Vision : The Shack
In 2007, William Paul Young self-published a book called The Shack, an attempt to explain to his children the nature of God and suffering in the world, a work that went on to sell over twenty million copies and in the process to create major controversy in American evangelical circles. It has spawned a great many blogs and reviews in which the words “heresy,” “New Age,” and ”don’t” feature often. There have also been a number of books that range from the positive – e.g. Randal Rauser’s Finding God in the Shack and Roger E. Olson’s book of the same title – to the highly critical – e.g. Burning Down the Shack by James B. DeYoung. And with the release of the movie (which stays very close to the book in its general storyline and approach), it seems that the controversy is set to continue.
For those who are not familiar with the story, the main character, Mackenzie (‘Mack’) Phillips, has to grapple with his youngest daughter Missy being abducted and murdered by a serial killer. Her body is never found, but her bloodied dress is discovered in a shack in Oregon. As the movie opens, Mack is coping with grief, depression, a struggling marriage, and strained relationships with his children. He receives a cryptic message in his letterbox that appears to be from “Papa,” his wife’s nickname for God, asking to meet him at the shack. The weekend meeting turns into a fantasy-like encounter with the three persons of the Trinity – Papa (Father), Jesus, and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit). This involves many deep theological discussions, and becomes a time of great healing and forgiveness for Mack and his family.
When reading some of the recent criticisms of The Shack movie, I was reminded of a quote by Pope John Paul I, “… some people seem only to look at the sun in order to find stains [sunspots] on it.” Before looking briefly at some of the more controversial aspects of the movie, therefore, I would like to take note of a number of its positives.
Perhaps the most obvious thing to affirm is that the movie – like the book – is leading people back to talking about spiritual things, particularly the nature of God, Christian love, and the theology of suffering. Mack comes across as a believable everyman, and the movie presents a credible search for meaning in suffering that many can relate to.
The physicality of spirituality is also helpfully portrayed in a manner reminiscent of the Gospels – Papa cooks, Jesus does carpentry, and Sarayu gardens; they all eat delicious meals together with Mack; and the mountains, lake, and stars are the backdrop for all that happens.
In light of the recent mass-shooting event in Las Vegas, the fact that Mack takes a gun for protection “just in case” is interesting, in that he is tempted to turn it on himself, and then later on the Palestinian-looking Jesus. Papa (represented by a black woman – more on this later) gingerly takes it from him when he first meets her with the apt observation that “we wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt now, would we?” Similarly, in a powerful scene in the garden, Sarayu observes that arguments and even wars can start through humanity’s poor understanding of what “good” is: something that benefits me that is often opposed to my neighbour’s wants; all of us “playing God.”
Finally, the theme of free choice comes through as well – Mack is continually being given choices as to what he wants to do, where he wants to go, whether he wants to stay at the shack or leave, and finally, whether he can forgive himself and Missy’s killer.
But what about some of the debated theology in The Shack? First, is it a promotion of idolatry or goddess worship to present Papa as a black woman? The movie, following the book, presents Papa over the course of the narrative as both a woman and a (Native American) man, suggesting not an identity with gender (or race) but a transcendence of it. Important here, too, is the complete lack of any sexual or fertility element to the presentation, in contrast to the traditions of say Asherah, Hathor, or Aphrodite. Her appearance needs to be seen as an image or metaphor of God, a pictorial similarity to some aspects of God without any pretence to encompass all that he is. In this light, it is useful to consider the biblical images of God. Yes, God is often presented in male terms, such as the Ancient One of Daniel 7:9, or the man who appears to Abram (Gen 18) and yes, he is consistently referred to by the male pronoun “he.” But God is also presented in female terms as well, for example, as a woman giving birth (Deut 32:18, Isa 42:14), a caring mother (Isa 49:15, 66:13; Hos 11:3-4), or a woman searching for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).
A second charge levelled against the presentation of the Trinity is that it is modalistic. Modalism (a heresy) traditionally understands that the one God left heaven to become Jesus, died on the cross, and ascended before returning as the Holy Spirit. The book does seem to suggest this on two occasions – Papa says that “we became fully human … flesh and blood” (emphasis mine). Papa also says that “we were there together” on the cross, after Mack notices the scars on her wrists. However, the movie (unlike the book) omits the former comment and leaves the latter as "marks of love", a kind of trinitarian stigmata, perhaps.
I find it ironic that modalism is the charge often levelled at The Shack, as by presenting God as three human characters, I would have expected the struggle to be with modalism’s opposite extreme, tritheism (God as three gods). Given the inherent difficulty of any representation of the Trinity, my feeling is that overall Young has done quite well. The three Persons eat together, are aware of what is said to any of them, and answer some questions in unison – they are truly One. Yet, equally, they have different roles. Papa gives Jesus ideas that he is to carry out. Sarayu presents internal dialogue, in a garden that represents Mack himself. Jesus leads Mack in walking on water, and is the human among them. They are Three. As Olsen concludes, “I consider … [any] flaws [as] relatively minor in what is otherwise a superb and moving portrayal of the character of God.”
A final thought about responses that forbid the watching of this movie. Why is there this approach of “‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’” (Col 2:21) from so many evangelicals? It is entirely possible that – depending on one’s theological or church background – one might find aspects of The Shack disturbing, overly optimistic or just plain wrong. Surely though, a better approach with something this popular, is to return to Scripture and clarify the errors, rather than bay for parishioners to boycott it? As one commentator has observed, comparing the movie to a watermelon, “There’s a lot of sweet stuff – but you do have to spit out a few seeds.” Randal Rauser has noted about the novel that after decades of theologians trying to produce meaningful explanations of the Trinity, the neighbourhood church and its members finally have something trinitarian they actually want to talk about. I think the same can be said for the movie, and that we need to be at least part of the discussion.
Ian Waddington is a lecturer in the School of Theology Henderson and Manukau Campuses.
 A few examples include: http://au.ltw.org/read/articles/2017/03/six-major-problems-with-the-shack; https://reformednazarene.wordpress.com/emergent-church-what-is-it/thirteen-heresies-in-the-shack/; http://www.equip.org/article/shack-movie-heretical-healing/; and a summary in http://biblethumpingwingnut.com/2017/02/23/why-the-shack-isnt-for-christians/.
 As quoted in David A. Yallop, In God’s Name (London: Jonathan Cape, 1984), 51.
 Compare Papa’s explanation of this in William Paul Young, The Shack (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2008), 93.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 95-96.
 In his paper, “Hospitality and Pain,” theologian Ivan Illich says of stigmata: “Compassion with Christ ... is faith so strong and so deeply incarnate that it leads to the individual embodiment of the contemplated pain.”
 Roger E. Olsen, Finding God in the Shack (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2009), 40.
 Young leans heavily in an Arminian direction with a number of his scenes and conversations.
 Randal Rauser, Finding God in the Shack (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2009), 7-11.