The Shack’s success as a best-selling novel a decade ago from William P. Young virtually guaranteed an eventual film adaptation. Just as the book inspired fans as well as controversy among Christians, the movie will do the same.
The story concerns Mack, a family man with a difficult past that includes abuse as a child at the hands of an alcoholic father who happened also to be a deacon at their local church. In adulthood, he and his wife, Nan, live in the suburbs and are raising their three children in the church. Though he isn’t as close to God as Nan, he is making the effort.
On a camping trip with the kids (Nan has to work that weekend), the older two capsize a canoe, trapping his son under the water while he and his youngest daughter, Missy, are hanging out just on shore at the campsite. He sprints down the dock, dives in the water, and successfully rescues the boy. However, glancing back at the campsite, Missy is gone. Soon an investigation is underway by law enforcement that results in the discovery of a shack with her red dress and blood stains on the floor.
Sometime later (it isn’t clear), the family has grown distant from one another. Mack in particular, we are to understand, is so consumed by the tragedy he has lost touch with the others. A mysterious letter arrives in the mailbox inviting him back to the shack, signed “Papa,” Nan’s nickname for God.
After some debate, Mack returns to the shack, but ends up further down the path at an inviting cabin where he meets the Trinity in the form of an African-American woman (God the Father, aka “Papa”), a friendly young Middle-Eastern man (Jesus), and a mysterious young Asian woman (the Holy Spirit). The purpose of this encounter (retreat?) is to work through his spiritual and theological issues with God and thereby to find emotional healing for the loss of his daughter.
The Shack’s theological shortcomings should be no surprise to readers of the book. God the Father and the Holy Spirit both have nail scars in their wrists, matching those of Jesus, suggesting that all members of the Trinity were crucified, instead of Christ alone. This, as well as the embodiment of the first and third members of the Trinity, suggests that God takes on different forms according to the situation and need at hand, an old heresy known as “modalism” (at a later point, the Father shows up as a Native American male, too).
These certainly warrant criticism. Yet, perhaps the deeper problem of The Shack lies with the shallow sermonizing of the theological content. Though there are some good kernels scattered throughout the various scenes during which Mack interacts with each member of the Trinity (over bread-making, gardening, and hiking), the execution of these conversations is weak and the answers come off as trite. Each interaction seems forced into a micro-resolution before Mack must yo-yo back to doubt or anger in order to set up the next encounter.
By and large, the actors deliver solid performances despite a weak script that places them in several genuinely hokey exchanges.
The Shack is to be commended for its ambition to take on questions about the goodness and trustworthiness of God in a world filled with evil. Indeed, the movie is strongest when building toward the crisis in the beginning. That it attempts to engage God as Trinity is also admirable, even considering the theological problems mentioned above. But it loses steam as it tries to answer the questions and address Mack’s crisis, so focused on making its points that it tells more than it shows, reducing its dialogue to predictable tropes.
The Shack raises important questions that many people, both inside and outside the church, ask. We need more films to raise these questions and address them in a way that deeply reflects Christian truth. But to be effective, we need them to do so both more biblically and artfully than does The Shack.