A Love Theologian Reviews The Shack
I watched The Shack twice last weekend. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the movie. It presents God in a way I mostly find helpful. But some ideas didn’t sit well with me.
To put my review in context, I should say a few words about me. I’m a university professor of theology and philosophy who endorses open and relational theology. I’m the author or editor of more than 20 books, including my recent book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (IVP Academic).
My comments in this essay pertain to the movie. It the basic plot of the book by the same name. But, of course, the movie doesn’t include all the book’s details and dialogue.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of The Shack, it revolves around the abduction and killing of young girl called “Missy.” The girl’s Father – Mackenzie, or Mac – cannot fathom how a loving and powerful God could allow such horrible evil.
Mac gets a strange letter summoning him back to the shack at which police found his dead daughter. Mac returns, finds no one, and nearly commits suicide. Upon leaving the shack, Mac encounters a young man who invites him to meet God. Mac accepts and spends several days speaking with God as trinity. God as Father is played by a Black woman, the Son is played by an actor with middle-eastern features, and the Holy Spirit is played by an Asian actress. Mac also climbs to a cave and meets Wisdom (played by a white woman). I mention the gender and race of the actors, because they play an important role in how the author, Paul Young, wants the reader to think about God.
The vast majority of the movie portrays Mac in conversation God and those who have died. Mac has questions about evil and suffering, guilt and forgiveness. And he gets answers, while being questioned himself.
Depicting God in Movies
Before I explore the key issues raised by The Shack, let me say a few words about the attempt to portray God in movies.
If God in whom people believe cannot be depicted in movies. Most believers think God is omnipresent and unseen. Consequently, no image could portray God.
The Shack depicts God as three individual people (or four, if you count Wisdom). I admit this way of depicting God is not my favorite, but I don’t think it amounts to a major criticism. It strikes me a little too much like tri-theism. But as I said, it’s impossible to picture God.
I like when God is portrayed as personal, so that’s a plus for The Shack, in my view. And this movie’s portrayal of God is better than Oh, God’s George Burns, Bruce Almighty’s Morgan Freeman, or Dogma’s Alanis Morrisette.
My Overall Opinion of The Shack
I liked this movie. The acting and cinematography was average; I doubt it will win any academy awards. But the theological issues it addresses are incredibly important. And the movie kept my attention throughout.
What I like most about The Shack is its emphasis upon God’s love. Like many people, Mac views God as stern, wrathful, and an aloof sovereign king. But the movie portrays God as warm, loving, accepting, and caring.
In the movie, God is called “Papa” by Mac’s daughter and others. This reminds me, of course, of Jesus saying God is “abba,” which is a name of intimacy. God in The Shack often talks about being “especially fond” of people.
The atmosphere at the shack when the Trinity is present is one of joy, laughter, dancing, smiles, understanding, and openness. It made me want to hang out with them all, and I liked that!
Evil and Suffering
I like that the writers have Mac ask God the hard questions about evil and suffering. “You have unlimited power,” Mac says to Papa, “but you let my Missy die!” At another point in the movie, Mac says to God, “you have a bad habit of turning your back on those you supposedly love.”
The movie offers several answers to Mac’s questions about evil and suffering. I like most of them. Here are the answers I like:
God Doesn’t Cause Evil – The Shack portrays God as one who does not cause evil. “I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies,” says God. “But that doesn’t mean I orchestrate them.”
God is Present in the Midst of Suffering – God as portrayed in the movie is with those who suffer, feeling their pain, and working for good. “I’m in the middle of everything,” says God, “working for your good.” Papa talks about the death of the Son and says, “What my Son chose to do cost us both dearly. Love leaves a mark. We were there together. I never left him. I never left you.”
God Wants to Heal Those Who Suffer – Mac growls at God, “My daughter is dead. There’s nothing you could say that could justify that.” The Spirit responds, “We are not justifying anything. We would like to heal it. If you would let us.” Later in the movie, God says to Mac, “If pain is left resolved, you can forget what you were created for. That’s not what I want for you.”
God Doesn’t Punish – In one of my favorite parts of the movie, God denies Mac’s claim that God punishes creatures. “Everyone knows you punish the people who disappoint you,” say Mac. God responds: “No. I don’t need to punish. Sin is its own punishment.”
What I Don’t Like in The Shack
While there is much to like about The Shack, the movie doesn’t solve the most difficult question we (and Mac) ask: “Why doesn’t God PREVENT genuine evil?”
The movie rightly says God doesn’t cause evil. But whenever Mac asks the more difficult question – why doesn’t God prevent evil – he gets either silence or an appeal to mystery.
For instance, Mac says, “You’re the almighty God with limitless power. But you let my little girl die. You abandoned her.” Instead of God giving an answer for why God let the girl die, God responds, “I was always with her.”
At one point in the film, Mac asks, “What good comes from being murdered by a sick monster? You don’t stop evil.” He gets no answer. Mac says, “God may not do evil, but he didn’t stop the evil. How can Papa allow Missy’s death?” Again, no answer.
The best Wisdom can say in response to Mac’s questions is this: “What happened to Missy is the work of evil. No one in your world is immune from it.” But that’s not a satisfying answer.
Several times, God says to Mac that “you misunderstand the mystery.” In the garden scene, the Spirit says, “You’re trying to make sense of the world looking at an incomplete picture.” In the cave scene, Wisdom questions Mac’s ability to know good and evil from his limited perspective.
The Problem with Mystery
While I like much about The Shack, my major objection is that it appeals to mystery on the question of why God doesn’t prevent evil.
Of course, anytime we think about the ways of God, we must admit to knowing in part. Some role for mystery is necessary, in the sense that we should never say our views of God are 100% true. We cannot be certain what we believe about God is entirely true.
But when appealing to mystery on this key issue, The Shack’s helpful claims about God’s love are undermined! Here’s what I mean:
The major idea of The Shack is that we should come to accept, deep down, that God loves us. I totally buy that idea, and it has been a central theme in much of my work. But when the Spirit and Wisdom scold Mac for thinking he can judge what is loving or not loving, the implicit claim is that we cannot know the meaning of love.
If we cannot know the meaning of love, why should we feel good that God loves us? If we cannot judge what is loving in one case, we can’t know what is loving in the other. It makes no sense for God to want Mac to know divine love, and then turn around and question Mac’s ability to know what is loving.
I’ve written about the proper role of mystery elsewhere. Here’s a link to my blog essay, “Avoiding the Mystery Card.”
An Answer for The Shack
As I see it, The Shack could have overcome the problem of appealing to mystery and the problem of our knowing what is loving. It could have done so if it had said God cannot prevent evil unilaterally. Paul Young should consider reconceiving God’s power.
My own work has focused on this crucial issue. I’ve argued for a view I call “essential kenosis,” which says God’s nature of love necessarily self-gives and other-empowers. Because God must love in this way, God cannot withdraw, override, or fail to provide freedom to others, including those who use that freedom to do horrific things like kill little girls.
I’ve written about this in many places, including as the central theme of my book The Uncontrolling Love of God. If you can’t get the book, you might check this blog essay for the key ideas, “God Can’t.”
Other Themes of Note
To conclude, let me mention a few other parts of the movie that struck me as important.
Not Religion: About Jesus – In the conversation between Jesus and Mac, Jesus says, “Religion is way too much work. I don’t want slaves. I want friends.” He also says that he’s not interested in label as much as seeing people transformed. “I don’t care what you call [people who follow me],” says Jesus, “I just want people to change by knowing me. To feel truly loved.”
Free Will – I’m a theologian who believes we have genuine but limited freedom. I was happy to see the themes of freedom in the movie. “You’re free to go anytime,” God tells Mac. “I don’t want prisoners.” Jesus says to Mac: “You can do whatever you want. You’re free to choose.” And when Mac asks, “Does what I do really matter?” God responds, “Absolutely! The universe changes for the better with your kindness. If anything matters, then everything matters.”
Forgiveness – Some of the most powerful moments in the movie pertained to forgiving those who do evil. Mac has been abused by his father. In one scene, he meets his deceased father in a scene the bridges this life and the next. Mac forgives his father. Mac also forgives the man who killed his daughter, Missy. He learns that forgiving benefits him more than anyone else. Forgiveness is an important part of healing the hurts we carry. I always need to be reminded of this truth.
I recommend The Shack. It argues powerfully that God is always loving and especially fond of every one of us. It rightly says God is with us in our suffering, does not orchestrate evil, does not punish, and works to bring healing.
The movie doesn’t answer, however, the question why God doesn’t prevent evil in the first place. For an answer to that question, I recommend my own work, especially as expressed in The Uncontrolling Love of God. As I see it, God cannot prevent evil unilaterally, because God’s love is self-giving, others-empowering, and always uncontrolling.
Thomas Jay Oord