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How The Shack movie unveils toxic representations of God

The following is a guest post from Orthodox theologian and author Brad Jersak (PhD)

Also, be sure to check out my follow-up article after reading Brad’s post below: 3 heresies The Shack movie confronts in the church today


Heresy Hunters Are At it Again

Paul Young’s bestseller finally hits the big screen on March 3. That’s news—great news—as I’ll explain shortly.

What’s not news is how the so-called ‘discernment ministries’ (a euphemism for heresy-hunters) have begun yelping. They’re recycling ‘ye olde’ objections but, typically, barking up the wrong tree.

The charge of ‘heresy’ is serious, so it ought to be taken seriously, especially by those wielding it. But as an Orthodox theologian, I confess that its sloppy use as a pejorative, grates on my doctrinal nerves.

For example, the outcry against Young’s creative portrayal of God’s ‘Threeness’ or his imaging the invisible God as a black woman betrays a crass literalism that the author obviously never intended.

Rublev’s Trinity and Modern Misogyny

Russian painter Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity (15th c.) would seem to break the same rules as The Shack, where Abram and Sarai’s three angelic guests were eventually identified with Father, Son and Holy Spirit—one God depicted as three persons. Yet in Eastern iconography, the Father is elsewhere never depicted because the visible image of God is reserved for Jesus Christ alone.

So how is it, I ask, that Rublev’s icon isn’t tossed onto the book-burning stacks along with The Shack? No doubt it would have been if Orthodox believers were incapable of using limited human expressions (words or pictures) for the divine mysteries.

Those who miss a point so obvious should recuse themselves from the doctrinal judgement seat and perhaps read John of Damascus’ Exact Exposition of Orthodox Doctrine before rendering further verdicts.

But isn’t it odd that we should have no such eruption when God is rendered in art or literature as a towering white King? Or a great roaring lion? Or a lowly shepherd? Yes, these are biblical metaphors (only) … as is Jesus’ parabolic description of God the woman, urgently scouring her home for the lost coin.

I’m obligated to ask the question: is the actual shock of The Shack not rooted in racism and misogyny?

The Father can be a lion, a lamb, a shepherd or a king, but not a black woman or a native American man? The Spirit can be a dove, a fire or a gust of wind, but not an ethereal Asian woman (the Hebrew pronouns for ‘Spirit’ notwithstanding)?

Unveiling the ‘Violent God’ Heresy

But if we must speak of heresy, The Shack ‘goes there.’ It addresses and debunks the actual heresy that depicts God as an angry, wrathful and violent deity. We might consult the great Church Fathers for their verdict. After all, they gave us the doctrines of the Trinity, the full deity of Jesus Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit. They composed the ancient creeds and penned an abundance of still-in-print works Against Heresy. What do they say?

We have space for one example.

St. John Cassian, in Institutes 8.4, concedes that speaking of God using anthropomorphisms (attributing human traits to God) is necessary because of our limited perspective and language. But he warns us not to literalize anthropomorphisms or we create an idol. Specifically, speaking of God as if he here actually ‘angry,’ Cassian says,

… these things cannot without horrible sacrilege be literally understood of him who is declared by the authority of Holy Scripture to be invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible, inestimable, simple, and uncomposite, the disturbance of anger (not to mention wrath) cannot be attributed to that immutable nature without monstrous blasphemy.

 So, says Cassian, St. John the Damascene, St. Antony the Great, Athanasius and the great company of Christianity’s founding theologians. And yes, Paul Young as well.

It’s true: Scripture uses the language of ‘wrath,’ but where do we get the idea that God actually reacts in violence and vengeance? Cassian explains that God’s anger is in the eye of the beholder: “With whatever mildness and gentleness of spirit it [God’s corrective judgement] may be carried out, this is nonetheless considered high wrath and the cruelest anger by those who are to be deservedly punished” (Inst. 8.4.3).

In other words, when humanity rebels, sin punishes us, grace corrects us, but the fearful and guilty project their fears onto God as ‘wrath’ and retribution. He can’t lift a finger without being libeled as a punisher.

This is why, even today, a Christianity of repressed moralism identifies with an angry God but find The Shack’s Papa unfamiliar and offensive.

The Shack as anti-venom for religious poisoned viewers

And this is the front line of the spiritual battle ensuing in a theatre near you on March 3. The Shack wades headlong into the fray, exposing the heresy and idolatry of god the retributive punisher with the one true God who speaks and acts exactly like Christ! The God of The Shack fails to live down to our militaristic, violent, vengeful, patriarchal expectations and theological presumptions.

Well, that kind of behavior got Jesus crucified, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it gets Young’s movie a few haters.

And this is precisely why The Shack is so important right now. It unveils toxic representations of God as an emperor with no clothes. And it displaces them with the cruciform God of the Gospels—the self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering God of love revealed in Christ.

In a year when the Sanhedrin in America were guilty of campaigning for a crueler, condemning and more exclusive deity, The Shack movie will be a welcome anti-venom for religion-poisoned viewers who come to behold the face of Love and say, “If God were like that, I’d give him one more chance.”

You may also like: 3 heresies The Shack movie confronts in the church today

Brad Jersak (PhD) is an Orthodox theologian and editor in chief of CWR (Christianity Without the Religion) Magazine. He explores these themes in his book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel.

For more of Brad’s writing and books visit his site at www.bradjersak.com

Josh is an award-winning faith and culture writer and the author of the upcoming book, God Incognito: Bonhoeffer's Theology of the Cross for the Trump Era and Beyond. He holds a master's degree in theology from Tyndale Seminary in Toronto and is the recipient of the Dr. Ross and Carol Bailey Theology Award. He lives in Murillo, Ontario with his wife and their two adorable daughters and has a column at ChristianWeek.org.

  1. The obvious and astute insights of Brad in his reflections on “The Shack” are grounded
    in the best that has been thought, said and done from the depth and breadth of the
    Christian Tradition—-it’s simply sad and rather tragic that those Christians who oppose “The Shack” never really rise beyond a Sunday School theology—-a crude
    literalism not worthy of a mature mind or imagination, a version of faith that has not even taken in yet the milk of faith—one wonders who the real heretics and heterodox are?
    Ron Dart

  2. Sigh. I agree with Dr. Jersak for the most part, but must one be a crude fundamentalist with racist tendencies to object to The Shack? I admire the intentions of Paul Young’s work. As art, I think one could reasonably judge it a mixed success with its own penchant towards kitsch.

    • “Kitsch” may be putting it mildly; The Shack is the prose equivalent of a Thomas Kincade painting. I have no problem whatsoever with the manifestations of the Trinity, but I had a terrible time slogging through the awful verbiage that the nice story was mired in. Like Christian contemporary music, must the message obliterate the need for artistic beauty? I wish the story had been handled by an author with a better grasp of narrative subtlety and wordcraft. Disappointing, to say the least.

      • Yes, I share your sensibility. I wanted to affirm the corrective evaluation of Dr. Jersak without fully expressing my personal distaste.

      • Although a good plumber may cringe at the quality of the tubing delivering potable water to a dying-of-thirst remotely located population, I believe those who receive the life giving water will simply rejoice for the life they have been given. I am aware of incarcerated persons for whom this is indeed the reality albeit delivered via the flaws you lament.

      • Kevin Gilbert

        He wrote it for his kids. It reads exceptionally well to those who approach it with a sense of awe and wonder. Wasn’t it Jesus, Himself, who said something along the lines of whoever humbles himself like a child will enter the Kingdom, even being the greatest? Check Matthew 18 if you need to.

        • That’s perfectly fine, but once one publishes for the wider reading public, it is legitimate to apply the same critical standards one would use to engage any other work of art. The meaning of child-like in the Biblical context is perhaps open to various exegetical interpretations, but surely it does not mean that the gifts of the intellect or aesthetic acumen are rendered nugatory.

          • Kevin Gilbert

            Thanks for making me look up nugatory. You’re intellect and aesthetic acumen is quite impressive.

            That’s the beauty of art, isn’t it? It’s qualified in the eye of the beholder.

            Honestly, I’m not really arguing Young’s “penchant toward kitsch” as you so eloquently put it in your original comment. It’s just a superfluous opinion that doesn’t really add anything of value to the conversation about whether or not it’s heretical, or whether it “unveils toxic representations of God.” Of course, that’s just my opinion on your opinion. Which, of course, you’re entitled to. But, I was taught that I don’t always have to express my opinion just because I have one. And yet, here I am. Doing just that. I’m a hypocrite, for sure.

            I don’t understand the motivation of Mathilde, or yourself, in discussing the artistic merits of the work when the article isn’t about that. It’s an exercise in missing the point and convoluting the discussion. Or, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate a feeling and sense of superiority over others who – can you believe it – actually enjoyed the book. It’s unnecessary commentary that’s irrelevant to the topic at hand. However, I’m sure everyone here is much wiser to the fact that those of us that liked the book are less than our intellectual superiors.

            Or maybe I read too much into your comments.

    • I hope there’s no peer pressure to like the book or movie…and that people’s disapproval or dislike will never be used against them as a quasi heresy-o-meter.

      • Kevin,

        I think style is intimately connected to truth. What I perceive as saccharine could potentially indicate theological deficiencies that matter. In everything I have written here, I have not denigrated those who like the book, nor have I denied the potential good it offers to many. A nuanced judgment is not intrinsically an irrelevant exercise in haughtiness.

  3. John Carver

    Ok. I went to Seminary. And you so eloquently speak the language. Most people wI’ll not have a clue what you are talking about. Here’s an idea.
    When writing for normal people, and most unfortunately only have a working eighth grade undertanding, limit your words to two or three syllables at most. Otherwise, we have no idea what you are talking about.

    • Or – dictionary 🙂

    • Christy Austin

      Give us uneducated ones a little credit. I have only a high school diploma and have never been to seminary yet I have made it a point to understand what Brad writes and shares. His teachings of who God is make the extra work worth it.

    • Jennifer Green

      Perhaps they may come to see Papa, Jesus and Sara-u as appealing in their own right. Even if they don’t get all the Biblical references in the book, it will still be a ray of light.

    • Jennifer treadwell

      I didn’t go to seminary, and I’m not as dumb as all of that.

      Us “normies” can even read the big words without the help of a textbook or professor. The gospel rings true no matter your background.

    • John carver, I’ll buy you a tee shirt that says “I went to seminary and all I got was thousands of dollars in debt, and the ability to comprehend a simple Brad Jersak article.”

    • Edward Carter

      John Carver. Seminary was a part of my education as well. Uh, yeah, K.I.S.S. is a good “doctrine” to hold onto when trying to reach the less lofty, non-enlighten ones; (me) It’s probably a good idea to apprehend the words of THE chief Watcher on the wall, THE Pharisee, THE finest legal mind of his day; I will not boast in my strength, my mental acumen, but rather in my weakness, for in that weakness I am strong, for in that weakness, He is strong.

    • Don’t high school students have to read Shakespeare? 😉

  4. Wonderful post!!! We read The Shack every year in my Worldview class, and every year I get accused of reading heresy-often by people who have actually never read it.
    I will now include your comments when we read it next year.

    Thank you.

  5. Chris Gadlage

    Heresy? Not in the character of “Papa”. Let’s talk about the origins of the character “Sophia” for a minute…
    An “Othodox theologian” should recognize Gnosticism when it’s blatantly on display.

  6. I am reminded of Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes. The fox longed for the luscious and sweet tasting grapes, but to get such grapes, he had to learn to extend himself and jump higher than he was accustomed to—-after a few tries to get the grapes and never really forcing himself to jump higher, he stated that the grapes must be rotten—we call this ressentiment—Nietzsche knew of what he spoke.
    Ron Dart

  7. Thank you, Brad! The more light that’s shed on the Trinity, the better. It is a difficult concept for humans to understand, and The Shack makes it clear in a way that shows God’s love and personality in a story anyone can understand. C.S. Lewis in his book “Mere Christianity” says that this relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is like a dance. How wonderful to find that we have a God who is happy, friendly, loving, and loves to dance.

  8. Brad Jersak, once again, nails it. I can’t say anything more.

  9. The author states so eloquently what I have been trying to say about the work for years. The presentation of the trinity takes life forms that the main character can relate to. The presentation of being accepting, non-judgemental is more as I think of what spiritual growth is like as opposed to how churches have historically presented christionanity. The two books I recommend more than any others (and I am a mental health therapist) are The Shack and Blue Like Jazz as both speak of the kind of relationship we can have with God without being religious.

  10. Some great insights from Archbishop Lazar in response to my Shack Review:

    “Rublev’s icon is taken as a “type” of the Trinity, not the Trinity itself. Obviously, the two angels accompanying The Word were precisely two angels, as they then went on to Sodom alone. Rublev was trying to capture they symbolic “type,” not to portray the actual Trinity. The full icon is called “The Hospitality of Abraham.” The Word appears in icons as an angel when it is not a direct revelation of the Incarnation. God the Father cannot, canonically theologically be portrayed, and Rublev was not attempting to do that.

    “So far, from the reviews against the Shack, I had gathered that The Shack is an allegory about the misconceptions of God, and that [critics feel] the allegory makes God seem too nice.”

  11. Tim Callaway

    Ok, Young has been on the hit-list for years and now we can add Jersak. One more and we’ll have a trinity for a good ol’ fashioned burning at the stake!! Bring marshmallows! Woo-hoo! Isn’t the love o’ Jaysuss somethin’ wunnerful?!

  12. Ron Graves

    it is a book of fiction yes? Why treat it as something else? The first book in decades that has a mass appeal and the beloved church purists put it up at the shooting gallery and acts just like the church of Jesus’ day…really?

  13. Jeff Stewart

    “Heresy Hunters” – fitting. Poor stewardship of repelling others rather than appealing with a message that fits well (euangelion). It perplexes me how those who claim to have a grasp of Jesus’ teachings fail miserably to detect that Jesus is far more critical of self-righteousness, than he is of bad behavior.

    • Marvin Dittfurth

      agree and thanks for saying it and resisting the urge, to make this more complex and intellectual than it is. To me, the faith, my faith, is simple and self-righteousness is the one thing Jesus spent a lot of time condemning. I can pay attention to that.

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