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'The God of The Shack is the God I see in Jesus'

Director Stuart Hazeldine discusses his movie version of the controversial novel

The Shack opened last week at Australian cinemas. Starring Sam Worthington and Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, The Shack is a faithful adaptation of the beloved and bemoaned bestseller by author William Paul Young. Eternity spoke with director Stuart Hazeldine about why he took on such a controversial project, how he feels about depicting God on screen, and whether The Shack does or does not promote “Universalism”.

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Eternity: Do you think you go looking for The Shack or did The Shack look for you?

Stuart Hazeldine: I think it searched for me in the fact that when it was first offered to me, it was offered to me as a screenwriter to adapt this book that was a two-million-selling hit, rather than a 22- million-selling phenomenon.

I had just begun to hear about it at the church I was attending. People were talking about it. I don’t tend to read a tonne of Christian books and when I do, they’re more about theology than fiction. But it was obviously gathering steam and starting to become one of those things that people were all talking about.

“It’s very hard to represent God on film.” – Stuart Hazeldine

It was an opportunity for me to read The Shack and I thought the concept [of adapting it to a movie] was great. Film is a visual medium and God is spirit, God is invisible, so, it’s very hard to represent God on film. This was a great opportunity for all three persons of the Holy Trinity to be represented visually and physically, in such a way as a man can just have a chat with God, ask questions and get answers. I thought that was incredibly cinematic but it was a very chatty book, dealing with a lot of theology, and I had a concern about how you turn that into a movie. So that was one of many reasons why I passed at that time.

Many years later, a big producer, Gil Netter, who made Life of Pi and The Blind Side, developed a script. I’d worked for him as a writer ten years before, and we were just chatting about some other project. He said, ‘Oh, and I have this thing called The Shack.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard of that. I was kind of offered it years ago.’ I read his [script], really just as a friend to give him some thoughts, and I was really impressed.

E: You don’t sound as if you felt anxious about depicting the Trinity on screen, but plenty of other Christians would lose sleep over that. Surely that caused you some concern?

SH: There’s two parts to that. There’s the general anxiety of the expectation of The Shack‘s readers on you, which I was very aware of, and you don’t want to turn it into something that it’s not … But then the other part of it is your own relationship with God and do you feel as if you are doing justice to God on screen?

In general, I don’t have a view of God that is God waiting for me to trip up. I don’t have a view of God that he is constantly getting annoyed by every slightly wrong interpretation of him and his view of us. I see a lot of generosity in God and God looks at the heart, not at the outside – not at the work but what our intentions are. I have a confidence that if he knows I am earnestly seeking to do him justice as much as I can, that that’s good enough for him.

“I don’t think that theological correctness is the absolute most important thing.” – Stuart Hazeldine

That doesn’t mean that I don’t value theology or theological correctness; I think and discuss about that all the time. But I don’t think that it’s the absolute most important thing. Someone was telling me about the ‘sheep and the goats’ yesterday [Matthew 25:31-46], and what made you a ‘sheep’ and what made you a ‘goat’. And Jesus was saying [in that Bible passage] you are a sheep or goat because of how you treated me, because of whether you looked after me.

None of the sorting is done based upon whether they were theologically correct. It was all about how they acted and whether they acted out of compassion or not.

That said, there are some theological controversies in the book about how God is portrayed and various issues surrounding what God’s character is. There were some things in the novel I wasn’t sure I agreed with or if I would go as far as the novel or the author did. I said to [William] Paul Young a month or so before we started shooting, when we first met, that I was making the film because I really believed that it put God’s heart for his creation across very well – but whether it portrayed God’s whole character, I honestly wasn’t sure. I was still trying to work things out.

Paul shrugged and said: ‘That’s cool, man. You’re on a journey.’

“I do think that the God of The Shack represents God’s whole character.” – Stuart Hazeldine

I was definitely asking a lot of questions and I didn’t have as much time to do a lot of theological exploration as I would have liked to do. So there was an element of a leap of faith; I was just following what my gut said: ‘You have to make this movie; it’s an important film to make. And the things that you are sure about are so important that they outrank some of things you are concerned about.

In post-production, I had time back and I ended up reading wider and deeper about theology than I had since I was a teenager. I ended up after all that at a place where I felt fairly confident in myself to say that I do think that the God of The Shack represents God’s whole character. Other people may not be in that place and I know that very recently I was not. But I do feel like I’m on the journey, only half done.

E: Would you say exactly the same thing to people who hated The Shack novel, particularly for its depiction of the Trinity and God’s character?

SH: There are criticisms that the God of The Shack is too simple but, you know, Jesus shrunk the teachings of the Old Testament down to two commandments – love the Lord your God with all your might, and treat your neighbour in the way you would want to be treated yourself. So I don’t think Jesus had a problem with simplicity, as long as it is rooted in love. So I’m not sure that we should have so much of a problem with simplicity.

“I would rather err towards a God who is too loving.” – Stuart Hazeldine

They also say, ‘Well, the God of The Shack is too loving.’ Well, if you are going to err too much on one side of the fence, I think I would rather err towards a God who is too loving. We say God is love but then, sometimes, when you unpack it, we don’t really mean it.

So the question for me is: ‘Do I believe that the God of The Shack is the same God that I see in Jesus?’ And I do, so that’s not so much of an issue for me.

E: The Shack also has been controversial for its “Universalism” content and how it depicts God’s wrath and ultimate judgment. Do you think The Shack book and movie promote Universalism, as some of its critics allege?

SH: [William] Paul Young is on record as saying he is a ‘hopeful Universalist’, for which there is much precedent among the early church fathers. And in a way, who isn’t? Does anyone not wish that ultimately everyone will see God for who he really is, then lay down their sinful and selfish ways – and embrace him? Does anyone actively want to see anyone else punished for all eternity? I certainly don’t.

God has given the authority to judge humanity to his son, and when Jesus was on the earth he didn’t spend a whole lot of time judging and condemning people. Mostly he spent it teaching, healing and forgiving people. We think we know what “judgment” and “wrath” mean, that there is a common definition of those terms, but what if that is a human definition and God has a different definition? What if God’s “judgment” is mercy, and what if his “holiness” is love?

“I believe Jesus is the truest picture of who God the Father truly is…” – Stuart Hazeldine

Many Christians who talk about God’s wrath and judgment are really talking about the God of the Old Testament and they are trying to square him with the God of the New so that both can be true pictures of God simultaneously, but that’s impossible.

You can’t take an eye for an eye and turn the other cheek at the same time; you have to make a choice.

I believe Jesus is the truest picture of who God the Father truly is, which is why he came not only to die but to live before he died, to show us who the Father really is in many different ways. So, if Jesus tells me to forgive my enemies 70 times seven, meaning infinitely, I am personally going to trust that the reason I should do that is because it reflects God’s character, and shows the kind of judge he is. Otherwise, he is effectively saying ‘Do as I say, kids, not as I do’.

I think The Shack takes that hopeful Jesus-centred approach to portraying the Father’s heart and character too.

Some Christians may disagree with that and cite other Scriptures to support their perspective on God, but I would hope they would at least acknowledge that there is a biblical argument to be made on that score, and allow for that interpretation too – without feeling the need to call it heresy.

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