A decade ago, I read Paul Young’s novel The Shack, and became intrigued by what I might ask God if I were face-to-face with the Almighty Creator of the Universe. If we’re honest with ourselves, seeing loved ones suffer and die is often the greatest challenge to our faith. For Young, the story revolved around a middle-aged father of three, who loses his youngest daughter to murder and finds himself revisiting the crime scene at the invitation of God. While this story was fascinating to me in its exploration of the problem of evil and forgiveness on many levels, I filed it away as something akin to C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, with less fantasy elements. But I walked away wrestling with how I could better to forgive, and how personal a relationship God longs for with us.
This week, as The Shack hits theaters (thanks to the backing of Lionsgate) and I find myself again standing in the middle of a conversation about Young’s ideas about God. For some, it’s an epic story of incarnational love; for others, it’s an inadequate picture of God that falls into the realm of heresy. And, while I first read the novel at the request of others, I find myself asked personally and professionally to weigh in on what I think about the cinematic version of The Shack.
So I did something I never do: I watched The Shack twice in three days, taking deliberate notes and mulling over the theology that the film proposes. (My initial review is here at ChristianCinema.com.) Here is my humble ‘take’ on the film for those who question its worth and for those seeking a pastoral, theological take. A disclaimer: this should be considered to contain spoilers about the plot of the film. I encourage you to see the movie (and/or read the novel) first.
The Introduction to the Story of Mack Phillips
Creatively rendered, the film starts with Willie (Tim McGraw) narrating the early childhood of Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington as an adult). We see that Mack’s father is an elder in his local church, but he’s also an alcoholic who is abusive to both Mack and his mother. Setting the stage for a later visual depiction of God as a large African American woman, Mack’s only ‘advocate’ in the early stages is a neighbor (played by Octavia Spencer, who also plays ‘Papa’) who shows him love, tells him to talk to God who is “always listening,” and comforts him by saying, “Daddy’s aren’t supposed to do that to their kids; it ain’t love.” This humble, patient faith is showed in opposition to Mack’s father, who beats his son outside while a storm rages, forcing him to repeat Colossians 3:20 (“Obey your parents in everything so that it pleases the Lord“) while his mother looks on.
As Mack loads his father’s alcohol with rat poison, penning a note asking that one day he be forgiven, Willie’s voice-over says, “Pain has a way of twisting us up inside and making us do the unthinkable. The secrets we keep have a way of clawing their way to the surface.” Ironically, this is an important plot point that I didn’t remember as I watched the film – and which I know many don’t recall in examining the story later. Still, it’s an important idea to the main thrust of the film in that it set the stage for a lifetime of guilt and sadness over the way a worldview has been determined by Mack’s abusive father and the actions Mack takes to set that world right.
Fast-forward thirty years, and we find Mack on a camping trip with his children. We’re told that Mack’s wife knows God and calls him Papa; Mack relates better to an understanding of God reflected in the stain-glassed window depicting an old man with a big white beard. And then the Great Sadness falls on Mack’s family, as his daughter is kidnapped (and presumed murdered) by a serial killer. We don’t see Mack’s whole life fall apart, but we know he becomes partially estranged from his wife and kids before God sends him a note, inviting him to the place where his daughter Missy was killed.
Dealing with the Problem of Evil, Suffering, and Pain
In the shack, Mack meets Papa (Octavia Spenser), Jesus (Aviv Alush), and Sarayu (Sumire). Over the course of the next few days, Mack interacts with the three persons of the Trinity together and separately, each member of the Trinity conversing with Mack about the same thing but in different ways. All of them recognize that he is deeply wounded by the loss of his daughter; all of them recognize that he blames God for her murder. With that in mind, consider the conversations below – and recognize that cinematically, they are displayed against the movement of Mack’s exploration of the shack (especially the kitchen where Papa cooks), the lake where Jesus’ fishes and woodworks, and Sarayu’s garden.
The first remarkable comments occur when Mack and Papa bake together, as we might imagine that little Mack baked with the neighbor who taught him the goodness of God.
Mack: You’re wearing a dress. I always pictured you with a white beard.
Papa: I think that’s Santa. After what you’ve been through, I didn’t think you could handle a father right now.
Right away, the issues for some are raised because we’re addressing that God the Father appears as a woman. (Never mind that he will later appear as a Native American man!) For some, the endangerment to their understanding of God’s gender is problematic, and the rest of the film/novel is lost to them. [Please don’t be one of those people!] Instead of dwelling on the depiction of God the Father on screen – which doesn’t seem any less creative than the Sunday School posters we have hanging around our churches of Jesus as an Anglo-Saxon man – let’s focus on what comes next, as Mack and Papa discuss the problem of evil.
Papa: You may not believe it but I am especially fond of you. I want to heal that wound that has grown inside of you that is between us. There are no easy answers that will take your pain away. Life takes a bit of time and a lot of relationships.
Mack: You’re the almighty God, right? You know everything. You’re everywhere at once. You have limitless power. Yet, somehow, you let my little girl die when she needed you most. You abandoned her.
Papa: I never left her.
Suddenly, any misconceptions anyone had about the sheer ‘entertainment value’ of the film have been cleared up, right? But this isn’t a pop culture take on Trinitarian values and the problem of evil, there’s some thought out progression as it continues.
Mack: If you are who you say you are, where were you when I needed you?
Papa: When all you see is your pain, you lose sight of me.
Mack: Stop talking in riddles. How can you say you’ll help me when you couldn’t help her.
Papa: The truth sets everyone free. Truth has a name and he’s over in his woodshed right now covered in sawdust.
Mack: You left him too. Seems like you have a track record, turning your back on those you supposedly love. He said, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Papa: You misunderstand the mystery [Papa shows Mack the nail mark in her/his wrist]. Don’t ever think that what my son chose to do didn’t cost us both differently. Love always leaves a mark. We were there together. I never left him, I never left you, I never left Missy.
The flashing lights and sirens you see and hear are the sounds of critics screaming that this is a brand new case of modalism (or Patripassianism if they can pronounce it). Modalism says that the three members of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) aren’t really different persons but rather three different perceptions an individual has of God and there are no substantial differentiations one can make of the three. This is because of the mark God the Father/Papa has on one wrist – failing to recognize the differences between the persons Young and the film’s screenwriters present the Trinity with. They couldn’t be more individual if they tried!
What one might instead see is that the Father’s empathy – an aspect the film is carefully trying to boldly proclaim – is strong and that sending Jesus to die on the cross was not done lightly or without cost to Him. This further accents the efforts Papa makes to help Mack understand how Papa feels the pain of losing Missy. Rather than causing me consternation theologically, I hear echoes of the popular poem “Footprints in the Sand” where the author clearly goes out of her way to show how God is with us even when we can’t see it. Again, the script isn’t focused on explaining the mystery of the Trinity three-in-one but in showing us how God worked to “crawl into life” (an explanation from the book, or the Incarnation!) with us.
At this point in the film, Mack isn’t ready to accept or acknowledge what Papa is trying to communicate because his pain is still unresolved, understandably. But he joins the Trinity for dinner. There, he sees the way that the Trinity longs to be in conversation, and he recognizes that he is in community.
Investigating Sin and God’s Wrath
Mack asks Papa, “Is there anyone you’re not especially fond of?” and suddenly the two are knee-deep in a conversation about the “Old Testament God” that Mack is still wrapped around. Rather than trying extricate the two, the dialogue picks up where the dough-threading conversation left off: Papa doesn’t need to stress punishment when he’s still trying to explain grace.
Papa admits that he gets angry with his children (“because what parent doesn’t”) but downplays wrath. Instead, he sounds a lot like Romans 6:23 (“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”) when Papa says, “I don’t need to punish people. Sin is its own punishment. I’m in the middle of everything you see to be amiss, working for your good. That’s what I do.” [We just heard Romans 8:28, too, didn’t we? “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”) Later on in the film, Papa will tell Mack that “no one gets away with anything,” answering another criticism – that The Shack doesn’t deal with sin in a traditional way, or allow for punishment for sin.
And then we get this gem from Papa in response to Mack’s claims that Papa can’t be working good while allowing suffering to occur, “You’re trying to make sense of your world based on a very incomplete picture. The real underlying flaw in your life is that you don’t think I’m good. I am, and if you knew me and how much I love you, even when you don’t understand, you would know that I’m at work in your life for your good, and you’d trust me.” But Mack’s response is straight pain: “My daughter’s dead. There’s nothing that you can say that will ever justify what happened to her.”
For someone who interacts with people wrestling with their grief, pain, shame, and anger on nearly a daily basis, I can assure you that their struggle is greater in dealing with the problem of evil and God’s grace than Patripassianism…
Immediately after this exchange, Sarayu leads Mack into her garden, showing that she’s connected with Papa but approaching Mack’s distrust from a different perspective: “Just to be clear, we’re not justifying anything, we’re trying to heal it.” She explains how some of the the things growing in the garden are harmful but balanced with something else growing in the garden, they provide healing. While we’re not shown a glorious metaphorical apple, we might hear inklings of Genesis 2:15-17: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Not everything in the Garden is for Mack, but everything in the Garden has a purpose (or, some might say, is good).
Sarayu debates Mack over what “good” is – he’s very practical about his approach but not very nuanced. Sarayu tells Mack that his approach is many more people than he ever imagined. Sarayu pushes back, “So pretty much you’re the judge? Have you ever been wrong or changed your opinion over time? There are billions like you, [clashing and warring] determining what is good and evil because all insist on playing God. You weren’t meant to do that on your own. This was always meant to be a conversation between friends.” Sarayu’s ‘take’ is less aggressive but more soulful, more spiritual – not unintentionally. But then we get the follow-up to a discussion Mack had previously begun with Jesus.
Jesus & the Rowboat
Earlier that day – although time is fairly obtuse on screen – Mack and Jesus spend some time together near the lake. In one of the more informative dialogues, Mack admits he’s more comfortable with Jesus than the other two members of the Trinity even as he’s growing to realize they’re all connected. Jesus’ response: “I’m the best way to relate to Papa and Sarayu. When you see me, you see them. Sarayu is creativity, the breath of life, my Spirit. We want to be in relationship with you. You are in the center of our love and purpose.” He goes on to tell Mack that he wants everyone to have a relationship with Papa, that it’s his purpose to point toward Papa.
Later, as we revisit images that one can find in Matthew 14, as Peter tries to extend his faith in a physical way, Mack flees a sinking rowboat into the hands of Jesus, who tells him, “Trust me, none of this can hurt you. Keep your eyes on me.” Interspersed with powerful visuals involving walking (or running) on water, the two discuss how Jesus isn’t concerned with rules, working on being a good Christian, or religion. This is the ultimate debate not everyone will like because it’s the debate religious leaders haven’t liked since the time Jesus showed up teaching in the synagogue. It’s the argument Jesus presented for his gospel in John 3, about being born again and accepting God’s love for the world instead of focusing on law-following and sin-counting.
The Cave of Wisdom
Then the film gets really interesting, as Mack explores Young’s version of the Cave of Evil from Dagoba in The Empire Strikes Back. Instead of encountering some twisted version of himself, Mack meets Sophia, or Wisdom, personified. Sophia tells him that the day is full of serious consequences involving judgment; she accuses him of believing that God isn’t good.
Sophia: Today, you are the judge. Why are you surprised? You’ve spent your whole life judging everyone and everything, their actions and motivations, like you could really know them. You make snap judgments about them, from the color of their skin, their clothes, their body language. By all accounts, you are well-practiced expert. [Sophia then lists several types of people (murderers, drug dealers, terrorists, abusive spouses, etc.) and asks if they deserve hell.] What about the man who preys on innocent little girls? Is that man guilty? What about his father who twisted him? Doesn’t the legacy of brokenness go the whole way back to Adam? And what about God? Isn’t he at fault? He set this all in motion, especially if he knew the outcome?
Mack: Do you want me to say it? Absolutely. God is to blame.
Sophia: If it’s so easy for you to judge God, you must choose one of your children to spend eternity in heaven. The other will go to hell. I am only asking you to do something you believe God does.
Mack: It isn’t fair. I can’t. Take me. I’ll go instead of them. I’ll take their place. You take me. You leave my kids alone and you take me.
Sophia: Mackenzie, you’ve judged your children worthy of love even if it costs you everything. Now you know Papa’s heart.
Mack: I don’t understand how God could have loved Missy and put her through so much horror. She was innocent. Did he use her to punish me, because that’s not fair. She didn’t deserve it. Now I might, because…
Sophia: Is that how your God is? God’s not like that. This was not God’s doing. He doesn’t stop a lot of things that cause him pain. What happened to Missy was the work of evil and no one in your world is immune from it. You want the promise of a pain-free life. There isn’t one. As long as there’s free will … evil can find a way in.
Mack: There’s got to be a better way.
Sophia: There is, but the better way involves trust.
At this point in the film, as a father and a pastor, I am completely stunned. (Remember, it’s been a decade since I read the dialogue in the novel.) We humans spend the majority of our day judging others, from what they wear, to how they talk, to who they marry, to what they believe. And in this interplay between Sophia and Mack, all of our judgments of others are laid bare. Again, The Shack puts free will and the problem of evil at front and center of a fictional story, which in my mind, is a genius move blending fiction with the inner wrestling of the soul.
I could go on, and ruin the final fourth of the film. But I won’t do that. I will point out that the production team behind the film chose to focus on the theological change that takes place in the heart of Mack versus the blockbuster ending that wraps up the story of Missy’s killer in the book. But they are all plot points along Mack’s journey, not theological explorations that demand our attention if we’re going to “get” The Shack.
So What’s the Point?
The Shack has its root in Paul Young’s experience of abuse within a religious culture, and his wife’s recognition that writing down his story in fictional form would provide a powerful catharsis for Young and those who would read it. Ultimately, this is about recognizing the beauty and power of God even in the midst of our suffering, and about what forgiveness looks like when we extend it to ourselves. That’s the point of The Shack.
While we struggle with what it means to be human, and what it means for God to be omniscient, omnipotent, omni – everything and for us to have free will, The Shack shows up creatively and asks us to consider all of those ideas in the form of an Everyman. With the Everyman character in Mack, we’re able to see sin play out in his personal decisions and in what’s happened to him, and the way that God’s grace is absolutely overwhelming. It’s a parable, a fable, a metaphor for God’s unrelenting heart.
But if I’m going to push this point further, about what we can learn from The Shack and other narratives like it, it’s this: we must be aware that God’s grace and providence will strip our understanding of what God is in the world. If we are inclined to believing that we’re supposed to be seeking discussions that point people toward God, then The Shack is a decent place to start – especially if the person has questions about suffering, evil, pain, sin, forgiveness… Or to put it another way, John Wesley urged his hearers to “plunder the Egyptians,” and make use of any means possible to promote the gospel!
While critics have proposed The Shack lacks is a complete understanding of the Trinity or of salvation, they fail to understand the historical record of the Gospels (not to mention Jesus’ tangle with the Pharisees). Jesus forgave sins even if the person didn’t confess their sins (Luke 5:17-39), and healed without an acknowledgment of his Godhead (John 5:1-11); he told a story about God as a woman searching her house for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). Somehow, the power of the gospel exhibited in Jesus’ life exceeded a protracted dialogue about how the Trinity worked, or how repentance and atonement should be extricated from the story. It’s what made him butt heads with the Pharisees who wanted to say that they had a limited/exclusive take on how God worked! And yet, seeing the big picture through the lens of the cross, we can appreciate the power of God’s movement in each of those stories, and other incomplete/inadequate stories that still reflect the gospel’s light.
I’d propose we allow the same for The Shack. With discernment and grace, we might learn something about ourselves through the wonderful providence of God’s inspiration.