The book The Shack was controversial nine years ago when it was published, and I imagine we will start to see the same debate again now that the movie is coming: Is The Shack biblically sound? Is it heresy? Is God a woman or gender neutral? Should Christians take a stance for or against The Shack? I can’t make this decision for you, but I can let you know how I made mine.
*** Spoiler alert: This article includes portions of the book’s storyline that may give away the ending.***
Fact vs. Fiction
I actually met Paul Young once. Don’t ask him about it; he won’t remember me. I was a humble production assistant at a Christian television station that was interviewing him. I remember his emphasis when addressing the controversy surrounding his book was, “This is not a theology book.”
No, it is not. It’s a fiction book. Just as I always emphasize the importance of correctly interpreting the Bible, we should do the same for other books. It starts with determining the genre. The Shack is a fictional story. It is not meant to form your theological views. It’s meant to tell a story about a man who encounters God in an unusual way.
Even in the foreword of the book, Young alludes to the fact that this story is written about a man who plays a Christian on the outside but has a marred view of Who God is - in part due to learning about Christianity from flawed individuals and having experienced painful loss. Young makes a comment that some of these events may be factually incorrect but that they are the “recollection of this [fictional] friend” and presented as such.
Every author makes literary choices. Young decides to introduce Mack as if he were a real person, a friend of his. It is similar to an author choosing to use a first-person voice for his protagonist. It makes the story more real to us. It makes us feel for Mack’s pain. However, the word “novel” printed on the book cover and Young himself in many interviews say that this story is fictional. It didn’t happen, although there are probably many men who know God intellectually but feel distant from Him.
The controversial literary decision, of course, is Young’s storyline that includes God revealing Himself to Mack as a woman - two of them actually plus a man (Jesus), simulating a triune God. As the story continues the God-figures becomes one man. Oddly, this fact is often neglected when opposing believers talk about this book. Young or the book never state that God is a woman. Rather, He chooses to reveal Himself to Mack in a way that defies his expectations and allows him to deal with his father-issues without feeling like he is being guided by a father-figure. Once that deep underlying issue is addressed, Mack once again experiences God as a man, as His heavenly Father.
If you approach The Shack with literary awareness and aptitude for interpreting fiction, you gain a beautiful story of God approaching a broken man in an individualized way, drawing out his pain and misconceptions of Him, and bringing him back into relationship with the God in whom he claimed to believe.
Screening Your Screen Time
We should discuss the more general question of what Christians should or should not watch. There are believers who adhere to very strict guidelines concerning their media consumption. They may choose to only listen to Christian music and watch only Christian or PG-rated movies. Even among those, one may need to discern if the subtle messages align with one’s views.
In our home, we are not that strict. We watch movies and TV shows across the board, but we draw some lines. Many Christian homes likely do the same. Commonly, movies are rated based on sexually-explicit scenes/nudity, the use of inappropriate language, and mature content like drug use or violence. Personally, I don’t mind if themes or language are mature if they are included to show a reality that is a crucial part to the story. However, when scenes are included just to achieve a higher rating, it’s frustrating. When a storyline is raunchy or gory, I lose interest in watching. Sin glorified shouldn't be entertaining; it should be a turn-off.
Those are not the considerations that will go into your visit of The Shack movie though. Likely, you are questioning if you should support this movie by adding to their box office numbers. Christians often think of their involvement in various activities in terms of their - albeit small - contribution and support of it. When a biblical Christian movie comes out, often Christians encourage one another to see it in the movie theaters quickly to support the effort of their brothers and sisters in Christ. However, having heard about the controversy behind The Shack, you may wonder if this is a cause you should support or boycott.
This should help you evaluate…
1. After considering that The Shack as a fiction story, do you still look at it as unbiblical or heretical?
I have already made my opinion clear, but you should form your own. Personally, I don’t see anything to boycott. I don’t believe that Young is teaching falsehood about God but rather telling a made-up story.
2. Will people get the wrong idea about God by watching this movie?
I have had conversations with believers about this book, and they have expressed their fear that watching this movie would give unbelievers a false impression of Who God is and how the Bible should be handled or is relevant today.
This fear was a reality during the days of The DaVinci Code. This was also a fiction book, but many people - believers and unbelievers - thought that the author actually made claims about a cover-up concerning Jesus and His dead body. If Jesus was truly not resurrected, what would that mean for our faith? The church reacted quickly with Bible studies that challenged believers to have a better answer for their faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It may have even drawn some unbelievers to the Lord. Funny how those things happen…
The truth is that with any movie, we run the danger of people misunderstanding. As a reaction, many Christian movies are told in such a straight-forward manner that they become a little cheesy. That has a whole other crowd of believers declaring they don’t want to support the effort. It seems you can’t please us all. Even the Word of God is a stumbling block to those who don’t understand it, but to us, it is life-giving (1 Corinthians 1:23).
You cannot take responsibility for other peoples’ lack of ability to interpret fiction. If your friend approaches you with questions about God after seeing this movie, why not use the opportunity to encourage him/her to read the Bible. “Hey, that movie was fiction and just trying to tell a story. Here is the real story, the Bible. Let me help you find answers here.”
If you are familiar with the story and comfortable, talk with your friend about how God desires a personal, deep relationship with us rather than just religious routines and head knowledge. Tell your friend that God cares for us and wants to heal our wounds. He encourages us to come to Him with our burdens. God is real - even though He may not be exactly as He is portrayed in this or many other movies.
3. Will other believers lose respect for me if I see The Shack?
Oh friend, we care about what people think of us. I do, too. God has taught me over the last year - a lesson many years in the making - that I can only be responsible for what is in my control. Once you make a decision about your stance on this movie and have a clear conscience before God, you don’t need to be concerned what other people think about your actions. That is between them and God.
It may be a little different if you believe that your watching this movie would be a stumbling block to a weaker believer around you. However, it’s often mature believers whose opinions we fear.
Is God Gender Neutral?
I try to be very vague on this site about my theological views on the finer points of the faith. I do believe they all matter, but I want you to not hear from me but rather make your own decisions based on the Bible. I would rather teach you how to be a good steward of God’s Word, and allow you to explore your faith on your own and with your study group/mentor/church.
However, due to the nature of this article and to clear up any confusion, I’d like to share my theological view regarding this issue. The Bible always portrays God as male - a Father, a Son. The Church is called Christ’s bride. The Bible draws a parallel between a husband and wife and Christ and the Church. This portrayal of God as a male figure is consistent.
There are some common objections to this theological view:
1. God is Spirit.
It’s true that God is Spirit. He is not male exactly in the form that we understand it. However, Jesus is a man. He gave up His omnipresent self and tied Himself to a physical, male body when He came to this earth. Honestly, this is where my brain starts to fry. How can it be that Jesus is a man in a physical body, yet the Father is a Spirit when Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are One? The truth is this: While we are made in God’s image, we are not exactly like Him. He is other and higher than us, and our brains cannot fully comprehend everything about Him. Be that as it may, God’s being spirit does not make Him genderless. The Bible does not present God as gender neutral but as male: a Father, a Son, a Husband, a “He”.
The Shack attempts to explain the Trinity and much about Its inner workings. Some things it gets right, others it doesn't. The Trinity is a difficult concept for our finite minds to grasp, and any creative way to explain it within a fiction story will quickly fall short. With this - and with any other (Christian) movie - go back to the Bible and check the facts. Base your view of God on Scripture, not movies.
2. Like a Hen Gathers Her Children
Luke 13:34 and Matthew 23:37 says in the voice of God, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
God’s desire is to gather all His children like a hen gathers her chicks. Obviously, God is not a hen. This is an analogy. It’s yet another opportunity to use our literary interpretation skills. God comparing Himself with a hen in this scenario does not mean He is in all things like a hen nor that He is female. Others have argued that we women must have received our “feminine qualities” from God as we were made in His image. That may be true, but it does not mean that God is a woman or that He is gender-neutral. It only means that whatever qualities we see as feminine - gentle, nurturing, beautiful - God possesses as well. By the way, many men have these qualities, too. Okay, they’d probably resent being called beautiful, so let’s change that to handsome…
Why This Bible-Nerd is Looking Forward to Seeing "The Shack"
It’s been almost nine years since I read The Shack. I’m fuzzy on many of the details, but I remember being drawn in and vividly experiencing Mack’s reconciliation with God. It was a good book. As with any book I enjoy reading, I look forward to seeing the movie. Often, liberties are taken in the movie or scenes are left out, so that the end product is not the same as the book. I know this article will be around long after the movie comes out, so let me make this side note: I am writing this article after having seen the trailer, but the movie release date is still a month away. I have not seen the movie and don’t yet know how I feel about it. All I know at this point is that I enjoyed the book and look forward to seeing the movie.
I do not believe the book is calling God female or gender-neutral. I don’t believe it’s heretical. It’s telling a fictional story about a real God who encounters a lost man in an unusual way and brings him back to a connected relationship with Himself.
May this movie move many to get to know the real God, who very much desires a personal relationship with us and has gone to great lengths to reconcile us with Himself. To God be the glory!