Film & Theology – The Shack

A number of years ago William P. Young published the novel “The Shack” to critical acclaim. It not only won numerous awards and a lot of air time, it also sold over 20 million copies worldwide. I read the book. I haven’t seen the film, which is released in Southampton cinemas tomorrow. It was an easy read with a moderately powerful storyline:

Mack (main character) takes his family on a holiday to the lakes (not the Lake District) where every parent’s worst nightmare comes true, when a psycho killer abducts and kills his young daughter. At his wits end, he receives an invitation from God to visit a shack, enabling him to wrestle with and work through his anger.

What follows is not a critique of the book/film but, what I hope is, a helpful guide to those who have read the book or are planning to watch the film.

The Dark Side

The Shack exemplifies the dark side of human nature, at it’s worst, in the most powerful way. In a world where evil is thought of in shades of gray, types of films like The Shack are moral in their suppositions – heroes are heroes and villains and villains. Whether you are watching parents wrestle with the aftermath of the murder of a child, or thinking about specific characters from other films, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, man’s struggle with inner evil is clearly evident and not at all hidden.

“We’re not evil because of the evil we do .. we do evil because we are evil”

Casanova, The Addiction

One of the things that people find particularly troubling about Christianity – one of the hurdles to accepting the truth claims of the Bible – is its teaching that people are inherently sinful and need to be saved by the God they are rebelling against. This is a crucial point – without sin there is no need for salvation. At the heart of The Shack is an attempt to highlight the problem of sin and the problem of evil (and then the consequences and repercussions that these bring). The author makes an attempt to write about sin and evil and calls it for what it is. What we are.

What made The Shack a best seller? Well, it’s a best seller because Young understands that in order to write a best seller, our connection to the protagonist, in this case Mack, is what make stories work. The only way to make a popular story is to write a narrative that features characters who are dealing with universal issues. In short, the reason The Shack was successful is because we all share something of Mack’s struggle. We all live in a fallen and broken world where sin and evil reign too often. Our world doesn’t paint in black and white absolutes but in shades of grey that are relative. Young lives in that world too but points out that there is a thing called evil, and it’s absolute. This is the reason we connect with the story, this is what makes the story work. Mack is confronted with evil – and that’s a struggle that we all face. We should commend Young in his attempt at dealing with such a deeply difficult topic as the problem of evil.

The Invitation

This is, of course, where Jesus starts. He came into the same broken and fallen world – a world of universal sin and suffering – and says “Come unto me all ye who labour and are heavy laden”. There is no particular event to which Jesus speaks. His statement is not directed to any particular person and that’s because Jesus recognises that evil is a universal problem. The weight of sin affects all. “All ye” Jesus says – that is his tragic word to us. It is the word of pity to all those who are being crushed under the heavy laden burden of their lives lived without God. Young picks this theme up and in the midst of Macks struggle to come to terms with what has happened – coming face to face with evil – writes that Mack is invited by God to meet Him.

The cross that is a symbol of defeat before it is a symbol of victory speaks also of the absence of God. “My God, My God, why have your forsaken me?”. Jesus shares with us the darkness of what it is to be without God as well as showing forth the flow of what it is to be with God. The invitation to “Come unto me” firstly recognises the need, then the heavy burden … and then finally “I will give you rest”. This is the great promise that is alluded to in the Shack: the invitation to rest.

The Elephant in the Room

This all sounds good so far. Sin is sin. Evil is evil. God is in pursuit of mankind and offers rest to those who are weighed down by the load of sin. So what’s the problem. Well, meet meet Young’s God: a God who isn’t offended by sin (even the murder of a child). What? That’s right. The Shack effectively disavows God of His holiness and in it’s place is universalism. There is not a hint of trying to reconcile divine love with overwhelming holiness. Simply stated: Young’s view of orthodox Christianity wanes terribly.

If the Bible is what it claims to be – the very Word of God  – then there are two things that must be true: God exists and God has spoken. Yet, in a more recent book, where Young outlines his theology, he makes the claim that the idea that human beings are separated from God and need saving are “fundamental lies”. He claims that everyone is a child of God regardless of their spiritual status.


Young claims:

“Jesus did not come to build a bridge back to God or to offer the possibility of getting unseparated,”

Lies We Believe About God, Young, p232

In answer to this:

“Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you”

Isaiah 59:2

Sadly there are many more examples like this of Young’s poor theology. So, don’t read the Shack and let it inform your theology. Read the Bible and let it inform your view of The Shack.

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