Ten years ago a novel divided the evangelical church. William Paul Young's The Shack sold in its millions with many saying the book helped them understand the trinity and provide answers to the question 'how can a good God allow suffering?' If the praise seemed a little over the top at times, then so did the criticism (Young was labelled a "heretic" by Mark Driscoll).
Regardless of where individual evangelicals fall on the "it changed my life!" to the "this is tripe!" spectrum, they will likely hold strong opinions about The Shack long before they enter cinemas early next month.
The story follows the church-going Mack (Sam Worthington) in the aftermath of the murder of his youngest daughter Missy in a shack in the woods. Mack can’t understand why God would have allowed this tragedy to take place, but when he receives a note in his letterbox signed "Papa" (his wife's name for God) asking him to return to the shack, Mack (unbelievably) obliges. At the shack, he meets the three members of the trinity. God the father is known as "Papa", but played by Octavia Spencer - a female actress. The Holy Spirit is called "Sarayu" (which means "wind") and played by Asian actress Sumire Matsubara. Finally, a chilled out, hipster looking Jesus is played by Avraham Aviv Alush.
Accurately portraying the triune God on screen (or in a novel) is surely an impossible task. Yet Young’s imagining of a compassionate, loving and listening Godhead should be commended, especially as his "Papa" stands in stark contrast to our culture’s standard depiction of God as an angry old man.
The film contains powerful moments where truth is spoken. The gospel is hinted at, but so is universalism. Papa explains, "I don’t need to punish sin. Sin is its own punishment."
Difficulties also arise when we discover the God of the Bible apparently now speaks in clichés. As Mack’s conversations with the trinity progress, God becomes a pink and fluffy, sickly-sweet, American Santa Claus who dabbles in New Age practices. Emotion and shallow sentimentality have free reign in The Shack, but Christians should surely long for something deeper and more robust.
It’s a rare joy to see a Hollywood production putting deep theological questions at the centre of its narrative. The Shack is a 2 hour 12 minute reflection on the hardest apologetic question of all: ‘How can a good God allow suffering?’ But before you invite all your sceptical friends to the cinema it’s worth noting that not all the answers to the problem of evil stand up to much scrutiny.
It seems I wasn’t the only one left unconvinced. A handful of journalists at the press screening I attended went from quiet sniggering to bursts of laughter as the credits rolled – apparently incredulous at this portrayal of God. Perhaps the idea of God existing, let alone giving simple answers to complicated questions was laughable. Or it could have been the poor production values that resulted in the hilarity (although credit where it’s due – The Shack’s overall production is of a far higher standard than most other Christian films).
The Shack won’t top the charts in this country. It won’t even be remembered as a great Christian film. Yet I admit I was moved. Why? At its core this is a film about a man meeting God in the midst of unbearable suffering, learning to surrender and say "not my will but yours", experiencing healing and choosing to forgive. As a Christian it's hard not to be moved by that meta-narrative - even if some of the theology goes seriously awry along the way.
The Shack is showing in UK cinemas from 9th June