“The Shack” (2017): Representations and Uses of Christian Theology

Stuart Hazeldine’s The Shack (2017) is one of the latest in a flood of recent Christian-themed movies. Unlike many of its cousin films, The Shack adopts a much more progressive interpretation of Christian Theology that sharply contrasts with that of Fundamentalist Christian Theology. 

The Shack challenges people to re-think how the Christian God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are conceptualized in contemporary everyday rhetoric. While The Shack does not go as far as Rev. Dr. Miguel A. De La Torre does in his excellent article, “Why Does God Need a Penis,” it does disrupt default notions of Able-bodiedness/Fit-ness, Maleness, and Whiteness.

Jesus, Mack (the human The Shack is about), God, and the Holy Spirit 

When I first heard that a Black woman would portray God in this film, my first thought was that I hope the role isn’t Mammied, and my second thought was that this will really make some people upset. It is very different. 

Thankfully, Octavia Spencer’s role as the Christian God is anything but Mammied! The Shack also creates a world where God “is” and “looks” as needed depending on the situation, as partly shown in a small part where Graham Greene, a Native American, plays God. 

Depictions of Jesus and the Holy Spirit are also different from those typically found in popular culture.

The overall theological message in The Shack is that everyone will go to (the Christian) heaven and that History ends with complete happiness and understanding for every one. 

At least in terms of its promotion and reception, The Shack seems to be desperately reaching for a way in which to make Christianity specifically and religion more generally  relevant and appealing in a complex, diverse world, a world with more and more people rejecting religion in favor of historical and scientific evidence.

As it has evolved in the United States over the last two centuries generally and more so over the last few decades, Christianity is unappealing to more and more people because of how Christian theology is used to support discrimination and because of the improbability of its history.

While The Shack‘s efforts to bring wider attention to complex, inclusive theologies, like those of Mark Sandlin and his The God Article, are needed, at least culturally speaking, The Shack‘s message about ultimate happiness is problematic and suggests that problems in this life are not so urgent. And despite its basically inclusive theologies, people who practice religions other than Christianity will likely be unable to relate to this film. 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda