My memory of reading the book over 10 years ago was that I didn’t like it and was rather dismissive of it, thinking it was a bit of nonsense. Most people I knew liked it, because of its account of God, especially God being a black woman, but I thought and still think that its portrayal of the Trinity gave a wrong idea of God. It’s not that I don’t believe in the Trinity but the portrayal of the Trinity as separate individuals and one of them being Jesus does not resonate with me, nor fit with my theology. For me the Trinity is an analogy that says if God is about anything God is about relationships and if God is that Reality in which we live, move, and have our very being then reality itself is relational. But how does an author, an artist, express this reality apart from depicting relations between people?
What has brought this book back into my consciousness is that I was flicking through Netflix and discovered it had been turned into a film which I watched and enjoyed. It may be that I was able to take the story less literally than I did when I read it and was able to sit more lightly on the theological issue of God and the Trinity. What I was left with was the psychology behind it and the power of religion to bring about healing – not in the sense of simply asking for it but in the encouragement of facing up to issues of heart break and tragedy that can lead to transformation. The film, and the book, is a reflection on the problem of evil, of unjust and senseless suffering, a problem that leads many people to reject any belief in God for how can a good God allow such things? I’m not sure that the film will answer that question satisfactorily for unbelievers but looking beyond the images and metaphors there is I think a lot of wisdom.
In the first instance Mack experiences an unconditional love which does not judge him but supports and encourages him in his heart break. Do we not all need this and is it not a blessing when we have it? It is this acceptance that helps him face up to his grief. He does this in the film by Jesus inviting him to take a rowing boat out into the middle of a lake. Jesus is standing by the shore, and I found myself thinking, ‘oh no, he’s going to walk on water’. And of course, he does. The boat begins to let in water, horrible slimy oily-like black liquid and Mack is in danger of sinking until he steps out of the boat and with Jesus walks to the shore. This is a depiction of the gospel story when Jesus walks on the water to save his disciples from a storm. Did it really happen? Who knows but looking beyond the literal story the wisdom is that we must face the storms of life and religion can be a support in this as can family and friends? Another scene is when Mack meets wisdom who teaches him not to judge quickly without understanding something of a person’s circumstance and conditioning, whether that be his own father or the man who abducted his daughter.
The film doesn’t have the same ending as the book though both allow Mack to bury his daughter and so move on, realising that while this all happened when he was unconscious from a road accident that happened on his way to the shack, it had brought about a personal and inner transformation. So, a book, a film, not to be taken literally – maybe a bit like religion itself. It’s not so much what it says but what it means that’s important and if we were to look beyond the literal I think we would find a great deal of wisdom, not just in The Shack but in religion itself.