Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips is a normal guy. He’s married, has three children and lives in a middle-class house in the suburbs. He’s a devoted husband and a caring dad. What’s more, he’s a churchgoing man.
Now, Mack would be the first to tell you that his relationship with God is nowhere close to that of his wife, Nan’s. She has something special going with God that he can’t relate to. She calls Him Papa instead of God, for starters. And it’s not just Nan’s name for the Almighty that’s unusually intimate. She also talks “to God like an old friend.”
As for Mack, well, his relationship with God is decidedly more distant. Still, he occupies a pew on Sundays even if he doesn’t participate much. That oughta count for something, right? And his best friend, Willie, is a faithful follower of Christ, one who has a knack for helping Mack stay in the fight when he’s struggling spiritually.
For all that, though, Mack’s not really a “normal” guy at all, however we might understand that term. He’s got baggage. Lots of baggage.
Mack struggles with memories of his drunk, abusive father beating his mother. When Mack responds to an altar call at church one day as a youth, it’s not to accept Christ, but to tell the pastor how his father beats his mother. That revelation, however, leads to Mack’s dad tying him to a tree, brutally whipping him, and leaving him in a storm all night.
No wonder Mack’s got some father issues he’s still working through. Then comes the tragedy that rocks Mack’s world as an adult.
Mack and his kids are going camping. Nothing unusual about that. Just s’mores, campfire songs and a little canoeing. Until, that is, the two oldest Phillips children, Kate and Josh, have a life-threatening boating accident. And in those few precious minutes of rescue and resuscitation, the unthinkable happens: Mack and Nan’s youngest daughter, Missy, is abducted. Eventually, authorities find Missy’s blood-stained dress at a shack in the vicinity.
But they never find their littlest girl. And so the four remaining members of the Phillips family begin their grieving.
Then one winter day sometime later, Mack discovers an envelope in his mailbox. Strangely, there are no tracks leading to it through the snow. Stranger still is the message inside, inviting Mack to come up to “the shack” where Missy was killed, signed “Papa.”
Whose sick joke is this? Mack wonders. He tries to pin it on Willie, but his friend denies he had anything to do with it. But Willie is willing to go with his friend to the cabin. In fact, they can even use his four-wheel drive to bust through the drifts. And so, Willie faithfully shows up, his Bronco loaded with supplies.
But Mack has another idea: He’s going to the shack alone to solve this mystery—and perhaps deal with his debilitating guilt and his shipwrecked faith—once and for all.
The Shack is about one man’s redemption, on a number of different levels: spiritual (more on that below), relational and familial. There’s not a single relationship in Mack’s life that’s not deeply impacted by what transpires when he reaches the shack.
After Missy’s abduction and murder, Mack retreats within to deal with the pain. But his wife lovingly, bravely confronts his self-focus, saying, “Don’t forget we love each other.” It’s a statement that underscores the importance of a husband and wife maintaining loving communication when going through difficult times.
After Mack’s encounter with God at the shack, he learns that Kate feels responsible for her sister’s kidnapping. Mack and Kate ultimately mourn together, with father reassuring daughter that she’s not to blame for what happened to her sister.
Although it’s winter at the shack at first, eventually the season turns to summer. The snow is gone. Flowers bloom. Birds sing. And a cabin in this supernatural setting seems to be calling Mack’s name.
The cabin is tidy, fresh, warm and cozy. And it’s there Mack encounters the Trinity in human form. Papa (God) appears in the form of a middle-aged black woman. Papa tells Mack that the appearance is because the wounded man isn’t ready to deal with a fatherly God just yet, given what Mack endured with his earthly dad. (Later God appears as a male Inuit when Papa feels he might need more of a Father for a difficult task.)
Jesus, for His part, looks like a young Jewish man with a big beard and a bigger smile. He uses His carpentry skills to build something important for Mack’s healing. The Holy Spirit, meanwhile, who’s called Sarayu, appears as a tall, slender Asian female.
And thus begins Mack’s fantastical spiritual journey, with the members of the Trinity playing different roles in helping Mack process his grief, his doubt, his rage, his shaken faith. (Of course, some viewers will have concerns about the human, and also female, representations of the Trinity, pointing to the Second Commandment’s prohibition against making any image of God.)
Papa tells Mack, “It’s here you got stuck”—referring to his daughter’s death. And God is intent on getting Mack unstuck. Mack’s dialogue with Papa revolves around perennial questions of the faith: How can a benevolent God allow evil? Does God abandon His people in times of need? Should evildoers be forgiven? Should a man be judge and jury of those who have wronged him? Does God orchestrate tragedy? Does forgiveness of a great wrong happen instantly, or does it often occur over time?
Elsewhere, Jesus has Mack first walking, then running, on water. Jesus reminds Mack, as He did with Peter, to keep his eyes on Him. Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit takes Mack to a rather unruly patch of garden. Although it’s beautiful to a point, this tangled collection of colorful plants needs pruning, tending and shaping. She tells Mack that the garden “is you.”
An entity who describes herself as Wisdom (referenced metaphorically in Proverbs as a woman) gives Mack a chance to see that Missy is alive in a heavenly place where Jesus dwells. This realization gives him the strength to move to his next challenges, both involving forgiveness. The first involves a reunion with his departed father, who apologizes for his treatment of Mack on earth. Later, Mack is invited to forgive his daughter’s killer.
Mack also finds a Gideon Bible. And it’s clear that Scripture is treated as the source of truth and revelation.
With so much theological ground covered in this film, it’s not surprising there are a few missteps. For instance, God’s loving, forgiving nature is emphasized and reemphasized. And that emphasis on God’s immanence—his intimate nearness, as theologians define that term—isn’t counterbalanced by that other aspect of God’s character as revealed in Scripture: His transcendence, a word that encompasses His holiness, and the fact that He is wholly other from His creation. Admittedly, it’s a difficult paradox to get our finite human heads around; but it’s a paradox that Scripture nonetheless gives us.
When Mack asks Papa whether those who sin will be punished, Papa replies, “Sin is its own punishment.” That response tends to psychologize sin and minimizes the reality that those who die without a relationship with Christ will face judgment and hell for their sinful choices, according to Scripture. So the film emphasizes God’s love and grace without dealing with the paradoxical reality of His holiness and wrath, the latter word being used 95 times in the New and Old Testaments. (Mack says at one point that he wishes his daughter’s killer would go to hell, but the film never really delves into why someone could or would end up in that place.)
Another theologically problematic moment comes when Papa tells Mack that He did not abandon Jesus on the cross, despite the fact that Jesus Himself said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Papa’s statement in the film fails to recognize that Jesus not only carried mankind’s sin, but, according to 2 Corinthians 5:21, Jesus actually became sin. Because God the Father is holy, when Jesus took on humanity’s sin at Calvary, the Father did forsake Christ (until redemption was accomplished soon thereafter).
Before his encounter with God, Mack tells his children (mostly his youngest daughter) a legend-like story of an Indian princess who jumped off a cliff to save her people. In it, Mack refers to God as the “Great Spirit.” That prompts Missy to ask, “Jesus dying is a legend?” to which dad replies, “It’s in the Bible, it must be true” even though he may not really believe that … yet. The daughter goes on to ask, “Is God mean?” explaining that her question is based upon the fact that “He asked Jesus to die.”
In addition to those two acknowledgments of Christ’s death, Papa’s wrists bear the scars of crucifixion. The Holy Spirit also bears similar wrist scars. Although perhaps it’s meant to show how the Father and Spirit identified with the Son’s torturous death, it could lead some filmgoers to incorrectly believe that the Father (and Spirit?) died when only Jesus, in fact, did.
Despite those theological missteps, however, there’s no doubt here that God:
• Loves people, even deeply flawed people who aren’t yet in a relationship with Him;
• Is Trinitarian by nature;
• Is sovereign and cares deeply for those who’ve gone through severe tragedies;
• Does not abandon His loved ones during difficult times;
• Desires reconciliation with those who don’t know Him;
• Offers hope even in the most hopeless of situations;
• Offers forgiveness that can change a human heart;
• Knows the future;
• Is good (Papa tells Mack, “Your big [problem] is you don’t think I’m good”);
• Is omnipresent;
• And can do “incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies.”
By the time the credits roll, Mack is a different person. His encounter with God has changed him and birthed real faith in God.
None, though there’s the strong suggestion of a sexual assault of a young girl.
The story revolves around young Missy’s abduction, murder and presumed sexual assault. (Near film’s end, we see the young girl’s body being placed in a casket.)
In a moment of desperation, Mack points a revolver at his head before he’s (providentially) interrupted by a noisy deer. It’s also implied that Mack, as a teen, poisoned his father (killing him) before running away from home, a choice that’s haunted Mack his entire life.
Elsewhere, Mack hits his head; there’s a capsized canoe (and a moment of peril for Mack’s middle daughter); a car crashes (mostly off-camera).
Mack says, “Oh, my God,” only to apologize the Trinity.
Mack’s father is an abusive drunk, something the film depicts as evil and immoral, and yet also forgivable.
There’s never any suggestion that Mack plans to turn himself in to the authorities for poisoning his father as boy. He also lies to his wife and steals his friend’s truck (albeit only temporarily, of course).
Papa enjoys listening to songs by Neil Young and never offers any caveats for such troubling tunes as “Down by the River” (which involves a confession by a man that he apparently murdered his girlfriend: “I shot my baby/Down by the river/Dead, oh, shot her dead”).
Like the book it’s based upon, this cinematic story about a grieving man encountering God is almost certain to stir up controversy among Christians. Focus on the Family’s website Boundless published a review of the book in 2008 that illustrated how believers were responding quite differently to the story:
“Where Eugene Peterson, Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver says [the book] ‘has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim Progress did for his,’ Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary says, ‘This book includes undiluted heresy.’ [And] singer songwriter Michael W. Smith says ‘The Shack will leave you craving for the presence of God.'”
Whether Peterson, Mohler and Smith will take similar views about the film remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt that mature believers on both sides of the aisle will have different perspectives regarding the theological merits and flaws of this film. Some will see its missteps as reason to steer clear. Others will see the things it gets right as an opportunity to challenge nonbelievers’ understanding about who God is. Still others, especially those who’ve grown up spiritually in harsh or legalistic environments, may be invited to view God in a more healing way—just as happened to Mack himself.
All that said, this film has a lot going for it. A man who loses one of his children understandably questions where God was during that tragedy. It’s a question that has been asked since the beginning of time. It’s the reason behind the book of Job. And yet, as in Job, the answer is more, “I am God; trust in me,” rather than, “I am God; I owe you an explanation.” What filmgoers do get is that God cares. He loves deeply and unconditionally. He wants to heal our woundedness. And He can do so when we let Him.
And who is this God according to The Shack? First, who He’s not: He’s not a cosmic force devoid of personality or power. He’s not a galactic killjoy who smirks when we feel pain. He’s not just our conscience either. No, in The Shack, God is the great “I Am” (actually stated in the film). He’s Trinitarian in nature (a hard concept to grasp and teach verbally, in print or on film). The second person of that Trinity was (and is) fully God and fully man. He can walk on water and controls the elements. The Holy Spirit sees our messy “garden” of a life and wants to bring order from the chaos.
The Shack delivers significant messages about God in a world desperately looking and longing for answers. Does this story provoke valid, even significant theological concerns? Clearly, it does. But just as Mack was led in the film to discover more about God in his Gideon Bible, hopefully movie goers will respond the same way to the big-screen adaptation of The Shack.