What I thought about The Shack


I saw The Shack a few weeks ago when it first came out. I didn’t write anything. I liked it. I didn’t love it. Subsequently there has been a barrage of criticism from fundamentalist Christians over it’s message. The film got a green splat on Rotten Tomatoes but an 85% approval rating from audiences. So what is one to make of this? In spite of some if its shortcomings as a film, the story struck an emotional chord with many people.

Mack, played by Sam Worthington, is a grieving father dealing with the disappearance and presumed murder of his young daughter. Understandably he’s asking the big question many people ask when something horrible happens: How could God let this happen? How do I go on after tragedy? Where is justice? His questions lead him back to last place she is known to have been, a shack in the Washington woods. There the Triune God meets him where he is.

I liked the portrayal of the Trinity. Octavia Spencer’s is definitely one of my favorite portrayals of God the Father. Loving, approachable, wise, concerned, accepting, she goes by the name “Papa.” Mack projects negative experiences with his own father unto God the Father which results in flawed impressions of God the Father’s character and motives. The Father decides to mitigate Mack’s daddy issues by appearing to him as a black woman instead of a white man.

In one sequence, though,  apparently, Mac needs God to be a male parent to face the brutal job of digging up his murdered child and forgiving her killer. I didn’t really see the point of this, but the film remains true to William Paul Young’s novel. In these scenes Papa is portrayed by First Nations actor Graham Greene although I think Papa might have been a white guy in the book.

Jesus’ role is one of friend, and even playmate, offering healing and release to Mack from his bitterness, guilt, and anger. Post-resurrection Jesus is usually portrayed in a couple of minutes at the end of a Jesus biopic giving out final instructions to make disciples for Expanded Law 2.0. I found it refreshing to see a friendly, approachable, joy-filled Jesus portrayed by a Middle Eastern Jew. One actually gets the feeling from this Jesus that “it is finished,” really and truly finished, and what comes after His resurrection is actually something different.

Sarayu, the Holy Spirit, shimmers and is harder to see. She explains the more metaphysical aspects of God to Mack. The Holy Spirit’s influence and Christian practices associated with the Holy Spirit are generally more mystical, intuitive, and contemplative in nature.  She’s definitely more of an Eastern than Western manifestation of God so the casting of Japanese actress Sumire Matsubara might be a commentary on the fact that Christianity’s origins are Middle Eastern rather than Western.

Then there was the cave where Mack is confronted by Sophia, played by Alice Braga, who personifies God’s wisdom.  Sophia challenges Mack in much the same way God challenges Job in the Book of Job: God is God and you’re not. Mack can’t judge God or Missy’s killer because he is not equipped to do so. And if he did have God’s perspective, he would forgive anyway. While watching this scene I thought about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In Plato’s cave people who are tied up in the dark unable to turn their heads trust their limited perceptions form their realities. Sophia is both the Greek word for wisdom as well as the name used for God’s wisdom by Orthodox Christians, Christian mystics, and Platonic philosophers, as well as the name of the goddess of wisdom honored by Gnostics, and other groups. In the Bible God’s wisdom is often referred to in the feminine including by Jesus. 

I’d call the genre of this film, and the novel on which it’s based, “magical realism.” The film felt like it compartmentalized “real life” and “shack life” in a way that made it feel more like two movies. The parts of the movie outside Mack’s experience with God at the shack seemed clearly based in magical realism.  The parts at his home and church felt like every other Christian-movie-as-genre right down to the country music and home decor straight from Lifeway.

Tim McGraw did an adequate job as Mack’s neighbor and friend, but his narration kind of killed the movie for me. First, because interpreting the experience seemed like it should have come from Mack  rather than his friend. Secondly, and this is entirely personal to me, something about the tone, cadence, or pitch of McGraw’s voice sounded like a poor imitation of Sam Elliot in The Big Lebowski. Kind of ruined the effect for me.

My take is that the film’s answer to Mack’s question seems to be that God is love. Humans are flawed, suffering beings whose pain sometimes manifests itself in violence and death. God loves every person and wants all humans to experience His transforming love, mercy, and forgiveness. This is the reality Jesus offers.

One thing that might help interpret this film is to listen to author Paul Young talk about The Shack. Warning it’s a really long interview. The gist of it is that Young never meant to write or publish a novel. Writing was an cathartic exercise written to explain to his children how abuse he experienced as a child informed his perceptions about God, himself, and his relationships. Missy is really his own innocence.

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