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REVIEW: Is ‘The Shack’ a harmless story … or utter heresy?

March 3rd, 2017 / By: Michael Foust / comments

REVIEW: Is ‘The Shack’ a harmless story … or utter heresy?

Mack Phillips once was happy and full of joy, but that was years ago, before his father physically abused him and before his precious 7-year-old daughter was murdered at the hands of a pervert.

Mack now spends his days questioning God, searching for answers and wasting his life, as his other two children and his wife wonder if he ever will come back to reality.

One snowy day as he’s clearing the driveway, something dramatic happens. A letter mysteriously appears in the mailbox with no return address, and it reads: “It’s been a while. I’ve missed you.” The author—“Papa”—requests a meeting with Mack at the “shack,” the horror-filled place in the forest where his daughter’s bloody body was found and where his life made a tragic turn. Although initially skeptical, Mack decides to make the trek to the shack, and his life is forever changed.  

The Shack (PG-13) opens in theaters this weekend, 10 years after William P. Young’s bestselling novel of the same name was released. The book sparked a theological debate that divided Christians of all denominations and led to the publication of such counter-books as “Burning Down The Shack.”

That division hasn’t gone away. In fact, people I know and respect—people who remain friends—have endorsed the movie. But I cannot. Although the movie has its uplifting moments, there simply are too many theological problems.

Mack (Sam Worthington) assumes he might be meeting with God but is surprised to find all three members of the Trinity in the woods awaiting his arrival. In the film, that means he’s meeting Papa, who is an African-American woman (Octavia Spencer); Jesus, a Jewish man (Aviv Alush); and Sarayu, an Asian woman (Sumire Matsubara).

The movie also stars singer/actor Tim McGraw as Mack’s friend, Willie.

Truthfully, I understand the pull of The Shack, and there were times I got caught up in the story. I even cried toward the end (likely because I have a daughter of similar age to Mack’s daughter).

Yet we can’t judge The Shack on emotional appeal. Scripture must be our guide.

Let’s take a more detailed look at the movie, beginning with the positive.

The Good

Despite the theological concerns, The Shack has several moments that should be applauded.

God’s love and forgiveness dominate the story. Mack questions Papa’s motives multiple times—“you let my little girl die!”—but Papa never grows impatient. “You have no idea how much I love you,” Papa tells him. Later, when Mack asks where God was when his daughter died, Papa says, “I never left you.”   

The film rejects moral relativism. When Mack struggles to come up with a definition for good and evil, Sarayu responds: “There are billions like you” deciding for themselves what is good and evil. “You weren’t meant to do that.”

Papa tells Mack that he has an “incomplete picture” of life and that his daughter’s death won’t make sense on this side of eternity. There’s even a Romans 8:28 moment, when Papa tells Mack, “I can work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies. That does not mean I orchestrate tragedies.”

No doubt, some moviegoers who have gone through major tragedies will be encouraged by The Shack. For those who are always asking “where was God?,” the film does offer some solid answers.

The movie contains no coarse language or sexuality.

The Bad

Some of the problems that existed in the book did not make it into the movie. Nevertheless, two of the biggest ones—universalism and an unbalanced view of God—remain.        

Papa tells Mack, “I have a lot of names.” The Jesus of The Shack flirts with universalism when he tells Mack that he doesn’t care about words such as “Christian;” he’s only concerned with getting people to love Papa. The film then takes a step closer to universalism when Mack meets a person named Wisdom, who asks Mack what he would do to a man who sexually abused little children. “I would damn him to hell,” Mack says. Wisdom responds: But what if the man learned to do that from his father? Later, Mack wants Papa to send his daughter’s murderer to hell, but Papa responds: “He, too, is my son, and I want to redeem him.”

True, such comments could be interpreted as Papa desiring for the murderer to accept the gospel, but in the context of the film and considering the book’s theology, it doesn’t seem that way. That’s underscored when Papa is asked by Mack about wrath and seems confused what he’s talking about. Papa, we learn, does get “mad” but certainly doesn’t punish people. “I don’t need to punish people. Sin is its own punishment.” (For the biblical perspective, read Romans 1:18 and Nahum 1:2.)

There are other issues that might concern some moviegoers. Papa listens to reggae and enjoys Neil Young (“You like Neil Young? I am especially fond of him.”). Papa and Sarayu dance to music. Mack walks on water with Jesus (he doesn’t sink). And all three members of the Trinity eat with Mack at the table.

The Worldview

One of the biggest criticisms of The Shack involves its portrayal of the Trinity. The filmmakers, seemingly knowing this, have Papa, Jesus and Sarayu acknowledge their divinity from the outset.

“Which one of you is …?” Mack asks, but before he can say “God” all three respond simultaneously, “I am.” Later, Jesus tells Mack, “To see me is to see them.”

But that doesn’t take care of the problem.

For starters, in Scripture only one member of the Trinity—Jesus Christ—“humbled himself” (Philippians 2:8) and became human. There was only one Incarnation.

Further, God is spirit (John 4:24). Yet in The Shack, we see a visual representation of the other two members of the Trinity, which some believe is a violation of the Second Commandment.

Also, the biblical definition of the Trinity disappears in The Shack. Theologian Wayne Grudem summarizes the Bible’s teachings on the Trinity this way: 1) God is three persons, 2) each person is fully God, 3) there is one God. It’s simply impossible to watch The Shack—with three bodily representations on screen—and see “one God.”  

Finally, it should bother us at least a little bit that God the Father is portrayed as a female. Perhaps that doesn’t trouble everyone the same, but what if Jesus had been portrayed as a woman, too?  

Family-Friendly?

Setting aside the theological concerns, The Shack has two major content issues for young children. We see Mack’s father whip him repeatedly, with a belt, during a heavy rain in the woods. Later, we are confronted with the reality that Mack’s daughter was abused and killed. (We see her blood-stained dress, and later we see her body.) Both scenes are intense. For those reasons alone, I would not take my young children.

Discussion Questions

What biblical qualities did Papa, Jesus and Sarayu exhibit? Did they say anything that countered Scripture? Was Mack’s father morally responsible for his actions, in light of what his father did to him? Should Mack’s daughter have blamed herself for the tragedy? Should Mack have blamed himself? What would you tell a friend in a similar situation? Was the representation of the Trinity biblical? Do you know of others who have experienced a major tragedy? How can you minister to them?  

Entertainment rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.