Defending the Shack (sort of…)

[This review originally appeared on the Mockingbird blog.]

It will perhaps be no surprise to many readers here to learn that, overall, The Shack is simply not a high quality film. It has already received scathing reviews by critics, and for very understandable reasons, even if the popular viewership has been moderately receptive.

A movie like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, for example, is arguably superior to The Shack, and it’s unfortunate, in my opinion, that more people will likely see the latter than the former. But unlike Silence, and this isn’t unimportant, The Shack is a film that is especially suited for older children — much more so than adults. It’s only rated PG-13, I would presume, because of the heavy thematic content: innocent suffering, murder, the problem of evil, etc.

I won’t rehearse the narrative at length, which is well-known and straightforward. Mack goes on a deep interior journey regarding his relationship with his father, while also having to face the buried wounds caused by the tragic loss of his daughter, Missy, and his faith.

Despite the devastation and seriousness of the events depicted, there’s also a playfulness to it. Or, at least, God’s three persons are on display in such a way that shows a creativity, lightheartedness, warmth, sincerity, and joy in their shared nature. “God” walks in a garden, performs mundane household chores, laughs, smiles, and engages in conversation about life. Though I did so with a wince here and there, I managed to enjoy the movie by suspending my judgment as much as I could until the end. And honestly, it brought me to tears more than once. I had already read the book, but the nature of the questions the story raises, and the reality it presents of injustice and cruelty in our world, is still just overwhelming.

Casting Tim McGraw and using his music in the soundtrack did not help, and I could have done without the special effects of Mack and “Jesus” (Avraham Aviv Alush) running on water together. Otherwise, though, the acting is adequate enough to let the storyline do most of the work, and the subject matter discussed throughout is too provocative to be totally undermined by the other shortcomings. There is still a profound message to be heard, especially for those who have lived through trauma and great loss.

For anyone wondering about the theological problems inherent in the attempt to portray God the Father and God the Holy Spirit in human form, I think there is both some wisdom and blindness to these concerns. The wisdom, of course, is that depicting God always runs the risk of creating him in our own image, even though we can praise the author for imagining God as neither male nor European. The blindness, on the other hand, is the inability to appreciate the role of analogical language in theology.

The word “Father” itself, or better, just “Abba,” already achieves its intended effect by reflecting something about God’s nature and relationship to us precisely in its reference to the utterly human experience of parenthood. We are indeed supposed to believe, according to Jesus, that God loves us and is close to us like a good dad. Bu then we also know that, as Thomas Aquinas carefully argues, God is also not like our earthly fathers and mothers — because he is the transcendent and creator God. In fact, it would seem that Young actually goes out of his way to stress the incarnation and condescension of God in this regard in the book, which also gets conveyed in the film.

Papa (God the Father, played by Octavia Spencer, who probably has the strongest acting presence of all the cast) affirms to Mack, for example, that she knows all and sees all, and that part of Mack’s problem is his fixation on a vantage point that only considers things from his own very limited perspective. Sarayu, the Holy Spirit (played by Sumire Matsubara), also explains to Mack the problems with his attempt to make judgments on everyone else in a manner that accords with God’s eternal wisdom.

One of Mack’s biggest hang-ups in the story is God’s goodness, and this is what I would consider to be the most central and valuable motif of the movie. Few films that make the box office have ever addressed this issue head on. To say that The Shack succeeds would be too generous, but I’m grateful, nonetheless, for the sustained attention that the movie gives to such a timeless religious question.

Here are some of the most important theological claims made in the movie:

  1. God is more of a loving doctor trying to save a reluctant patient than a judge reluctantly offering mercy. Before Mack meets Papa, he thinks that God’s judgment is based on our moral performance instead of on desiring what is good for us. The lesson Mack ultimately learns on his journey is that God judges us worthy of love even though we are also guilty sinners, and bears the consequences for that sin instead of condemning us.
  2. God the Father is not immune to the human suffering of God the Son. (The human character of Papa, God the Father, also has scars on her hands from the nails of the cross.)
  3. God does not orchestrate the evil events of history, but God still uses them to bring about good.
  4. God desires for everyone to be forgiven and to receive that forgiveness. When we realize the love that has been extended to us, we often feel moved to share it with others. (Mack learns this lesson through the chance to forgive both his own father and, most shockingly, even his daughter’s perpetrator. Critically, it is this final act that allows Mack to truly move on from his pain and begin to help the rest of his family deal with theirs — especially that of his older daughter, who blames herself for Missy’s death.)

The message of The Shack can be summarized, I think, by what Jesus explains in the movie as God’s will for all people to experience the change of knowing Papa. And as the book further explains, even though “most roads don’t lead anywhere,” Jesus promises that he will “travel any road to get to you.”

On the one hand, I suppose The Shack movie could be lamented as a missed opportunity to make truly good art about a universal, existential human quest to find meaning in the face of life’s horrors. On the other hand, I remain optimistic that families who see this movie will be served well by the conversations that will follow afterwards. It’s an age-appropriate film, maybe even perfect for when kids first begin to ask the big questions and actually want some decently thoughtful responses. All in all, the redemptive elements of the movie manage to “atone” somewhat for its many weaknesses, but only for those who are willing to engage it on its own terms.


Originally published at William A. Walker III.