Visiting 'The Shack' -- Media pros should bone up on some theology before doing so

By this time, “The Shack,” a movie based on the best-selling novel of the same name, has been out a week. It has received lackluster reviews so far, even though it has Octavia Spencer playing God. Can’t get much better than that.

We don’t cover reviews here at GetReligion, since our focus is on news. However, I do wish to suggest that if mainstream media reviewers are going to critique a religious film, they should at least bone up on basic Christian doctrines or find a copy editor who has.

For those who need some background on the film, they could read an actual news report on issues raised in the film. Here's what Religion News Service led with:

(RNS) The 15 copies William Paul Young made at Office Depot did everything he had hoped they would do.
And more.
Young fulfilled a promise he’d made to his wife to write something down for their six children that captured the way he viewed God, and the 15 copies were given to his family and friends as Christmas gifts. ...
After it was rejected or ignored by 26 publishing companies, (author) Wayne Jacobsen and his friend Brian Cummings set up a small company to publish the story themselves. And Windblown Media sold nearly 1.1 million copies out of Cummings’ garage in just over a year.
Now Young’s best-selling book “The Shack” is completing its decade-long journey from the page to the screen in a Hollywood film opening this weekend (March 3), starring Octavia Spencer and Sam Worthington.

By the way, it's Brad Cummings, not Brian. The article then summarizes the plot and some of the opposition to the film, which presents a multi-ethnic Trinity in the form of a black woman, an Israeli man and a Japanese woman. The report also gets some good quotes from Spencer and Worthington. Then:

But the popularity of “The Shack” is just the tip of the iceberg, Young said.
There’s “no doubt” evangelicalism is changing, returning to an understanding of God in line with the early church fathers and mothers -- an understanding he tried to capture in his book, he said.
“As the structures start to crumble, which they are, all of a sudden permission to ask the questions is emerging,” he said. “I think that’s a movement of the Holy Spirit. … I think we’re on the cusp or inside the beginnings of a reformation.”

Is that Reformation, with a large "R"?

But I doubt that Young's writings are pointing us toward a "great emergence" in the manner described by the late Godtalk expert Phyllis Tickle. In fact, say the folks at Relevant, a Christian magazine aimed at millennials, Young has made Christianity less palatable to many.

At this point, nearly all of the Christian population has a strong opinion about the ideas presented in The Shack. Odds are, you’re either in the camp with country superstar Tim McGraw, who appears in the film and claims the story left him “flooded with tears.” Or, you’re with Albert Mohler, who claims the novel presents a “theology that is unconventional at best, and undoubtedly heretical in certain respects.”
I fall somewhere outside the two camps. Because here’s the most obvious thing about The Shack that most critics and readers alike ignored in the frenzy to analyze theology: This is just a bad story for a movie. Mohler pointed this out in his review, writing “at most points the narrative seems mainly to serve as a structure for the dialogues,” a criticism that’s echoed on the mainstream side of the media as well. The AV Club claims “the whole film is a crime against narrative, so bungled that it might actually be the victim of sabotage.”
The Shack sits at just 14 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

 No kidding.

Among the dozen reviews I skimmed, I noticed Variety pointing out that “The Shack” makes Christianity too cosy, whereas in reality the faith is “daunting.” And:

The site of the atrocity is a shack in the woods that looks like a cross between the “Amityville” house and some sordid cabin out of “Friday the 13th.” For a while, “The Shack” looks like it’s going to be a queasy piece of Christian disaster porn. It is, sort of, but it’s really a Hallmark-card therapy session, a kind of woodland weekend-retreat self-actualization seminar hosted by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Who come off, in this case, like the featured celebrity guests on a very special episode of “Oprah.”

Other reviews missed the mark by quite a bit. A writer for the Washington Post said, in part:

The novel “The Shack” was a surprising literary phenomenon. After author William Paul Young self-published the book in 2007, it went on to sell more than 20 million copies, to a predominantly Christian audience. (“The Shack” overtly deals with evangelical ideas of God.) 

Nope. The doctrinal concepts offered in the movie are definitely not part of evangelical Christianity. They’re more universalist and truly interfaith in scope, but would this critic know what a universalist is? 

The reviewer for CinemaBlend also thought the movie was aimed at evangelicals. Again, no. Try the disenfranchised and de-churched believer or the skeptic.

A few reviewers did grasp the theology –- or lack thereof –- behind this movie as did this writer for RogerEbert.com. This clever but disparaging review trashes the movie for not going deep enough.

Since its publication, “The Shack” has engendered a good deal of controversy within the Christian community for interpreting both the Bible and the Holy Trinity in ways that some consider to be heretical. Based on a viewing of the movie, I would label those charges to be nonsense; to be truly heretical would require a more cogent level of thinking than the awkward plotting and empty-headed New Agey koans offered up here. 

The Toronto Globe and Mail reviewer nailed it on the head with the film’s basic problem.

One need not be atheistic or otherwise areligious to find this stuff moronic. Such large-scale, box office dominating Christian blockbusters (see also: the God’s Not Dead movies) are so sappy and sermonizing that they constitute their own subgenre of cinematic camp.
Moreover, the vision they offer of religious belief is downright demoralizing (not to mention untraditional, even borderline heretical, in its interpretation of the scriptures). Instead of faith being just that, i.e. a deep-rooted belief in higher powers and the redemptive potential of love and forgiveness that is made stronger by virtue of it being unprovable, it’s degraded and stripped of any spiritual potency.

There are lots of other reviews ranging from Entertainment Weekly to the AV Club, which likens the movie to a walk through a Thomas Kinkade print.

 It’s not often that you get any theology with your movie reviews, so I appreciate it when I can.

No matter how the movie does, Young is not done with us yet. His newest book is out this month, magically in tandem with the movie. Despite the theological problems many have with the book and movie versions of “The Shack,” millions of people have read the former.

For journalists, the story here is not so much the film as the message that is being heard by the target audience. Why do so many people love what Young has to say? That’s what the next round of news stories should be about.

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