So, I went to see the movie “The Shack” this weekend. I liked it much better than the book; partly because it only lasted an hour and a half. But seriously folks, go see this movie. The book has sold over 20 million copies, so someone you know has likely read it, although they might not be talking about it. That might be because the best parts of this story are the ones that aren’t on the surface. I see three layers.
The first one is the obvious one; man has a difficult childhood with his church-going but abusive father and never quite buys into Christianity, then comes into the fold in the end. The next layer is a little deeper, revealing a softer, modern theology, but one that still holds on to Jesus is real, prayers are answered sometimes, and there is a heaven and our lack of faith is the reason for hell. This is the layer that the author of the book talks about in interviews. It’s the theology that he wanted to describe through story, for his children, when he wrote the book. The third layer comes from his life experiences and is not expressed directly in much of the dialog. It appears in the book, sometimes seemingly by accident then disappears as he goes back to hammering you with the speeches by “Papa” the God figure, His Son, and a few words from the Spirit.
In the movie, you are spared those lengthy dialog. You still get the big questions, like “why does God let bad things happen”, and you get the same inadequate answer, that He doesn’t “purpose” them. But then, there is no adequate answer to the problem of how to be perfectly loving and perfectly merciful and all powerful. You can’t allow people to be who they are, and forgive them when they harm others, and also love everyone but not use your power to protect them. Those who try to make this system work, have to give up something or add some ad-hoc reasoning. Paul Young does it by reducing God’s powers. Also, like many theologians, amateur or otherwise, he puts some of the burden on people. When Augustine does this, you end up with “original sin”, making people responsible for their own suffering. When Young does it, it almost comes out like humanism. We can’t save the world, so we have to forgive each other when we fail.
One scene from the book I had forgotten is when Mac, the hero of the story, meets Wisdom. She sits on the throne of judgment, where Mac has been sitting all his life without realizing it. You might know someone like this. But Mac’s judgment was not tempered by wisdom. She offers, and then insists that he take that seat. She shows him many images of people deserving of retributive justice, and Mac gladly condemns them to hell. Then he is shown his own father. Then he sees that man as a boy, being abused himself. Knowing who to judge suddenly gets more complicated.
This does not cure him of being judgmental; there is no way to stop that. If we don’t judge, we don’t know good from bad. But it widens his perspective on the whole of humanity. Not long after that moment, he sees how his anger at the man who killed his child has blinded him and separated him from the love of his family. Now he has judgment tempered by wisdom, the ability to forgive, including forgiving himself.
Unfortunately, the movie, or what I remember from the book, doesn’t give you much more on this. If we all had the power of God to forgive and also the power to love people so much that they would do less of the things that needed forgiveness, the world would be a more peaceful place. But we don’t. Bad things happen. Evil exists. Forgiveness is necessary. But forgiveness is what comes after. We still need to judge good from evil, and be aware of intentions, and take actions to prevent evil when we can.
That’s the humanist message I was talking about; we can’t change what has happened, but we can look at what led to it happening, we can understand that people usually do the best they can given the circumstances they are handed. We can learn from the mistakes and work together for something better. We can hope that people eventually see the error of their ways, or that some good comes from bad. But that is not guaranteed. It may take a generation or longer to see something grow out of whatever ashes someone left behind. We may be left with nothing but a bad example to remember and to try to avoid. In the end, all we have is each other.