What would you do if someone offered you a beautiful piece of cake? It is intricately made with all of the frills possible. It is also superb to taste. You look at it and just know that your tastebuds will enjoy every bite. The positive attributes are many. It is one of the best technically made cakes out there but it comes with a warning.
A couple of the ingredients added to the cake were spoiled. The eggs were rotten or the milk was sour. The baker put them with the fresh ingredients. They don’t tell you which to watch out for either. It is all mixed together. But it is clear that parts of the recipe included were blended in with the good.
You are not guaranteed to get sick from eating the cake, but you could. Depending upon your strength, you may experience symptoms ranging from mild discomfort to violent illness. The bad ingredients are going to affect you in some way, it is just a question of whether it is noticeable.
Would you still eat the cake?
Even if you took the risk and ate it yourself, would you serve it to others?
Would you let your small children eat it? How about your frail grandparents?
This cake dilemma mirrors the one we are faced with the movie version of The Shack, William P. Young’s bestselling Christian novel. What should we as Christians do with a movie that is very well made and has parts that taste extremely sweet? One that is so powerful as to leave people in tears about the goodness of God at times but one that also contains clearly false statements about God? A movie that tastes good going down but has elements that are rotten and could make people spiritually sick.
Do we take it in and try to appreciate the good and while hoping not to get sick? Do we recommend it to the spiritually sick or immature because it can benefit in one way while knowing it could destroy them?
The short version of my review of The Shack movie is to answer these questions. While the movie has some good points to it and is one of the best technically made Christian movies I have seen, I would not recommend it and don’t wish to see it a second time. The filmmaker and authors projection of their own spiritual and theological issues onto God in the movie manage to taint everything about it. The willful inclusion of things that are enticing to our flesh yet misleading about God overcomes any possible benefit. It also prevents real enjoyment of the good aspects. It is just too far off the mark to want to push anyone to see it.
Obviously, this is an answer that each of us has to come to as individuals, parents, and leaders of church groups. I am writing this review to assist in that process.
The Shack is an emotionally powerful and well-told story that is at times beautifully portrayed on the screen. If you are unfamiliar with the storyline, here is the summary from Wikipedia:
Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips suffered physical and emotional abuse as a child at the hands of his drunken father. He witnessed similar abuse of his mother as well. There is the implication that as a 13-year-old boy he attempted to poison his father with strychnine. Whether he succeeded in killing the man is not entirely clear, although subsequent events suggest that he did. But as an adult, he has a bountiful life with his wife, Nan, and their three children: Kate, Josh, and Missy. His spiritual life though is shallow and impersonal with God.
Mack’s life is shattered, however, when their youngest child Missy disappears during a camping trip while he is saving Kate and Josh during a canoeing accident. The police determine Missy is the victim of a serial killer after finding her torn dress and blood in a vacant cabin. Kate blames herself for Missy’s death because of her own reckless behavior in causing the canoe accident in the first place. The tragedy derails Mack’s faith and life until the onset of winter when he receives an unstamped, typewritten note in his mailbox. The surrounding snow is devoid of any incriminating tracks. The message is signed “Papa” (which was Nan’s nickname for God) and invites him to meet at the cabin.
Thinking this may possibly be an opportunity for meeting and capturing or killing the serial killer, Mack drives himself there and, finding the ruined cabin cold and desolate and empty, is overcome with frustration, rage and an almost irresistible impulse to turn his handgun on himself. But he suddenly encounters a mysterious trio of strangers who invite him to stay at their well-furnished, cozy little house that is situated just down the path and, oddly, in the midst of a beautiful, sunshiny, summertime wilderness.
The trio of strangers gradually reveal their identities as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The purpose of their invitation is to first help him to better understand his life as seen from a much broader context or higher perspective. This realization helps free him from an inclination to pass judgment upon himself as well as upon everyone else who crosses his path. It is from that new starting point that he may then continue his long, slow journey into healing for himself and his family and forgiveness for himself as well as for those who have grievously harmed him and his loved ones.
The storyline in the movie stays generally true to that of the novel. Thus, the movie follows Mack as he journeys from great pain to joy and forgiveness in the Lord. The makers do an excellent job of conveying the huge loss suffered by Mack and his family. The horror and sheer randomness of such a grievous crime occurring to a loving family are palpable. It comes through to such an extent that I found myself in tears along with them.
Mack and his kids go from idyllic family camping fun to mourning over a too small and too empty coffin. The grief would be unimaginable. The movie does a good job of showing how it tears apart the surviving members. Mack and his wife appear to be barely holding it together and the two surviving children appear greatly troubled. Mack is covered with grief and filled with anger. It comes through in everything he does.
Much like as we see in life, it is only God who can heal wounds like these. As a Christian watching the movie with such understanding, we have an expectation and are looking forward to God making it better. The characters are suffering so much from a terrible event, it is all too easy to want to avoid any issues that come up just to reach a satisfying emotional conclusion. In my review of the book, I found this to be akin to emotional manipulation by the author and the same effect is present in the movie. Book Review is Here
The story arranges a meeting between God and man by taking Mack and sending him to the cabin where his daughter was killed. It is a terrible place for anyone to even contemplate. Instead of leaving him there in the abandoned cabin, God appears in the form of three persons plus one person – Father, Son and Holy Spirit and wisdom.
Great, God shows up, yay! Well, kind of. God is actually not God in the book. The characters that make up the god in The Shack are more like what God would be if the theology of William P. Young only defined God rather than the Bible.
God gave us His Word so we can understand Him better. William P. Young gave us The Shack so we can understand what he thinks God should be like. He creates a new improved God.
It is here in the depiction of God that the record starts to skip and one of the big issues with The Shack start to appear. William P. Young projects his personal issues and self-centered theology and those of his main character onto God. He turns the awesome God who holds the world together into an expression of self that looks an awful lot like the self-help mantras of daytime talk shows. You are ok, I am ok says the god characters of The Shack. We all just need to love each other more.
So because Mack and possible Young speaking through Mack have a problem with men, the Father appears as an African American woman, the Son as a non-threatening middle eastern man who will not even say he is God and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman.
As many others have stated, this is just a mess. Jesus spoke in parables and used depictions of God in order to help people understand God within our limitations. That is great. We often use similar examples to help us try to understand God from by looking at aspects of Him from our experience. Many writers use allegory to express attributes of God through parallel stories.
The problem comes when you say explicitly in any form that this character right here is God and then depict what God is like. There are reasons that God commands that there shall be no images made of Him – among other things no one can do Him justice. Being wrong on the issue can be very damaging as well. If you depart from the biblical narrative, you are likely wrong in doing so and often go into the land of heresy.
The story also projects the author onto God in how Mack and the god characters interact. Mack is sullen, angry and insolent and at one point angrily accuses the Papa character to her face. All three characters respond by stating that Mack just needs to understand how much they love him. We love you so much, don’t be angry with us. This man-centered viewpoint is just wrong.
God is love, right? I wrote a post not long ago about God is love, God = Love so what is the problem? And God does not wish anyone to perish. God is forgiving. Yes, these are all correct. They are truly awesome wonderful aspects of God’s character that we should be thankful for every day.
But God is also holy. He is also righteous. He is also glorious beyond all of our imaginations. Sitting on the throne of heaven is a God so magnificent that we have no comprehension of what it is like to come face to face with Him.
God the Father is not a woman or man for that matter who would ever make man breakfast. The Holy Spirit is not an Asian woman who is shrouded in zen-like mystery. It is a nice, sympathetic and culturally palatable view of these two persons of the Trinity, but it is simply inaccurate.
Jesus would have likely looked like a regular middle eastern man but He is also fully God with all the glory and holiness of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Jesus did make His disciples breakfast because of who He is – the sole mediator between God and man. He is both God and man. Portraying God as just loving and forgiving without anything more is terribly limiting.
It may make people better about the Father to picture Him as a kindly grandma, but it is a distortion of the God who sits on the throne of the Universe. It is a diminishing of aspects of God, His glory, power, and majesty in favor of His love for His people.
Jesus did not cross the divide that sin created between God and man to bring the Father to us to serve tea to man. He did so to bring man up to worship God. We are told to go boldly to the throne of grace not to have God come off His throne.
In the Bible, when people interact with the heavenly beings as they truly are, whether it be with angels or with God, the reaction of the people is dramatic. “Fear not” or “get up” are usually the first words spoken as the person has fallen on their face in awe or is terrified by the brilliant holiness before them.
God by nature is awesome and glorious and powerful and holy – it is who He is and He does not ever, ever, ever ( did I mention ever) apologize for it. You simply cannot understand God unless you understand His whole character.
Depicting God as serving tea to someone to make them feel better may make the reader feel better but it places the Creator as subject to the whims and emotions of the created.
God loves us but doesn’t cater to us and He certainly doesn’t lower Himself to placate us.
In our self-centered world, frankly, this is just about the last inaccurate picture of God we need to offer to people. We already have enough trouble lowering God down to our level.
Even despite these issues, I was hanging in there with the movie until it dealt with the issues of sin and punishment. More accurately, the movie obliterated the ideas of sin and punishment in favor of a general idea that God loves us so much that sin doesn’t matter.
The author evidently has an issue with the concept of responsibility for our own actions. Culpability for every wrong action by any of the characters is explained away by the god characters. Mack’s father in the story is a horribly abusive drunk but we are told that this should be excused and understood because his father was abused. We later see Mack’s unrepentant drunken abusive father in a picture of what is supposed to be heaven as strangely portrayed in the movie. Even the serial killer who murders Mack’s daughter is subtly given a free pass because his parents were abusive.
We just don’t understand their pain evidently. While this is a popular view in today’s culture and where culture has bled into the church, it is simply not even close to what the Bible says. Yes, God understands the pain that we suffer – Jesus wept with us – but we are also each responsible individually for what we do. The wages of sin is death. Free will allows us the ability to make bad choices, but God says explicitly that we are to give an account for every single one of those choices – for the good or for the bad. Pointing at anyone else as responsible for the decisions we make is not going to change that fact. We will stand before the throne of God alone.
The only free pass we get is through Jesus. It is free for us only because Jesus took our punishment for us. The sin was still sin, the pain was still real, and the judgment still sure and right.
Which leads to the moment which was somewhat shocking in its complete and total disregard of the real God. After Mack spends a good portion of the movie angry, he somewhat insolently asks the god character about wrath. The Father character answers by feigning ignorance about what the word “Wrath” means and then saying that she thinks sin is punishment enough. This is just nonsense. Where is the Captain Jean Luc Picard facepalm – there it is.
Put aside the Old Testament, if you will, and consider these Scriptures:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. Romans 1:18
From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. Revelation 19:15
God has wrath. It is different than what we think about when the word comes to mind. Man’s wrath is ugly and sinful because man is flawed. God is perfectly holy and just so His wrath is as well. God’s judgment and wrath are also clearly spelled out in the Bible. There will come a point where God’s judgment is going to poured out on the earth to settle accounts for what we as humans do to each other and to God on an everyday basis. There is no legitimate way to avoid that conclusion from God’s Word. The presence of a serial killer preying on little girls in the story would seem to make this a necessary conclusion. Yet, there is the god character making a point to the contrary. Ugh! At least they left out the part in the book where the god character says she is especially fond of the serial killer.
If God was truly like the character depicted in The Shack, why would we need Jesus? Why would Jesus have died on the Cross for us? Why would He need to die at all? If there is no real sin, just poor unfortunate victims, and no judgment then we don’t need Jesus.
His greatest act, after all, was taking the wrath of God upon Himself on the Cross so that we could be spared.
9 For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ,
10 Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. 1 Thessalonians 5:10
In the world of The Shack, there is no need for Jesus stepping in for us. Papa loves us too much to punish us – we just need Papa to patiently wait until we stop insulting her and agree with her how great we really are.
This is the part where we get the double face palm.
I don’t begrudge anyone who really enjoys The Shack. It is a well-done movie and I cried on a number of occasions. I am a sucker for a tear jerker and I love Christian movies. I had no chance at all.
Ultimately, it is an extremely flawed movie that reflects man and his sinfulness way more than it tells a story of God. We people are already self-centered enough. We don’t need a God who agrees with us that we are the center of the universe. That position is taken.