Things to get out of the way: Yes, it’s taken me this long to see The Shack. And yes, I started to read the book years ago, but was one of the few who never finished it. Plus, I’m posting this analysis/review on both my film page and my Christian writing page. For those who only know my Christian writings, I’m also a film professor. For those who only know my film writings, I’m a Christian and a pastor.
And yet another “full disclosure” issue: my brother Chris, a wonderful singer-songwriter, once had one of his CD’s promoted at the second printing (I believe) of the book as “the music of The Shack.” Unfortunately, things changed behind the scenes and the development of the film took another direction sans his music. But still, my brother is a close friend with one of the film’s producers, and I am acquainted with many a story about the writing of the book and its journey to the screen.
So with all that on the table, here we go:
As much as I would like to just look at the film as a film, and forget the book, it’s impossible to when the book was 1) so popular and 2) so very controversial, in so many ways. There were theological debates galore about the book (as there should have been), and it’s my pleasure to say that the film tends to minimize or even erase most of those problems.
The first successful decision was go all Wizard of Oz and to make the experience of the central character Mack (Sam Worthington) something that (spoiler alert) may or may not have occurred in reality, but certainly occurred when Mack was less than coherent. That immediately dampens most of the theological arguments by placing them in the context of one person’s singular dreams or imagination. Mack, a churchgoer if not yet a true believer, would have the necessary church background to have created the journey we see. So while the film takes him in the most painful and, for him, unwanted directions, it’s built upon who Mack is at the start.
Some of the controversy around the book was the decision to make Papa, the name of God the Father here, a black woman. We can only thank Papa that the rumored plans to make Oprah Winfrey the actress playing Papa were either false from the beginning or came to nothing. But the film explains why Papa is appearing to Mack that way, and it not only makes sense, it was deeply touching.
Making the Trinity visual by casting three separate people is a risk under the best of situations, but 1) it makes sense for Mack to experience God this way, and 2) it immediately creates a religious sense of mystery, which it tends to carry throughout, with only the occasional hiccup.
The film is a little too Hallmark Hall of Fame in look and style, and needed both a faster pace and a stronger hand in the editing process. But the slightly slower pace does allow for the most challenging ideas about God, sin, and pain to sink in. In fact, though it is nothing like it in style or feel, The Shack addresses more real questions about God’s relationship with the individual than any film I’ve seen since Diary of a Country Priest (1951). There are moments in the Narnia films and in Chariots of Fire that are insightful, but they are embedded in those films’ stories. Here, the truths about God and man are the story.
There are too many moments of wrenching sadness, hard questions, and the most profound spiritual insight to go into here; there are at least a couple of months of preaching material available for pastors. It’s clear that many secular writers who wrote about the film simply cannot connect with those moments, as these moments deal with issues that reside most deeply in the hearts of people of faith. It could be easy to dismiss those questions, those genuinely profound answers and the power behind them 1) if you think Christians are simply deluded by definition, and 2) because it’s easy to dismiss ideas that are presented in scenes that occasionally border on the over-sentimental or are visually candy-coated.
Perhaps the spoonful of cinematic sugar ended up making the medicine go down a bit more easily. The issues of the film include the most devastating of losses, the most brutal questions man asks of God, and the most deeply Biblical of answers to those questions. These answers challenge the characters, and us as viewers, to reject those answers as either facile or too hard to accept, or to open our hearts and minds to accept a deeper understanding of how this world operates with a sovereign and loving God. I must confess that there were no questions that Mack asked God that I haven’t asked God, and many of Papa’s answers are hard-won truths that I’ve received, but they were received over time and often with great struggling and dying to self. These are deeply personal and hard-won perspectives on self, sin, and God that have become real to me, and I can only smile a little at those critics that dismissed the more sublime exchanges between Mack and Papa as shallow or evasive. I found them often hard-hitting, and nearly always resonant and profound.
The casting is…interesting. I was a bit concerned about the casting of Octavia Spencer as Papa, as she is a good actress, but could fall into a pattern of big eyes, a set chin and a saucy attitude. She leaves all those behind here, however, and lets her ability to project kindness, sadness, and love just flow out of her easily and naturally. Avraham Aviv Alush as Jesus is alternately strong and delicate, but always loving and friendly. Only the model/actress Sumire is a weak link as the Holy Spirit. (Apparently modern concepts of diversity were called for here, as God is black, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern.) I’m not sure which is more difficult to portray—Father, Son or Holy Spirit. But as the Holy Spirit is the also-ran part of God for many Christians, the Holy Spirit characterization here is thin. Presenting the ethereal in a concrete art form such as film is always a challenge. So we’ll grant some grace and just agree that it remains a challenge.
Tim McGraw—I like you. I like your music. I love your marriage. I love that you have been in two of the most significant movies dealing with faith in the last several years—this and The Blind Side. You’re a presence, to be sure. But you’re still not an actor. I’m not sayin’ to stop. Just keep learning. ‘nuff said.
The casting of Sam Worthington was something of a mystery to me. Why him in particular? But it works surprisingly well. He often slips back into his Aussie accent, and he speaks too softly at times, swallowing his words and ends of sentences. But he has something of an Everyman persona that works perfectly here; another actor might have easily chewed the scenery beyond recognition—especially with what happens to his character. Another actor might have burned through the screen with a very specific persona, e.g., Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Michael Fassbender, James Franco. They all would have added an individual screen presence that might have made Mack’s experiences too individual, too specific to his character. Worthington is a more recessive screen presence, and what he goes through is more accessible to the viewer because he leaves enough blanks for us to fill in.
For those looking for points of error, there may be a little too much of a suggestion of universalism here, and a lack of specificity about the centrality of Jesus there. But overall, the film is surprisingly on the nose Biblically. If some of the scenes can’t bear the theological weight of too much pressing or expansion, perhaps it’s good to remember that Jesus’ parables generally had one major point to make, and to expand upon them or universalize them would be a error in Biblical exegesis.
The Shack is a parable, not a cinematic Bible study, and it’s presented as one man’s experience. Yet even within that context, its story is strong, its questions nakedly and powerfully direct, and most of the answers worthy of reception and reflection.