about how he came to write The Shack. As I recall it was written as a fable, a Christmas gift, explaining his spirituality to his children. Others in his circle read it and urged him to publish it.
In spite of his ability as a speaker I still did not bother to read the book. I’d heard enough about it that I pretty much knew the plot: a man’s young daughter is abducted and murdered at a shack in the wilderness. Predictably, he is eaten up by anger and bitterness. He is mad at God, guilt ridden himself and unforgiving toward the perpetrator–and then he has a lengthy encounter with the Trinity at the scene of the crime.
Several years passed and The Shack craze abated. Christian readers went on to the newest Ben and Jerry’s flavor of books on spirituality and self-help. I pretty much forgot about the book. Then, a couple months ago I was watching a trailer for a movie that looked both interesting and visually compelling. At the end of the trailer I thought, oh my word, it’s The Shack. In fact, the trailer was so good I never would have guessed that it was a Christian film.
I saw it last night. I was more than a bit skeptical based on things I’d heard and read about the book. I had looked at some of the reviews and per usual the secular critics lambasted it, and I had also read some caveats posted on Facebook by various conservative Christians. They all said words to the effect that the God portrayed in the movie is not the God of scripture. No kidding! God in the movie is a heavy-set, rather maternal black woman. The Holy Spirit is a young oriental woman and Jesus is played by a 30-ish Middle Eastern male. Imagine that!
It’s not a perfect piece of art but overall I thought it was fairly well done. The cinematography, music and acting were all much better than most Christian films. Most Christian films reek of low budget, mediocre production values and tend to be rather saccharine and preachy. Whereas some of the secular critics saw it as preachy, I did not. It held my interest and I found the basic story to be quite moving. It’s about inconsolable pain, anger, guilt, unforgiveness –and eventual redemption and restoration.
Sam Worthington, the guy who plays Mack, the story’s protagonist, does a creditable job. Early in life Mack’s scarred by a drunken, abusive father, but by middle age he’s overcome that and has a comfortable life. He has a loving wife and three kids–and then the unthinkable happens. Octavia Spencer as God (referred to as Papa in the film) is wonderful. But probably for some folks she’s far too warm and loving. If the God of your understanding is distant, imperious and judgmental then Ms. Spencer’s portrayal just won’t do.
I don’t hear well and so I didn’t catch every bit of dialogue. At several points the audience laughed and I wasn’t sure to what they were responding. Consequently, I can’t say with absolute certainty that there was no Universalist message in the film or some other seriously heretical doctrines. I suspect a critical reading of the book would turn up some errant doctrine that was absent in the movie. But I saw nor heard anything offensive to me and I think those who are critical of its theology are missing the point. It’s a work of art; it’s a fable; it’s an allegory; it’s an extended metaphor. It is all those things much more than it’s meant to be Christian doctrine. It also may be that rare exception, a movie that’s better than the book.
Toward the end of the film there’s a scene that resonated with my perhaps somewhat skewed theology. God reappears as a Native American shaman and not as a black female. Mack is a bit taken aback and says, “God, are you messing with me?” And the shaman answers, “Always!” The rather conservative Calvinist theologian R.C. Sproul once said something to the effect: “If you think you understand God, then either you are or He isn’t.” That has the ring of truth for me. And I also tend to believe that in some sense God does mess with us. In any event, just when you think you’ve got Him boxed up in your little comfort zone, in your very own hip pocket, then He isn’t. He is inscrutable and He can’t be contained in some neat little package. That’s why there’s Jesus. Our Savior put a human face on the Ruler and Creator of the Universe. My personal theology is pretty much summed up by John’s “God is Love” statement from his first epistle –that and the great commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, Matt 22:37-40). That’s pretty straightforward–but doctrine much beyond that leaves an awful lot to argue about.
People will see in the film what they are inclined to see. Referencing a quote from Blaise Pascal, Brennan Manning said, “God created man in his image, and man returned the favor.” I think most believers should see this movie and decide for themselves. Some will see it as uplifting and their faith will be strengthened. Others will see it as some End Times great delusion meant to lead the faithful astray. Anyway, as for me, maybe it’s just the mood I’ve been in of late, but it warmed my cynical heart considerably.