That the love of God means the freedom for people to make their unimpeded choices for good or evil permeates The Shack.
[Note: The Shack, based on the book by William P Young, is about to be released. The book caused enormous controversy among many Christians when it first came out. An editor, Chris Fenoglio, from UMC.com recently asked me and several other clergy some questions about the movie/book. You may find the article here. I am posting my full answers below.]
Do you have any recommendations to United Methodists who will view The Shack?
Go with an understanding that all language about and knowledge of God is necessarily limited and metaphorical. We humans don’t have the ability to fully take in the Presence of God. We can only describe it in words of our experiences. Those experiences are inevitably limited and interpretive.
William Young wrote The Shack to take us into the world of a man, Mack, as he tried to recover from a deep grief, what he called The Great Sadness. That ongoing pain had affected Mack’s long-standing and always challenging relationship with God. The pain was also mingled with unresolved anguish over Mack’s relationship with his father.
It’s important to note that The Shack is not meant as a theological treatise but as a record of a journey to find healing if possible from the worst tragedy that a parent can experience. It’s best to view the movie through these eyes rather than through the eyes of “I can tell you what God is actually about.” Young can’t do that and neither can anyone else.
Are there elements of the film that are blatantly contrary to the teachings of The United Methodist Church?
Not really. Young’s understanding of God is solidly Trinitarian and Christ-centered. The way Young depicts the Trinity may unquestionably look problematic, especially the use of a black female as “Papa,” i.e., God the Father, but the Scriptures make it clear that the nature of God transcends gender classifications.
The classical terminology of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” made sense in the male-dominated world in which the Bible was written. However, that language has long been problematic for many because it makes God sound “male,” it and of itself an anti-Biblical stance.
One of the reasons The Shack caused such a controversy when the book first came out is Young’s unusual openness to the feminine in the Holy Trinity. For United Methodists, long comfortable with women in leadership, the more inclusive depiction of the Trinity really should not be an issue.
However, Young comes from a relatively conservative Evangelical world. This idea of God the Father being represented by a woman, much less a large Black woman, scandalized many people.
Are there other elements or depictions that are more subtle in their meaning but just as troubling?
A recurring theme in The Shack is that God carries our sadness alongside us. There is certainly an element of Process Theology in that idea. Instead of God being the Unmoved Mover, Young’s God changes in relationship with these complex humans whom God loves so very passionately. Those whose theological base is more Calvinistic than Arminian will have the greater struggles with this underlying theological assumption of God’s changeability.
The recognition that the love of God means the freedom for people to make their unimpeded choices permeates the book. At one point, Jesus tells Mack that God’s primary focus is to bring people into the circle of relationship enjoyed by the endlessly self-giving Trinity. But there is no coercion here. Humans must come freely. Such a concept fits well within the Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace.
Young insists in multiple ways that no such thing as a “chain of authority” or some power hierarchy exists within the Trinitarian oneness. Those who do need hierarchy to keep themselves grounded theologically will struggle with this.
Even so, Young does not escape his Evangelical sub-culture. He unquestionably holds to traditional gender roles: men find their identity in work, women in relationships) and there is no room for those who don’t fit the rigid male/female binary.
Is there anything else you would like to convey about the book and its impact on our culture?
The Shack is an exploration of the eternal human question, “How can God be good when there is so much evil all around us?”
Most of us, including Mack, find it difficult if not impossible to hold the tension between the goodness of God and the horrific things that humans do to one another. As a result, many move to the default of “God cannot possibly be good and cannot, therefore, be trusted.”
It is not possible to be in a relationship with someone we can not or will not trust. Ultimately, The Shack portrays the restoration of Mack’s trust in a genuinely good and loving God. Nowhere do we see easy answers or an escape from the real brokenness around us all.
Those who need to hold onto a judgmental God who is eager to send much of humanity to a destiny of eternal separation from all that is good will find much to argue with in The Shack. Clearly, Young contends that when we see love as the absolute core of God’s being, the human need to condemn or judge others as unworthy begins to disappear.
I think that’s part of what both caused the controversy when the book was released and also the cause of its immense popularity. People do genuinely want to know intimately the Cosmic Lover who holds all creation together. But such a notion doesn’t fit well with the angry God that many, including our protagonist Mack, learn from their earliest days.
The Shack offers a picture of forgiveness for the unforgivable. That much grace inevitably leaves many uncomfortable. But that’s the kind of God that The Shack portrays.