The Pursuit of God

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Movie Review: THE SHACK

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The Shack is based on the bestselling book that was published in 2007.  Christians did a lot of griping about the book’s theological problems, and the film version will no doubt be met with a fresh batch of complaints.  And yet for Christians to accuse The Shack of being theologically off base is pretty unfounded considering how well the movie depicts the beliefs of mainstream Christianity.  In fact, the film version—which is the only version this review is discussing—presents a passionate defense of three great lies which are truly central to mainstream Christianity: God has nothing to do with evil, God is emotionally dependent on humans, and God yearns to be our buddy, our friend, and our big, cuddly, teddy bear who we can snuggle up to, knowing that His heart breaks with ours. 

How can modern day Christians possibly have a problem with this movie when in real life they are so quick to act affronted by the suggestion that God could ever want anything bad to happen to His precious little humans?  Evil?  That’s just one big bummer that God got stuck with when He decided to give us free will.  Sin?  That’s another bummer.  Hell?  Well, we’re not quite sure how that place sprang into being, but God sure finds its existence distressing and He just hates to see any humans end up there.  Wrath?  Don’t be painting God with that nasty brush.  God is all smiles.  He’s tender love. He’s so lacking in His own identity that He’s totally controlled by our mood swings.  If we cry, He cries.  If we’re sad, He’s sad.  If we’re happy, He’s happy.  All God really, desperately wants is for us humans to be happy.  You see, God needs friends—human friends to be exact. Somehow we fulfill Him.  How He ever got along without us is an unfathomable mystery, but now that we exist, God will do anything to get us to like Him.  He’ll die on a cross. He’ll go to Hell on our behalf.  He’ll massage our egos a thousand different ways and gently coax us into pretty please liking Him because, well, He needs us.  We’re the creatures He revolves around.  This is the message of mainstream Christianity, and it’s also the message of The Shack.  So what’s not to love?

THE PLOT

You don’t know what co-dependent is until you get a load of the three characters who are supposed to represent Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit in The Shack.  The movie revolves around a husband and father named Mac.  Mac is the ideal character for a movie that wants to obsess over the question “What is God’s relationship with evil?”  Mac grew up with a father who beat both him and his mother until young Mac finally poisoned the man with strychnine.  He got away with the crime—legally, that is.  But he still carries around a lot of guilt that manifests itself in the form of the occasional nightmare.

As an adult, Mac has found the perfect wife.  She’s portrayed as having some special relationship with God, she’s Mac’s emotional rock, and she never seems to need anything from him while she is always there to prop him up in his down times.  The couple have three kids: two girls and a boy.  The youngest girl’s name is Missy.

Now Mac’s personal history of physical abuse is one that many can identify with, and some footage of a grown man whipping a boy into the night gives us all the material we need to ask, “Where is God when bad things happen?  Why does He allow such cruelty?  What kind of a jerk is He?”  But the movie wants to really pile it on thick, so it pitches Mac into the ultimate crisis.  During a camping trip with his three kids, Mac is busy heroically saving his son from drowning when his youngest daughter, Missy, is kidnapped.  The timing of the predator couldn’t have been more perfect.  Mac only had his back turned for a matter of minutes, plus he was doing what a dad was supposed to do by saving a child in peril.  The writers want to make sure we can’t possibly put any blame on Mac for what ensues.  The blame is supposed to be entirely put on God, so that we’ll be ready to resonate with Mac when he later angrily confronts the God characters with questions that humans have been asking from the very beginning: why?!

When young Missy’s bloodied dress is later found in a rundown shack in the woods, the strong implication is that she was sexually assaulted and likely tortured before she was finally murdered.  Her killer is never caught in the film version, but we are told that he has a history of targeting young girls.  Missy’s body is never found, so the family buries an empty coffin.

After Missy’s death, Mac becomes completely stalled in grief, pain, rage, and guilt.  He withdraws from his family and friends, as is so typical for people in his psychological state, and he remains stuck until a mysterious note is found in his mailbox.  The note invites him to return to the shack to meet with someone who claims to want to catch up with him relationally.  It’s signed “Papa,” which is the nickname Mac’s wife uses for God.  Mac’s curiosity drives him to return to the horrible shack, only to find no one there.  He’s about to shoot himself in the head when he’s startled by a deer.  A short while later, someone finally shows up—the Jesus character, who of course appears as a young Jewish man.  Jesus leads Mac on to a different cabin in a magical part of the woods.  We know something’s up when winter snow gives way to beautiful spring colors and sunshine.  It’s in the large cabin by the lake that Mac is introduced to Yahweh and the Holy Spirit.  Yahweh presents as a hefty black woman who calls herself Papa so that Mac will grasp that she’s really God the Father.  The Holy Spirit presents as a thin Asian woman named Sarayu, which we’re told means “breath of wind.”  And after all of the introductions are made, the human ego stroking begins.

MAC, WE LOVE, LOVE, LOVE YOU

While angry Mac presses for answers about how God justifies acting like such an Ogre, Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit just can’t stop talking about how much They love Mac.  They not only love Mac, They practically worship him.  When Mac tears up shortly after arriving at God headquarters, the Holy Spirit rushes to gently capture his tear and slip it into a glass vial that He apparently keeps handy.  He then says that, like humans, He collects the things that are precious to Him, and all human tears are precious.  Wow, really?  So the little droplets of moisture that flow from our physical eyes are being kept in some kind of trophy case in God’s living room?  That’s a little obsessive, isn’t it?  And as Yahweh’s character rushes to assure Mac that Mac is in total control of the timing and pace at which his relationship with God progresses, we found ourselves thinking, “This is a movie about God, isn’t it??”

The big problem with this movie wasn’t that it depicted the real Gods in various human forms.  Our non-human Creators do not have genders or physical bodies, so spending a bunch of time hyperventilating over the fact that the Holy Spirit and Yahweh showed up in female forms is ridiculous.  After seeing the lengths Yahweh and Jesus go to in the Bible to match Jewish stereotypes of what a “God” should look like, it’s hardly offensive to suggest that Yahweh would choose not to appear as a father to a man who has raging daddy issues.  Our Gods have a long history of donning various costumes that will help us humans feel more comfortable in Their Presence.  The Shack does a decent job of communicating that our Gods really aren’t as hung up on appearances as we are.  It also demonstrates how our Gods love to use metaphorical lessons to teach us spiritual principles, and it demonstrates how skilled They are at tailoring Their teaching style to get through to our limited little brains.  And as far as our Gods understanding our feelings and caring about our experiences of life—those are very true and important characteristics to understand.  The three non-humans who created us are indeed very compassionate, gracious, merciful Beings.  But They are also complex, dominating, wrathful, jealous, self-exalting, and totally approving of everything that They do.  They never apologize for Their decisions.  They never pander to us, and They certainly don’t consider Themselves to be dependent on us.  While They empathize with us, that empathy has limits—limits which The Shack completely rejects.

“I don’t want slaves, I want friends,” Jesus tells Mac with a shrug.  Well, duh.  When we think of all those parables Jesus tells in the Gospel books in which He depicts God as a King or Master who chucks slaves and commoners into Hell for failing to treat Him with sufficient respect, we can definitely see that Jesus has no use for pulling rank on His own creatures.  And that time He said that all of His followers should view themselves as His unworthy slaves–clearly, that was just Him goofing around (see The Parable of the Unworthy Servant (Luke 17)). As for the book of Revelation and all of those dire threats Jesus gave about how He would trash anyone who failed to remain faithful to Him–that was just your basic buddy talk.

The Shack treats submission to God as a totally irrelevant concept while it teaches that getting into a good place with God means approaching Him as His equal.  Well, to be more precise: His equal, His hero, and His pal.  As the movie unfolds, Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit make it very clear that Their greatest desire is for Mac (and all other humans) to just let Them love him.  “You were created to be loved.  That is your purpose,” Yahweh says.  Jesus later talks about finding His own personal fulfillment through loving humans.  The Holy Spirit—well, He’s the One carrying around vials of human tears like they’re His priceless treasures.  Imagine what He’d do with an autograph.

Humans are definitely the stars of this movie—stars which the Gods revolve around.  And as we watch our Creators bending over backwards to coax Mac out of his angry pout by insisting that They had nothing to do with the terrible things that happened to him in life, we realize how delusional the writers of the script were about who the real Gods actually are.

SOVEREIGNTY?  WHAT’S THAT?

Yahweh presents Himself to Mac as a goodhearted Deity who works hard to bring great good out of evil.  But as for evil itself, Yahweh insists that He has nothing to do with that.  He says the fact that He has the skills to redeem tragedies doesn’t mean He orchestrates evil. No, sir, not God.  He might be all-powerful, but that darn evil is an autonomous force which even God can’t keep from hurting His precious humans.

The Holy Spirit’s character says that evil is an unavoidable consequence of giving humans choice. In other words, God was stuck having to activate a packaged deal—He didn’t have the option to just choose individual components.  What a crock.  God could easily have given humans an element of choice without also wiring them to crave evil.  And He could easily have inserted a degree of pain and suffering into the world without going this crazy.  He could have stopped with snide words and the occasional hurt feelings—He didn’t have to also teach us how to torture, maim, and brutalize each other.

Christians are so threatened by the notion of God’s sovereignty that they almost always portray Him as distressed and saddened by the fact that evil exists.  They also portray Him as an incompetent dolt who must run along behind evil, trying to endlessly clean up the mess that it makes.  Well, we can certainly like a God who is so good at fixing problems for us…but we can hardly revere Him as a Supreme Authority when He’s getting perpetually tripped up by His own Creation.  How lame is it for God to make evil only to then find Himself unable to control it?

The Shack implies that God was forced into a position of a helpless bystander while Mac’s daughter was dragged off to be molested and murdered.  God couldn’t possibly have stopped it because that would have interfered with human choice.  What kind of absurd logic is that?  If God didn’t interfere with human choice, we’d all have killed each other off long ago.  In real life, God is constantly vetoing our plans and allowing very few of our choices to actually work out exactly how and when we want them to.  And while He’s busy blocking us at every turn, He’s making His own will unfold—a will which includes both good and horrific elements.  As much as we wish God would hate evil as much as we do, He simply doesn’t, nor does He have a problem with His wrath.  But in The Shack, Yahweh’s character acts repulsed by Mac’s suggestion that God has a wrathful side.

WHAT WRATH?

“What wrath?” the Yahweh Character protests, in one of the movie’s most absurd moments.  When Mac says it’s a well known fact that God punishes people who He is displeased with, the Yahweh Character says “I don’t need to punish people.  Sin is a punishment.”  Wow.  For a movie which promotes the Christian Bible as true, one wonders what the writers were smoking when they tried to divorce God from one of the Bible’s main themes.  A wrathless God who never intentionally doles out any discipline?  So Yahweh was just being humorous when He cursed Adam and Eve and the snake in Eden?  So Jesus was just goofing around when He started kicking over tables in the Temple?  If Yahweh has no wrath, then what was the point of the cross?  Wasn’t that supposed to be a picture of Jesus bearing a wrath-based punishment for sins?  Well, according to The Shack, Jesus had to die because somehow evil had Yahweh pinned into a corner where He had to choose between trashing His own Son or trashing humans.  And as the tear collecting, gentle speaking Holy Spirit could attest, we can’t possibly let anything bad happen to the humans.

WISDOM HAS A TURN

Why stop with three Gods when you could have four?  While The Shack acts like most of the Old Testament never happened by portraying Yahweh as a wrathless God, it seems rather taken with the book of Proverbs and King Solomon’s metaphorical story about a character named Wisdom.  King Solomon’s fable about Wisdom was addressed to his son, and it was supposed to be a bit of fatherly advice.  In real life, neither Solomon nor his son took the fable seriously, and both ended up tanking in spiritual rebellion against Yahweh.  (But that’s okay, because Yahweh has no wrath, so no doubt He was just joking when He condemned Solomon for worshiping idols.)

As long as we’re going to make God out to be some human worshiping doormat, we might as well exalt the words of some spiritual dingdong.  By all means, let’s treasure a character invented by foolish Solomon while we totally ignore everything Yahweh says in the Old Testament.  In The Shack, Solomon’s female Wisdom character shows up wearing a fancy tunic and sitting on a stone throne in some cave that Jesus tells Mac to go into.  As for Jesus, His humanity seems to slow Him down at several points in the film.  When it’s time to go cave exploring, Jesus tells Mac, “Only you can make this journey.”  Apparently Jesus couldn’t handle the intensity of meeting with Wisdom face to face.  After all, Jesus is half-mortal–a point which He says makes Him especially easy for humans to relate to, as if that’s some kind of advantage in His mind.

Once Mac starts his theological debate with Wisdom, she points out what a judgmental hypocrite he is.  She makes the very true point that all humans try to function as gods by acting like they have the right to personally define right and wrong as well as to judge all other humans and even the real Gods.  Wisdom then insists that Mac have a seat on her stone throne, which is supposed to represent God’s throne.  Then she starts pressing Mac to cast judgment on various individuals as she points out flaws in his logic.  Her drill culminates with a challenge for Mac to choose to send one of his remaining two children to Heaven and one to Hell.  Mac balks at the choice, and says he doesn’t want to play God anymore.  Wisdom keeps insisting that he make the choice—“You must choose” she says again and again.  A distressed Mac finally says that he’d rather go to Hell himself than see his children hurt.  “Now you know Papa’s heart,” Wisdom says. In other words, Yahweh was so devastated at the idea of any of His humans ending up in Hell that He sent His own kind to go there instead.  The point is that the real Gods value humans above Themselves, and They’d rather sacrifice Each Other than see us suffer.

Now certainly Jesus’ death on a cross was a momentous event which is meant to teach us many key lessons.  But none of those lessons have to do with our Gods placing a higher value on us than They do on Each Other.  Anytime we find ourselves thinking that we outrank our own Creators, or that our Creators are volunteering to revolve around us instead of demanding that we revolve around Them, we know we’re getting blinded by pride.

Despite what Wisdom strongly implies in her cave drama, Yahweh really wasn’t coerced into having to make someone go to Hell.  Yahweh created Hell, He likes Hell, and He is not the prisoner of some greater power who is forcing Him to choose between us and Jesus.  But of course once you make Yahweh the wrathless Problem Fixer who is constantly being pushed around by some force called Evil, then you don’t know what to do with Hell.  A wrathless Yahweh couldn’t possibly be for Hell.  Neither could a half-human Jesus who says that He just wants friends to love in order to fulfill His purpose.  And a tear cherishing Holy Spirit is certainly not going to be a fan of humans getting tortured for all of eternity.  Once you turn the real Gods into human worshiping doormats, then you have to see Hell as a terrible thing that was forced upon Them—hence Wisdom’s insistence that God must choose to send someone He loves to Hell.  He doesn’t have the freedom to do what He wants—He is being forced into a quandary that He hates because that’s  how impotent He is.

GROVELING FOR HUMAN APPROVAL

The Shack does a fabulous job of portraying how justified humans feel in hating God just because He doesn’t run His game the way we like.  But instead of having its God Characters give a realistic response to Mac—something along the lines of, “Your daughter is My property, and I really don’t need your permission to do what I want with My own creations”—The Shack portrays its Gods as being distressed by Mac’s disapproval of Them. So distressed that They shower him with sunshine, good food, miraculous performances, tearful empathy, lame excuses, and pleas for Mac to release his anger towards Them.  Not once is Mac reminded of the vast difference in rank between himself and his Makers.  Instead, humans are elevated as God’s equals—a message which becomes very clear towards the movie’s climax when the three Gods ask Mac if he wants to stay with Them or return home to continue his life on earth.  By then, Mac has already been given multiple glimpses into Heaven so he can know for a fact that both his daughter and his father are totally happy and looking forward to spending all of eternity with him.  When the real Gods express Their desire for Mac to choose to stay with Them instead of returning to his earthly home, Mac demonstrates how completely backwards his priorities are by asking, “What does Missy want?”  You see, Mac is basing his decision about leaving or staying not on what his Creators want, but on what his daughter wants.  It’s the preferences of a little girl that matters—not the preferences of his Gods.  And why not?  Why shouldn’t Mac treat his Gods as inferior after They’ve spent so much time exalting his feelings as more important than Their own?  After Mac is told that his daughter will be perfectly fine waiting for him in Heaven (because she’s in a world without impatience), Mac starts thinking maybe he can still do some good on earth.  And once the Holy Spirit grossly exaggerates the power of humans by saying that every act of kindness Mac does alters the universe, well, Mac decides to gift the world with a little more of himself before finally going home to be with Missy and his father.  Oh, and his Gods…but who even cares about Them?

In Their efforts to help Mac get out of his angry snit, the three Gods lead Mac to a cave where Missy’s body is, and They help him bury her in an elaborate, magical way.  Of course Jesus carved the coffin as part of His carpenter shtick.  And of course the Holy Spirit drizzled Mac’s tears over the grave and they make pretty plants grow so that…why?  So that little Missy’s corpse can be forever memorialized?  The funeral happens after Mac sees Missy skipping around Heaven and after he makes an effort to forgive the man who murdered her.  So what’s with the epic fuss being made about a corpse?  Well, obviously Mac is the center of the universe in this film, so the three Gods are doing everything They can think of to make Mac feel better.  You know, because it’s such an epic tragedy to God if we humans are having a bad day.

CONCLUSION

The absolute sovereignty of our Creators has always sparked great rage in humans.  When we hate the choices They make, we feel totally justified in hating Them.  And indeed, we are given the option to hate Them—but that choice results in great consequences.  While all three Gods show us Their scarred wrists  in The Shack, to emphasize how They all shared in Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice of love, in real life, our Gods really don’t revolve around us the way this totally irreverent film implies.  In real life, simply emerging from some bratty snit and deciding that maybe God is a little smarter than we are isn’t going to be enough to get us into Heaven.

Contrary to what His Character says in The Shack, the real Jesus is only interested in slaves, not friends.  Our Gods do not invite us to be Their Peers, They don’t count our tears, and They certainly don’t sit around pining for our attention when we’re busy stonewalling Them.  The real Gods give us a very small window of time in which we can choose to embrace our place as creatures who were created for the purpose of knowing, serving, and worshiping Them. If we refuse to submit to Them as the Supreme Authorities that They are, They will throw us into Hell and party, not cry.  Are They gracious?  Absolutely.  Do They call us to come to Them?  Yes, to come and bow, not to come and squeeze our way onto Their thrones.  Is there such a thing as sweet intimacy with God?  Yes, but we’ll never get anywhere close to experiencing that as long as we’re viewing our Creators like our Pals instead of our Kings.

Contrary to what our egos would like to think, every move we make really doesn’t alter the universe.  We didn’t create this universe, we don’t control it, and it certainly doesn’t revolve around us.  It is our Gods who control what happens in this universe, in our lives, and in our relationships with Them.  Without submission, there is only damnation.  The kind of submission that is demanded of us is motivated by reverence, not the approval of how God operates.  In The Shack, Mac’s character never acquired the soul attitudes necessary for salvation.  He merely decided to stop holding a grudge against three Gods—and only after They gave him everything he really wanted.  That’s hardly submission.  Submission is when we bow to Gods who are not doing what we want and we say: “You’re the all-powerful Gods, I’m the powerless dot.  Your opinion of me defines my worth, so I’m asking You to have Your total way in my life so that I can be pleasing in Your sight.”

When we submit to our Makers, we end up in a fabulous place.  Contrary to what The Shack implies, being a slave is a thrilling  thing when your Masters are as wonderful as our three glorious Creators.  While The Shack insists that our Gods are good in Character, it foolishly assumes that goodness can’t coexist with sovereignty.  It can and it does.  The real Gods are good at the same time as They delight in both Heaven and Hell.  They love humans dearly, yet They love Themselves even more.  They are glad to meet us where we are stuck, but They will not pander to us, nor will They act like They are less than Gods just to soothe our bruised egos.  And as for the Yahweh’s Character’s claim that Mac could ease into the relationship at his own pace and time, that’s a very dangerous assumption to make (see Salvation Concerns: Why does God block some souls from coming to Him?).  When you hear your Creators calling you to come to Them, you’d best give Them your full attention.  That door won’t always be open, and that happy Heaven really isn’t going to contain every person you ever cared about.  It certainly won’t include you if all you’ve ever done is snuggle up to three powerful Beings who you think exist to make you happy.  So don’t let The Shack’s ego-pleasing portrayal of the real Gods go to your head.  This movie merely reflects how humans wish their Creators would operate, because lies always sell better than truth.

FURTHER READING:
Movie Review: War Room
Miracles from Heaven: What the Movie Won’t Teach You
Movie Review: Grace Unplugged
Movie Review: Heaven is for Real
The Benefits of Reverence: Keeping Us Close to a Loving God
Salvation Q&A
Soul Attitudes That Please God: What They Are & How We Develop Them
Sticking It To God: What Every Really Angry Soul Needs to Know
Questioning God’s Methods: Is this really the best He could do?
God’s Absolute Sovereignty: Essential Theology

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