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Stuck or Saved in The Shack?

“It was terrible, and it was wonderful.” This is Mack’s description of his encounter with Holy Wisdom deep within a mountain in the movie The Shack. It could also be a brief summary of the movie itself.

The Shack–remember the 2007 novel, originally self-published that went on to sell 10 million copies? Back then, it was the controversy-du-jour within evangelicalism. Some critics didn’t like its theology, especially its portrayal of the Trinity. Others didn’t care for a writing style that felt like it might merit a C+ in eighth grade composition.

shack 3Nonetheless, I’ll confess to a soft-spot for the book. Why? The first straw was that Eugene Peterson blurbed it. There on the back cover was some complimentary comment by Peterson. I trust his instincts probably more than any “celebrity Christian.” If Eugene Peterson likes it, how bad can it be?

Second, it was the hair-splitters and heresy hunters of the evangelical subculture that targeted The Shack. Such attacks should be worn like a badge of honor. Much of the criticism seemed like attacking The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe on the grounds that Jesus is not very much like a talking lion. Moreover, no one was claiming The Shack was a good substitute for reading Athanasius or Augustine.

Finally when I read it, I was, at various points, appreciative, even touched. I support its general impulse, what it is trying to do—adjust our perception of God, especially as we face tragedy and suffering.

So I decided to go to the movie. Like the cliché tells us, “The book was better.” And like the book, the movie is often annoying and wearisome, but it also has some moments of grace.

The first portion of the movie—really, the set up for the shack encounter—tries to portray a typical, suburban, church-going family. It is almost unbearably bad. Not only is it too long and beyond trite, it is full of those little cutesy touches, moments that are supposed to make a certain sort of person go “tee-hee.” But they are insider-language, code that it is a safe and family-friendly, a movie aimed at good, sweet, and decent people who are nostalgic for a past that never was. It seems to me that The Shack could have aimed to be much more.

Somewhere out there, there is string ensemble that wore out at least a couple of bows on the maudlin and manipulative background music.

There were lots of very poorly done CGI scenes that felt low-budget and cheesy. I don’t know enough about movie-making to understand why this is. Is The Shack truly a low-budget movie? Its makers simply didn’t have the resources to do better? Or did they think that the kind of people who go see The Shack aren’t discerning enough to care? I read that in its opening weekend alone, The Shack took in more money than Silence, Martin Scorsese’s recent highly-reviewed, but poorly attended movie, took in over its entire run.

As I sat in the dark theatre, stewing and squirming, I thought of the recently released and much ballyhooed book, The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. Scott Hoezee’s post here on The Twelve touched on it last week. Like Scott, I have not read it, but Dreher contends that in light of the hostile secularization in contemporary western society, especially changing understandings of human sexuality, Christians may need to “withdraw” to form alternative social structures. If this is the case, I thought during the movie, they’re going to have to start making better movies. Or a lot of people are going to be sneaking out of the monastery on Friday nights.

Okay—enough criticism. It is too easy. What was the positive? Where were those moments of grace? They came when the movie finally got to the place where Mack, the protagonist, actually spends time with the “Trinity.”

Shack 2The serial encounters with different members of the Trinity feel a bit contrived, but every encounter had some pathos, some soft wisdom, and some attempt to undo an understanding of God as wrathful, uncaring, or inert. Did it sometimes drift into platitudes and pontification? Probably. But I believe the overall effect was to enhance our view of God.

Simply that the first-person of the Trinity is portrayed by an African-American woman (although briefly is also a native-American man) called “Papa,” seems to undo a lot of confining understandings of God. One of my favorite scenes was when Mack needles Papa for seemingly resting and relaxing. Papa’s reply is something like, “You have no idea what all I am doing.” It isn’t simply a good-humored retort, but suggests that the friendlier, softer God of The Shack doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of divine power. Going to see The Shack with your theological magnifying glass seems to miss the very point of the venture. Nonetheless, I never felt like it was even mildly heterodox.

Using an accessible story to try to speak into the problem of evil, trying to bring some comfort to those who suffer, and portraying God in a more relational, loving way—it’s a project I can endorse. The problems with The Shack have less to do with bad theology and much more with bad movie making.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Thank you for this. I read the book years ago and am now holding a book study on it. It has its flaws but is a good discussion of suffering.

  • Brad Kautz says:

    I read the book a few years ago because someone in my congregation shared it with me. I think it would have been a much more compelling story, and more helpful to people in the pews, if when Mack went into the shack the only person there was Guido de Bres.

  • I am fascinated by your review because my intuitive response was the inverse of yours. I thought that the movie was more skillfully done than the book. I, too, rated the book at a C+ as writing, but appreciated the picture it provided to me of the Trinity, and for that reason I recommended it to Christian friends.
    When I saw the movie, I thought, “This has a better crafting than the book.” But perhaps it is because I understand book crafting better than I do movie crafting. And I waited patiently through the opening scenes for the Trinity scenes to come. Hmmmmm.

  • Kathy D says:

    Thanks for this, Steve! I never finished the book, although I started it. Too easy to criticize as you say — either the book or the movie. You are right: using a “theological magnifying glass seems to miss the very point of the venture.”

  • PS to my previous post: I did think that The Shack had better crafting than most “Christian” movies I have seen. What’s your opinion on that, Steve?

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Thanks, all, for your input and ideas. Carol, I don’t remember the book in detail. In my memory, at least, the whole back story/child abduction etc., came out more in bits and pieces and flashbacks. As I said above, I found the first part of the movie, until Mack gets to the shack, to be nearly unbearable. As to whether The Shack has better “production values” than most “Christian movies,” I don’t see many of them, but I suspect that is very low bar to be comparing it to.They feel so insider-ish, loaded with cliches-unto-false-witness,

  • Marjorie A Vander Wagen says:

    I liked the book. I liked the movie. My thoughts were about the audience. Most members of the audience have very little Bible knowledge. Any attempt to lure them to go to a church, attend a Coffee Break Bible study or even pick up a Bible to read is a win for Christians. The discussions I have been in with non-believers were very interesting because they asked many questions. I see this as the Holy spirit working in their lives.

  • Indian Eagle says:

    Very well written. All the very best for further articles. You’re doing a great job.

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