'The Shack' movie cometh, but mainstream reporters miss the real religion issues

I first heard of William Young’s “The Shack” in early 2008, about a year after it came out. I knew it was an indie book set in the Pacific Northwest and, as it turned out, one of the main characters was kidnapped at an eastern Oregon campground that I’d once frequented. When the father of the victim wanders about the wilderness near Hell’s Canyon trying to find his daughter –- or at least her body -– I knew exactly where he was driving.

The book got a very mixed reception due to its unorthodox theology, but, as I happened to be vacationing in Oregon in the summer of 2008, I interviewed him for this article in the Washington Times. I found him a likable, unassuming man. Despite the fact that he was now worth millions, he was plainly dressed and we met in a coffee shop near his home in Gresham, a suburb east of Portland.

So it’s no surprise that 10 years after the initial 2007 release date, this story has been turned into a major movie. A writer for the Washington Post previewed it in a piece under a headline touting God as a "curvy black woman." Here's how that starts:

In the coming film adaptation of “The Shack,” a fictional book by William P. Young about a father’s path to renewed faith and healing after his young daughter’s murder, the character of God -- as depicted in the novel -- is portrayed as a curvy, maternal black woman. ...
At issue is Young’s characterization of the Holy Trinity, seen through the eyes of the story’s main character, who on the four-year anniversary of his daughter’s brutal killing is mysteriously invited by someone named “Papa” -- his wife’s affectionate name for God -- to the abandoned shack in the Oregon woods where the girl died.
He goes, reluctant and angry, unsure if he’ll be met by his daughter’s murderer.
Instead, he finds this: a Middle Eastern, Jewish carpenter named Jesus; the Holy Spirit embodied in a wispy Asian woman who loves to garden and God (played by “The Help” star Octavia Spencer) as the very opposite of the Gandolf-like grandpa figure modern society is used to seeing.
This depiction -- God as a woman despite its gender-less designation in the Bible -- has some critics incensed.

Whoa –- wait –- God in the Bible is genderless?

That divine being whom Jesus called “Father”? That deity who is consistently referred to as masculine in the Old and New Testaments?

Then come the scare quotes. A few sentences later, the article informs us that one of its critics says:

Young’s message strays dangerously far from biblical teachings and promotes “universalism,” or the idea that in the end, all people will go to heaven.
He told CNS that concept is “heresy.”

Why are the quotes needed? We are dealing with two perfectly normal words in religious discourse. Of course, scare quotes are used to denote some degree of skepticism on the part of the writer. Does the Post use “racism” in scare quotes? Or “sexist”?

The reporter does explain that Young meant to be provocative and adds in a quote by actress Octavia Spencer to explain that while the main player in the movie may see God as a black woman, the film is not necessarily saying that is who God is. That distinction may be lost on the viewer.

The article peters out near the end, as the reader must swim through a long quote from a college professor who alleges that portraying God as a black woman reinforces white racism. Why almost every article these days seems to end up being about racism is puzzling considering that here is a film that’s quite racially mixed. 

One more question: Why is it that no one commented much on race when Morgan Freeman played God in "Bruce Almighty" but it's a big deal now that Octavia Spencer is involved?

This piece took the original intent of the film, injected into it a long lecture extolling political correctness, then finished it by citing tweets from three people the reporter happened to find on Twitter.

I understand that the Post’s Morning Mix column isn’t necessarily the theological center of the paper. But if you’re going to do a piece about a religion-saturated film, at least know some doctrinal basics. The film’s detractors were concerned with the story’s universalism, which is the belief that all religions lead to God -- and heaven. Read this essay by the Rev. Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., if you want to understand this finer point.

Speaking of points, there’s two more. The name Gandalf is misspelled in this story. And there’s a person quoted from Christian News Network and then, a sentence later, the network is given the initials of CNS. Should be CNN, right?

What I really wish that, instead of reading racism or patriarchy or whatever into this tale, someone would look into why “The Shack” sold zillions of copies. That's the story here. What was it about the paperback that made people so passionate about it? What chord did it strike?

My guess? Unlike anything else in evangelical Christian literature, “The Shack” tackled the problem of evil in a realistic 21st century setting. People are more concerned with why bad things happen to good people, so they ignored the weird theology to try to get answers to their questions. 

Someone, please, write a story on that angle.

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