Sunday, March 5, 2017

What about “The Shack”?

“An African-American, a Jew, and an Asian walk into a bar” might be the beginning of somebody’s joke. But Wm. Paul Young is dead serious when he centers his 2007 novel The Shack on three such persons—and this weekend the movie by the same name opened in theaters across the country. 
Young (b. 1955) is a Canadian novelist who self-published The Shack after his manuscript was turned down by 26 publishers. Remarkably, by June 2008 it had sold a million copies—and now sales are said to be over 25 million!

While definitely fiction, the book is also a theodicy, an argument for God’s goodness in the face of evil. Much of the book is response to Missy’s question about “how come [God’s] so mean?” (p. 33).

The book/movie is also a reflection on the nature of the Trinity. While clearly a temporary manifestation to Mack, the central human being in the book, God appears as Elousia, an African-American woman usually called “Papa”; Jesus, a Jewish carpenter; and Sarayu, a willowy Asian woman. 

When first meeting these three “persons,” Mack asks which one of them is God. “’I am,’ said all three in unison” (p. 89).
What a marvelous time, and what a healing time, Mack spends with this amazing Trinity!  


There have been some very negative reviews of the book—mostly by conservative Christians. In 2010 Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called it (here) “deeply troubling” and declared that it “includes undiluted heresy.”
Earlier, in May 2008, Charles Colson advised his readers (here), “Stay Out of The Shack.”
These are just two of many written criticisms of the theological content of The Shack. In addition, though, just about a year ago a 79-minute documentary film was produced with the title “The Shack: Its Dangerous Theology and Error.”
There are perhaps some legitimate concerns about the theology of the book—but the more conservative or traditional one is, the greater those concerns will likely be.
In addition to the conservative Christians who criticize the theology of The Shack, there are now many secular movie critics who trash the film.
Returning home after watching the movie, with delight, late Friday afternoon, I looked up some movie reviews of the film—and was disappointed in what I found. They were mostly negative—especially the one by Peter Sobczynski on 
Perhaps “The Shack” is most appreciated/enjoyed by people with a moderate/liberal Christian worldview.
“When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize, the result is a novel on the order of The Shack. This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” 
These words, by Eugene Peterson (of The Message fame) are perhaps the most effusive in praising The Shack, but there have been numerous clerics and moderate to liberal Christian writers who have had positive words about it.
Many of you know and appreciate Richard Rohr. (I wrote about him, here, in Nov. 2015.) Last year Fr. Rohr published The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. I found it interesting that in this major book about the Trinity, Rohr had Young write the Foreword, mentions Young in the Introduction, and calls him a “dear brother” in the Acknowledgments. 
Except to my most (theologically) conservative and most secular friends, I highly recommend this delightful book/movie. It offers much to think about regarding the Triune God, dealing with grief, relationships (with God and other humans), as well as freedom of choice and the problem of evil.


  1. There are many interesting analogies to grasp Deity. Even Jesus uses some (eg - metaphorically comparing himself to a hen), let alone the psalmists. And so we can learn by comparatives. I especially enjoy "The Matrix" for this, but also "The Chronicles of Narnia".

    However, when simile is transferred into reality, it becomes heresy. I remember leaving a church permanently when they started praying to “Our Mother Who art in Heaven…”
    We cannot worship the hen.

    1. Dennis BoatrightMarch 5, 2017 at 8:19 PM

      Leroy, I did not remember you talking about the Shack before, so I was looking forward to your opinion on it. The book was recommended to me by the man who services my sprinklers (required backflow check in Lee's Summit), who seemed to also like to evangelize. I thought it was a very creative story stressing love and forgiveness, which I think Tom covered better than I can. I was wondering if any of that creativity bordered on heretical. It appears you do not believe so, but there are many who might, whom you cautioned about seeing the movie.

      Regarding the critical reviews, Rotten Tomatoes reports 16% of critics had favorable opinions, which of course means do not see the movie. However, critical review does not always address everyone's taste and religious movies often receive bad critical reviews. Actual viewers tend to have more favorable opinions, which is no different for the Shack that has an 88% approval rating. Those are very likely readers of the book, so I consider that a high recommendation of how well the movie matches the book. You have a lot of company. It will be interesting to see how it does at the box office, which could be very well with 25 million book readers to draw in. Unfortunately I doubt I will see it at the theater due to a busy schedule.

    2. Is it okay to worship the rooster? Charles Kiker posting as anonymous.

    3. Thanks, Charles, for your comment in response to the anonymous comment above.

      In this regard I think I would say that I would not want to go to a church that thought that God had to be addressed as Father because God is male.

      Surely all our terms for God (Father, Mother, or whatever) are all analogical or metaphorical.

    4. Thanks, Dennis, for posting your comments. As you can see below, earlier this morning I posted reference to the box office receipts of "The Shack" being the third highest of the weekend. I would assume that it will continue to do rather well because of the book having been so popular.

      I thought your comment about religious movies often receiving bad critical reviews was correct. Religious movies have a lot more appeal to religious people than they do to non- or anti-religious people.

  2. I long ago decided not to read the book, and I expected to approach the movie with the same negative attitude. But now that I hear that Al Mohler says that it is heresy I'll have to reconsider. It might be a good book after all.

    Of course, the fact that you liked the movie has some influence too.

    1. Thanks, Clif. I don't think you particularly need to see the movie, but I think you would find it interesting and might see things in it that would be helpful for some people you might know.

      Just as you were posting your comments, I was working on getting the comments from TF Tom posted below, and I hope you will read what he wrote. Perhaps we all know of some people who have, at least to some degree, "hatred of God," as Tom put it. They are the ones who potentially could get the most benefit out of seeing the movie.

  3. The following comments are from local Thinking Friend Tom Lankford, and I appreciate him giving me permission to post his significant comments here:

    "Since the book came out I have given hundreds of copies away and 'The Shack' was declared by my 93-year-old conservative Catholic mother as her favorite book of all time.

    "Certainly anything and everything in the hands of an undiscerning mind can be dangerous, but this powerful story has helped numerous friends of mine move on from their hatred of God based on unjust and heinous acts perpetrated against them by other human beings.

    "Don't get me wrong, I don't think mercy or love should ever trump laws against or punishments for such an evil crime that the book is centered on, but love and protection for the dignity of all humans is one of the hallmarks of God's creation beautifully portrayed by this short novel.

    "We can rarely control what is perpetrated against us but we can control how it might affect us. I've been told by my mother-in-law that we have been granted the choice of bitter or better when passing through life's trials.

    "It's interesting to note that the personal life of the author ought to be researched by the reader or movie goer because I believe it has some relevance."

    1. Tom, I really appreciate your comments--and impressed that you have given copies of the book to so many people. I was also impressed with your mother's evaluation of the book--and I like what your mother-in-law has said also.

      I didn't have room (since I limit my blog articles to 600 words) to get into Young's personal story, but thanks, too, for making reference to that.

  4. I saw this morning that "The Shack" garnered the third highest box office over the weekend, although far behind the highest drawing movie.

    I also just now saw on Religion News Service this good review of "The Shack":

  5. My son-in-law, Tim Laffoon, wrote a significant comment that he was unable to post here directly in his name. (Several others who do not have a Google account have had that same problem.) Here is what he wrote, and I appreciate Tim sharing this:

    "I read a posting on Facebook this weekend from a good friend of about 20 years. He is conservative politically and religiously.

    "About 25 years ago he and his wife lost their two boys in an accident. It was devastating.

    "He wrote that this movie was very personal and healing for them, even more so than the book."

  6. It’s been a few years since I read Shack in its novel form and because of a positive review from a commentator I respect, I’ll see the film version. I thought the story thought provoking and the dialog a case review in trying to deal with the problem of evil.
    I find it puzzling or disappointing when readers or viewers get overly wrapped up or warped out of shape making literal interpretations. The Islamic canon includes the lovely essay on 99 names for God and doesn’t attempt to be all-inclusive. After all, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Ghost) are metaphorical descriptors. I know there are creeds that might seem to be important to Christians here—I say one every Sunday. I am also reminded that the earliest Apostles creed includes a “descent into hell” that literalists would be have a special hermeneutic for, while considering Father, Son and Spirit immune to other than a traditionally sacrosanct monopoly of describing diving activity

  7. One of the first responses received yesterday was from Thinking Friend Jeanie McGowan, who lives in Jefferson City, Missouri. A few minutes ago I received another email from her with permission to post her comments here:

    [On 3/5] "Amen, Leroy! Haven't seen the movie yet (Maybe today?), but I did love the book! Have never understood all the hoopla against it! I, too, follow Richard Rohr and have deep respect for him. I get his daily messages and they always resonate within me."

    On 3/6] "We did go see the movie yesterday afternoon and it did not disappoint. I had forgotten that 'Papa' looked like the Native American man when the most difficult time came when [Mack] needed a 'man.'"

  8. Here are comments posted on Facebook by Thinking Friend Gregory Hadley, my friend from Missouri who has long lived in Japan:

    "I have read the book, but I haven't seen the movie. A lot of infelicities can happen between the printed page and the silver screen. However, when I read the book, I found it to be a type of 'Pilgrim's Progress' for the 21st-century--but in terms of more for those who are suffering in this life, and who are trying to understand how God is within that process.

    "The book is a parable. And that uses symbolism in a way, similar to Christ I would think, that is disruptive and yet evocative in equal measure. I have been in touch with one of the authors of the later book, Wayne Jacobsen, and I found him to be a lovely person, a Christian who has suffered from institutional church abuses as I have. He's a good man and he loves God in Christ.

    "The movie will generate discussion--and it will reach some people just as much as it will refill others. This is the power of parable!"