Guest Essay by Jerry Newcombe
If you comment on the novel/movie, The Shack, you’re bound to get strong opinions, either pro or con.
The Shack deals with Mack, a man who has suffered a horrible loss (the murder of his little daughter), which he discovered in a shack. In a (spoiler alert) dream sequence, he returns to that shack; and “God” in three persons meets him there. This encounter leads to an inner healing, where he finally sheds the “the Great Sadness” that has dogged him since her death. Mack comes to affirm the goodness of God, despite suffering in this fallen world.
Stanley Goldenberg, who writes on Christian movies, likens The Shack to the book of Job. He told me that watching the two hour movie is more effective than 20 counseling sessions and will be very helpful to those who are hurting.
He also said there are some theological problems in the book and in the movie, but think of it like eating chicken—eat the meat, spit out the bones.
Others say that the level of understanding of doctrine today is so poor that your average professing Christian can’t necessarily discern between the meat and the bones.
After reading the book, I watched the movie with my wife. She said afterwards that too often the American church today has a diet of dessert. Not meat, not even milk, but sweets.
I felt the movie was too New Age for my tastes. If Oprah Winfrey were to make a “Christian” movie, The Shack would be it. I felt it took too many liberties with the Person of God. God commands us to not to make any graven images.
But in the movie (based on the book), they had God the Father (Papa) as played by a woman (a great actress in her own right, Octavia Spencer), and the Holy Spirit was played by an Asian woman.
When Mack asks why Papa appears as a woman, she answers, “After what you’ve been through, I didn’t think you could handle a father right now.” Later, Papa appears as a man, but then later back as a woman again. At least, Jesus was a man.
An ancient heresy (called modalism) taught that the Trinity isn’t really the Trinity, it just seems that way. So God appears sometimes as the Father, sometimes as the Son, and sometimes as the Spirit. When Jesus died, God died—so one aspect of this heresy is called “patripassianism”—i.e., the Father also suffered in the passion. But the Bible teaches each Person of the Trinity is distinct. In the movie, the Father had the passion marks too.
In one scene, “God” was asked about “that wrath thing,”—the wrath of God, which is seen repeatedly in the Scriptures. Response? “Sin is its own punishment.”
Well, sin is its own punishment, but the Bible also makes it clear that God is angry with our sin. If you don’t think God hates sin, look at Jesus on the cross. That’s what God thinks of our sin.
The whole point of the movie is dealing with pain and loss. That’s noble. But that is precisely where the cross fits in. On the cross, Jesus experienced incredible pain. He went to hell for us. When we truly take our pain to the foot of the cross, then comes true healing.
David Mathis, executive editor of the ministry desiringGod.org writes, “We do not need a wilderness shack to hear from God.” God’s response to human suffering was the cross—by which those who believe can be forgiven and spiritually healed—not just a hug from a God who loves us but is powerless to help us in our suffering.
Meanwhile, I have an evangelical TV producer friend, who got to meet the writer of The Shack, William Paul Young, who gave him a gut-wrenchingly honest interview, including his painful background.
My friend noted that God was using the book mightily to help hurting Christians come back to the Lord. He concluded, “let’s look at the bigger work that God is doing and give a little more grace.”
Fair enough. But have we not lost the fear of God in our day? Some evangelicals act as if, “Jesus is my buddy. I can put Him in my back pocket and pull Him out to feel good whenever I want to.”
The Christian proponents of the book/film would point to the idea that this is all a metaphor—a device used in story-telling. But as I watched the film, trying to look past things like God the Father as a woman, I remembered the adage, “the medium is the message.”
One colleague noted, after seeing a positive review of “The Shack” from an evangelical: “Yikes. The American church is starving for discernment, and choking on heresy.”