The recent film adaptation of William P. Young’s bestselling novel The Shack is an anomaly. The cast, including the Academy Award-winning Octavia Spencer (from such hits as The Help and Hidden Figures), is strong. Tim McGraw even successfully pulls off the role of the down-to-earth neighbor, who actually looks at home driving a truck and going to church. The direction and cinematography are effective; there are some truly beautiful shots in The Shack of mountains, gardens, and waterfront scenery. The story follows the book quite closely, and delves deep into weighty themes like the Trinity, God’s sovereignty, and the question of innocent suffering. While no film can deal adequately with such topics in two hours, The Shack has a lot of meat on the bones and leaves room for mystery and questions. The cast handles all this with subtlety, avoiding the cheesiness which one often finds in religiously themed movies. In short, this is a well-made film.
That’s why The Shack is not a Christian movie.
Christian movies, by contrast, are generally poorly directed, low production-value affairs. They typically feature, if not a wholly unknown cast, mostly amateur acting. The writing is often heavy-handed, resolving complex questions with too much simplicity (see God’s Not Dead, for instance). The theology of most Christian films is a hybrid of thin evangelicalism with American family values, which maps neatly onto the worldview taught and preached in many large non-denominational churches in the US. The theology of Christian films is usually “functionally Unitarian,” a term I owe to a seminary professor, Dr. Freeman, who helped me realize that most evangelicals can only talk about Jesus and rarely address the other persons of the Trinity, much less the Trinity as a whole. Christian films reflect this unfortunate habit.
[If you’ve never read the book and not yet seen the movie, consider this your spoiler warning.]
The Shack’s plot is fairly simple: a father and husband, Mack, experiences a horrific tragedy that changes the course of life. Sometime later, in the throes of what he calls The Great Sadness, Mack receives a mysterious letter in the mail from God inviting him to the shack where that tragedy had occurred. When Mack reluctantly goes, he meets the Trinity – except the three Persons are represented in largely unexpected ways. In the ensuing conversations and experiences, the movie deals with the nature of God, sovereignty, religion, the afterlife, and what philosophers and theologians call “the problem of evil.” As noted above, this is a lot for any single movie to tackle, and The Shack packs more actual theology into a film than any other mass-marketed feature I can call to mind.
None of this is to suggest that The Shack is without problems. Most of the issues with the novel are present in this adaptation. Any portrayal of the Trinity is bound to be imperfect – for we cannot adequately portray a mystery via a finite medium like film. Even Rublev’s beloved icon could lead one to tritheism, if taken to the hilt. Young makes clear that the decision to portray God as an African-American woman has to do with Mack’s own family baggage. While it is admirable – and, for many conservative readers, quite controversial – to portray the First Person of the Trinity in this way, it is not without its own problems. The novel, and to a lesser extent, the film adaptation run the risk of mammy stereotypes. The portrayal of the Holy Spirit in some ways also gets into stereotypical territory. These issues need to be taken seriously, but I still believe this is a valuable story. We are in a cultural moment where I find it difficult to imagine a white writer portraying non-white characters in such a way that it would be critique-proof. Young – and the film’s producers – took a risk here. While problems should be acknowledged, so should their boldness in attempting to help readers envision God as other than an old white man with a beard.
The bulk of the people who have major problems with the movie, like the book, are those (chiefly from the Reformed camp) who take issue with social Trinitarianism, patripassianism (the teaching that the Father suffered along with the Son on the cross), and God’s sovereignty. It is the third of these that likely causes the most headaches among its critics. If you believe that “everything happens for a reason,” that God’s hand is somehow behind everything that happens all the time, you will not like how this film addresses the problem of evil. On the other hand, if you are drawn to a kind of middle way about sovereignty – I personally can’t square either the micromanaging God of Reformed doctrine or the removed deity of Process thought – you’ll find The Shack compelling on this score. In not offering easy or trite answers here, the film is more brave and more honest than most popular Christian takes on these deep questions of faith. (Roger Olson’s book is worth a read if you want to dig into these questions more; coming from an evangelical Arminian perspective, his reading strikes the kind of critical but overall appreciative note that I would see as appropriate.)
Popular Christian books and films always draw a reaction from a wide swath of people, Christian and not, theologically trained and not. I’ve been disturbed at how many people I’ve noticed, who are otherwise broad-minded and fair critics, that have judged The Shack to be unworthy of Christian eyes without seeing or reading it. As we saw so prominently with Rob Bell’s Love Wins, the speed and vitriol with which some Christians will dismiss something without having actually read or viewed it is astonishing. On the whole, I would recommend The Shack – the movie and the book – before nearly all of its competition in the Christian publishing and Christian film industries. It is far from perfect: inelegant in some places, a bit on the nose in others. Don’t trust the reviews, though. This movie fall into an unfortunate category almost all its own: it pushes the envelope far too much to be promoted by the usual folks who support movies like Courageous, but it is too Christian to pass critical muster. All that said, I believe it succeeds much more than it fails. My own ministry experience has been that few other resources open up in-depth conversations about the Trinity and the problem of evil like Young’s imaginative and powerful parable.
The Shack actually addresses God as Trinity, tackles hard questions without offering easy answers, and does so with the acting skills and production values of an actual quality film. For all of these reasons, The Shack is not a Christian movie – and this is why it succeeds.