Mention “The Shack,” the upcoming movie based on the bestselling book that is opening in theaters March 3rd, and you are sure to get a strong reaction. Some praise it as an emotionally gripping drama that depicts God in untraditional ways that promote hope and healing. Others condemn it as heresy with the potential to lead people away from a biblical understanding of salvation, saying it embraces Universalism.
The book’s author, William Paul Young, who was raised by missionary parents living among a tribe in New Guinea, said he originally wrote the book at the request of his wife to help his children understand his out-of-the-box thinking. “The goal was to say, I want you to know the God that actually showed up and healed my heart and not the God I grew up with,” said Young.
In reflecting on the book’s popularity, Young said he believes it “resonates deeply with people because it is a very human story of loss that doesn’t shirk the hard questions, and it gave people a language to talk about God that was not religious, but was relational.”
The movie is a very close representation of the book that takes viewers on a heart-wrenching journey of healing guided by the inspirational performances of Sam Worthington (Avatar, Wrath of the Titans, Clash of the Titans), Academy Award Winner Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress, 2012 –The Help), and Grammy Award Winner Tim McGraw (The Blind Side), among others.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Mackenzie Phillip’s youngest daughter, Missy, is abducted during a family camping trip and murdered in a shack in the woods. Mack falls into a great sadness, and years later finds a mysterious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack on a frigid, winter weekend.
What follows is a fictional account of Mack’s life-changing encounter with God as he wrestles with mankind’s most challenging questions: Where is God in a world so filled with pain and why does God allow evil? Utilizing powerful imagery, “The Shack” provides insightful answers concerning love, loss, forgiveness and the character of God.
Unfortunately, the author’s use of metaphor makes some viewers uncomfortable. For instance, God appears at the shack in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, God the Father, affectionately called Papa by Mack’s wife and daughter, is depicted as a loving African-American woman; the Son is cast as a Middle Eastern carpenter, and the Holy Spirit is presented as an Asian woman named Sarayu, or breath of wind.
Understandably perplexed, Mack questions Papa about his appearance as a woman and is told, “After what you’ve been through, I didn’t think you could handle a father right now.”
Asked why he portrayed Father God as a woman, Author William Paul Young said, “I could have done it as a lion like C.S. Lewis. I could have done it as a burning bush; or as a mother bear as in the prophets; or a rock, because God is a rock, a strong tower, a shield, a fortress; or a woman who loses a coin; or a nursing mother as in Isaiah. Imagery is all over scripture. In orthodox Christianity, God is neither male nor female. So, to play with imagery is to allow us to move out of our more concrete boxes we’ve already built in our imaginations, which is often distant, unapproachable, unreachable God, watching from the infinite distance of a disapproving heart.”
Young said he has admittedly brought his own difficult relationship with his father into the storyline. “I think most of the damage in the world comes from men and a lot of times from fathers. So, that’s a hard bridge for a lot of us who have been really hurt by our fathers. Plus I know women like this who you know love you. They are the ones who spoke life to me and showed up in certain points in my life.”
What others are saying
While The Shack is among the top 100 best-selling books of all time with over 22 million in print worldwide, other authors have written books for and against its scriptural validity.
The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream, by C. Baxter Kruger, examines the theology that shaped Young’s vision of the Trinity. Kruger argues that “the Trinitarian views of the early church fathers understood God as loving and gracious Father, Son and Spirit as opposed to the distant, angry image of God that winds up being more a source of disgrace and shame than healing grace.”
In contrast, Burning Down The Shack: How the “Christian” Bestseller is Deceiving Millions, by James B. DeYoung, argues that “troubling claims in The Shack go to the heart of many important doctrines including the nature of God himself, the meaning of the incarnation and the crucifixion of Christ, sin and judgement, hell, the church, and more.” Saying that he is personally acquainted with the author, DeYoung claims that despite William Paul Young’s denials that he is a Universalist, “I am convinced that … he embraced Universal Reconciliation.” DeYoung concludes that, “it is necessary to proceed carefully with The Shack lest important views be skewed or even jettisoned.”
When asked how he responds to those who call the book heresy, Young, replied, “People hear what they hear. For example when Mac asks Papa, ‘Do all roads lead to heaven?’ and Papa replies, ‘No, most roads don’t go anywhere, but I’ll go down any road to find you.’ That’s the story of the incarnation, but people heard that and flip it around to say, ‘Paul said all roads go to heaven.’ No. It’s right there, but people bring their paradigms and hear what they think they’re going to hear.”
Ultimately, our understanding of God needs to be informed by careful study of the Scriptures and not by fictional books or motion pictures. However, “The Shack” has value in that it presents the really difficult questions we all struggle with and suggests loving responses some may never otherwise consider because of their preconceived ideas about the God of the universe. It has great potential to soften hearts hardened by loss and heartache, and introduce them to God – the God who loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.