Essay / Theology

Chapel in the Gym on the Shack in the Theater

The release date for the movie version of The Shack was March 3. That morning (not having seen the film yet) I was the guest in Biola’s interview-format chapel session called The Biola Hour (the name is a callback to the school’s great radio heritage).

Mike Ahn and I talked about one aspect of the book (which we’ve read): its portrayal of the Trinity. We talked for about 15 minutes, and then spent 15 minutes taking questions from the audience. I don’t think students were especially interested in The Shack itself (for reasons I mention in the interview, and also because the book’s heyday was a decade ago, when these college students were elementary schoolers). Instead, the questions we fielded were about the Trinity and about making art that deals with doctrinal themes.

Here’s the video, and a few quotations below.

On comprehending God: “There was an early-church heretic in the fourth-century who said, ‘I understand God as well as he understands himself.’ The church rightly responded, ‘Get out.'”

On The Shack’s strategy of portraying God the Father as Papa: “You need to understand that God the Father is loving. Would you do that if I put God the Father right in your face as a friendly black woman? Huh? Would you?”

On the reduced Trinity of The Shack: “What you get with the portrayal of the Trinity as three people who hang out together and like each other a lot is a serious reduction of what Scripture’s trying to tell us about who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

On the merely relatable Trinity: “Within The Shack, as the story unfolds, no one is ever tempted to worship the Trinity. It goes so far in the direction of having a relatable Trinity that you don’t have a worship-able Trinity.”

On what God is: “If you left out the worshipability and awesomeness of God, and just presented the relatability, have you at all portrayed God?”

On the target audience: “This movie doesn’t seem to be targeted at a youthful audience… I think middle-aged women are sort of the primary target… the motif involved is a weekend intimacy retreat with the Trinity where you go away to get in touch with your heart, hold hands with the Trinity, look deep into their eyes, affirm each other verbally, and achieve a deep level of relational intimacy. It’s pretty obvious that some people would love to do that with Sam Worthington, who’s apparently just hunky enough, and has eyes that look like he’s deeply wounded, and really is there for you and available for you emotionally. You don’t have to see every movie!”

On making an idol of Relationship: “It’s possible to take Relationship (capitalize the R in that word) and so enshrine it as the highest good in the universe that you actually require God to serve the value of relationship. It’s a strange flip. So the awesomeness and the worshipfulness and all the things God’s doing besides being emotionally available to you for your healing… those are just completely off camera, not even alluded to.”

On The Shack’s negativity: “The book is fairly anti-church, anti-Bible study, anti- any of the things you would go to for a normal Christian life. Why? They don’t serve the value of Relationship.”

On trinitarian prayer: “You can pray to, and worship, any person who is God, so you have three options.”

On the multiracial Trinity of The Shack: “It’s all told from the point of view of  a white male character, and the Trinity is being available to him and relatable to him as what he needs, and what that means is that race is functioning in the book and the film as a sign of otherness to the white male perspective… There are some problems with using human race to signify radical otherness, as the stand-in for the radical otherness of God. That’s going to be long-term problematic.”

On doctrine in art: “The grammar of fiction and of film is a much looser grammar than the grammar of doctrinal statements. So if you’re going to portray or represent a theological or even a philosophical truth, it’s going to be looser. But that doesn’t mean anything goes.”

On combining theology and art: “There’s a real dangerous tendency to assume that if we’re going to theology or a biblical message and then we’re going to portray it artistically… there can be a really unworthy sense of rushing over the theology bit (yeah, yeah, I got that) and now I’m going to figure out the tricky bit, how to express it artistically.”


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