This past weekend, the movie adaptation of the best selling book ‘The Shack’ was released. The movie (and the book) tells a story of trauma, tragedy, and loss, and explores several questions that most everybody asks at different times in their life. And because of the familiarity and popularity of the book inside of the church and Christian world, many churches, mine included, had formal and informal group outings to watch and (hopefully) discuss the themes of the movie. So I wanted to take some time and share my thoughts about the central questions and themes of the book and movie.
However, I also want to pause and acknowledge that the story also carries some controversy. There are concerns that the story lends itself, intentionally or unintentionally, toward poor theology. And while I agree that there are those elements within the story, I don’t think they’re the central themes. Questions of universalism, karma, and atonement theory are certainly raised, but not nearly given the same attention as pain, suffering, justice, and God’s place in all of those things. This story doesn’t seek to systematically rewrite theology – it’s an exploration of the existential questions; the ‘here and now’ stuff.
So with that being said, here are some thoughts on ‘The Shack’. SPOILERS
“The secrets we bury have a way of clawing their way to the surface” – Early in a conversation with God, the main character (Mac) hears this statement, and while he seems to ignore or miss it, I didn’t. You see, Mac’s past is filled with brokenness, including abuse and even killing/murder. These are things that, on their own, can traumatize someone, apart from anything else. And yet, Mac hasn’t given himself the chance to process them.
My time in the church, both as a pastor and as just an attendee has shown me that sometimes the church is too quick to offer simple answers and advice in pain and trauma. Rather than sit and wrestle with the pain, we offer platitudes like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or “Everything happens for a reason” (neither of which is true, FYI). Or we remind ourselves that somebody has it worse than we do. These statements more often cause someone to gloss over their pain and dismiss their feelings.
The thing about pain is that it demands to be felt.
If you don’t give your wounds, doubts, fears, and pain a chance to air out, you’ll never heal. You need to give yourself permission to feel your pain, rather than suffering in stoic silence. And the church should be a place where you can find that space.
“I’m not interested in prisoners” – Again, during their first conversation, Mac wonders about his ability to leave the shack and presence of God, to which God responds with the aforementioned quote. It’s a simple statement that has huge implications that are explored and reiterated throughout the movie – God has just told Mac that people are free to choose much of their lives, including God or evil.
I know that there are many Christians who would disagree with the statement, both in tone and in theology. And to be fair, they’re not off base to disagree. Scripture has numerous verses and passages that say that our lives are less of a choice and more of a divine plan.
But I don’t agree with that belief. There are just as many passages and verses that outline God’s giving us the ability to choose Him and even to walk away from Him. More than that, the implications of God allowing versus orchestrating/causing evil make it difficult for me to accept a loving God who inflicts pain and trauma.
This statement begins the theme of free will in the story, and it’s implications. God giving us the ability to choose a relationship with Him rather than Him choosing for us also explains the evil we see in the world.
(As a side note, my reformed brothers and sisters would, rightly, highlight that being ‘chosen/predestined’ by God isn’t the same as being a prisoner, so the connotation of the statement can be misleading).
“You misunderstand the mystery” – Mac has just tried to wrap his head around the nature of God – the Trinity, Christ’s death, and the role the Father played in it all. He thinks he’s got it all figured out when God politely informs him that Mac has missed the point.
While I know it will drive many people, in particular us westerners, absolutely crazy, I love the unanswered mysteries of the faith. I can’t fully comprehend or explain the Trinity, the coexistence of Christ’s divinity and humanity, or even what happens during communion.
We yearn to explain and understand things. It’s one of the biggest sources of criticism of faith – that it’s “unprovable” or “unfounded”. After all, I just admitted that, after several years of intense graduate study and professional experience, I can’t fully explain some of the core tenants of my job. It’s kind of like a scientist being unable to explain gravity or the way atoms work.
But for me, the mystery is refreshing. The faith is bigger than me, and not limited to my understanding. The Divine isn’t limited to what you or I can wrap our heads around. Instead, we’re given a chance to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves.
Again, I understand that I didn’t talk about the controversy a lot, and that’s because these questions – pain, forgiveness, faith, and choice – are the main points of the story, and not necessarily the controversial parts. That doesn’t mean we should be ignorant of them. We should be able to discuss them in the same conversation about the above subjects.
I just encourage you to not miss the bigger picture the story is talking about because there are some disagreeable parts.
Remember, I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.