Is the Film, The Shack Heresy?
by Jono Hall
Across the country this week, church pastors and teachers will stand before congregations, open their Bible, and talk about God. They will try, as they are able, to convey something about who God is, His divine nature, His attributes, His ways, and His emotions. My guess is that few will get it exactly right, unless all they do is read the Bible. Some will seriously misrepresent God. Teaching about God is a heavy responsibility and that is why James said, “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). My question is, how wrong do these people have to be to be considered “heretics” by other brothers?
The reason I bring this up is because of the hubbub around a movie that will be released today (March 3) called The Shack. I’m sure you have heard of the book; it has, after all, sold over 22 million copies. It has ministered healing to the many millions who have read it, but, on the other side of the coin, has provoked a firestorm of criticism from those who call it heresy and false teaching and say it should be avoided in the same way as pornography.
Before I examine some of the controversy, I do want to say that we were visited last week by Brad Cummings who is both co-writer of the novel and co-producer of the film. As Brad served as a pastor at the Malibu Vineyard Fellowship during the 1990’s, we found we had mutual friends and we shared some stories before I listened to some of Brad’s personal, and at times painful, journey in the making of The Shack. We spent an enjoyable time together talking about some of the challenges that people have had with the novel before we saw a preview of the movie.
To give a little background to the storyline of The Shack, it follows a man named Mack who, after the murder of one of his children, is invited to spend time in a mountain shack with three individuals who turn out to be the three persons of the Trinity. The ensuing conversations and interactions with “God” lead to much healing in Mack’s life.
I must say I really enjoyed the movie. It was a well-told story of forgiveness and healing. I always have grace for movie directors who are trying to reduce a cherished book into a much-shortened movie format. Meddling with people’s imaginations is always going to be a challenge. However, I think that the storm of criticism surrounding The Shack is found in another area entirely!
Representation of God
The fact that, for most of the story, the three persons of the Trinity are conveyed as Papa, a black female played by Octavia Spencer; the Spirit, called Sarayu, and played by Sumire Matsubara; and Jesus, played by Aviv Alush, the first Israeli Jew to play Jesus, has been a big challenge for many. While I’m not blogging here to defend The Shack, this fictional representation is understandable in the context of the story—a black female from Mack’s childhood represented healing, safety, and wisdom to Mack.
The Shack is a work of fiction, and therefore what the authors have done is to present something of who God is in much the same way that C.S. Lewis tried to present Aslan the Lion as a type of Christ¹. I think we can always have the conversation of whether this is covered by the prohibition on making graven images in Exodus 20, but I would submit if we are going to apply this consistently, we must then be careful about illustrations for God in children’s Bibles and also how we describe God in the pulpit. I think what is clear is that these are not graven idols that people are physically worshipping. If we are shocked because Papa is portrayed as a black female and not a Caucasian male, then we might have some other issues!
Perhaps of greater concern to us, however, is the subject of universal reconciliation, the belief that in the end everyone will be saved. It was unclear in the novel what the belief of the author was. Brad was very clear, as co-author, that he did not believe universal reconciliation was a teaching found in the Bible and did not want the movie to be as open-ended as the book in relation to this subject. (He did say that the lead author, Wm Paul Young, had a different theological background.) The movie, however, did not open this door. The movie did provide some initial thoughts around the subject of the wrath of God with which I would respectfully have to disagree, but here I think is the ultimate challenge of portraying both the kindness and severity of God (Romans 11:22)—both His Father heart and His Holy transcendence. I thought they did the former well, but perhaps not the latter.
As we watched the movie, while I personally might have done things differently, I found it very enjoyable, certainly very emotional and healing in character, much as the novel before had been. As I watched, I kept looking over at a security guard to my left—she had tears in her eyes. The next morning, Brad posted on social media, “So the security guard from last night’s screening in Kansas City pulls me aside while we are finishing up—a wonderful black lady—and she says: ‘I see an awful lot of movies, and hands down this is the best one I have seen—EVER!’—and gives me a huge hug and holds on. I just squeezed back, having no real idea the depth of what was transacting in her, but loving whatever it was. When we let go and stepped back, her eyes were beaming but with tears full to the brim.”
I am sure this movie will bring healing to many and, no, I don’t believe it is heresy!
Thank you, Brad.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the International House of Prayer.
Do you plan to watch the movie, The Shack? Why or why not?
1. “Aslan was not an allegorical figure as becomes evident the more you read Narnia and also as Lewis has explicitly said, ‘If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity . . . , he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however, he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?” This is not allegory at all.'”—from The Quotable Lewis by Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root.
Originally from the United Kingdom, Jono Hall served on the leadership team of the International House of Prayer for 15 years. Prior to moving to Kansas City, Jono had worked with GOD TV for four years. At IHOPKC, Jono has served in many areas, but has principally been responsible for the media reach of IHOPKC, launching the broadcasting and creative media areas at IHOPKC. He has also been an instructor at IHOPU in subjects such as church history, basic Christian beliefs, and media production. Jono is married to Shari, and they have five children.