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The Trinity and “The Shack”

By Andy McQuitty

When William P. Young self-published The Shack about a decade ago, he touched off a fierce theological debate about the problem of evil and the nature of the Trinity. The recently released movie version only continues the controversy. I’ll warn you up front: I’m on the pro-Young side.

Catholic writer  Steven D. Greydanus says that The Shack is “too didactic for drama, too literal for allegory, too artless for poetry, and too fuzzy for theology. . .” All of those critiques are true, in my opinion, but actually irrelevant.

Shouldn’t the value of the movie (and book) be judged by its effectiveness in accomplishing Young’s  purposes? He was not attempting to craft a drama (the material is largely autobiographical), or create an allegory (more an extended metaphor), or produce poetry (it’s a full-length movie), or write new theology (his depiction of the Trinity is never meant to be taken literally).

What was Young trying to do? Make a courageous and creative attempt to defend the ways of a transcendent God to men wounded by suffering and pain.

I believe Young was certainly courageous in tackling one of the worst possible scenarios, the tragic murder of a child, to unravel from an apologetics standpoint. And I believe he was certainly creative in his presentation of the Trinity.

Young’s courage and creativity came together to promote this hopeful overall biblical message. Evil and suffering are connected to human freedom. While God does not cause evil, he is always with us in our sufferings and always works to bring good out of evil.

In my opinion, Young, with screenwriter John Fusco with Director Stuart Hazeldine, succeeded in offering this powerful theodicy, the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil. It will undoubtedly help people forgive themselves and others. It will undoubtedly helped people return to and trust and love God more than ever before even in the face of tragedy and pain.

So what’s at the heart of many theologians’ rejection of The Shack? The depiction of the Holy Trinity as a family made up of a warmly maternal black woman, Jesus, and an ethereal Asian woman.

Literalists find this picture of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be unbiblical, even heretical, and at least nonsensical. Which leads me to offer some words from the great Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton, 

    We fancy that nonsense will, in a very unexpected way, come to the aid of the spiritual view of things. Religion has for centuries been trying to make men exult in the ‘wonders’ of creation, but it has forgotten that a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible…Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a logical syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.

In other words, story and metaphor are necessary to teach about God’s transcendent wonders and faith’s mysteries. Which leads me to ask the literalists, how would YOU literally depict the Trinity in a movie? Doesn’t the very transcendence of God demand a metaphorical depiction of God? And isn’t that how he has been depicted from the Sistine Chapel to Aslan to a “Mother Hen” in scripture? As Amanda Gehrke explains, such “suspension of rational thought” may be the only way to truth for limited human minds:

    We use the word “wonder” when we do not know something and would like to know it—a simple quotidian example. To expand it, wonder is the action of the mind, soul, and body when it encounters something it does not and cannot comprehend. It is a suspension of rational thought, a moment—brief or long—when we behold something of great beauty or horror, and through that encounter, grasp at truth (The Federalist, “Why We Can’t Live Without Nonsense Like Poetry”).

I sincerely doubt that any film-goer is going to leave the theater thinking that he or she has actually seen God on screen, just a couple of outstanding actors in Sam Worthington and Octavia Spencer.   

I rather hope they will leave the theater with some new biblical insights into the nature of the Trinity that could only be communicated via metaphor. Such as the perichoresis, the divine dance, the joy in fellowship that Father and Son and Holy Spirit have enjoyed together from eternity past.

What, don’t remember when that came up in the movie? How about when the Three were in the Shack laughing and preparing dinner while dancing to pop tunes! Now before you blow a circuit, use your artist’s right-brain and not your engineer’s left-brain to process that last sentence through the G.K. Chesterton lens. (Sorry, I was an English major!)

Hope you enjoy The Shack.

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