On the day of its initial release, March 3 at 4:10 p.m. in the Carmike Theater, the auditorium showing The Shack was already half full when I walked in twenty minutes early. The room held people ranging from college ages to fifty and eighty, and even a few younger children.
In a way it made sense. The film echoed universal themes, not just for all ages but for so much more, across divisions of race, faith, and family. It includes misconceptions that have built up over the centuries that have played a part in creating our own American Jesus. At the same time, the film also sprinkled imagery throughout, like the stained glass windows that reflect ancient stories, and caterpillars and butterflies that symbolize hope in an afterlife.
The film also explores familiar ideas that some were raised with. But it also addresses questions that others outside of religion raise. Agnostics, atheists, and even those who believe in God — anyone who has an especially sensitive heart when they see constant pain around and affecting them — ask the biggest and darkest million-dollar question: If God is so powerful, or if he exists at all, why does he allow suffering?
While The Shack does not offer any solid answers, the speculations offered in the characters’ interactions with each other help the audience think deeper about that question and set the cast on a journey toward peace.
Mack, the protagonist, wrestles with the sudden abduction and swift murder of his youngest daughter, Missy. Some months later, in winter, he receives a supposed invitation from God and meets the Trinity in the shack where his pain began.
I read the book a decade ago when it was first released and I was seventeen. At the time I was navigating the waters of my own spiritual life and I faced conflict with my parents.
The book caused major controversy upon its release in 2007. While it was considered Christian fiction, it raised many questions and brought to light things that displeased many Evangelicals. Diana Chandler, who writes for the Baptist Press, says in her article “‘The Shack’ Film Stirs Debate as did Preceding Book,” that it created such tension that Lifeway Christian Resources no longer stocks the book.
Even now with the film’s release, some people are still having problems with the material. In her same piece, Chandler quotes Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr.
“There are many Christians who sadly may not be sufficiently grounded in biblical doctrine to understand just how unbiblical this movie is,” Mohler said. “Secondly, they’ll be many people who are not believers, who will go away believing that the movie depicts biblical Christianity, true Christianity. It creates a cultural conversation in which the bottom line issue is that the makers of this movie have sought to create an entertaining story at the expense of biblical truth.”
But what does that mean — biblical truth? Mohler is setting himself up to be a judge, just what Jesus warned against in Matthew 7, and by doing so, declaring who will enter heaven and who is destined for hell. In a scene depicted in the film, the character Wisdom, portrayed as a fairly young woman dressed in white, teaches Mack that very lesson. He learns that he cannot make decisions of heaven and hell as he had believed God did — even with his abusive father or his daughter’s killer.
A blogger from “Minnesota Wonderer” agrees that after a study of the book done back in August 2010 a possible heresy may exist, because The Shack novel acknowledges the same God by different names.
“Still, the depiction of God was thought provoking, and for the most part, I liked it,” the writer (unknown) wrote. “It seemed to jive with the sort of beliefs I have about God — that God is about love and relationships, not about judgment and eternal damnation. My God loves me unconditionally, and he’s interested in bringing me to heaven, not finding ways to send me to hell.”
And author Wm. Paul Young, author of the novel, is quick to counter the outrage.
“If the film is a faithful portrayal of the events and the theology of the book,” Young told Christian News Network, “then every Christian should be gravely alarmed at the further advance of beliefs that smear the evangelical understanding of the truth of the Bible.”
There is a reason why Young is firm in his defense, aside from it being his own book. Like many, he has observed that the entire modern institution of Christianity has placed God in a box so it can better understand him. But in the end, those who do this push away those who they are called to love, whether their actions are intentional or not.
Papa, a charismatic and curvy black woman who represents God tells Mack, “I’m not who you think I am,” when they are alone in the kitchen kneading bread. The whole point of The Shack is to welcome people from all backgrounds and ease them of the anxieties they might suffer as a result of their piercing questions. But it’s not such a bad thing, as some Christians might believe.
As an Evangelical Lutheran, I have learned that you cannot rely on your own belief to be a Christian, and your belief in itself is a work. Once you take confidence in your own actions, pride consumes you and you begin to miss the point. Even though you believe you love someone and want to save them from the hell you believe exists, your attempt to exert control over them often has the opposite effect.
It is your power to listen and to love that makes all the difference, no matter who you’re talking to or what they decide.
As I’ve grown in my spirituality, it does not bother me like it used to when I learn that people in my life don’t believe. It does pain me that they miss out on the joy I experience in my life during moments when I sense the Presence. But I cannot understand the influences, the beliefs or lack of both categories and the maturing which develop a person. Most of it resides within your background and in choices you have the power to make.
The movie lived up to its potential — I would debate even its past. I heard some of the audience echoing similar thoughts to the ones streaming through my mind as the movie ended, about how you want to change someone, but how this movie helped them realize the only person they could change is themselves.
And we are still always growing, learning, and progressing.
But that’s me, being a judge — and what faith is all about.