First of all let me just say from the outset that it’s neither my job nor my goal to tell you what to think. My goal is to help you to think. I’ll be making some points that I think are worth your consideration but at the end of the day you need to think for yourself. With that in mind let’s talk about The Shack Attack.
The Shack was a book written by Paul Young roughly a decade ago. Within a few years it had sold millions of copies and had likewise divided the Christian world down the middle. Some absolutely loved Young’s book saying it really helped them through their own wrestle of understanding God and particularly with relation to their own pain. Others called it outright heresy damning Paul Young for his use of graven images (Young paints God the Father as an African-American women named Papa, the Holy Spirit is an Asian women named Sarayu, and Jesus is a Middle Eastern carpenter – go figure) and some of the theological implications that are presented throughout the narrative. With the movie launching in Australia today the Christian world is once again divided with those who love it uses the movie to invite friends and family and those who hate it calling for Christians to boycott the movie and some even stating it would be sinful to go view such a movie.
If you don’t know the story it is of a man named Mack who experiences great tragedy. While on a camping trip Mack saved his son from drowning and in doing so looses track of his daughter as she is kidnapped and eventually murdered. Like I said, this book is based on great tragedy. After some years of deep struggle over his loss, Mack receives a letter from God asking Mack to meet Him at the very shack his daughter was murdered. After wrestling whether to go to the shack or not Mack ends up taking the risk and encounters “God” in a unexpected way as he is confronted with his own sadness and anger towards God. And the story unfolds.
If you choose to see this movie (or read the book) here are a few things to keep in mind.
- It’s a movie (book)
The Shack is fiction and fallible. It’s not the Bible. It’s not authoritative. It’s a story. A human story written by a human, seeking to narrate how humans may understand God in light of the pain that we humans experience. (That sentence may not be grammatically correct). In light of this, be careful allowing it to shape your worldview of God, pain, suffering and redemption. That’s why God gave you the Bible. Yeah but isn’t the Bible just a story written by humans also? Well in short. No! The Christian worldview is that the Bible is a story written by human hands but authored and inspired by the supernatural God. This is why we understand the Bible to be authoritative. It’s ultimately God’s story. If you are a Christian keep this in mind no matter what you are reading or watching. The Shack is not the only narrative to ever shape a community. I remember vividly in the 90’s Frank Peretti’s “This Present Darkness” series. Many Christian’s understanding of spiritual warfare was shaped by this fictional spiritual thriller. So whatever your flavour of entertainment, make sure the Bible is your source of truth. Filter everything through scripture.
- It has an agenda
With that in mind some have been prone to state that because The Shack is fiction is should not therefore be critiqued through a theological lens. In one sense I do believe some of those that are throwing the ‘heretic’ word around have not allowed for any room for the category of fiction. But to say it should not be critiqued with theology in mind is a little ignorant to the fact that every author has an agenda. Paul Young himself has admitted as much. So yes it’s a fictional movie, but it’s also a theological one. What is the theological point of the movie? I guess only Young can truly answer that question. Some have said his motivation was to try and explain the trinity in a way that is accessible and understandable. Others have stated that Young’s agenda was an ‘Arminian’ human free will expose. I’m not so sure. I get the sense that Young’s big drive is the wrestle of human suffering and how we understand God in the midst of it. I may be ignorant, and I’m not always the sharpest knife in the draw, but I understood this to be why the book was such a big hit. Like Rick Warren’s ‘Purpose Driven Life’, Paul Young was scratching where people were itching. In every age we ask the question, ‘why does a good God allow suffering?’ This is my reading of the author’s intent. I may be wrong. But if this is his agenda I think Young deserves some credit as a narrator. He hit the emotions exposing our struggle of pain.
- It has theological Implications
Because the author has an agenda and has chosen to use the genre of fiction to achieve that end it is important to consider the theological implications and our response. If Young’s agenda was to describe the trinity (that is the Christian view of one God, 3 persons – Father, Son, Spirit) in a way that was accessible to our human minds, I would suggest that a narrative is probably the most limited of methods. The Trinity cannot be explained by any one story. That’s why we have the Bible being 66 books. It’s stories over thousands of years, in all sorts of cultures and periods of time and people groups that give us insight into who God is and what He’s like. While I’m not convinced this was Young’s agenda, if it was he chose a poor medium and opened himself up to huge criticism. It’s one of the most complex theological categories that humans have been trying to explain for millenniums. A novel will always fall short. As for describing the Father and Spirit as women, there has been a plethora written as to the problems with this, but for me it was more the over emphasised nature of God being a sensitive friend. While it may be true that God is sensitive and gentle, and that he is our friend that is not all the Bible tells us about God. God is also sovereign ruler, righteous judge and holy king. Because He is such, the Bible treats sin differently than The Shack would indicate. Again it’s only a movie and therefore there’s limitations to how much of God’s nature can ever be fully fleshed out. But I would point people to read the Bible and filter The Shack through it. This way you are able to affirm things that are true about God in the story while maintaining it doesn’t describe all that is true about God.
I have two other additional questions for you to consider. 1) What does the Bible teach us about God and suffering? And 2) what does the Bible teach us about hearing from God. In my context, many Christians I meet believe that there is no category that includes Christian suffering. Suffering then points to our own sinful choices, and therefore we should repent and change leading to our suffering dissipating. Or we lack enough faith, and therefore if we can just muster up enough faith we’ll be free from experiencing suffering, pain, sickness or even failure. This worldview leaves God to be powerless and us to be our own saviours. The Bible however holds God’s sovereignty over all things and man’s responsibility in a unique tension that is not easily understood. But it absolutely does not in anyway teach that all suffering is out of God’s will and design nor is it absolutely a direct result of bad choices or lack of faith. Read the book of Job to see just one of many stories of the nuances involved in human suffering in the Bible.
Even more troubling in my context is the drift away from objective Bible to subjective mystical experiences. We are all tempted to create our own version of God and not allow him to reveal himself to us through scripture. This story, if allowed to influence your worldview, leans itself away from the Bible and to the subjective, internal, personal experience of God. Without a doubt all Christians have spiritual experiences that are subjective, internal and personal. But we are to interpret these in light of what scripture teaches not the other way around. We must remember that God has revealed himself to us through the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets. This testimony has been written down for us in scripture and it is in scriptures that we learn to understand God and ultimately hear from God. And here’s the best news. The Bible is so practical today. These ancient stories speak to us and help us to wrestle with the culture we currently live in. This for me is further evidence of God’s inspiration because it’s timeless.
So, if you want to read the book or watch the movie, go ahead. It’s just a movie after all. I don’t believe as some other respectable Christian pastors do, that to watch the movie would be sin. For me this would rule out practically every movie that misrepresents God. But if you do, do so with wisdom not ignorance, and do so allowing God’s word to be the filter through which you understand God, pain, suffering and redemption. I read the book and probably won’t see the movie more because it’s not my style than a boycott against bad theology. But that’s just me. You do you.