“The Shack” – a story of healing, heresy, or a bit of both?

The Shack, based on William Paul Young’s popular book by the same name, has been labeled anywhere from a story that “will leave you craving for the presence of God” (Michael W. Smith) to “undiluted heresy” (Albert Mohler) and “the greatest deception foisted on the church in the last 200 years” (James B. DeYoung). Given that range of opinion, it’s not a reach to say that both the book and the movie have been controversial in Christian circles. The truth, however, is that, viewed correctly, The Shack is far more a helpful parable for understanding God’s goodness in the midst of grief than a dangerous heresy that will pervert our understanding of the Lord.

The story centers on Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips, a man who grew up with an abusive drunk for a father who would quote scripture while beating his son to justify the violence. Understandably, that past and the trials he faced have put a strain on his relationship with God. Still, he married a strong Christian woman, Nan, whose walk with the Lord is such that she refers to him as Papa. Together, they’ve made a good life with three kids and a strong local church where the family attends worship each week. While Mack still isn’t close to God, he’s putting in the effort for the sake of his family.

What was already a strained relationship with the Lord is all but broken, however, when Mack takes his three kids camping one weekend. When the two oldest kids flip their canoe, Mack’s son Josh gets trapped under the boat. Mack immediately dives into the water and is able to save him, only to discover that, while he was doing so, his youngest daughter, Missy, was abducted. Eventually, authorities track her captor to an abandoned shack in the woods nearby, but the blood-stained dress lying on the floor is the closest Mack comes to seeing her again.

Some years later, in the midst of a grief that is tearing his family apart, Mack receives a letter in his mailbox inviting him to return to the shack. There’s no postmark, but it’s signed “Papa.” Seeking some sense of closure, Mack steals his friend’s truck and drives out, half hoping that the note was from his daughter’s still-uncaptured killer and that he would have the chance for revenge. What he finds instead is the triune God, who invites him to stay at what Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times called “God’s B&B.”

This encounter with God in three persons—Papa is played for most of the film by a black woman (Octavia Spencer), Jesus by a middle-eastern man (Avraham Aviv Alush), and the Holy Spirit by an Asian woman (Sumire Matsubara)—is where most of the film’s controversy stems. The portrayal of Papa, in particular, has drawn accusations of feminist heresy and idolatry, even though she clearly states upon meeting Mack that she just didn’t think he could handle a father at the moment. Papa also appears in the form of a Native American man (Graham Greene) later on in the film when he feels like Mack needs a father.

To be sure, it’s a different portrayal of the Triune God than most of us have when we read the Bible, but there’s nothing inherently heretical about it. Yes God is often referred to with masculine pronouns and Jesus does call him Father, but there are other times in Scripture where he’s depicted with feminine, motherly characteristics as well. The truth is that Genesis 1 is clear that God created both man and woman in his image, meaning that he transcends gender and can’t be accurately labeled as one or the other (Genesis 1:27).

The real danger with this movie is that obsessing over the gender of God or the portrayal of the Trinity as three distinct persons—even though any depiction of the infinite in finite terms is going to be flawed in some respect—threatens to prevent viewers from catching the very important and powerful message of God’s goodness in the midst of grief. This film is not meant to give a full Trinitarian theology or to provide a complete foundation for how we view the Lord. Scripture alone is capable of providing such a basis, and anything else will always fall short. Rather this story is meant to impart one essential truth—namely that we can trust God’s character and find refuge in a relationship with him even when the circumstances around us call his goodness and faithfulness into question. If pressed to do more than that, it is liable to lead us to error.

Jesus, however, presents his parables in much the same way. While they, like this film, can contain valuable lessons beyond that primary point, they begin to unravel if asked to do too much. If we based our entire understanding of God on the parable of the sheep, for example, then we would conclude that he cannot be with the saved while seeking the lost (Matthew 18:10–14). The parable of the unforgiving servant could likewise distort our understanding of the Father by making it sound as though he would remove our salvation if we fail to forgive others (Matthew 18:23–25). And the parable of the talents would portray him as an unjust master who takes what doesn’t belong to him (Matthew 25:14–30).

Of course, that’s not our God. He is always with us, our salvation in Christ is assured, and he is a benevolent Lord who already owns all that exists. We understand that those stories were told to impart a specific lesson, and Christians for the better part of two thousand years have benefited as a result. While The Shack is not Scripture, nor does it claim to be, it too can be of great benefit to helping us better understand our Lord in the midst of our grief. However, it can only do that if we approach it the right way. That means watching it with popcorn in one hand and a Bible in the other, testing everything that appears on screen against the truth of God’s word.

I greatly enjoyed The Shack, though, as a father, parts were difficult to watch. Still, I believe that it did an outstanding job of showing the complexity behind the tough questions we face in difficult times and the flaws in the way that we often approach those subjects. God is not simple, and we shouldn’t expect to understand everything that he’s doing in our lives. But even when we can’t understand him, we can trust him, and that should be enough. I needed that reminder, and The Shack provided it in a powerful way. Do you?