The Shack: there’s something in it for everyone
Eternity writers Tess Holgate and Ben McEachen respond to The Shack
The Shack hits Aussie cinemas on May 25, and has already been divisive within the Christian community. Below, Tess Holgate shares her thoughts about the movie while, above, Ben McEachen tells us why this is the hardest film he’s ever had to review.
Who wouldn’t be sceptical when a man claims to have spent the weekend with God at a remote shack?
I would be.
In bestselling book The Shack by William Paul Young, Mack receives a note in the mail from Papa (his wife’s favourite name for God), inviting him to return to the shack where his youngest daughter Missy was murdered. He goes, and what unfolds is nothing less than a miraculous encounter with God.
From some of the hoo-hah surrounding its release, you could be forgiven for not knowing that this book, and the soon-to-be-released film, are both works of fiction. Young depicts God the Father as a black woman, the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman, Sarayu, who glimmers in the sunshine, and Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter, all of which has led certain Christian quarters to heavily criticise the book.
On one hand, there is an element of latent theology in Young’s work; it can’t be any other way when he is writing so vividly about God. He may not have set out to write a theological treatise on who God is, but that is not how people have received it, and intention alone is not a knockout defence. To read the book, and to see the film, is to enter Mack’s world and to experience, with him, walking on water with Jesus, conversing with Papa, engaging with Sarayu in the garden, and feeling his grief and his healing as he surrenders it all to God. It is to be encouraged to believe that God is who Young portrays him to be.
On the other hand, the author himself has said that the book does not claim to be a true and accurate representation of the divine being. Fiction is, by definition, imaginary. It is a story that Young hoped would help his children understand more about suffering and the goodness of God. A book or a movie could never do justice to the intricate and complex relationships that exist within the Trinity, and would be foolish to try, not to mention that any imagery for God is always going to be inadequate.
Regardless of whether we prioritise the intellectual side of our faith or the emotional one, we all need help to bridge the chasm that exists between a head knowledge of God and a heart one.
The error lies on both sides: Young’s presentation of God is compelling, but he makes no apologies for casting God in ways that are unfamiliar and, sometimes, offensive. But similarly, those who approach the novel as a theological treatise have rightly noted that it makes claims about the nature of God, but have failed to treat it as a fiction that is designed to move the heart rather than set out what a Christian believes.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Knowing God is more than an intellectual exercise, but it is not less than that. To relate to God from the neck up is to have a truncated experience of the divine being. But knowing God is also more than an emotional experience, and not less than that. To be subject to every whim of the heart is not wise, and leads to a diminished view of God. To weight either one too heavily is a mistake.
Mack is the very picture of a theologically astute Christian (his cynicism alone probably qualifies him for this title). His conversations with Papa show that he knows an awful lot about God, and he regularly attends church with his family and has a blossoming friendship with his pastor. He knew that, theoretically, God was good. He knew that God claimed to love him. He even knew that God would judge people. But even before Missy was kidnapped and murdered, Mack’s experience of God was mostly intellectual. When Missy was taken, all his knowledge of God was thrown into disarray, as he couldn’t make heads or tails of God’s goodness or his love. In his anger and grief, what Mack didn’t need was more knowledge, he needed a transformation of his heart.
[Mack’s] grief over Missy won’t cut him a break. It stands there, oafish and stubborn, blocking the door to his heart.
I really like Mack. He is a straight-talking doubter. He doesn’t want Christian platitudes about love and pain and how God is working for his good – not even from God himself. His grief over Missy won’t cut him a break. It stands there, oafish and stubborn, blocking the door to his heart, demanding to be seen and acknowledged. Grief is like that. Mack’s wife and other children end up as collateral damage as his grief seeps into every sphere of his life. Slowly, Mack ends up paralysed by his pain, unable to let God transform his heart.
Until the weekend at the shack, Mack approached God in a posture of control (even though the rest of his life was rapidly spiralling out of control), keeping God in a box of his own making, at arm’s distance from all that matters to him. He dictated the terms of his relationship with God, refusing to accept those parts of God’s character that did not align with his own assessment of good and evil. In a way, I think there’s a little bit of Mack in all of us. I’d wager that if we are honest, each of us have some doubts about God’s way of doing business in the world.
Yet the solution to those doubts is not to ignore them, and will ourselves to just trust God more, based on what we know to be true. Trying ever harder to believe things that feel unbelievable rarely ends well. Regardless of whether we prioritise the intellectual side of our faith or the emotional one, we all need help to bridge the chasm that exists between a head knowledge of God and a heart one.
This is what The Shack gives us: a lesson in what it might look like to bring our doubts and fears to God, and wrestle with him over the answers. That is something we could all learn from.