The Shack Film Review
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50711811My wife and I recently went to see The Shack and were pleasantly surprised and actually enjoyed it. My wife thought the movie was rather slow, but she still enjoyed it and thought it was really well done. Of course my interest is in theology, so I will provide a theological critique of the film. I do so with some amount of trepidation, knowing how passionate good people are on both sides of this debate.
I have not read the book, but given all the negative book reviews I read which contained many quotes from the book, I had my doubts about the film. These reviews were not only about The Shack book, but also another recently published non-fiction book by the same author, Wm. Paul Young, called Lies We Believe About God. It seems fairly straightforward that, at least in a number of cases, what was latent theology in the former came out quite explicitly in the latter, and the end result is not good, sound theology… I dare say it is likely heretical. For a great critique of the latter, see Tim Challies’ recent review.
Nonetheless, the movie is not the books, and to claim that the former must be viewed in terms of the latter is simply a fallacious argument known as guilt by association. Just because Christian rock music is associated with atheist rock music, for example, is no good reason to throw the former out. It must be weighed on its own merits.
My buddy Adam Hammill is friends with the producers, and he affirmed this point about guilt by association by claiming that producers removed many of the more controversial aspects of the book for the film. Hammill was right. I did not find any heretical material in the film. It is an overtly Christian film.
This is not to say that I thought the film was perfect. It’s not Scripture; it’s a fallible piece of art, so of course it had problems. What film doesn’t have problems? However, for me, any theologically negative aspects never put it outside the household of faith. The things you and I may disagree with are matters of denominational bents or various Christian perceptions. Sure, the truth may be missed in certain areas and Christians hold to all sorts of false doctrinal matters. For example, Christians cannot all be right concerning their eschatological views, and as such, some have to be wrong. The Left Behind book and film come to mind.
Further, the good presented in The Shack far outweighed the bad, and I think believers as well as non-believers may be greatly benefited from watching it. For that matter, we may still be benefited doing what God told us to do by focusing on and holding to the good despite whatever bad we are presented (e.g., Phil. 4:8 and 1 Thes. 5:21).
So in this essay, I am going to tackle some of the major problems Christians have about the books being transferred into the film. The primary benefit of the film I will leave to the viewer. One may treat my work here as a sort of “negative” apologetic for the film. In other words, if I can knock out what keeps certain Christians from going to watch it, then perhaps more will be open-minded enough to go and see it.
Much has been stated about the confusion of the Godhead portrayed in the film. The Babylon Bee even had a satirical piece concerning this point. The film portrays the Godhead as “Papa” being primarily a black woman (later and briefly as an older Asian man), the Son being a Middle Eastern guy, and the Holy Spirit being an Asian woman. There is another character later called “Wisdom” who is a Latino woman, and some may speculate that this may be another member of the Godhead.
Isn’t this confusing the nature of the Godhead? Perhaps, but if one is attempting to ground one’s theology from a movie, then one simply needs to develop their thinking more. Further, just because something may be confusing is no reason why one should avoid it altogether. If that were the case, then why bother learning from the Bible, which admits of itself there are certain parts that are “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16)? Or why even expect our kids to learn anything for that matter? Those ABC’s are pretty confusing to a three-year-old, for example.
Any physical presentation of the divine is by definition going to be limited, including the fact that God incarnated in the human nature of Jesus of Nazareth. He became weak and limited for our sakes. This also includes all the theophanies of the Old and New Testament (the Holy Spirit descended in the “bodily form of a dove” in Luke 3:22). This also includes the language used to describe God with physical characteristics (“eyes,” “ears,” “nose,” “hand,” “finger,” “feathers,” etc.). Despite what Mormons may claim, none of this is supposed to indicate that God in His nature is in fact a man. On the basis of what the Bible as well as nature clearly teach, we should all know that God is the omnipotent, omnipresent Creator of all things outside His own being. As such, we should understand that this invisible and immaterial being can easily take on any form He wants. C. S. Lewis put it this way:
“What did the early Christians believe? Did they believe that God really has a material palace in the sky and that He received His Son in a decorated state chair placed a little to the right of His own?--or did they not? The answer is that the alternative we are offering them was probably never present to their minds at all. As soon as it was present, we know quite well which side of the fence they came down. As soon as the issue of Anthropomorphism was explicitly before the Church in, I think, the second century, Anthropomorphism was condemned. The Church knew the answer (that God has no body and therefore couldn't sit in a chair) as soon as it knew the question” ("Is Theology Poetry?," The Weight of Glory [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001], 131-2).
God is infinitely greater than any of our appearances!
This is the point of the second commandment of no graven images, which some have used as a reason why there should not be any portrayal of God in film. I would think that most of these same people would have no problem with Cru's The Jesus movie or any other film portraying Christ. Yet Christ is God who took on human form. So there really should be absolutely no portrayal of Christ? That's quite a hard pill to swallow for almost all Christians. This is one of the arguments Jews and others have issued against Christians. Christ was a man with flesh and bones (Luke 24:39 and 1 Tim. 2:5), and Christ was rightly worshipped (Mat. 4:10 and 28:16-20). Christians claim there is no breaking the second commandment because the point of it is not to limit our worship to a physical form. The context is the first commandment, which says that only one God is to be worshipped.
So if Christ can be portrayed in film, then there should be no reason why one can't represent his vision of the other members of the Trinity in film. Are these same Christian critics going to rule out a scene from Christ's baptism where the Holy Ghost is portrayed as a dove? Again, that is quite a hard pill to swallow.
"But the Father never took on an appearance" some may object. Perhaps. Some Christians actually think the men who appeared to Abraham were members of the Trinity, and even if we disagree with this interpretation, we wouldn't label them as heretics for holding it. Whether this interpretation is true or not is really beside the point that in theory or visionary form, the Father is powerful enough to appear at least in principle and if He does, we should all know that God is not limited to an image. The Christian worship is not about appearances. It's about the orientation of one's whole life around the Creator of the universe, who no physical representation is adequate. By definition, the Omnipresent cannot be physical in His nature.
Well isn’t a portrayal of the Godhead as separate human beings teaching the doctrine of tritheism (i.e., that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate Gods)? Again, the problem is being locked into appearances. Just because something appears a certain way doesn’t necessarily entail one has the whole truth on the matter. For example, when a stick is placed in water it appears bent. It’s not that the stick magically transforms into being bent when placed in water. The stick is still straight. Similarly, just because the Almighty may show up in a vision or dream as three separate individuals in no way determines that the Almighty actually is three separate individuals or Gods.
The Bible is clear that there is only one Creator or God and this one Creator is in His nature always--from everlasting to everlasting--three different, inseparable, non-material Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Bible is also clear that 2,000 years ago one of the Persons took on an additional physical nature to die for our sins. This is the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.
Now what about the portrayal of Wisdom in the film? Did this entail the film was advocating that there is more than three individuals in the Godhead? Perhaps that could be read into it, but it certainly did not necessitate it. Nothing tells the viewer as to the identity of Wisdom. However, since we know the Bible teaches that Christ is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), there is no reason why we can’t think that this is an appearance of the Son. Papa changed appearances in the film, so for all we know perhaps the Son did as well.
Modalism teaches the opposite of tritheism as well as the doctrine of the Trinity. Modalism says that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit turn out to be simply one person with simply different modes of appearing. I have a mode of appearing as a husband to my wife, a father to my kids, and a son to my parents. However, I am still one person. This heretical doctrine is rather difficult to square with the film’s portrayal of three simultaneous persons who interact with each other.
Prior to seeing the film, I knew that the book as well as the film showed Papa having scars in her wrists. I had a hard time understanding what was going on here until I saw the film. The point was that Papa had so identified with His Son’s agony that the former also took on the nail prints. It was not a statement that Papa died on the cross, which would have been heretical.
To put it another way, think of the stigmata. The stigmata is a reference to a miracle in which one receives bodily marks like the nail prints of Christ. It identifies the individual with the crucifixion of Christ. Whether you believe this happens or not is beside the point. The point is there is another sense going on here than simply assuming the sense of modalism. Even if you disagree that the Father would ever self-identify in some possible visionary form, I don’t see where someone who holds to this should be labeled as heretical and outside the faith.
Ceasationism is a relatively late minority view in the Church that God cannot or does not speak to reveal new information in visions, prophecies, or manifest other sign gifts these days after the establishment of the New Testament. As such, these proponents would have a very difficult time with this movie, since God is speaking in a visionary way to the main character, Mac.
It is only the most divisive proponents of this teaching that would claim that most of those in the history of the Church are heretical for holding that God may and does speak to individuals these days in such extraordinary ways to convey new information. D. L. Moody, Walter Martin, J. P. Moreland, Chuck Smith, and billions of others would have to be considered heretical on this view. The vast majority of ceasationists would never go this far. So instead of answering all the biblical arguments for this position, I simply don’t think it is worthy to waste anymore time on it. Ceasationists have quite the burden of proof here. As such, this is no good reason to avoid the film.
Univeralism is the view that basically teaches there is no hell where one suffers outside the presence of God for eternity. There are various versions of universalism, and from what I have read of Wm. Paul Young, he certainly advocates a form of it. That certainly may be read into different parts of the movie, but then again, I don’t think it needs to be.
Much has been made of Papa’s claim that “sin is it’s own punishment.” However that doesn’t do away with further punishment in hell. Eternal punishment wasn’t even mentioned, because that wasn’t the point of the film. There is no scripture that says that every Christian story must contain every aspect of the Christian faith (whatever that would be).
The story is that God is dealing with a specific character, Mac, in a specific way. Far be it from us to put God in a box and demand how He must always act for every particular individual. God demands that the believing wife submit in loving her unbelieving husband by not saying a word in order to convert him (1 Pet. 3:1-5). However God used Paul to preach to the crowds in such a way that it ticked them off and landed him in jail and eventually beheaded. God obviously does not have a one-size-fits-all approach.
The focus of this film is the problem of evil and forgiveness. Mac has been traumatized and is in need of God’s intervention. Mac is like the individual in scripture who believes, but asks the Lord to help his unbelief (Mk. 9:23-25). As such, we should expect the Lord to intervene in a specific way to help Mac’s specific situation. The film portrays this in a powerful way and can help the viewer to trust God for his or her specific situation. The film does this without promoting heresy even though we may have liked additional information to be conveyed, particularly to all the unbelievers who will be watching this.
My suggestion is to go and promote the film and be ready to give reasons for your faith (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15). In addition to offering some direction on the problem of evil and forgiveness, the film is an imperfect tool to get the conversation going with believers and unbelievers alike.
President, Courageous Christians United
March 28, 2017