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Trauma, the Trinity, and The Shack

Engaging the most missed aspect of the story—the trauma

Published on:
March 7, 2017
Read time:
10 min.
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The Shack is a movie, and a book, about trauma and male intimacy. Mack, the main character, is physically and emotionally abused by his father as a boy and later murders his father with poison while he is still young. 

This book is about a man’s story of trauma—with a terribly abusive father as a young boy, and in his own perception, with an abusive God in his adulthood.

Decades later, when Mack has a family of his own, he has a very distant relationship with God in which he reluctantly attends church and never sings along during worship. One of his daughters, Missy, is kidnapped and murdered. Years after the kidnapping, Mack receives a note from God inviting him to a meeting at the shack in which Missy was murdered. Mack goes to the shack, with reluctant curiosity. 

Against all his doubts, God the Trinity actually shows up—the Father as a black woman named Papa, the Son as a young Middle Eastern carpenter, and the Spirit as an Asian woman named Sarayu. At this shack, Mack debates with God about the problem of evil in the world—how God can remain good, and how humans ought to conceive of even the most devastating trauma.

Mack can’t get over the notion that God should have prevented his daughter’s murder, and God continually supplies the response that evil exists because of man’s evil will, not God’s—and that God can work any evil for good, even if it wasn’t divinely ordained to be.

It turns out, however, that while Mack was driving to the shack, he was t-boned by an eighteen-wheeler, and his entire experience was actually a dream he had while in a coma.

His dream, nevertheless, gives him a love and trust for God, consequently leading him to enthusiastic participation in worshipful singing during church.

What The Shack Is Really About

Leave it to evangelicals to turn a story about the traumatized psychology of an abused boy’s coma-dream into a controversy about how the Trinity shows up within that fictional character’s dream in the fictional story.

This is an important point, sitting at the epicenter of our understanding of the movie’s (and the book’s) controversy in evangelicalism, as well as the whole purpose of the story.

This story is not about theology, though you wouldn’t get that impression from most evangelical blogs. Yes, theology is woven into the dialogue, and there are many points at which the dialogue reflects the very incoherence of the theological points it tries to make. But this book is about a man’s story of trauma—with a terribly abusive father as a young boy, and in his own perception, with an abusive God in his adulthood.

The story is not about God. The Shack is about a man’s experience of God. And until we understand that, we will be left debating about the “appropriateness” of this fictional man’s coma-dream, rather than opening ourselves to the questions it raises about how we experience God in the midst of what feels like his undeniable betrayal. Interpreting The Shack as “theological didactic fiction” ignores the entire purpose of the book and can lead us into negligent or dishonest readings of the movie.

What Makes The Shack Worth Seeing

The Shack trailer
Lionsgate

Now, for the question on all our minds: “Is The Shack worth seeing?”

Let’s get this out of the way: The Shack’s production value, acting, script, and videography are Hallmark-made-Hollywood.

It looks like somebody brought the Touched by an Angel crew out of retirement for one last hoorah. So many cringe-worthy clichés. If you attend movies to enjoy the artistry of their aesthetic, or the profundity of the script, or the wit of satire, do not bring those expectations to this film.

However, I found it oddly heartwarming to view the main characters of a movie expressing (albeit woodenly) explicit questions about the Christian God and the problem of evil on the big screen. I felt an often unrepresented compartment in my soul—my own personal misgivings about God’s faithfulness—found expression on the big screen. For that experience alone, the film was worth viewing.

However, two themes emerge in the film itself that make it worthy of seeing. First, as a result of his trauma, Mack’s expression of distrust in God, and, second, Mack’s relationship with men in general.

The Stubborn Expression of Distrust

On Mack’s distrust in God, there are several moments in conversation with Papa that escalate to a satisfying expression of the problem of evil—the kind from which most sermons and blogs shy away.

You’re the almighty god, right? You know everything? You’re everywhere all at once. You have limitless power. Yet somehow, you let my little girl die when you needed her most. You abandoned her.

Call it what you will. . . . I’ve never seen anyone genuinely ask a question like that out loud. Too often this kind of question is just a setup to some unsatisfying answer. The beauty of moments like this in The Shack is that the character Mack really accuses God—he means it. He is genuinely asking, with every intent of shutting God down.

Mack is unrelenting. Take this dialogue between Mack and Papa.

Mack: What possible good comes from a little girl
being murdered by a sick monster?

Papa: You try to see a world with such an incomplete picture. The real flaw in your life is that you don’t see me as good. I am at work in your life for good. Then you would trust me.

Mack: Trust you? My daughter is dead. There is nothing you could say that could ever justify what happened to her.

Mack says elsewhere, “Seems like you have a bad habit of turning your back on those you love.” And, “I don’t think God loves his children very well.” These moments in the film where Mack bulldozes through Papa’s homiletical tropes with stubborn rationality are beautiful in their honesty. I personally loved it.

You wouldn’t guess that Mack is standing his ground well, as Sam Worthington’s (Mack) delivery feels so tired and insecure, while Octavia Spencer’s (Papa) is brimming with confident sass. But if you pay attention to the dialogue, Mack is fortified in his own certainty that God is untrustworthy.

There is one moment when Papa says to Mack, “When all you can see is your pain, you lose sight of me,” to which Mack retorts, “Stop talking in riddles.”

The depth that The Shack purports to deliver in tone, it fails to deliver in substance.

Again, if you can look beneath what the director is trying to do, and see the script at work, the scenes have the potential to be very powerful to those willing to open themselves up to the movie, and to look past the cliché. This is exactly the sort of interaction a traumatized person might want to have with a God who claims to be all-powerful.

In the end, however, Mack accepts, with disappointing ease, all of Papa’s answers about evil. There is a cloud of resolution that sets into Mack’s psychology that isn’t explained in the dialogue, and leaves the viewer with a contentless solution to Mack’s psychological tension.

Walking away from the book and from the film, Papa’s theology is so discombobulating that the story (and Mack’s character arc) actually suffers.

The depth that The Shack purports to deliver in tone, it fails to deliver in substance. The plot holes are nearly innumerable, and the religious themes that are intended to structure certain scenes are a patchwork of progressive evangelical clichés, having to do with “love” and “conversation.”

For all of the satisfying tension that Mack’s character supplies in giving expression to trauma’s problem with God and evil, that expression is insulted by the script assigned to the divine characters who respond.

Mack and Masculinity

Mack’s relationship with men in general is the second theme that makes this movie worth watching.

Mack’s relationship with men in general is the second theme that makes this movie worth watching.

After all the “God is a black woman???? Nuh uh!!!!!” controversy among evangelicals, I was shocked at how sympathetic I was to this representation on the screen when it was explained.

In their first conversation alone, Papa says to Mack, who asks about her appearance, “After what you’d been through, I didn’t think you could handle a father right now.” Simply put, if you have father issues, you understand that logic—if you don’t, it will be hard for you to understand it.

There is a scene later in the movie in which God allows Mack to speak with his father who beat him as a child. His father asks for forgiveness, and Mack asks for forgiveness—and they reconcile. The following day, Papa comes into Mack’s room in male form.

Throughout the film, Mack’s adult relationship with men is always at an arm’s length. He is silent, reserved, and withdrawing. But his experience with God in his dream allows him the opportunity to reconcile with his father from beyond the grave.

Before my own father died, our last conversation was a very hostile argument. I would give anything to be able to talk to him just one more time to apologize. That confusing mixture of anger and guilt toward one’s father can silently dull intimacy with other men.

And by chance, his own experience of God in his dream was exactly what he needed in order to have access to intimacy with God, rather than a literal or “gender appropriate” expression of God that would have served as an unnecessary barrier for Mack to resolve his issues.

For those who have ears to hear, this story is a meaningful exploration of the traumatized male psyche coming face to face with a God who feels very much like his own abusive father. Ideal or not, more Christians can relate to this than would publicly admit it.

Complexity and Cliché

I hate to be one of those reviewers, but the movie really is at its best when the book’s grime is oozing through the cracks of The Shack’s manicured evangelical aesthetic.

If you can open yourself to the possibility that this film could add value to your experience of God, then go see it.

Young’s original publication is full of the kind of writing you’d expect from a first-year creative writing MFA student in the Pacific North West. But the themes he works into the narrative expose a strong and profound understanding of male religious psychology that I have never seen in another Christian work.

While the movie fails to execute these themes well most of the time—perhaps a different director could have made a better adaptation—its profundity nevertheless finds its way to the screen.

If you can open yourself to the possibility that this film could add value to your experience of God, then go see it. If you are entirely closed to the film, then don’t. It will be a waste of your time and money.

Just know that, either way, this book never claims to supply the ideal or true theology, but it explores Christian experience of God from the bottom up—from under the filth of brokenness ascending through honest lament and critique of God.

I can’t speak for William Young, but I know that Mack is, throughout this entire book, in the company of saints in scripture who were much more questionable characters than he.

If you need a prompt to reengage God in the midst of trauma, The Shack may be your opportunity to press refresh on a twisted emotional journey that is never easy—even if it leaves you wishing for better answers to the questions it asks so well.

Paul Maxwell
Paul Maxwell is a doctoral candidate in theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and philosophy professor at Moody Bible Institute. You can email him and find his books on Amazon.

Cover image by Noah Silliman.

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