As a high school senior in my affluent Northern California exurb, I briefly associated with a group of progressive young Evangelicals who defined themselves in opposition to the politically conservative congregations of many local mega-churches. We considered ourselves enlightened, rebellious, and socially aware. The Religious Right and all its exponents—James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, K-LOVE Christian radio, and the Reaganite Moral Majority—was our Public Enemy No. 1. Having been raised on the NIV and a diet of Evangelical staples like Veggie Tales and Adventures in Odyssey, we now preferred more subversive fare, like Tennessee wunderkind Rachel Held Evans’s up-from-superstition memoir Evolving in Monkey Town and Michigan pastor Rob Bell’s universalist manifesto Love Wins, which earned the author glowing profiles in the New York Times and TIME magazine.
We spoke in ironic tones about how Jesus was not white or a Republican, and probably would have voted Democrat if given the chance today. We were dumbfounded that any Christian could support pro–Second Amendment legislation, and we felt righteous indignation when the offering collector’s son wore his NRA sweatshirt on Sunday morning. Feminism, affirmative action, and a progressive tax code were obvious imperatives of Christian charity. Abortion and gay marriage we considered especially “difficult” and “sensitive” issues, about which the appropriate opinion—after a period of long and heartfelt reflection—was in doubt, but certainly always “evolving” and open to ongoing “dialogue.” With these controversies, it was more important to agonize than to take any particular side.
Above all, we believed that we had unearthed a long-buried conspiracy in our religious tradition—a conspiracy that blurred the lines between faith and politics. That such a conspiracy had taken place became clear every time we questioned some received dogma (“Why must Romans 1 be interpreted to condemn homosexual acts tout court, rather than pederasty alone?” “Why shouldn’t women be ordained?”) and found officially sanctioned answers lacking. We concluded (not incorrectly) that in many cases what had masqueraded as Christian teaching during our young lives was really nothing of the sort, but only Republican Party politics, outdated social niceties, and occasional bigotry standing in for reason where legitimate authority was in short supply. We learned that many doctrines were simply arbitrary, unthinkingly inherited from previous generations as “the way things were always done.”
And, of course, a few of us read The Shack, the best-selling 2007 novel by William P. Young, now a Hollywood-blowout feature film. With real star power and a $20 million budget, it’s now showing in theaters near you.
The Shack is not what one would call, in polite company, a good film. It is, for the most part, poorly written, poorly acted, and poorly directed. Indeed, The Shack is an easy film to mock, but the Proverbs warn us that “every mocker is an abomination to the Lord.” Young sold 22 million copies of his novel worldwide—more than Huck Finn, Pride and Prejudice, or The Grapes of Wrath have ever sold; more than Catch-22 and The Exorcist combined—and the film earned a healthy $16.1 million at the box office on its opening weekend. We can assume that The Shack has struck some sort of deep vein in our theological consciousness, and that dismissing it as kitsch will do nobody a pinch of good.
The Shack is supremely suited to our therapeutic age. We first meet the film’s protagonist, Mack, as a young boy with an abusive, alcoholic father. Wandering down the street in tears after one particularly memorable beating, Mack is invited inside for a slice of apple pie and a little reassuring conversation with his matronly black neighbor (Octavia Spencer). Years later, after Mack has poisoned his father, after he has grown up and married, after his youngest daughter has been brutally kidnapped and murdered, after he slips into a deep depressive state, after he receives in his mailbox one snowy afternoon a typed letter from the Lord God of Hosts himself, dominus deus sabaoth—after all that—Mack spends a week with the triune Godhead in a secluded little shack by a high alpine lake. There, God the Father appears to him—how else?—in the guise of that same matronly black neighbor, played again by Octavia Spencer.
Both the film and the novel make much of God’s strategic metamorphosis here, which is really the premise of the whole story. Welcoming him into the shack, Spencer informs a somewhat puzzled Mack—who always imagined the Lord as an “old friendly white man”—that God can adapt his appearance to suit the needs of his creatures. “After what you’ve been through,” she says, “I didn’t think you could handle a father right now.” But this gets the relation between human and divine precisely backwards: God does not adapt himself, nor does he alter divine revelation, in order to suit our individual needs. Rather, we find our deepest longings fulfilled when we adapt ourselves, with grace as our aid, to satisfy His desires. The God of The Shack isn’t perfect, immutable, and eternal—he’s a deified shrink who will tell us anything for our money.
At the shack in the woods, there’s plenty of time for Mack to chit-chat with the other persons of the trinity: Jesus Christ (a swarthy Middle Eastern do-it-yourselfer, played by Aviv Alush) and the Holy Ghost, or “Sarayu,” from the Sanskrit for “flowing wind” (a lithe Asian nymph, played by Japanese model Sumire Matsubara). Once, after an invigorating jog with Jesus on the lake, Mack asks the Risen Christ why he seems so unconcerned with religious devotion: “Religion is way too much work,” replies Our Lord. “I don’t want slaves. I want friends. . . . Look at me. Am I a Christian? I just want to see people change by loving Papa.”
In other words, Jesus Christ is spiritual but not religious. How, as the very object of religious worship, the God-Man could himself be religious in the first place is left unsaid. But the message for Mack is clear: All his life, he has gone through the motions of religion without genuinely entrusting his soul to God. The intervention at the shack is supposed to rouse him from dogmatic slumber into authentic encounter with the Lord. We observe the success of this operation near the end of the film, when Mack—who before his weekend getaway always sat through church silently—begins singing along to Sunday morning hymns with outward enthusiasm. Paradoxically, the reduction of religious belief to purely subjective, inward psychological states leaves no criteria by which to judge faith—either another’s or one’s own—except by flimsy appraisals of feeling, sincerity, spontaneity, or authenticity, as signaled through outward expressions of charismatic emotion.
There are other horrors. At one point, Spencer’s character claims that the entire Trinity, not only Christ’s human nature, suffered on the cross at Calvary—a rank heresy against the doctrine of divine impassibility. Later, God the Father takes on the form of a Native American wiseman (Graham Greene), and leads Mack on a New-Agey “healing trail to bring closure to [his] journey”—the most egregious example of racial essentialism in a film that takes shallow assumptions about foreign cultures as its starting point. But most disturbing is the film’s peculiarly unchristian treatment of sin and earthly evil, and the twisted theodicy it develops to oppose them.
There is neither sin nor suffering in The Shack—only the psychotherapeutic notion of “pain,” which encapsulates them both. Suffering-pain takes the form of irrational self-hatred stemming from unwarranted guilt for tragic events that were never truly under one’s control. Both Mack and his teenage daughter, for instance, blame themselves for the murder of six- or seven-year-old Missy. The cure for this kind of pain is straightforward therapeutic reassurance—“there, there, it wasn’t your fault”—that exculpates the sufferer by transferring guilt from his own person to the world in general. Sin-pain, on the other hand, is more subtle in its equivocation. It proposes a twofold theory of human nature that cannot but stand in contradiction to Christian doctrine: first, that all evil acts are essentially caused by some negative experience in the agent’s past, usually by another’s hand, that brought him unjust suffering; and second, that this causal link between suffering and sin not only mitigates the guilt of the sinner, but entirely exonerates him. Sin is not a disordered act of the human will; it is a System.
The film presents this doctrine in remarkably explicit terms when Lady Wisdom, or Sophia (Brazilian actress Alice Braga), asks Mack to sit on her throne and divide the world’s Sinners from its Saints. Mack is unable to do this, not because he lacks God’s perfection, but rather—as Sophia shortly teaches him, with PowerPoint-like projections on the walls of her cave—because everyone’s sins are traceable to some prior sin committed against them, right back to Adam. Mack’s abusive, alcoholic father was himself the son of an alcoholic, abusive father. Ditto for Missy’s murderer. It’s French social theory wedded with Calvinist theology: Everyone is inextricably bound up in self-perpetuating systems of sinful behavior; when everyone is totally depraved, no one is; God, in the end, becomes a celestial umpire, naming this one “just” and that one “damned” according to arbitrary fiat.
In the film’s climactic scene, Mack is reunited with the father he murdered, now a glowing, orange-tinted spirit. Mack does not confess, he does not repent, nor does he beg forgiveness for his sin of patricide. Instead, Mack’s father apologizes to him.
With its glib presentation and theological presumption, The Shack is easy to dismiss as a work of Christian art. But it reflects a deep sociological truth—a truth I unknowingly lived out as a rebellious young Evangelical. Just like the film, my peers and I made much of our realization that God is not, in the end, a gun-toting, right-leaning, white, bearded American male. As I look back, this seems a rather banal discovery. But it was a fitting standard for our cause: Like the Reformers themselves, we were freeing Christian faith from malicious political influence, restoring it to its original state, purifying and elevating it.
Because Evangelicalism intentionally severs itself from the constraints of tradition and authority in favor of whatever produces authentic encounter, every generation must reinvent faith on its own terms. The objective content of “genuine” and “spontaneous” religious expression varies from generation to generation. If “going through the motions” falls short of faith, then “the way things were always done” will not do. Old norms must be questioned, inherited habits must be reexamined, and dead dogmas must be overturned. But every generation has its vices. The unmasked dogmatism and bigotry of a mature crop are simply replaced by those of the seedlings, temporarily disguised by intellectual fashion and political power. Religion blows about with the prevailing winds of politics and culture. Reformations multiply.
Where tradition is flouted and the rigid forms and categories of divine revelation are seen as malleable, it makes sense that attempted correctives will only commit the very error they intend to resolve, unconsciously swinging from one extreme to the other. My progressive Evangelical peers and I unmasked our elders’ association of religion with Republican politics—so we gravitated toward Democratic politics, by the same erroneous logic.
I can’t speak to William P. Young’s political views. But it’s clear that The Shack, like its millions of fans, is mired in the same intergenerational religious melodrama that has swept up every generation of American Evangelicals. Without legitimate authorities and binding traditions, without authoritative concepts and creeds, there is no end in sight.
Connor Grubaugh is a junior fellow at First Things.