How The Shack rewrote Scripture
Stuart Hazeldine’s The Shack is a striking example of the mainstreaming of evangelical Christian popular culture. Out on March 3, 2017 and starring Sam Worthington and Octavia Spencer, the film is a powerful depiction of grief based on William Paul Young’s bestselling 2007 novel, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity, which has sold over twenty million copies. In the movie, a man travels to a remote cabin seeking answers to the abduction and murder of his daughter years before. The shack is, in fact, the site of the murder, but after receiving a mysterious invitation to it the man finds not the murderer he feared and longed to confront, but three people who help him come to terms with his tremendous loss. There is an African American woman who loves to cook, an ethereal Asian woman devoted to her gardening, and a Middle Eastern man who spends time tinkering in his shop.
In answer to Mack’s terrible pain and rage—and indeed loss of his religious faith in the face of the question of how God could have permitted the abduction and murder of his daughter Missy—this diverse cast helps Mack accept what he cannot understand. That healing is furthered when Mack is introduced to a fourth figure—a Hispanic woman who appears in a cave—who helps him understand his own failings, shortcomings, and lack of omniscience.
If this resolution sounds familiar—as might the premise of murdered family members—it’s because The Shack is a reheated and multiculturalized version of the Biblical book of Job. In the book of Job, we remember, the eponymous hero has some terrible things happen to him and to his family. Out of the blue one day, catastrophe strikes: raiding Sabeans carry off his 500 oxen and 500 donkeys, pillaging Chaldeans capture his 3,000 camels, and his 7,000 sheep are consumed by “the fire of God” falling from the sky.
As if this weren’t enough, a tornado strikes his eldest son’s house, collapsing it and killing all Job’s children, his seven sons and three daughters gathered for a feast. The next day, Job is afflicted by “loathsome sores” from his head to his foot. The rest of the book is an exquisite example of ancient wisdom literature probing the problem of theodicy: why a good and powerful God allows terrible things to happen to decent people. The bulk of it takes the form of Hebrew poetry, a dialogue between Job, who seeks to justify himself before God directly, and Job’s friends, who believe, wrongly, that God must be punishing Job for unacknowledged transgressions. A recent translation of the book of Job into Lego provides an abbreviated gist of the tale.
Like Job, The Shack’s Mack wants an account of God’s justice and goodness. The book of Job’s ultimate answer to its hero’s request is to change the subject and to respond to the unasked question of God’s power, rather than the actually asked question of God’s justice. Thus Job can’t hope to understand the problem of human suffering, God thunders from his whirlwind near the book’s end, because he’s not God and wasn’t around at creation, is not omnipotent, omniscient, and so on.
The Shack’s innovation on this story is to update the loss to accord with the generic expectations of crime procedurals such as Criminal Minds and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and our culture’s fascination with child abduction and serial murderers. But its really clever innovation is to repackage traditional theodicy by turning God into a multicultural cast and distributing divine responsibility across it.
~ Spoiler Alert! ~
As it turns out, the three people in the shack are actually the Trinity. God the Father is the African American woman, played by Spencer. (In the novel, she is described as African American, but she also speaks in stereotyped vernacular, saying, for instance, “Sho ’nuff!” and “that’s jes’ the way I is,” and calling Mack “honey.”) The Asian woman, ephemeral, mysterious, and difficult to pin down, is the Holy Spirit. And the Middle-Eastern carpenter is Jesus. Their words are augmented by the Hispanic woman named Sophia (that is, Wisdom), thus rounding out the culturally disparate cast. If readers found the novel insufficiently diverse, the film version is an improvement: it also has a male version of God the Father played by Native Canadian actor Graham Greene.
The Shack puts the old wine of traditional Christian theodicy into the new wineskin of multicultural diversity. It offers a more or less standard Christian theology about the problem of suffering. Each person in the Trinity takes a turn answering Mack’s theological questions and concerns. God the Father explains (in the novel) that Adam “chose to go it on his own” in the Garden of Eden, thus breaking the proper relation between God and man. The Holy Spirit shows him that God respects human free will, even when the result is people choosing independence rather than a relationship with God. Jesus helps Mack see that he’s insufficiently trusting of God, despite all that has happened.
These answers may not make better sense than those provided in Job, but The Shack tries to soften them by voicing them through this loving multicultural Trinity. Moreover, it has the least convincing part of the answer provided not by God, but by Sophia, the figure of Wisdom in her cave. While some viewers may share Mack’s opinion that he deserves to know why God didn’t protect his daughter—what God’s alibi was, in short—Mack is an easily distracted theologian, and he and the audience are redirected when Sophia shows him instead that he is unable to judge omnisciently or fairly. It’s thus Sophia, not the Trinity, who gives the most Job-like answer to Mack’s questions: she emphasizes his lack of omniscience, his lack of a right or expertise to judge. If the Trinity has much softer answers, they are an anti-Job revision that cannot escape the Biblical book’s basic problems.
Our free will demands that God allow suffering in the world, Sophia and the others explain. Why the system has been set up like this is not a question that Mack, or the movie, asks. Adam’s choice of independence when he eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge is invoked just once in the film, but repeatedly in the novel, where it does a lot of heavy lifting for its theodicy, shifting the blame for evil and suffering in the world squarely onto humanity’s shoulders. By doling out its explanation across several figures in a non-hierarchical Trinity and beyond, The Shack distributes responsibility for the problem of evil, making none of the figures solely responsible.
Conservatives have complained about the unorthodox portrayal of the Trinity, as well as the novel’s implication that God may be intending to save everyone, not just Christians. Indeed, the politics of the novel seem to suggest something like a liberal fundamentalism. Its liberalism is made manifest in its antiracist (and untraditionally gendered) portrayal of the Godhead. But this popular appeal is still significantly fundamentalist because of the central role that the story of Adam, Eve, and Original Sin play in the novel. The novel doesn’t appear to use the story metaphorically for our sinfulness; rather, our brokenness can be traced back, generation by generation, to that primal episode of rupture and improper independence. Taking the Eden story literally is the hallmark of Christian fundamentalism and its explanation of evil. In this sense, The Shack is a strange combination of theological orthodoxy and heterodoxy, conservatism and liberalism. It aims beyond its immediate audience of evangelical Christians, but faces uncertain success in a larger culture unused to pondering how to justify the ways of God to men.
The problem of God’s goodness and justice, of course, is an old and transcultural one, and even the book of Job itself shows signs, in its complex authorship, of unease over its answers. Hebrew Bible scholar Michael Coogan suggests “Job was something like a hypertext, a work in progress revised by writers and translators at different times.” He continues, “some of the changes may have been motivated by theological concerns.” The book has long been recognized as having two primary parts. It has a folktale-like frame story, in prose, that opens with the destruction of Job’s property and the murder of his children and then concludes with God “restor[ing] the fortunes of Job” (42:10), blessing him again with property and children. And then there is the poetic core of the book (Job 3-31), the dialogue between Job, who asserts his relative innocence, and his three companions, who argue a more traditional view that God must be punishing Job for an unacknowledged sin. The frame story is probably “based on an ancient folk tale” that the “original” author modified as a setting for his poetic disquisition.
But hearers, readers, contributors and translators were never quite satisfied with the book’s answers about God’s goodness and justice. A later author, perhaps disturbed by the three friends’ failure to make any headway in justifying God’s ways to men, added a fourth companion, Elihu, who gives a similar but more strident answer to Job’s protests (Job 32-37). An Aramaic translation of the book of Job, perhaps written in the first century BCE and found in 1956 among the Dead Sea Scrolls in a cave near Qumran in the West Bank, seems to have ended at 42:11 with God restoring “the fortunes of Job.” Its discovery suggests that the current ending of the book (42:12-17) was a relatively late Jewish expansion on the text, in which the Lord explicitly doubles Job’s initial wealth, granting him 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 oxen and 1,000 donkeys, as well as, to make up for his original loss, another seven sons and three daughters.
When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the third century BCE, the translator(s), perhaps worried that Job had not been sufficiently compensated for the misery that he had endured, had him live 240 years instead of just 140, as in the earlier version. The Greek translator was also anxious about what seemed to be God’s agency for Job’s suffering in the original text, and so made some translation choices to soften the problem. Thus, the line about how the “fire of God fell from heaven,” destroying the sheep in 1:16, became merely “Fire fell from the sky” in the Greek translation. In the earlier Hebrew version’s conclusion, Job’s brothers and sisters comfort him for “the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (42:11). This seemed a little harsh to the Greek translator, who productively reinterpreted the line by translating it to “they comforted him and they were amazed at all those things which the Lord had brought to him.”
Another way the book of Job equivocates about God’s responsibility for Job’s suffering is that the frame story suggests that Job’s troubles actually begin with an initial dispute between God and the strange figure known in Hebrew as ha-satan, or the satan. Despite being mistranslated as simply Satan in the King James Version and the New Revised Standard Version, this figure is not the Lucifer or Devil later identifiable in the Christian tradition. Ha-satan is rather a pre-devil figure, better translated as “the Accuser”—a kind of adversarial bureaucratic official in the divine court, a servant of God whose office seemed to be in the line of public prosecutor. He’s not evil; he just has a job to do in raising questions to God about Job’s supposed righteousness.
Thus, in the Bible, the satan suggests to God that Job is “blameless and upright” (1:8) only because God has blessed his life with possessions and children. God gives the satan permission to test this possibility by taking these things away: thus the raiding Sabeans, the pillaging Chaldeans, the tornado, and the fire falling from the sky. The satan doesn’t reappear at the end of the book; perhaps he was added to the legend by an original author to suggest how God could have been provoked into allowing an upright servant to suffer so.
In The Shack, the satan’s spot is filled with the child-murderer who is wholly evil, though perhaps not of the supernatural kind. Nevertheless, the figure still works to distribute responsibility for Mack’s (and Missy’s) suffering to yet one more agent, removing the cause one step further away from God.
The Shack is one more attempt to take a crack at the difficult questions the book of Job raises about human suffering and God’s responsibility. It revises its dialogue through a multicultural cast and distributes responsibility across several agents, but its insistence on Mack’s human ignorance and fallibility don’t ultimately make any more sense than the original’s answers. And if readers and viewers don’t believe Adam was an actual person listening to some bad advice and making poor choices 6,000 years ago, the scheme gets even dimmer. Perhaps the film reflects the enduring mystery and impossible answers to these important questions of human suffering and divine responsibility, as well as the lasting power of this piece of Near Eastern wisdom literature from ancient times.
Christopher Douglas is the author of If God Meant to Interfere: American Literature and the Rise of the Christian Right and Professor of English at the University of Victoria. Find him on Twitter @crddouglas.