Toward the end of his life, according to legend, the fourth century Church father Saint Augustine stated:
“I spent some 30 years in writing fifteen books concerning the Trinity, which is God.”
Yet this theological genius was confronted by the inability of the human mind to probe this mystery as this story relates:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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He was walking by the seashore one day contemplating and trying to understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity when he saw a small boy running back and forth from the water to a place on the seashore. The boy used a sea shell to transport the water from the ocean and place it into a small hole dug in the sand.
The Bishop of Hippo asked, “My boy, what are you doing?”
The boy replied smiling sweetly, “I am emptying all the sea into this hole.”
“That cannot be done, my dear child. The hole cannot contain all the water of the sea,” said Augustine.
The boy paused in his work, stood up, looked into the eyes of the saint, and replied, “It is no more impossible than what you are trying to do—comprehend the immense mystery of the Holy Trinity with your small mind.”
Augustine was struck by the child’s keen response and turned his eyes from him for a short while. When he glanced down to continue their conversation, the boy had vanished.
While the great Augustine may have been put in his place regarding his attempt to probe the mystery of the Trinity this didn’t stop William P. Young, described as a former office manager and hotel night clerk, with no formal theological training from featuring the Three Persons of the Trinity as characters in his 2007 novel The Shack—a wildly popular book, particularly among Protestants, that has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.
Perhaps it was just a matter of time, with the film industry’s recent discovery of the Christian niche audience that The Shack would be made into a feature film now playing in multiplexes all over the United States.
The movie opens with a young 13-year-old Mack, who grows up with an alcoholic, abusive father who, while a church-going, believing Christian, regularly beats him and his mother. The only comfort shown to Mack is from the African American family servant played by Octavia Spencer. One day, unable to stand it any longer, Mack mixes a poisonous cocktail while the narrator tells us he means it for his father. Fast forward to the adult Mack played by Sam Worthington who delivers a tense, thoughtful and understated performance. Despite his horrific childhood Mack seems to have remarkably gotten his life together. He’s married to a loving wife (Radha Mitchell), has three beautiful children, and lives in a comfortable suburban home. The film simply passes over any consequences to Mack for having committed patricide, no arrest, no juvenile court, no time spent in the Audy home as if the film just wants to get on with the story without having to deal with the results of a homicide except to show that Mack suffers from bad dreams.
While on a camping trip with his children Mack’s youngest daughter Missy is abducted, ironically while Mack is distracted rescuing his son Josh from a possible drowning. Mack accompanies the search party and Missy’s blood-stained red dress is found in a remote, dilapidated, abandoned shack, the floor also marked by her blood. Missy’s body is never found and neither is her killer. Mack is consumed by anger, guilt, and depression. One winter day a mysterious note left in his mailbox invites Mack to come to the shack and is significantly signed “Papa”—his wife’s way of referring to God. Unable to explain how the note could have been delivered, Mack decides to visit the shack thinking he may have been lured there by his daughter’s murderer. Upon his arrival the shack is empty, covered in snow, blood stains from his daughter still visible though ice on the floor boards.
The film so far engages the viewer as we are drawn into Mack’s personal psychological angst over the unsolved murder of his daughter and his own sense of guilt, especially now that he is in the very place where the life of his daughter was mercilessly extinguished. It is at this point that the movie shifts dramatically. I was acutely aware of the transition from the film’s psychological focus to its theological focus as if I was now watching a completely different kind of movie—a movie in which Mack is confronted by three mysterious figures—The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit—all responding to the name “I AM” in other words the Trinity itself. It is God who has drawn Mack to the shack now transformed into a lovely woodland cottage surrounded by a lush, though overgrown garden with warm springtime weather.
As a professor of Theology, I have no real problem with a devout Christian author dramatizing the Holy Trinity in a work of fiction for the sake of a pastoral message. God presented himself in various ways in Scripture, i.e., as a burning bush to Moses, wind on Mount Sinai, through angels who announce to Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child. The question of course is whether an author’s depiction of God can be squared with doctrinal orthodoxy and, for the sake of film-viewing, are such depictions interesting and engaging? The film version of The Shack is very faithful to the book’s presentation of the Three Persons—thus the theological errors of the book are carried over into the film—but it is indeed the film’s very method of story-telling, the cinematic story-telling centered on these three divine “characters” that causes The Shack to fail as a film work.
First let’s consider the theology. God the Father is a woman, indeed in the person of Octavia Spencer. The Holy Spirit is an Asian woman who calls herself “Sarayu” which means “wind” in Sanskrit associated with Hinduism. The Son is Christ presented biblically as God incarnated as a male played by Israeli actor Aviv Alush. As someone who has actually written an article on “The Gender of the Trinity” and argues that for Christianity, fatherhood is a metaphysical truth about God, The Shack’s gender choices for at least two persons of the Trinity are certainly a departure from orthodoxy. Yet it can be argued that The Shack does not intend to advance dogmatic conclusions. Rather the gender choices serve the pastoral aims of the story, are subjective to Mack’s personal spiritual needs as even God the Father says to Mack: “After what you’ve been through, I didn’t think you could handle God as Father.” The movie also keeps at least one theological foot in orthodoxy by still referring to the “feminized” First Person of the Trinity as “Papa” and always uses masculine pronouns to refer to God—in this way signaling that the feminine portrayal of God is not literal.
And perhaps if both the book and movie relied on Saint Augustine, other theological errors would have been avoided. The movie more than flirts with the heresy of Patripassianism—the heresy that God the Father also suffered on the Cross with the Son. Mack accuses God the Father of sending his Son to the Cross—in other words causing others to suffer, but not caring that others suffer. As a rebuttal “Papa” (Spencer) shows Mack a scar on “her” wrist caused by the crucifixion. The film’s sloppy Trinitarian theology also shows up in the way in which Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as “my Spirit” blurring the distinction between the Second and the Third Divine Persons.
While The Shack’s feminized God and other difficulties can be more than legitimately debated, even criticized—this is not ultimately the problem with The Shack as a film work of art. The Persons of the Trinity are there to heal Mack from his anger and guilt and to The Shack’s credit, many of the most important spiritual questions are explored, e.g.: how can God be good if he allows evil to happen—as Mack is angry with God, holding him responsible for not stopping the murder of his daughter, how does one resolve suffering in the light of faith, is forgiveness of oneself and one’s enemies even possible, how can good and evil be legitimately judged as well as the eternal destiny of evil-doers?
The latter portion of the film is dominated by lots and lots of talking—as Mack and the Persons of the Trinity dialogue on and debate these questions in the Trinity’s effort to lead this tortured soul to spiritual recovery. Thus The Shack cannot help but succumb to perhaps the most common flaw of faith-based films—namely that the lessons are provided verbally, rather than though symbolic cinematic imagery and narrative. And these verbal exchanges are not helped by the fact that all Three Persons of the Trinity have soft, mild, quiet, slow, constantly gentle comportments—in an already feminized presentation of God. This and the nearly unrelieved talk, talk, talk makes for a tedious movie-watching experience. Indeed, the movie-goer feels as if one is simply sitting-in on someone else’s private spiritual counseling sessions. It is impossible to have imagined that the Person’s of the Trinity could be so boring. They are even upstaged by Wisdom, God’s attribute, appearing of course as a woman, who with strength and vigor provocatively corrects Mack’s desire to send certain people to hell.
Jesus is truly human, but played by Alush also in this soft, casual style. He is certainly likeable and the epitome of patience and understanding. But it is hard to imagine any fishermen willing to “immediately abandon their nets” and follow him, much less the Savior who said he did not come to bring peace but a sword, rebuked Peter, confronted the Pharisees and drove money-changers out of the Temple!
The final leg of Mack’s spiritual journey is the most stirring, poignant, and moving portion of the film. Here God the Father now appears to Mack as a male father figure played by the Oneida Indian Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves). Through the counseling he receives, Mack at last forgives his daughter’s murderer. Then Mack is led to the dead body of his daughter—her murdered remains that had never been decently laid to rest. Earlier in the film Jesus is shown practicing his trade as he works in a carpenter’s shed. Missy’s body now draped in clean, white linen is carried there. Inside is a beautifully hand-crafted children’s coffin built by Christ himself. Mack and the Trinity process with the coffin to the garden. There Mack lays his daughter’s body in a large hole that earlier in the film he was instructed by the Holy Spirit to dig and was told that the unruly garden was really his own soul. It is a beautiful, well done scene. It’s just too bad movie-goers had to endure an hour’s worth of tedium before we get there!
It is hard to say what could have been done to make this preachy book into a non-preachy movie. Certain books cannot be successfully mounted on the big screen and require serious creative changes to make the transition. This is why, oddly the first half of The Shack that shows the psychological angst of its central character, Mack winds up more interesting than the spiritual discussions he has with God.
The Shack is well acted and focused on weighty questions intelligently asked—and, unlike most movies, takes religion seriously. Perhaps for that reason alone it deserves to be patronized.
So far no one has dared make Saint Augustine’s fifteen books on the Trinity into a film. Undoubtedly, the Saint would oppose such an endeavor, but would prefer the story about the boy and the sea.