The Shack: The Good, The Bad, and the Heresy

A man returns to a small shack in the mountains where his daughter was abducted and murdered years ago. While there, he meets with God and learns to cope with the evil of his daughter’s suffering in light of the goodness of God.

The Good

This is a film in the vein of Miracles from Heaven and Heaven is for Real, a well made, well-told Hollywood attempt to penetrate the “faith-based” market. I have to say right up front, that I had read the book and was quite dubious going in. The book was certainly less than orthodox in its understanding of God, even unbiblical at times.

But as it turns out, apparently, the producers and Lionsgate, learned a bit of a lesson from past “Biblical” movies by pagans and atheists, that maybe they should have some real Christian influence on a product for that audience. I could tell that there must have been some Christians involved in the development of this story that desperately tried to keep it inline with that demographic.

For that, I applaud the filmmakers.

This story tackles THE most important struggle in the human experience: If God is good, why does he allow evil and suffering? And it does so with some rather powerful moments of truth worthy of the best of Christian apologetics (the “defense of the Faith”).

The first half of the movie builds on the relationship that Mack, the lead character, played with subtlety and nuanced emotion by Sam Worthington (Yes! Sam can act.) We see the precious sweetness of his youngest of three children, five year old Missy. We feel the abject horror of the number one universal fear of every parent, the abduction and murder of their child by an evil person.

This gut-wrenching dramatic incarnation is truly one of the most powerful and poignant I have experienced in movies (As it was in the book). And Mack’s hopeless aftermath of withdrawal and rejection of God rings with universal truth. This is an honest film of man’s spiritual struggles to make sense of a world of evil, suffering and God. There wasn’t a moment of inauthenticity in this part of the story.

But a few years later, Mack gets a letter claiming to be from “Poppa,” the name for God that little Missy used to use. It says to meet him up at the shack in the mountains where they found Missy’s tattered dress (never having found the body).

Mack reluctantly goes there and soon finds himself in the second half of the movie in a personal discourse with the Almighty in the form of three people, an Asian woman, Sarayu, who is supposed to be the Holy Spirit, a Middle Eastern young man who is Jesus, and the Father, a black woman named Poppa (We’ll deal with that later).

The rest of the story is a dialogue between Mack and the godhead. God compassionately forbears with Mack’s anger and tries to show him that he is too blinded to understand the truth of the bigger picture in relation to suffering and the goodness of God. He/She leads Mack toward his redemption and forgiveness.

But is it biblical? Or is it another Hollywood bastardized subversion of Christianity?…

I certainly didn’t agree with everything presented in these dialogues, but they do well what storytelling should do well, raise the questions and help to reorient the viewer to consider their own blindspots by identifying with the protagonist and his own journey through the pain.

This movie does this right when it comes to answering the problem of evil, namely, it doesn’t give a black and white answer, because there is none for our finite little human minds to grasp. It seeks to point us toward a faith and trust in our Creator that despite what we think we see and understand, he knows better and we cannot find redemption or peace or forgiveness apart from faith in him.

One scene in particular expresses this paradigm shift with dramatic power on the level of the best of any apologetics I have ever seen. Mack ends up in a cave with Wisdom, personified as a women (Like she is in the book of Proverbs). She addresses Mack’s anger at God by allowing him to sit on the judgment seat and actually be the judge for one minute. This illustrates the profound universal truth of the absurdity and ignorance of all unbelievers’ accusations against God. Wisdom places Mack on the “judgment seat” and shows him flashes of life and the people he judges. He starts to see not only that he knows nothing of what is good and evil, but He soon realizes that the center of all his problems lie in placing himself as the arbiter of all truth in the universe and as the judge over all. His accusations turn against him to show himself as the guilty one, not God. This is the quintessence of all unbelief. It is the heart of humanity’s separation from God: the sin of the Garden, seeking to know good and evil apart from God. WOW. I have only seen this in one other movie before, Bruce Almighty, and it was great there as well (an imperfect film, but an excellent one). This is a soul-wrenching truth captured through turning the tables in a way that drama does best.

The Bad

One of the problems of The Shack is the problem with allegory and sermonizing. The second half of the picture, though containing some emotionally moving moments of personal revelations, becomes little more than an extended dialogue more akin to a play than a movie. It gets a bit too talky at times, full of slogans and wise sayings that becomes heavy handed.

Rather than bringing out the truth through dramatic story, as the first half does, the second half becomes a sermon, which becomes a weakness story-wise.

That said, I have to admit that the writing itself is quite strong. Though I would get a bit tired of the lecturing, it was still well written and I had no cringe moments like I do with most Christian movies. I disagreed with some significant stuff, but I didn’t cringe because the dialogue came out of well-developed characters.

Also, you don’t have to agree with everything in it to appreciate the conversation, as well as recognizing what good arguments are made.

The Heresy

A couple of things were deeply troubling to the overall attempt to maintain an orthodox Christian approach to the meaning of suffering and a good God: The depiction of God the Father, and a contextual universalism that virtually ignores the justice of God. Let me explain.

I thought the respect of the Trinity was mostly fair. I even loved one moment at the end when Mack asks the Trinity if he will still be with him, and the Spirit says, “I always was,” the Son says, “I always am” and Poppa says, “I always will be.” And another moment of humor when Mack first asks, “Are you…?” implying God, and Poppa says, “I am. I am that I am.” All humorous, yet perfectly orthodox moments.

There are some nods to relativism that creep in. The God of the Bible is likened to the Great Spirit of Native American religion. The Poppa figure says, “I have many names,” and a few other moments, like Poppa saying that she had a particular fondness for Neil Young. Really? Neil Young, the pantheist Rock and Roller?

Okay, if these storytellers are Christians, they are either trying too hard to be postmodern and placate non-Christians and other religions or they do not understand the exclusivist nature of the God of the Bible. Maybe both.

Now, I know there is an uproar in some Christian circles about depicting God as a violation of the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them (Ex 20:4-5).

I have argued elsewhere that depicting the Son is not a violation of this commandment because a) it is his humanity you are depicting, not his deity, and b) as long as it is not an icon for worship, you are not violating the prohibition, which is the irrefutable context of the command. If worship of the image was not the context, then the command would have to be interpreted as prohibiting the depiction of all realistic art, which is patently contradictory, especially since God had them depict things in heaven and earth IN THE TEMPLE ITSELF.

The Spirit may be depicted as a dove at Christ’s baptism, and the Father may be in the Angel of Yahweh in the Old Testament who shows up in several places (But is that the Father?). So the issue is grayer when it comes to depicting the Father and the Spirit. I don’t like it, but it is surely debateable, but not necessarily heretical.

Look, I have no problem with turning unbiblical assumptions upside down. For instance, the movie correctly shows that the idea of God as an old man with a white beard is itself a cultural bias that is not biblical. Same thing with race. That ain’t the problem. But when you contradict the revelation, that is a different story.

A Little Deconstruction of Gender

The movie tries to make the point that God can choose to reveal himself however he wants. And he does in Scripture. His presence is sometimes as a pillar of fire or even as a warrior angel of Yahweh or a dove. The movie does this as well, because it explains that God depicted himself as a woman from Mack’s past because he wasn’t ready for a father image since his own father abused him. And then later, Mack needed a father with him, so God (“Poppa”) manifested himself as a father. Fair enough. I truly believe the storytellers tried to avoid transforming God into a goddess by stressing his essence as loving and caring untied to a specific gender.

But nevertheless, in the Bible, all members of the Trinity always use the male gender as their self-revelation. Metaphors in the Bible of nurturing traits like a hen are not gender specific, so they don’t count as female gender. Metaphor is similarity, NOT identity. But when it comes to gender identity, God never reveals himself through pronouns other than male.

Go ahead and call that bigotry, but then you will find yourself in the place of Mack, being the self-designated judge over God himself. Good luck with that.

I find it particularly revealing that in our culture that demands we accept the self-designated gender of all persons, this movie then denies that same respect to God by NOT accepting his self-designated gender (again, being judge over God).

If we do not accept a man who chooses to be called female, we are a bigot, but we are allowed to deny God’s choice to be called by male pronouns? I would call that the ultimate bigotry. Again, I do not think the storytellers were aware of this contradiction, but using today’s standards, that would make it unconscious bigotry, because they have internalized the prejudices of our society without even realizing it. So they try to be respectful of Christian notions of the Trinity, but don’t realize they are actually engaging in cultural appropriation of Christian culture.

Shame shame says this Biblical Justice Warrior 🙂

The issue here is that this unfortunately reinforces the anti-biblical agenda of our modern society. By relativizing gender distinction within the Creator’s own identity, you reduce gender to arbitrary social construction. This is anti-scientific, science denial that denies the gender distinction created by God within the biology of the human race (Gen 1:27). Both male and female are together in the image of God, but they are distinct and separated identities that function as a unity within diversity (rooted in the Trinity). This movie’s gender relativity sadly makes it captive to cultural accommodation as well.

There is another moment when Mack says some thick-headed statement and Poppa says, “Men. Such idiots sometimes.” How peculiarly offensive in our age of obsession with sexist accusations to engage in such flippant and insensitive sexism against men. And this double standard is acceptable? So I guess it’s not okay to be sexist against women, but it’s totally okay to be sexist against men (I’m being ironic. The hypocrisy and contradiction of all these “ism” accusations can only self-destruct or rather, self-deconstruct). I call for a March on Washington against this gender shaming! #OscarsSoMaleBashing! How about a Day Without a Man to show you how idiotic the world is without us? Logical consistency is a b***h, isn’t it?

Redemption

This is an area where I changed my mind the more I thought about it.

On the surface, the movie affirms over and over again our need to trust God and have faith in him in a generic sense, but when it comes to redemption, it will require a bit more thoughtfulness to catch the underlying specific Christian theme of redemption here.

The moment of Mack’s redemption lies in facing Wisdom in the cave where he realizes that he is fallen and has sought to define good and evil apart from God. When he sees that even his loved ones are not ultimately good by God’s standards, Mack says he doesn’t want to be judge, he’s not capable. His condemnation of God choosing to save some and not others is rightfully shown as fallacious when Wisdom gives Mack the choice of which of his children he must save and which he must not. He then says, “Take me instead.”

Herein lies Mack’s redemption. While it is laudable that he seeks self-sacrifice for others, no man can indeed die for another man’s sins. This is the moment where Mack should learn that he is unable to pay for his or anyone else’s sins. That Jesus in fact did for him what he wanted but could not do for his children. But that moment does not arrive. Mack is simply redeemed without apparent reference to Christ by his own self-sacrifice.

BUT… and that is a big but…

The connection was made earlier to Jesus, being taken in our place when Mack was talking with Poppa. Jesus died for us. God took him instead. That was made clear.

Now back to Mack’s revelation…

Mack is then “baptized” in a waterfall as a symbol of that redemption. And this waterfall was the symbol of another story of sacrifice from earlier in the story. Mack tells little Missy, before she was abducted, about the Native American legend of the origin of the waterfall. And that legend is about a little girl who sacrifices herself to save her tribe, that then creates the waterfall. Missy then equates that to the Bible and asks, in obvious comparison, why Jesus had to die. Though Mack doesn’t believe the Bible at this point, we see he is also in denial and will ultimately embrace it. So the movie does play with brilliant visual and existential metaphors throughout that are quite satisfying on an artistic level.

At first blush, some Christians may not be satisfied with this subtle connection. They may even argue that the need for Christ’s sacrifice at Mack’s most important moment is too vague or unclear. But I would argue, it is there in a symbolic and creative way.

And to be honest, when you are talking Hollywood, this may be the only way they could communicate that truth since most studios are not tolerant of a message that communicates the Gospel of Jesus Christ with clarity. Some Christians may say that is cowardice. But when you are operating within an oppressive environment, sometimes the only way you can get your message out is to imply it.

The reality is that because of the Christophobia of our culture, if Jesus Christ was the clear redemptive answer in this story, it would have been derided as preachy, not because it was preachy, but simply because it is not acceptable as an answer, so it is dismissed by definition. So in that context, I would argue that this movie does embody that sacrificial atonement of Christ, albeit in a more subtle way than some would accept.

Another valid criticism might be that there is a relativistic equivalency of all religions when the Great Spirit of American Native religion in that waterfall story is equated to the God of the Bible. Which leads us to the next issue…

Universalism

Another problem that reared its ugly head in this story was universalism.

While the Poppa figure does deconstruct some of Mack’s false notions of judgment and punishment, the problem comes when the very notion of punishment virtually vanishes from the storyline.

God says, “I don’t need to punish people. Sin is its own punishment.” This is an arguably blasphemous contradiction to the God of the Bible who “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:6–8). While we do reap what we sow, sin doesn’t punish us, God does. Again, not politically correct for precious snowflakes who want a safe space for their sin, but the hard truth.

Mack’s judgment of the killer of his daughter is diffused by the appeal to the notion that people only do bad because they were victim themselves. The sins of the Father become a kind of excuse rather than an indicting truth. Even the killer was abused by his father. And Mack is reminded that he is guilty of killing his father. But rather than this showing that we are all guilty and deserving of judgment, it serves to deflect all judgment with a “Gotcha” style diversion. Later, Poppa says that the killer too is God’s child.

Now the problem with this is that it fails to explain any kind of repentance, so the viewer is left rather with the impression that everyone is forgiven without repentance as part of the equation. Mack must forgive the killer of his daughter but without any real justice.

There is no justice in the context. The impression is clearly that hell and punishment are deconstructed out of the picture as our own biases projected onto God.

There is no real affirmation of ultimate punishment or judgment of sin in this story. Poppa simply says “Nobody gets away,” but the problem is that in this story, everybody does get away. There is no ultimate judgment affirmed, only forgiveness. Nobody is ultimately judged.

The problem of a loving God without justice is that he is a most cruel and vicious monster, who allows the ongoing torture of his victims who receive no justice for the crime done against them.

Yes, the power of grace is that Jesus pays the price of justice and we don’t get what we deserve. But that is only for those who repent in Christ, not for those who do not. In Christ there is a perfect unity of justice and mercy. But the condition of that application of salvation is repentance. As Jesus said, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3) There is no salvation without repentance, and repentance is mysteriously absent from the picture of everyone else’s redemption except Mack’s.

In the Bible, there is an ultimate judgment of many whose sins are not forgiven. That balance to mercy is effectively kept out of this story, much like the typical fake news problem we have with the mainstream media avoiding inconvenient truths.

I’m willing to accept that this may be a case where the storytellers are so focused on correcting a fallacious view of God as all wrathful without love, that they unwittingly go to the other extreme of depicting him as all forgiving without wrath. Or maybe they are postmodern and don’t believe in hell or ultimate judgment for sins. I just don’t know.

Fearful Symmetry

So I consider this a movie that is a messy conversation of good, bad, orthodoxy and heterodoxy.

For that reason some will condemn it.

I had a mixed reaction. I found the discussion flawed and confused, but creatively worthy and interesting despite those flaws.

 

6 comments on “The Shack: The Good, The Bad, and the Heresy

  • I think you’re stretching to make some things inaccurate with a clearly fictional film that is intending to show the goodness of God, not be a doctrinal bible.

    Gen 5:2 “He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them Man in the day when they were created.” The bible was written by men for a male dominant society inspired by the holy spirit. And, in Hebrew culture, the Shekinah Glory of god is a feminine representation. We could argue this point but the gender side of your argument is unnecessary.

    Some of the other points about God loving a sinner like Bruce Springsteen is also unnecessary. Of course he’s fond of him, he loves us all and in Romans8:35-39 tells us that nothing shall separate us from the love of God. I love all my kids even when they reject my instruction and I don’t approve of their actions I still love them and according to scripture I’m evil so how much more then God.

    It seems that your biggest contention is over sin, and there is much debate in the Christian circles about grace and it’s role in sin, judgment, and punishment. So condemning a fictional movie for not representing your ideal is also a bit unnecessary.

    No one’s opinion of God will be swayed by this movie simply because the doctrine doesn’t match specific denominational beliefs. What is likely to happen though is the people who have seen God as a mean judge who’s out to make everyone feel bad will probably get a fresh perspective.

    Reply
  • I’ve read several reviews on this movie and I think this one covered every ‘issue’ I would probably have with it. I read the book shortly after it became a hit, when I was a little less ‘spiritually mature’ and totally overlooked any universalism … and I’d been dealing with some issues similar to that of the character Mack. I think if I were to pick it up and give it a re-read, I may see more of that, but frankly, I just don’t want to read it. I probably won’t bother with this one in the theater, but I may give a look-see when it debuts on DVD.

    Reply
  • Darla Melancon says:

    I read the book, but have not seen the movie yet. I have walked with our Lord for almost 50 years. What I loved was the expression of how our loving God will meet us in our brokenness. He comes to us as we are able to connect with Him. Many people, who I have met with through the years were not able to tolerate referring to God as father because the images of a father was so warped and distored by an abusive dad. I know someone who prayed to Aslan for several years until God brought enough healing to his heart so that he could begin to see & understand what God means when He refers to Himself as Father. This movie expressed how God wants to meet us in our brokenness and lead us towards healing.
    I agreed with most of what you wrote. And I think you critic was the most fair, just that I have read. I disagree with you concern of universalism regarding Poppa stating, “I have many names.” Scripture tells us God has many names: King of kings, Lord of lords, Jehovah Jirah, Jehovah Nissi, El Shadai, and so on. I will agree with you that the movie does not the clearly explain the need for repentance. Our awesome God, can speak through a donkey if He desires, so who am I to say what He can or cannot use. I hope & pray that He will use this movie to draw individuals to Him. Individuals who may never have started towards Him any other way. He is able to deal with what may be left out of a movie. Give Him credit for being bigger enough overcome human flaws.

    Reply
  • I haven’t seen the movie yet, but in Brian’s defense, this critique sounds pretty fair and balanced to me. When it comes to faith-based fare in Hollywood, because the pickings are so few and rarely very satisfying, I think it’s important for those of us in the faith to acknowledge what IS good and commendable in each of these movies — showing our appreciation, in other words, that the faith-based genre even exists, and also that it is (in my humble opinion) improving — while also pointing out where the flaws are, whether they be doctrinal or artistic.

    I believe this is the only way “our” films will get better over time: when we’re equally celebratory and constructively critical of them, and also when we start “demanding” more substantive films about faith — films that REALLY tell the truth about what it’s like to know God, Jesus, the Word of God, salvation, redemption, forgiveness, etc., as told/written by Christians who’ve genuinely experienced them.

    As far as I’m concerned, Brian always brings both elements to the table in his blogs and commentaries — the celebration, if you will, as well as the necessary criticism — which is why I so enjoy reading him. He also is quite profound each time. Case in point:

    “If we do not accept a man who chooses to be called female, we are a bigot, but we are allowed to deny God’s choice to be called by male pronouns? I would call that the ultimate bigotry. Again, I do not think the storytellers were aware of this contradiction, but using today’s standards, that would make it unconscious bigotry, because they have internalized the prejudices of our society without even realizing it.”

    And…

    “Yes, the power of grace is that Jesus pays the price of justice and we don’t get what we deserve. But that is only for those who repent in Christ, not for those who do not. In Christ there is a perfect unity of justice and mercy. But the condition of that application of salvation is repentance. As Jesus said, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3) There is no salvation without repentance, and repentance is mysteriously absent from the picture of everyone else’s redemption except Mack’s.”

    Again, I have yet to see the film, but knowing Hollywood standards and politics like I do (I work in the industry, as well as study it closely), I couldn’t agree more with the former excerpt, and the latter one is an excellent point about an integral, can’t-skip-over-it component to our faith that I, too, often find lacking in the majority of “commercial” faith-based films like this one. So, well said, Brian!

    Reply
  • Mary Gunderson says:

    Thanks for your assessment of the movie. I didn’t read the book, so this was my first introduction to what universalism is. I’m a very deep thinker and I liked the movie. I had a lot of “aha” moments. I am, however, unsettled about the concept of “repentance”. If it means to change my mind, I have. I changed my mind about the nature of God. If the bible states “what must I do to be saved” and the response is “believe” that leads me to ask, believe what? I believe He loved me enough to purchase my life with His Life 2,000 years ago to restore my relationship to Him. Believing that was a progression though as my biological dad was abused so he didn’t know another way other than to abuse his own children, but God. The Lord restored.

    Reply
    • Hi, Mary, Thank you for sharing your own spiritual journey here. Yes, you are right, repentance means to change one’s mind as you wrote. To realize that we are wrong and God is right and we have violated his Law. I appreciate what you say about believing in his shed blood as your purchase. I think that is exactly what the Bible asks us to do. May God bless you as you seek him!

      Reply

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