by Chris Ritter
My wife and I are Christians and both enjoy movies. We don’t, however, rush out to see every Christian movie that is offered. I have an allergic sensitivity to cinematic cheese. When The Shack was released, we decided to go. We knew many of the folks in our congregation would have questions… and we were curious. Neither of us had read the best-selling book that inspired the film in spite of the vigorous insistence of some friends that we do so. I knew it was about a man living in the wake of a major tragedy who spends a life-changing weekend with the Trinity and arrives at newfound peace.
There is nothing more ambitious than attempting to comprehensively address the problem of pain. The technical theological term is theodicy: “The vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.” If God is good, why do bad things happen? Great souls like C.S. Lewis have added to the limitless bibliography on this subject. There are certainly some classic Christian answers to this question.
Using the Trinity as a vehicle for exploring theodicy is an interesting move on the part of the author, Paul Young. If there is one branch of theology that is the most complex it is the interplay of the three persons of the Godhead. The Shack uses a mystery to explain a mystery and I am not sure it does justice to either in the process. But you have to credit Young with taking such a fascinating route and opening up our theological imaginations.
The basic point of the book and film seems to be that we build a prison out of our own pain and we need to allow God to love us into liberty. I can go along with that. The pain described in the movie is so relate-able that Becky and I wiped our tears through the entire movie. The characters that played the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were warm and winsome. God the Father, called “Papa” throughout the movie, is played by Octavia Spencer and appears in the form of a loving African American neighbor lady that was part of the main character’s childhood. Later Papa appears as an older Native American man. Jesus is played in a more traditional, ultimate nice-guy sort of way. Holy Spirit is played as a young, soft-spoken Asian woman.
There is certainly artistry and imagination employed in the movie… something most established believers could do with a little more of. Maxie Dunnam, former President of Asbury Theological Seminary, tweeted concerning The Shack: “Deeply moving. Please see it, but go open to poetry, parable, allegory, affirming imagination and meaning.” In other words, go to have your imagination fired and not to learn Christian theology.
I would describe the theological underpinnings of the movie a sort of Trinitarian version of the Moral Therapeutic Deism described by Kendra Creasy Dean, author of Almost Christian. God is who we need Him to be and the ultimate goal is our happiness and satisfaction. This is a God that orbits us. The Bible and the historic creeds that summarize the Bible describe a God whom we must orbit.
Compare the Jesus of “The Shack” to the Jesus of Matthew 25. Scripture describes Christ as the final Judge who will ultimately separate the sheep from the goats. There is no judgement in The Shack except that which we self-impose for the harm we do to ourselves and others. In an effort to make God relate-able, the holiness of God is sidelined. The final result is a Trinitarian theology that would feel at home on the O Network.
Jesus’ sufferings are alluded to in the movie without making explicit the role they play in our redemption. We are left with only a Jesus who can relate to our suffering because he, too, suffered. There is no Atonement described and neither is one really necessary in the universe that is offered.
And I think this is the point at which I check out. When I evaluate any system of belief, I usually start with Christology. Who is Jesus? If the Christology is bad, the whole thing is invariably bad. The Shack‘s Christology is at least seriously diluted and I think this cuts against the goal of the film. I don’t believe we can do justice to the question of theodicy until we confront, head on, the Crucified God. The answer to our experienced pain is to be found in a rich understanding of his purposeful pain. As movies go, I find more comfort in The Passion of the Christ. I see a lot of warmth and acceptance in the movie but no real grace in the classic Christian understanding of the word. The Jesus in the film is just the sort of person you would love to spend a day with, even if limited to the cliche activities of carpentry and water-walking. He is far less interesting, however, than the Jesus of the Gospels.
I won’t be driving the church van to take people to see The Shack. If the movie sparks a deeper quest for some to consider the confines of their self-made prison, it might be worth the time. As entertainment it is okay. (There are certainly worse ways to spend $12.) It is probably unfair to ask a single work of fiction to bear the weight of representing Christian theology to the satisfaction of a pastor or theologian, especially in such complex subjects as the Trinity and theodicy. If you go see it, be sure to comment on your experience of the movie below.