The Shack by William Paul Young was a 2009 self-published book that caught the attention and the hearts of many. It ended up selling about 22 million copies. (Last I checked, my books have NOT sold that many.)
Last year, the film adaptation came out.
I remember the frenzy when everyone was reading the book; it was highly recommended by folks I deeply respect and admire. I intended to read it.
And when the movie came out last year, I fully intended to see it, also based on the recommendations of trusted friends.
Alas, I didn’t read the book, nor did I go to the theater to see the movie. (You know what they say about good intentions?)
But it was on a movie channel this weekend, and I watched it.
Than I watched it again with my husband.
Now, I’m offering this “travelogue” of my time at The Shack.
Disclaimers: This is not a movie review.
And since I never read the book, I can’t speak to how faithfully the book translated into the movie.
I also won’t be defending or refuting the “theology” portrayed. I’ve read those discussions and reviews. WOW! Fundamentalists are appalled at the theology, while fans insist it’s a fictional story, not theology. I regretfully have to side (partially) with the literalists on this one. Talking about God…in books, in Bible study, in the pulpit, in conversation, or in movies…constitutes the very definition of theology. (Look it up in a dictionary!)
Where I diverge from the Fundamentalists is the motive behind all their pulpit slamming, hand-wringing and pearl clutching. I think at the core of this "righteous" over-reaction is just another ever-vigilant crusade to protect their understanding of God as the only way to know/understand God—their usual M.O. and raison d'être.
At least the film presents us with a God who loves, embraces and welcomes everyone...and insists humans do the same.
Fundamentalists like the power to say who is worthy of love and acceptance and who is not.
The God of The Shack is forgiving and merciful, and calls those who know God to forgive and show mercy.
That is not the God of Fundamentalism!
I see Fundamentalists who want to wrangle over a movie that doesn't represent their theology, while enthusiastically supporting a president who lives his life, cobbles an administration and promotes policies that are completely contrary to the Jesus of their faith. (But that's been covered in other posts, hasn't it?) Why is "theology" so crucial to a movie, but when it comes to how we treat other people in need? (cf: Matthew 25: 31-46) Shouting at a movie, but remaining silent in face of the "godless" behavior by this administration tells me their outrage is hypocritical, and proves their "theology" is flawed.
But yes, Fundamentalists are correct: there is theology at the core of this story. In fact, lots of different theologies.
And it’s true this movie definitely veers sharply from the core beliefs of conservative Biblicists.
(Honestly, it was the intense reaction from Evangelicals/Fundamentalists that put this movie on my radar, and cemented my decision to see it. If they hate something that much, that gets my attention)
(Offered with as few spoilers as possible.)
Mack Phillips had a rough childhood with a brutal, abusive father. Mack also did a terrible thing, but has been able to overcome his past and create a stable life with his wife and three children. On a camping trip, his youngest daughter Missy vanishes, the victim of a serial killer who abducts and murders young girls. Her body is never found, but they find her torn, bloody dress in a remote, dilapidated cabin in the mountains. The Shack!
Mack can’t get past what happened; it’s impacted all his relationships and his faith. One day, while the family is away for the weekend, a mysterious note appears in his mailbox, inviting him back to “The Shack.”
It’s signed Papa, his wife’s favorite name for God.
Mack gets to the decrepit shack on the snow-covered mountain, and in his grief, contemplates ending his own life. When he sees a man walking through the woods, Mack suspects it might be the killer. But the man calls Mack by name, and invites him to follow. “Come on, Mack. There’s someone who would love to see you.”
As they walk, the path changes from snow and ice to lush and green. (Reverse Narnia?)
Then Mack arrives at…The Shack.
But this one is fully restored, lovely and inviting. And it’s occupied!
Once inside he meet Papa, a black woman (the ever-amazing Octavia Spencer), Sarayu, an Asian woman who’s name means "breath of wind," and Papa’s son, the man who lead Mack there. (I call him "Lumberjack Jesus.")
Yes, it’s the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
(But clearly not your Fundamentalist uncle's trinity!)
Mack tells Papa: “You’re wearing a dress. I always pictured you with a white beard.”
Papa laughs. “I think that’s Santa. After what you’ve been through, I didn’t think you could handle a father right now.”
The Three brought Mack there to help him deal with the death of his daughter, his guilt for his failure to protect her, his waning faith, and his bitterness toward God who allowed it.
Looking for Answers
There are many hard questions asked in this movies. (e.g., Why does God allows such tragedies? How can God be good when there is evil in the world?) There are questions about suffering, pain, sin, faith, forgiveness, and the nature of…the very existence of…God as loving and omniscient.
This movie does not (NOT!) solve those problems or provide answers; I’m not sure that’s the intention. (Or if that's even possible! People of faith and learned theologians have been wrestling with those questions for centuries.) In fact, when Mack brings up God's wrath to Papa, he/she dumbs down, as if he/she has never that issue before.
Really? Not much omniscience there.
To be fair, the movie clearly states that healing doesn't come instantly, and forgiveness, which is a choice, can take years.
Having come from a Fundamental background, with those rigid preconceptions and indoctrinated concepts, I understand why this movie would be unnerving and challenging. (One writer was outraged that God was a black woman. Not sure which offended him most—that God was a “she” or that she was black.) I'm sure an Asian female as the Holy Spirit is equally disconcerting, though in the original language, the word for "Spirit" is feminine.
Later Papa appears as an older Native American man because God thought Mack needed a father for the most difficult part of the journey. (God inhabiting other religion traditions? Oh, the horror!)
And they had the audacity to cast an actual middle-eastern, Israeli actor to portray Jesus! (Brown-skinned, Jewish Jewish? I think Fundamentalists prefer a white Savior!)
What does The Shack want to be?
It’s sometimes allegory, other times, parable. The lessons conveyed can be obtuse, and then cliché. There’s familiar elements that most Christian will recognize, along with lots of symbolism. (Some was incredible, but too many to cover in this already long post.)
There are parts that are emotional and moving. At times, it’s overly sentimental. Sometimes, it’s downright sappy. It can also be funny and joyful. (e.g., Papa and Sarayu, dancing to Brenton Wood’s Gimme Little Sign.)
We hear pithy analogies, trite platitudes and thoughtful quotes, some that I’ve included at the bottom.
At one point, Mack asks Papa/God to stop talking in riddles. I agree!
When it comes to theology, The Shack seems to have the lofty goal of being a little bit of all things to all people—traditional Christianity, new age, eastern mysticism, Native American and metaphysics. It’s a religious smoothie—a blend of the Bible, Deepak Chopra, Kahlil Gibran, sprinkled with some Oprah-esque spirituality. We find well-known, long accepted conservative ideas (e.g., Jesus walking on water) along with some progressive concepts, such as universalism. God loves everyone, and eternity/heaven is a place for all humanity. (I thought that was great, but am aware it's anathema to the Fundamentalist branch of my family tree.)
I compare it to my husband's “kitchen sink stew,” made from things that, individually, would appeal to the tastes of many people—carrots, potatoes, onions, meat, tomatoes, mushrooms. But when they’re cooked all together, it might not be as palatable for everyone at the table.
There are seriously heavy themes, but not many equally deep answers. In fact, when Mack brings up God's wrath to Papa, he/she dumbs down, as if he/she has never that issue before. Really? Not much omniscience there.
I doubt an atheist watching this movie will be converted.
An agnostic won’t come away with greater certainty, one way or the other.
It’s probably not the healing balm for hurting people who’ve lost a loved one, and struggle with these hard questions. In fact, this movie might be difficult for them to watch. (I was triggered by the abusive father, so I'd understand someone who lost a loved one not wanting to see this movie.)
On the positive side, I believe the movie pushes us to think, to ask questions about difficult topics, and to struggle past simplistic answers.
Faith is not supposed easy, with rote answers of cut-and-pasted Bible verses. Doubt is not a bad thing.
Maybe this film is a path to opening up discussion. (I know there are group resources for this purpose.)
Personal Note: That’s what happened at our house. My husband and I were able to have a conversation about concepts like death and what happens afterwards. As I face my current, ongoing battle with cancer, I want these conversations about my assurance of God's work, and my faith about eternity.
That said, I hope it’s not used a guidebook of how grieving and forgiveness must happen. Such processes are personal, individual and should not be given a timeline or assigned a predefined methodology. To be fair, the movie clearly states that healing doesn't come instantly, and forgiveness, which is a choice, can take years. As American Indian Papa said: “Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person's throat.”
While The Shack can be heavy-handed at times, even emotionally manipulative, at least it doesn’t come with the conservative agenda of many recent “religious” films, like Miracles from Heaven, Left Behind, A Case for Christ, all the iterations of God is Not Dead, ad nauseam.
Anthropomorphizing God (assigned human elements to the divine) is difficult. When Mack first sees Papa, she's the personification of someone who was very kind to him when he was a child, beaten up his father.
We all see through God through the lens of our own experiences. I appreciated that element. (I've had extensive conversations with those who could not relate to God as a father because of their own experiences. And they should not be forced to do so!)
To me, the Bible is a library of people relating how they experience God. Sometimes God is harsh and vengeful; other times, God is merciful and forgiving. I don’t think the records should be seen as complete depictions of God, but as honest reflections of how God is perceived at any given time, by various people, in a variety of circumstances, throughout history.
Perhaps God is willing to meet us wherever we are ready, and in whatever form our heart can handle.
Snapshots from my Visit
There was some thoughtful parts of the movie that intrigued me, inspired me and impacted me. Mack’s time in the Cave of Wisdom was enlightening. I like that the God of The Shack is welcoming and embracive. I appreciate that God is free of gender confinements. Mack's conversations and interaction with Jesus were so gentle, and human.
Two scenes in particular have stayed with me:
- Mack’s walk with Sarayu/The Spirit in the garden.
He thinks it’s overgrown and out of control. Sarayu sees it as beautiful. Sarayu tells Mack the garden is his life. Then the camera slowly moves up and we get an aerial view. From up there, we see there's order, and pattern, and paths.
As a person of faith, I believe that in those times when I think my life is a total mess and out of control, it’s only because my perspective is limited. I'm too close to see it all!
- Mack's return to The Shack
He tries to suppress his anger, guilt and bitterness, but they will not be ignored.
For Mack, that involved a decision to return to the shack. To acknowledge the tragedy. Meet it head-on.
Same with us, I think. In our heart and mind, we must honestly confront our pain, our mistakes, our fears, our tragedies. Trying to solve the symptoms is like taking an aspirin for a brain tumor.
Perhaps to experience forgiveness and healing, we have to go back to our Shack—the very place where it all began.
I wish there was time to share more fascinating symbolism I saw in this film. (But this post has already gone on too long.)
Watch the movie for your own insights, and draw your own conclusions.
(Or don’t, if you think it will trigger some of your pain, or if you know it won’t fit your theology, or lack of theology.)
For me, when all is said and done, I personally like the idea of god as a black woman who makes homemade biscuits.
“Pain robs you of joy, and the capacity to love.”
"You have no idea how much I love you."
“Pain has a way of twisting us up inside and making us do the unthinkable."
“You were created to be loved.”
“I want you to feel what it’s like to be truly loved.”
"The secrets we keep have a way of clawing their way to the surface.”
"When all you see is your pain, you lose sight of me."
"You were created to be loved! If pain is left unresolved, it will keep you in this spot and you will forget what you were created for!"
“Just to be clear. We're not justifying anything. We'd like to heal it, if you'd let us."
"There are billions [of people] each determining what you think is good and evil. And when your good clashes with your neighbor's evil, arguments ensue, wars break out...because all insist on playing God. You weren't meant to do any of that all on your own. This was always meant to be a conversation between friends."
"You are important, and so is everything you do.
"I'm the best way any human can relate to Papa and Sarayu. To see me is to see them."
"Love is meant to exist within a relationship...That's all we to have with you. Even if you can't see it, you are in the center of our love and purpose. As beautiful as [the galaxy] is, it's nothing compared to how we see you."
"Religion is way too much work. I don't want slaves, I want friends. Friends to share life with!"
"Every time you love, or forgive, with every act of kindness, the universe changes...for the better."