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.
I read the book twice … complex. There is also a workbook series which I highly recommend for church groups/bible studies/book clubs. We did the study last summer. It includes reflections and homework between chapters to really go deeper around the questions of the trinity and Jesus, judgement, etc., as you speak about here. Personally, I give the movie 4.5 out of 5, and I preferred it over the book which is rare! But I believe God and Jesus is about love, forgiveness, and happiness. I feel that much too often (especially in the old days) we hear more about unworthiness rather than the pure love which we are and is why many often live in guilt, sadness, judgement. My belief is that God does not sit in judgement and only wants us to see and share the love we are through Him!
Thanks for sharing your experience, LeAnne.
I had read the book and couldn’t have expressed my feelings about it any better than you did. I don’t recommend it to anyone who is not a mature Christian because I would not want to cause a young believer to stumble. There are a lot of people today who want to create their own God and I feel this movie might encourage it. If we don’t have Christ death on the cross we don’t have a way to get to Heaven. If God is whatever we need Him to be (male or female) then we don’t have a clear belief or understanding of Gods word. Thank you for a clear explaination of your reaction. I agree.
Hi Rich, I appreciate your review. As a recovering addict, I found a lot of good fruit in the movie and was blessed by it. I wrote a short review of my own here: http://bit.ly/2lrvfHT
Sorry, meant to type Chris. 🙂
I am a 69 year-old grandmother who went to see the movie with a friend. Not having read the book, we went after a fellow Christian and his wife recommended it. There were tears, tragedy, and love. Perhaps I didn’t judge it through a theological lens…just through my heart. The abuse the father experienced as a boy colored his own life, and understanding for his entire life; he didn’t repeat his father’s mistakes, but carried a horrible secret with him. It took me awhile to connect the dots as to who he was encountering at the shack, but once I did, it became very interesting. Theology aside, personally I liked the movie. It was hard to watch at points, but very moving. My advice would be to go see it, and form your own opinions. You never know who you might turn into a believer…it certainly won’t hurt your own theology.
I’ve not yet seen the movie (I will this week), but I am in my second read of the book two years after my first read. I read your review as well as Chad’s (one of those who commented on this review), and while I completely understand your take on it, I tend to follow Chad’s view of the story and it’s underlying message – that it is not written to explain to believers the Holy Trinity, but on a much more surface level to offer those missing that security of a connection to the Trinity. To me, the story tells all of us that it exists for all of us in different ways and forms. How the trio come to me, to my wife, to my neighbor, to you is not all the same, and we may not see the exact same dynamics of their roles in our lives. But the Trinity exists for all, especially in those times of need, and hopefully some curious non-believers and even believers lacking in that connection will walk away with that message and wish to talk and learn more about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and begin building and strengthening their relationship. Who would not want to sit at a meal with the three of them and ask questions or simply have a hug and smile from God saying, “Hey, it’s alright. I’m here for you.” But when I walked away from my first read of the book and thought that, I realized, “Wait, He really is there for me.” That was the revealing moment.
I have not seen the movie but did try to read the book…….it was really hard for me to understand how someone could write a book about our Mighty God and Lord Jesus portraying them in a way other than who they really are….My problem with this movie….and I have no desire to see it…is that a lot of young “honky tonkers” and country music fans of Tim McGraw will flock to this movie….a mature Christian I’m not worried about , but the baby Christians and non Christians are the ones I’m afraid will walk away with a different prospective of the Trinity than it really is. Guess I’m missing something here…but I have no desire to find out what it is. There is nothing fiction about The Father , The Son and the Holy Spirit….nothing…
Chris, thanks for your well thought out review. I read the book, but have not seen the movie. I will go as it is on my wife’s must do list. All of your points are valid ones that need consideration and expounding upon. That is why I would take the church van, if enough in my church wanted to go. That way I could address these issues. However, sometime we address one point knowing that it is not the whole point. I’m with Maxie, I would recommend the movie with the same caveat. The one point I took away from the book is of the fascinating, complex, and marvelous relationship of the Trinity and how we are invited to partisapate in the relationship. For me, one who is not so versed in emotive stuff, it was helpful in giving me greater insight into the Mystery of the Trinity and the Godhead’s willness to make us apart of the mystery. That is a needed part of the whole of theology. You also close well: “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.” I’d just leave out the “probably.”
I just got back home from seeing The Shack. It was an interesting fictional story which was full of emotional and feel good moments. There was some drama, but mostly it was all about one man’s journey to come to terms with his pain over the losses he had experienced in his life. It was a very pleasant film with a happy ending.
I went with some apprehensions from other reviews I had read. I didn’t expect to see a biblically correct theology presented and was not disappointed. In fact, the Word of God was not even mentioned, though there was one instance when the main character opened the Bible. I was concerned that such a fanciful rendering about such mysterious aspects of God’s character might lead seekers and new Christians astray. The author’s idea that God is all about meeting our needs still leaves me with that concern.
All in all, it was a good story with more of a psychological than theological twist. It’s main message was that it’s hard to come to terms with our pain, and God is there as we need them to help us along the way to fulfillment of life on our terms. It was very much an adolescent view of the truth of God’s Word as revealed in the Bible and in the crucified Christ, dead and risen again, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
“The author’s idea that God is all about meeting our needs still leaves me with that concern.”
Bob, who or what, apart from God, would you suggest I go to to have my needs met?
You have read my mind