Ponderings on “The Shack” Film

So I watched The Shack last night… what a fascinating film. Unlike a lot of films which go off into lala land theologically or others in trying not to offend go Christian cliche crazy, The Shack dived in with gusto. Granted, as an act of fiction, there was a fair bit of creative license, but in general, I found nothing worth getting bent out of shape over. Alas, I can understand that others may well have a bird, as films generally do drive public theology… and if that happens, significant challenges to some belief structures may come about, and most certainly questions, perhaps uncomfortable ones will be raised.

One of the biggest issues and an overwhelming theme presented in the film is theodicy, (the problem of evil). In a nutshell, if God is all good, and God is all powerful, then why does evil exist? This is an uncomfortable question… the scriptures are really dim, so glossed over responses like Genesis 50:20 which really don’t address it at large are pretty typical. Such works in Sunday school… being most youngsters aren’t going to get hit with a need for that question straight on, and even if they do, the glossed over stuff is likely enough for them to get by. The challenge is that outside of Sunday school, and more typically later in life… that question can become very real, with the most common results being to reject God’s goodness, His all powerful nature, or even His existence.

It is a tough question… theologians have been pounding on it for centuries and a number of theories are possible, most with a heavy dose of philosophy, most remaining within the bounds of the scriptures, and only a few going off into theological lala land. Craig Smith presents a list of common theories, as well as where he felt “The Shack” aligned.  I agree with his conclusion that “The Shack’s” means of addressing the problem of evil seems to fall within the confines of scripture.

One of the most visible controversies is how the trinity is portrayed. While I agree with the objections as concerned trinitarian heresies… I’ll counter this with the fact that its really really easy to slip into such when trying to explain it, even more so when you step away from the creeds of the early church. I remember a buddy doing a survey of US evangelicals years ago… 70% proudly proclaimed they were trinitarian and in the next question denied Mary as the Mother of God. Now, some might argue this is being too picky… but then again, Nestorianism was named for this heresy. Thus, when The Shack steps into Patripassionism (that the Father died on the cross) and a form of modalism (when the Father changes persons)… is it really that huge a deal for a fiction film?

the trinity
The Trinity in a graphical representation

Granted the trinity is important, and that deviations from such have historically proved problematic. Ie the early church dudes mostly wanted to keep folks on the right path as illuminated by the scriptures when they identified these heresies. And yet, theology should be accessible, but egads, we’ve got a kazillian latin word combos and names to identify said heresies. Add in that today’s average Christian’s doesn’t even participate in Bible studies, I don’t know what the answer is… but I do know its pretty easy to end up with a lot of glazed eyeballs if discussions get too deep in this.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1617 - 1682<br /> The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities ('The Pedroso Murillo')<br /> about 1675-82<br /> Oil on canvas, 293 x 207 cm<br /> Bought, 1837<br /> NG13<br /> http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG13
The Pedroso Murillo

Another controversy was the use of an African American Woman, A Jewish Carpenter, and an Asian woman to represent God and a bit later a Native American. Since we are created in the image of God, trinitarian issues aside, I see nothing wrong with this representation. God is not male nor female and exhibits both gender attributes. Casting an old white European dude as God and a European Jesus and leaving the Holy Spirit as a dove while perhaps traditional in some sense, would not have really aligned with the scriptures or history. I think character representation was a great call. I also think it really cool that Sarayu, a Hindu name which means flow / wind was also brilliantly chosen to say nothing of the fact that the Holy Spirit is of the female gender from a linguistic pov.

 

An interesting thing to ponder with the film is the almost exclusive  focus on God’s love leaving His wrath and justice aside. Consider the following bits:

  • We were never put on this earth to judge. We were put on this earth to love and find joy. Evil wins when we judge.
  • “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”

Such has echoes of the Christus Victor or even Eastern atonement theories… and while scripture supports many atonement theories, some in the US often only ascribe to one, namely PSA (Penal Substitutionay Atonement). Ie, Christ’s bearing of man’s sins takes the punishment for them and sets the believer free from the penal demands of the law: The righteousness of the law and the holiness of God are satisfied by this substitution.

This will cause conflict, as some in the exclusive PSA camp integrate it with the Gospel itself, completely ignoring the other major theories of atonement. In such a worldview, “The Shack” would be presenting a totally different Gospel. So yes, some heartburn over this within the exclusive PSA camp is going to happen…

The thing is, atonement theories are a complex and somewhat tricky thing to get ones head around. In isolation, its easy for a single theory to put God in a box by selectively downplaying parts of scripture counter to its focus. Such happens whether its Ransom, Satisfaction, Christus Victor, PSA, Moral Influence , Recapulation, Scapegoat, Government, Eastern, or any of a multitude of minor theories. Folks digging into this may well find its a fruitful experience as their worldview will expand, but its likely to be uncomfortable for some.

Theology aside, the Gospel in and of itself is pretty simple and readily accessible to all. Paul hits on this pretty explicitly in 1 Col :15-23

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[g] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

 

Contextualizing Biblical truths through stories and even film to make them accessible to the masses is a very good thing as it can bring new people into the fold, it can encourage those already in the fold, and it can even bring about greater depth through the discussions that result. Its a film which is well worth seeing.

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