‘The Shack’ Trailer Is Reigniting a ‘Heresy’ Controversy

A trailer for the upcoming big screen adaptation of William Paul Young’s popular novel The Shack recently hit the internet, and reignited a controversy about the book’s depiction of God.

In the book—and the new film—a grieving father meets God in the form of three individuals who make up the Trinity: a Jewish carpenter (Jesus), an Asian woman (the Holy Spirit) and an African-American woman (God the father), who is played in the movie by Octavia Spencer.

Evidently, this still isn't settling well with some critics. As The Washington Post notes in a long feature about the book, movie and the controversy, a California pastor and filmmaker named Joe Schimmel is speaking out against it. He told Christian News Network that the “caricature of God as a heavy set, cushy, nonjudgmental, African American woman called ‘Papa’ (who resembles the New Agey Oprah Winfrey far more than the one true God revealed through the Lord Jesus Christ—Hebrews 1:1-3), and his depiction of the Holy Spirit as a frail Asian woman with the Hindu name, Sarayu, lends itself to a dangerous and false image of God and idolatry.”

Some have even gone as far as to call it heretical.

Spencer herself has referenced theological controversy, telling USA Today that the movie isn’t a literal depiction of God: “It’s like ‘Oh, my God! Someone is playing God.’ But people have to remember it’s a manifestation of God. How (the film subject) sees God. Not necessarily how or who or what God is.”

Last year, William Paul Young explained in an interview with GoodReads that he wanted to challenge people’s ideas about the character and nature of God with his work of fiction.

The word "mercy" is from the same root in Hebrew as the word "womb," and so every time you read "mercy" you are dealing with the maternal nature of God …

We need to have a conversation that deepens our understanding of, and appreciation for, what being human is all about and that everybody, in my view, every single human being is a unique expression of the spectrum of both the masculine and feminine, because God is neither male nor female.

You Might Also Like

He also seemed to welcome the controversy—and conversation—the has book caused, saying, he liked the “visceral response way more than I appreciate ambivalence,” explaining,

At least with an angry person you can have a conversation, because when people are upset, something in them is being challenged enough to raise their ire, and that's an engaged process and opens up the possibility of really great conversation. I love the questions, I love the conversation, and I think it's our way forward.

The movie, which also stars Avatar’s Sam Worthington, hits theaters in March.


Top Comments

Matt Wright


Matt Wright replied to Simon L Smith's comment

I think if many people took the time to investigate how much maternal imagery is associated with God throughout the Bible, their heads might collectively explode

Angela Soward


Angela Soward commented…

Considering it's a fictional movie, based on a work of fiction found on the - you guessed it - fiction shelves of bookstores, I don't think it's heresy. The author isn't trying to pass it off as the real nature of God (unlike Sarah Young's Jesus Calling). Should people be discerning when reading or watching it? Yes, same as they should be with anything they read or watch.


Derrick Bright


Derrick Bright commented…

Just because something is fiction does not mean it does not hit on certain theological truths. And just because something is fiction does not mean it doesn't distort the truth of Scripture, which the book did, and by extension, the movie will.

Anytime you are portraying God (of the Bible), you are on some shaky ground. Having a black woman named Papa and suggesting this is an ok representation of God the Father is bad, very bad. Heresy? If not, it is close.

Jesus spoke in parables, used fictional stories, to elaborate on a variety of truths about Him, His nature, His Kingdom...We cannot dismiss something, as irrelevant, just because it is fiction. Ideas have consequences, even when couched in fiction.

Simon L Smith


Simon L Smith replied to Derrick Bright's comment

And in the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15) the "God" character was an old woman....

Matt Wright


Matt Wright replied to Simon L Smith's comment

I think if many people took the time to investigate how much maternal imagery is associated with God throughout the Bible, their heads might collectively explode

Derrick Bright


Derrick Bright commented…

Simon, my point was a response to the idea that fiction can still contain theological truths or untruths.

And there is a significant difference between Jesus' allusion that God is like a woman who lost a coin (or some of the other imagery used to illustrate God's different characteristics) and what Young is doing by portraying God in the manner he did.

The thing is, though, even if we were to overlook that characterization, there are many other teachings Young offers throughout the book that is problematic and ought to give most folks pause. Ideas he puts in the mouths of the "trinity" that are not Biblical. Watch (and/or read) with an open Bible...or better yet, skip it.

Drake De Long-Farmer


Drake De Long-Farmer commented…

I actually got to sit down with the author (Wm Paul Young) and talked about the book, the story behind the story, how he deals with his critics and exploring a better way to dialogue when we seriously disagree with someone. It is interesting that we are quick to lay utter judgment when we don't even understand the full story. One may still disagree with the end conclusion, but we may be better off to find clarification and know the details before we jump to conclusions. You know?

If it interests you, here the in conversation we had in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5SMhJqCvS4

Teri Simpkins


Teri Simpkins commented…

Religions have always had a problem with the way people see God, especially if it's not the same way they want him to be. And the way they want God to be is the way they interpret the Bible, not always the way God is, seeing as the Bible is interpretations of interpretations of interpretations. When movies come out that say something about God that isn't the same as any religions version, they call it heresy or call for boycotts. "The Last Temptation of Christ" was boycotted by Catholic churches all over this country. The Catholic church didn't like "Godspell" nor "Jesus Christ Superstar," because both used modern music the church didn't approve of.
If something makes more people discuss God, I'm all for it, whatever that might be.

Shawn Walrus


Shawn Walrus commented…

Firstly, 'Sarayu' is not a Hindu name. It's a name of an Indian river that means 'to flow', 'air, wind' and 'that which is streaming'.

Secondly, I understand why some people might be uncomfortable with God the Father being portrayed by a large black woman, but think about it - He was portrayed by Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty (with much less controversy)... as if that was any more accurate! No one can accurately portray God in acting, simply because we are all confined to one biological gender, whereas God is beyond gender; neither male nor female. The best any writer could do was to portray someone who displays some of the known characteristics of God (gender not being one of them), which I think was decently achieved in the story.

To place God within your mind's framework of 'What God is supposed to be like' is to create an inaccurate image, because, if we believe that God is infinite, how can we, in our finitude, expect to conceive an idea of Him that's anywhere close to His full reality? We have but a glimpse in our current life! To worship an IMAGE of God is not the same as worshipping God. And the critics talk about idolatry, ha!

I'm glad this book was written and this film made, because I think so many of the Church's paradigms need a good violent shake! (:

Please log in or register to comment

Log In