The Shack is back and everyone’s getting a piece of the action. The mystics are embracing and embellishing it, and using it to combat their doctrine-obsessed cousins. The anti-mystics (the Reformed folks and such) are pointing out the doctrinal errors and warning people against it. This article is by a Reformed non-mystic who wants to point out the fact that The Shack has said a lot of things worth considering.
I agree with a lot of the criticisms leveled against The Shack by good theologians like Al Mohler, David Mathis (Desiring God) and Tim Challies, so this article should not be seen as a defense of The Shack or a rebuttal to these, but as an addition. So let me be clear, this review is not intended to undercut the concerns (and even warnings) given by pastors and theologians like the ones referenced above, and I’m sure that our readers have no doubt about our commitment to the importance of holding to a sound, biblically deduced theology.
Now, much has been said on the negative side of the movie. So then, pile the good parts of the message on one side of the scale and the drag the doctrinal errors, the cheesiness, and whatever else misses the mark on the other side, and tell me: on which side does the scale tip? As a side note, I hate to say it, but most of the movies I watch don’t put a whole lot of weight on the good side of the scale. There aren’t very many movies that have come out in the last few years that have much to add to the good side at all. The typical question for evaluating whether we should see a movie is: “Well is there sex, language, etc?”. In other words, we are usually expecting to see a movie where the scale is tipped toward evil, away from good, but since we live in a fallen world, we just get used to it. But does the Shack-balance tip to the bad side, like almost all the movies we watch, or does it tip to the good side? Lots of good Reformed non-mystics have written about the weighty matters which contribute to the bad side of the scale, but I haven’t seen a good article about the matters on the good side of the scale, so someone should take one for the team and do it. This article places a few weighty matters on the good side to help you consider the balance.
I’d summarize the purpose of the movie as the following: God isn’t who most people think He is, but God wants us to know who He really is. I think almost everything in the movie, and most of what’s in the book, fits under this description. Let it be clear that this review is about the movie, not about the book. One of the things that Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu keep saying to Mack when he questions them is “that’s not who I am” or “I’m not who you think I am.” But when Mack brings up hard questions about God, what happens next isn’t what you might expect from a mystic. I would have expected them to give some some substandard reply like: hard questions can’t be confronted with reason but need to be faced with faith, that God’s ways are higher than our ways, or that we have to live in the tension of these paradoxes. The movie actually attempts to answer Mack’s hard questions, and the responses are pretty reasonable and, oftentimes, biblical.
I said the purpose of the movie was to say: God isn’t who most people think He is, but God wants us to know who He really is. Is that first part right? Is God who most people think he is? To sharpen the question, I’ll give a few examples from the movie. Mack has been taught that God is all powerful, all knowing, and Mack has experienced a significant amount of suffering (from beatings from his father to his daughter being murdered by a serial killer). So, Mack concludes that God can’t be good, so he resents God. Many people in church, including myself, struggle with resentment toward God for similar reasons (people struggle with the fact that God didn’t bring their grandfather to a saving knowledge of himself, or perhaps with the idea that nice sincere people suffer eternally in hell). The first answer in the movie is that God isn’t who Mack thinks he is. What Mack has been told about God is wrong. Before going on to the corrected picture of God that the book presents, some more examples should be provided.
Mack has been taught that God knows all the choices that Mack will ever make and concludes that God wants blind robotic followers. Papa says that isn’t who she is. Mack talks about how God was taught to him as being mad and wrathful all the time. Papa says that isn’t who she is. Mack says that God has a bad habit of abandoning his children when they need him most, like when Mack’s family was destroyed by his abusive father, like when Mack’s daughter was murdered, and like when he, Himself, abandoned Jesus on the cross. Papa says that Mack doesn’t yet understand the God he’s criticizing. Papa is right. He didn’t. And that’s exactly what Mack needed to be told. He’d missed the boat. I think that every single one of these examples constitute difficult questions that plague unbelievers and believers alike, and they do so because we’ve misunderstood who God is in some way. Since this is both true and relevant, and since it is half of the central purpose of the movie, it counts as a weighty brick on the good side of the Shack-scale.
But it isn’t enough to say that we’ve misunderstood God, and the movie doesn’t stop there. The purpose is to say, that God isn’t who most people think He is, but also that God wants us to know who He really is. So, in the movie, Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu explain who God really is. This fact, alone, constitutes a weighty point in favor of the movie. How many times are the questions in the paragraph above simply dismissed as ramblings of unbelievers who hate God? They aren’t idle ramblings. And there aren’t many people, even at my church, who can give a coherent response to these questions. When faced with these questions, instead of providing a reasonable response, many people will say hard questions can’t be confronted with reason but need to be faced with faith, that God’s ways are higher than our ways, or that we have to live in the tension of these paradoxes. The movie shows why these types of responses are incoherent and unsatisfying. They might work for some people, but for people like Mack, people whose lot in life is terrible suffering, these responses are exposed as wanting. Reasonable answers are required, and reasonable answers are given in the Shack.
The main statement of The Problem of Evil comes in the form of Mack’s conclusion that God isn’t good since he is omniscient and omnipotent and doesn’t stop terrible sins from occurring. Papa first points out that the sin comes from fallen humans, not directly from God. So, when Mack concludes that God isn’t good, he’s going too far. But Papa also points out that Mack can only see things from his own perspective, so, plausibly, from God’s perspective, something very evil can have a very good purpose. This reply sounds like Skeptical Theism, as it is called today; the view that we should be skeptical of our ability to judge God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance. This effectively shows that Mack shouldn’t conclude that God isn’t good based on his own experience since there isn’t any good reason to think that Mack would have enough information to come to such a conclusion.
Though beaten, Mack still isn’t satisfied. He begins to judge God’s particular actions; arguing that, at least in certain instances of evil, there couldn’t possibly be a good reason for God to allow them. Sarayu bluntly asks Mack who gets to be the judge of whether or not God’s actions are permissible. Mack thinks it’s pretty obvious which of God’s actions are good and which are evil, but Sarayu corners him into admitting that he has no objective standard for judging good and evil. He simply judges according to his own personal standard of right and wrong. Sarayu points out the rotten implications of this view; that since everyone has their own standard for judging good and evil they justify their awful behavior, their prejudice, their selfishness. She even blames wars and atrocities on the abhorrent view that each man gets to decide what counts as good and evil. She’s right. It wasn’t mentioned in the movie, but the reason so many unborn babies are slaughtered each day is because people think that it is “good” to protect a woman’s right to kill children in her womb. Mack sees Sarayu’s point, but he still isn’t convinced that he should stop judging God’s actions.
Even though I’m rigidly limiting this article to the good points of the movie, I’d be amiss if I did not point out the fact that part of Sarayu’s solution is the idea that people commit sin, and that God, then, cleans up the mess and redeems it. I think it is better (in order to avoid suggesting that God is like an over-stressed mother struggling to keep up with fixing all the stuff her kids are destroying) to see people’s sin as something that fits into God’s plan, rather than as something God has to respond to and clean up after. But, with this minor adjustment, the solution is still satisfying and, I think, more satisfying.
With the logical objections taken away, all that is left for Mack is to let go of his judgement toward God for what goes on in the world. Mack meets Wisdom and he argues with her about this. She then places Mack on the judgement seat. Wisdom, then, confounds Mack with a series of questions which basically show him that he’s a really bad judge of people. Lastly, Wisdom gives Mack the choice of which of his children he must damn to hell. Mack can’t make the choice and then sees that this is like a choice that God has to make regarding his children. Mack finally realizes that, in addition to being a bad judge of people, he’s also a bad judge of God, and this is what finally gets him to relinquish the judgement seat over God’s actions.
So, most of Mack’s questions were answered. Even though God’s actions might seem wrong based on Mack’s limited experience, Mack realized that he needed to be skeptical of his own ability to see the big picture, and even when Mack thinks he understands the big picture well enough to make a judgement against God, he needed to realize, first, that he doesn’t have a good standard by which to render a verdict, and, second, that he isn’t a very good judge anyway. For a popular-level treatment of these difficult questions, this struck me as a pretty complete answer to most of the issues that drove a wedge between Mack and God, and to those questions that cause many people to resent God. The overall message the movie wants us to see is that God wants us to develop a correct picture of who He is so that we can have a right relationship with Him. The movie does not suggest that everyone will get their own Shack experience where their problems will be solved, but it tells us that God cares about what we think about Him and he wants to fix our understanding of Him. Since this is right, it adds weight to the good side of the scale on the Shack-balance.
This article has argued that the overall purpose of the movie, The Shack, is to say that God isn’t what most people think He is, but that God wants us to know who he really is. I have also argued that, in many areas, this is correct. Because this is the main purpose of the movie, and because it’s right, it contributes a hefty brick or two to the good side of the scale. This review does not argue that the scale tips to the good side, so it shouldn’t be construed as an endorsement. What I’ll do, and what I recommend to you, is take my considerations along with a good set of criticisms like the ones in the Challies article, and see where the balance falls.