The Shack (the movie)

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach
Joseph and Tammy Tkach

Author William Paul Young is a friend of GCI. He has been a featured speaker at several of our conferences, and has been interviewed multiple times on our web program, You’re Included. Many of us have read Paul’s novel, The Shack, which has sold over 20 million copies worldwide since it was first published in 2007, making it one of the best-selling books of all time

As you probably know, Paul’s book has been turned into a movie also named The Shack. The cast, made up of bigger celebrities than is typical for Christian movies, includes Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Aviv Alush, Graham Greene, Radha Mitchell, Alice Braga and Tim McGraw. The film is being released in the U.S. on March 3. To view a trailer, click here.

The Shack (movie) poster. Source.

The release of The Shack provides a great opportunity for personal evangelism. There are not many movies you can take your unchurched friends to that give a compelling and faithful presentation of the gospel in non-preachy terms. The Shack does that, and it will surely elicit conversation, in part because of the controversy surrounding the book and the movie. According to some critics, The Shack advocates non-biblical, even heretical, teachings about God and salvation, but such claims typically fail to take into account several points about the book:

  • It’s a work of fiction—a novel written in a literary style known as allegory where, in highly unusual ways, characters and events stand for abstract ideas or events.
  • The Shack makes qualifying statements that show the author does not intend that the book be taken as equivalent to Scripture.
  • To understand its core message, The Shack must be read in its entirety. As the narrative unfolds, its characters grow and change in their understanding of God and life. Lifting statements and ideas out of the flow of the narrative will lead to wrong impressions concerning the book’s ultimate and concluding message.

GCI recommends The Shack (both the book and the movie), though our recommendation (as is the case whenever we recommend non-GCI resources), does not mean we necessarily endorse all that the book and movie convey. In order to engage in discussions about the movie and the book, it’s good to be aware of answers to some of the questions and objections related to The Shack. Thankfully, there are good resources to help us. Here are ones we recommend:

  • The book The Shack Revisited by Baxter Kruger, which presents the Trinitarian theology inherent to the story told in The Shack. As the book’s subtitle says, There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream.
  • The booklet God, the Bible and the Shack by Gary and Cathy Deddo.
  • Questions and Answers About The Shack—supplement to the Deddo’s booklet. Here from that document is one of the most frequently-voiced questions, followed by the Deddos’ answer:

Is Young wrong to depict God the Father as a woman?

Some have objected that God the Father is represented throughout most of [The Shack] as a woman since in the Bible God is always identified with the masculine. Several comments are in order. First, [Paul] Young is clear that God is not said actually to be feminine, but that the Father only appears to Mack in that form (pp. 91, 93). And the reason this is the case is explicitly stated in the book. Mack, out of his past experiences and reactions to them, has developed a distorted view of the masculine. In appearing to Mack in a female form, God presents himself to Mack in a way that wouldn’t be saddled for Mack with a load of misunderstanding. It’s a temporary measure and an accommodation to help Mack begin to gain a proper understanding of God.

Also Young makes clear that God’s appearing to Mack first as a woman and then as a man was to break our stereotypes of God (our idols?) so that we come to see that God is neither male nor female (p. 93). Young’s point is that God is not a creature at all, and is not a gendered being. Gender doesn’t apply to God since God is not a human being (p. 201).

Neither of these two points is misleading nor unbiblical. God does adapt his revelation to us without misrepresenting himself. The incarnation is the strongest case in point. God is not a creature but he comes to us as a real creature. God meets us in time and space, in person, face to face that we might know him and have the actual benefits of his saving work for us.

God also is neither male nor female though we often end up thinking of God as being masculine in some sense. While we know God is not a physical being, we still think that most everything else about God is masculine and not feminine. However, masculinity and femininity are attributes of human creatures. God is not a creature at all. It would be wrong to say that God is masculine in every way men are except that he does not have male physiology. We cannot project upon God human masculinity, just without the body parts. That would be idolatrous, a mythological projection.

On the other hand, it should be noted that in the Bible God is compared to having characteristics of some creatures that are female. Jesus compares himself to a hen gathering her chicks. According to Mayer I. Gruber of Ben Gurion University in Israel there are four unequivocal human feminine images for God (Isaiah 42:14; 45:10; 49:15; 66:13). [1] In these passages God is compared to a human mother. There are three places where God is likened to a mother bird (Deuteronomy 32:11; Isaiah 31:5; Matthew 23:37). [2] God is also likened to a mother bear (Hosea 13:8). [3] Other references may have a feminine reference to God but do so in a way not nearly as directly or concretely as these. [4]

In the Bible God can be described as tender-hearted, compassionate, responsive to the cries of his people, and even as nursing them. So God and Jesus are not exclusively depicted in masculine terms. At the same time we shouldn’t make the opposite mistake of thinking that God is female in some human sense. Young agrees. He says God is not feminine but can be described as having feminine characteristics. Admittedly his book is meant as a corrective, especially to benefit those like Mack, who think of God in terms of a human male. But it’s clear that while a corrective is his agenda, the larger truth about God is clearly noted: God is neither male nor female.

What can be and should be noted is that while God is indirectly compared to the feminine, in the Bible, God is never addressed directly as She or Mother. Address to God does exclusively use the verbally masculine parts of speech. That pattern should serve as the normative pattern of our address to God. But our pattern need not, any more than the biblical use, exclude our using feminine descriptive language for God’s character, attitude, actions or inclination. That is what Young has done. In fact, the name he gives the Father the whole time the Father appears in female form in The Shack is Papa!

We can only speculate why the biblical pattern consistently uses the masculine in address to God. It could be that the grammatical structure points to a proper ordering, structuring of relationship (taxis) between us and God. By comparison we are all feminine in relationship to God, and so we are all to address God in the masculine. But this is speculation. It is a mystery, but one that calls for a certain pattern we have been given for properly addressing God. We have no authority to alter that pattern.

But regarding our language for God, we should also recognize that grammatical gender does not indicate human creaturely gender. So, for example, in some languages mountains are grammatically feminine! But that doesn’t mean they are in some essential way female. God is the good and faithful author and creator of both masculine and feminine. The duality of our creaturely reality reflects something that is true of God—who is not a creature. But we must still conclude that God is neither masculine nor feminine in the ways that his creatures are even if our patterns of address ought to use the masculine pronoun.

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[1] Cited in Roland M. Frey, “Language for God and Feminist Language” in Speaking the Christian God, ed. Alvin F. Kimel, Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), p. 29. Isaiah 42:14, “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” Isaiah 45:10, “Woe to anyone who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?'” Isaiah 49:15, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Isaiah 66:13, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (NRSV).

[2] Deuteronomy 32:11, “As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions.” Isaiah 31:5, “Like birds hovering overhead, so the LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it.” Matthew 23:37, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (NRSV).

[3] But not in a stereotypically feminine role: “I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart; there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild animal would mangle them” (Hosea 13:8, NRSV).

[4] We have in mind here especially references to God personified as Wisdom, which takes the feminine pronoun in Hebrew. In the New Testament, however, the Spirit is used with the neuter pronoun and when referred to as the Comforter, that Greek title for the Holy Spirit (paraklētos) takes the masculine pronoun! When it comes to God, the pronouns used clearly do not indicate biological gender!

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I close now with a comment made by one of my GCI pastor friends:

If you like The Shack, you’ll love our church!

Happy movie viewing to you all,
Joseph Tkach

13 thoughts on “The Shack (the movie)”

  1. Thank you for this well balanced and informative article. We realize that this is a controversial work in Christendom. My husband and I have read the book many times and saw a “pastoral preview” of the movie about a month ago. The movie stays true to the the essence of the book and most of the details as well. It beautifully addresses ‘belief’ ‘trust’ ‘pain’ ‘Where is God in tragedy?’ and ‘reconciliation’ — among many other themes. It is worthy going to see (or purchase).

  2. I was listening to a local “Christian radio station” today. They ran an ad for the upcoming Shack movie. Immediately following the ad, the radio DJ gave a huge warning about the movie. He said that Michael Youssef (a national radio preacher) says that the book and movie promote rampant heresy and that no Christian should read the book or watch the movie. The DJ then said, “Of course, it’s your choice if you go watch the movie, but I can’t imagine a Christian doing so.” Yuk! I hope no seekers were listening in at that point, so they didn’t get hit with the legalistic and inaccurate name-calling and heresy-hunting mindset. My wife and I will be at the March 2 preview of the movie! (Does that mean we are not Christians??)

  3. I have read ” The Shack”, and I do believe anyone who decides to view the movie, should do so with an open heart and mind with out prejudice.

  4. I read The Shack when it was first marketed. Although I found the allegories awkward, I understood that they were allegories and not an attempt to insinuate heresy.

    This is my honest impression in few words. People, Christians especially – very likely the most numerous readers of The Shack, hunger for the emotional content and psychological support that is contained in The Shack. It is the kind of support that is not found anywhere in the Bible. We may find the stern God of the Reformation in the Bible but not a God who laughs, encourages and can be informal. So when someone writes a book like The Shack that is emotionally counter to the Bible (and its dry companion theology), people devour it ravenously and without chewing. Many Christian writers recognize this principle – unfortunately some are heretics.

    The Shack fills a void but it is, alas, written by a man – albeit a good man.

  5. David, while I appreciate your comment, I would like to note that the God Paul Young portrays in The Shack actually is found in the Bible, and his name is Jesus.

    Said another way, we know who God is (in a full and definitive sense) by the revelation given us through the words and acts of Jesus Christ recorded for us in the Bible. That revelation then sends us back to other passages about God (OT passages, in particular) to re-read them in the light of what we have learned about the true nature of God as revealed in Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. This way of thinking about God and of reading Scripture is fundamental to the incarnational Trinitarian theology GCI embraces–the same theology that informs Paul Young’s thinking, including his writing of The Shack. Hope this explanation is helpful to your thinking on this topic.

  6. Ted: I have heard people try to superimpose humor on some of the events in the New Testament and it always comes off like a bear pedaling a bicycle — it just doesn’t seem quite right. I know of no account in the New Testament that describes that Jesus either laughed or smiled. I know of no overt use of humor on the part of Jesus. Instead I get a feeling from the text that a profound solemnity descended on everyone who walked with Christ – like an imminency of martyrdom. I do not pretend to know what this means but the lack of humor communicates just as significantly as the presence of humor would. I believe The Shack explored some valuable themes. I am just saying that the “light opera” of The Shack is very different from the somberness of the Bible and, hence, bears the mark of human poetic license. For those who would be purists about the Doctrine of God, this can be an issue.

  7. David: Jesus, being fully human, was certainly a man of many emotions and I think you find that in the stories of the Gospels. One of his prevalent emotions was that of joy as beautifully illustrated in the book “Jesus Man of Joy” by Shirwood Eliot Wirt (online at http://ccel.us/woody.toc.html). This book profoundly influenced the way Jesus is portrayed by Bruce Marchiano in the movie “The Gospel According to Matthew.” I recommend both the book and the movie.

  8. I am not following David, i.e. that God had no sense of humor. I cannot help but think of the irony of Balaam’s ass. As C.S. Lewis is reported to say I am glad that I am not the only ass that God allowed to talk( or something to that effect). I see much of His reaction to the disciples in this way, especially to the percocious Peter. I also found humor with His response to Mary when she told servants to do whatever He told them to do and He responded as though He would not do it and did it anyway, in this I see my boys teasing their mother all the while knowing they are going to do what she said. I know there was a point to be made but I can’t help but see humor there and many other places. I could be just wrong but that is how much of it strikes me.

  9. Re: footnote 4. Oh my goodness, what are you trying to tell us? “When it comes to God, the pronouns used clearly do not indicate biological gender!”

    In Koine Greek, “spirit” is used with a neuter pronoun because it IS a neuter noun. This is like “das madchen” in German, which is neuter, and therefore uses the neuter pronoun “es”.

    “Parakletos” is a masculine noun in Greek, so the masculine pronoun is used with it. There is nothing didactic about these constructions. God isn’t trying to teach us something about Himself by using these (correct) pronouns. This is simply the way the language works.

    A more interesting observation can be found in John 16:13, where God did break the rules of Greek grammar while talking about the Spirit: “When the Spirit (neuter noun) of truth comes, he (ekeinos, masculine pronoun) will guide you into all the truth.”

    Here we see the personhood of the Holy Spirit being asserted in a grammatical fashion. The Holy Spirit is not a force (as per the Watchtower), but a person who guides us. And He (the Holy Spirit) decided to represent Himself with a masculine pronoun, although the feminine “ekeine” was also available, which to my mind rules out the idea that He might be a mysterious Asian woman.

    1. Keith, by saying that “the pronouns…do not indicate biological gender,” the Deddos (in their Q&A on “The Shack”) are not saying that the Spirit is impersonal, but that the spirit is not a gendered human being. The same is true of the Father and the eternal Son of God. The Persons of the Trinity are just that—distinct persons who relate among themselves and with us in personal ways. But these three divine persons, being the one God, are not human and thus not gendered. The incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, in his humanity, of course, is a human and thus is gendered (a man, in this case). Hope this clarifies this issue for you.

  10. With tears of sorrow and joy freely flowing, this movie touched a place in my heart like none other. I am a very visual learner and the book and movie took me places that biblical knowledge alone did not—a place of healing and freedom. I hope viewers will take away more of God’s love for his children.

  11. I’ve read the book and seen the movie, and was deeply moved by both. My personal take-away is that God interacts with us in the time and space of our circumstances and need, transcending any human-imposed notions of gender or anything else. The primary intent is redemption (as when “Papa” states that “he’s my child too,” that often is aided by our forgiveness of others’ “trespasses against us.” That seems a primary stumbling block for many, and thus a primary concern of God and how that block can be overcome. The movie brings to the big screen a vivid illustration and portrayal of that struggle.

  12. Jesus continually offered mental, emotional, psychological support, encouragement, informality, and joy to his followers. Or they never could have followed him. They were carnal, evil men. As Jesus told them, Matt. 7:11.

    Jesus was as human as they were, except for the evil, and he knew perfectly everything a human needed, to be changed from what they were to what they should be. Cracking the whip of the legalistic severity of law was the sure way to lose them. As Paul learned and told us.

    The human problem is the inability to comprehend the complete God-centered nature of the spiritual mind of Jesus and the mental, emotional joy that flows from his Spirit of love, joy, peace. Bruce Marchiano gave an excellent portrayal of this Jesus.

    The Shack is not heretical as the doctrine of hell is heretical. The Shack offers the perfect hope of God’s perfect salvation that the hell of man’s religion does not.

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