For those who have experienced trauma, The Shack (the novel and now movie) is a profound story that has extreme power to heal. But to some, The Shack is heresy and evil. Let me explain the conflict between the two.
Many significant Christian leaders — some whom I respect a lot — have come out against The Shack. Bible scholars like Albert Mohler have come out against its message, and Christian movie review site MovieGuide has even taken out ads against it. My old workplace Focus on the Family (and friend Bob Waliszewski) spends a good chunk of time in their movie review exploring all the theologically “wrong” positions in their Plugged In Review (and the Boundless article is tougher on the book).
I challenge the opposition. In general, I believe the chorus of criticism is unfair and overblown. If you read the criticism first and then watch the movie, you will likely come away thinking, “And what, exactly, was the problem?” The Shack takes creative license in some areas, but what creative work doesn’t? Even the producer admits to getting some theological points wrong. I give William Young a pass — just as I give C.S. Lewis, Frank Peretti, John Bunyan, etc., etc. passes.
More on point: I have lived trauma—similar, in a way, to the main character Mackenzie—and I identify with the author’s attempt to interpret how God can heal that which we think is irredeemable.
That’s where readers and viewers should go: to deep-seeded trauma that many of us have experienced. This makes the book and movie worth your time, and it makes the theological issues appear petty.
Go with me as I dissect this. You may be surprised at how it challenges you.
First, a Bit About The Shack
In 2008, shortly after the book came out, a friend at The Navigators suggested my wife, Wendy, read The Shack. She plowed through it quickly, and then insisted I follow. I read it, found it to be an extremely interesting, and set it aside. I didn’t know at the time how controversial the story would become, nor how the book was already having a profound influence on me.
The story is about Mac, a dad of three children, whose youngest daughter is murdered by a serial killer. Understandably, Mac goes through “a great sadness,” a depression that cripples him. His wife—who has a deeper relationship with God and calls Him “Papa”—seeks counseling for a weekend. Mac, in predicable male fashion, excuses himself. He stays home and grovels in his depressed state.
This is when Mac receives a mysterious letter in his mailbox. It appears to be a note from God calling him back to the scene of the crime. At first Mac thinks it’s a cruel joke, but in desperation answers the call and goes to the shack in the mountains where his daughter was killed.
After an initial meeting of coldness where Mac considers suicide, he is greeted by three people in a heavenly setting surrounded by gardens, homemade cooking, a lake and mountain views. The three people are manifestations of the Triune God, the three heads of the Trinity: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Each attempt to counsel Mac through his pain, and they appear in such a fashion to allow Mac to receive the healing.
This is where the criticism starts, and it is enough to make your head spin. Some very quickly will zero in on a few lines in the book, extrapolate lengthy theological dispositions, and conclude by claiming The Shack is leading naive people into unforgivable territory. I’ve read their dispositions ad nauseam. I rebut, though, that they are naive.
They are missing the mark about what the novel and movie are trying to explain. If, instead, people push through the initial criticism and accept the story prima facie (on its face), they may discover a much deeper understanding about how God connects with our human pain and suffering.
The Shack Is About Trauma
The story unfolds from Mackenzie’s encounter at the shack. Many profound ideas are explored through his pain, especially of who God is and how He works in our fallen world. Particularly:
- God does not orchestrate trauma.
- God does not abandon us when we deal with our trauma.
- God desires to help us through our trauma.
Mackenzie has problems with all three of these. In the story, he is bitter toward God the Father (he deals more fairly with Jesus and the Holy Spirit). Mackenzie accuses Papa of allowing the kidnapping and death of his daughter, the abandoning of his family in their greatest time of need, and his perceived resistance to help Mackenzie cope with his anger, confusion and depression. To Mackenzie, God is allowing all this pain to occur.
There are surface issues people have with the story. One of the most shallow, I believe, is that Papa appears as a black woman cooking food in the cabin. The accusation may be appealing to radical feminist theologians who insist on feminizing God, but the book is clearly not of this sort. In fact, Papa (the Father in the triune godhead) transforms a couple of times throughout the story, always prepared to appear in the form most acceptable to Mackenzie. This isn’t blasphemy, as some have suggested. In fact, it is extremely respectful of God as the great I Am, the Creator, omniscient and omnipresent, holy.
But the deeper issues are where the story is important. Critics take issue to each of the ideas I list above, and I take issue with the critics. In a sense, they interpret The Shack this way:
- God does orchestrate trauma. They typically explain trauma away, reminding us that “God is in control,” claiming it a mystery and too complex to understand. Somehow the critics are fine with the universe this way.
- God does abandon us. They love quoting the intense pain in “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) as somehow biblical proof that God wasn’t there. Doctrine of omnipresence is overlooked by the critics.
- God doesn’t help us through our trauma unless we have our theology right. The grace of God comes after our religious ducks are in a row. The critics are quick to show you which ducks go where.
Perhaps I’m being a little facetious, but I think my response is fair. To use a metaphor from the book, Mac’s criticism of God is like taking the throne of judgment in place of God. The critics condemn the book’s attempt to explain God’s work through our pain, and in the process they make light of the pain itself.
I have found that the more I experience trauma in this life, the more I resist the religious’ attempt to explain it. My trauma has closed my mind from grandstanding and explanation, instead opening my heart to compassion and understanding. The religious sound more like clanging cymbals than caring friends, and—if anything—they drown out those who struggle to make sense of this fallen world.
When you’ve experienced trauma, you start to get it. The Shack becomes quite profound.
The Shack Explains Trauma that Religion Can’t
Allow me to bring you into a bit of my own trauma.
When I read The Shack in 2008, I was experiencing the worst story of my life. My oldest daughter abandoned her family’s moral and spiritual upbringing and, in a sense, “ran away” from us. It devastated Wendy and me. Worse yet, it became an international spectacle of sorts when it was the center issue of our TLC mini-series program Kids by the Dozen.
I’ve been Mackenzie. I’ve been curled up on the floor, heart broken, crying out to God to take away the pain and even my life. The ordeal was humiliating, confusing, and condemning all at once. Such a trauma is, indeed, “a great sadness.”
At the time, I had religious people in my life who tried to help. They did not bring much relief, and some did more harm than good. They told me to kick our daughter out, excommunicate her, strip her from any inheritance—all the while quoting scriptures to justify such responses. I’m not exaggerating, as I was of the mind and community of patriarchy.
How wrong I was. My religious doctrine meant nothing in my attempt to bring healing to my family. In fact, it drove a wedge in our home. The TLC episode, in a way, shook the wedge loose and—by God’s grace—lead to healing that lasted a few years following the show.
It was no coincidence that The Shack made its way into our lives at that time. The book helped give us a tender heart of unconditional love that allowed our family come back together. You would need to read our book Love in the House to get the full perspective. We explain the entire story, a miraculous one indeed, one that I am able to still read with fondness of God’s love for us beyond the myriad squabbles that divide us.
If you’ve experienced trauma in your life, you will identify with The Shack. I hope you’re not merely closed to the pain, explaining it away in religious argument and heavy theology. If you take in the story for what it is worth, you may find great healing and resolution to the sorrow that you are experiencing.