MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: AIII
Reel Rating: (3 out of 5 reels)
I first read The Shack soon after it reached its zenith of fame in 2009, on its way to 10 million copies sold. While recognizing the book’s flaws, I appreciated its honest attempt to struggle with serious question and difficult theological concepts often ignored in our postmodern society. Most of all, I was moved by its powerful message of love and forgiveness. In the eight years between then and now, marriage and parenting have radically shifted my worldview. Thus, I should not have been shocked when I experienced its recent film adaptation as an entirely different story. Yet I was shocked and must confess that I shed more tears in those two hours than during any of the other countless films I have seen. As a movie for mass audiences, The Shack tells a good story but occasionally loses its way; for me, it was a beautiful source of unexpected grace.
Mac (Sam Worthington) is an average Joe whose past and present are marked by great tragedy. Abused by an alcoholic father, he nonetheless manages to carve out a normal, middle-class existence until his youngest daughter goes missing during a camping trip. Although her body was never found, the authorities discover an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness containing significant evidence she was taken and murdered there. While still recovering from the loss months later, he receives a mysterious note in his mailbox:
Mackenzie, it’s been awhile. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. – Papa
Papa was his daughter’s nickname for God. Against better judgement, he goes to the shack alone to face what he assumes will be the killer. To his amazement, the note actually is from God, who appears as three separate individuals, each representing a person of the Trinity. He spends the next few days discussing, debating, and even arguing with each of them on a range of subjects including free will, salvation, damnation, forgiveness, the communion of saints—and most especially the problem of evil. It’s a lot to take in, but the film—based on a book that mostly involves people sitting and talking to each other—largely succeeds in creating a compelling visual narrative.
The greatest point of contention most have with The Shack is its portrayal of the Godhead. God the Father appears twice, first as an African-American woman (Octavia Spencer), then later as an elderly Native American man (Graham Greene). Jesus is the most traditional of the three, played by Israeli actor Aviv Alush, who not only looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch model but even speaks Aramaic at times. As expected, the Holy Spirit is the most difficult—and the most bizarre—adaptation. The Shack portrays him as an Asian woman named Sarayu. Any attempt, of course, to portray the Trinity in dramatic terms is going to face challenges and fall into all sorts of traps. Smarter people than me can argue if the book and movie are fraught with Modalism, Sabellianism, Tritheism, Partialism, or something else altogether. In the end, for me, it’s really not all that problematic. Most biblical images of God involve metaphors of individual divine attributes; God does not really have a “strong right arm,” but he is mighty. Both Spencer and Greene’s performances successfully translate God’s wisdom, kindness, and strength. This is an artistic interpretation, not a textbook of systematic theology.
More problematic are some of the quick, throwaway lines that utter forth from God’s—or Gods’?—lips. When Sarayu explains life to Mac, she sounds more Buddhist than Christian, uttering high metaphors in a slowly, dreamlike manner. Worse still is Jesus, who claims that he “isn’t Christian” and “doesn’t care about religion” in a casual manner that would make Jefferson Bethke cheer. Despite these occasional frustrations, it’s striking how orthodox and thus counter-cultural The Shack can often be. Heaven, Hell, Sin, Penance, the Afterlife, and Redemption are all very real and must be faced with courage. There are tangible consequences to breaking God’s law and even a beautiful burial scene that suggests the importance of sacramental Christianity. It’s hard to place the theology of The Shack in any particular camp; it’s enough to say that while it gets many things right, it also wants to stay relevant in a way that compromises its overall message.
But while The Shack often fails in its theology, it succeeds wildly in its personal narrative of Mac’s faith journey. Mac is so angry at God for allowing his daughter to be killed that, even when face to face with the Almighty, he has no hesitation in venting his displeasure. Slowly but surely, God allows Mac to voice his petitions, then gives a response. God even gives Mac a chance to act as judge for the world; the broken man quickly realizes that, like Job, he could never fully understand the depth of God’s wisdom and love. Mac is then pushed beyond just accepting suffering and is commanded to forgive his daughter’s murderer, a task he finds much harder. These scenes are quite powerful and serve as an important illustration of Christ’s command to “forgive seventy times seven.”
Yet this was not the real reason I loved The Shack, and I must admit that my own personal situation colored my experience of the film. Just over a month ago my wife had a miscarriage—and it was the most devastating thing that has ever happened to me. Like Mac, I blamed both God and myself for the loss. As the film progressed, he voiced the same pain on screen that I experienced but had largely ignored in a vain attempt to appear sane. The Shack allowed me to feel not only grief but also the loving presence of God. It was a tremendously cathartic and rewarding experience; while I doubt my heartache is gone, it no longer haunts my waking hours.
The experience of art is largely subjective, changing based on the audience’s perspective. In the same way that the Bible contains a variety of genres and voices, The Shack is not intended to be a theological treatise but a story of encouragement; it is much more Tobit than it is Leviticus. This does not mean that its incorrect and even possibly heretical ideas should be blithely ignored. Yet, it is powerful and even true in its portrayal of the healing power of God’s love. I don’t think I will ever see The Shack again, but I will always remember it—just as I will always remember Francis, the child I never got to hold in my arms but trust will see again someday.