Movie Review: The Shack

For this review, I contemplated ranking my experience of The Shack among my other most profound movie experiences. It was difficult to come up with a list. It might be because I’m getting older and my memory is slipping, but I think there are other factors at work. Sometimes the movies that seek to inspire fail to entertain and so they fail to engage the mind, at least for simple people like me. Sometimes the movies that inspired me did so accidentally because I only watched the movie to be entertained.  Accomplishing both entertainment and inspiration is a rare feat. The profound movie experiences that I remember are the final scene of Das Boot (a german movie about a WWII submarine crew), No Man’s Land (a movie about the Bosnian war), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood is a lonely, racist white guy, and then he isn’t). I watch faith-based films from time to time, but they sometimes fail to inspire because they are trying so hard to inspire and because the content is pushed through the fine filters of orthodoxy that very little of what get’s through (including the reaction of the viewers) is genuine.

If The Shack is filtered for orthodoxy, it wasn’t filtered very well.  I don’t say that as an attack but as a compliment. The story is genuine. The questions, the pain and the tears are real.

The movie, based on the book by William Paul Young, tells the story of a man stricken with grief over the abduction and murder of his young daughter who receives a strange invitation to visit the Shack where her daughter’s killer had stayed. He accepts the invitation and, at the shack, he encounters God, asks some of his own questions and is guided through a process of healing and release.

Inevitably, there has been controversy around this book, and there will be around the movie. Because it presents a Christian message, it will be rejected on both sides; both for presenting truth claims that people don’t like and for not being Christian enough. It’s a no-win situation, but here are some of the controversies/complaints the movie will set off, and my response to them.

The portrayal of God – The most vocal controversy around the film is the presentation of God as a black woman, and later as a First Nations man (played by Canadian Oneida actor Graham Greene). God is also addressed by the seemingly non-reverent title of Papa. There are elements of racism behind the objections to these portrayals, but they are also connected to another problem the film seeks to address. We should broaden our palette so that we can see majestic and revered figures portrayed by actors that aren’t just white men, but we also need to deepen our understanding of God so that we can see God as weak, humble and different from us.

The answers God/Papa gives – I don’t think there are any churches who would say that all of the answers given are what they claim to teach. Most pastors I know would cringe at some answers and/or want to add words above and beyond other answers. The God from this movie is never angry, isn’t uptight about rules, and loves and forgives everyone for everything. People want to believe in an angry God who punishes evil people, and not just rigid theologians and pastors, but people who hear and experience stories of the murder of children. Whether it’s therapy or theology, sometimes we want an angry God, and so this depiction should be controversial and should stir up good and necessary conversations.

The film medium – A book is a limited medium by which to tell a story. Whether a person buys or borrows it, they have to commit hours and hours to focus on it, engage with its content and mentally imagine the scenarios. A movie makes it much easier. A person just needs to sit still for a while (The Shack is long at 2h12m) and the pictures are presented, and very little engagement or thought is necessary. But a film is also limited. Only so much can be presented on the screen. Special effects budget, acting skills and editing deadlines all impact how the story is received. This generally a weakness for faith-based films and this one is no different, but it also touches on deeper questions. Some argue it isn’t good to portray God in human form at all, and then on top of that, each other role that these actors take on risk tainting these portrayals of Christianity’s most revered figures.

The portrayal of pain – I’m not interested in film critics who hate the movie or in theologians who hate the theology, there will be many of both, but I want to know if people resonate with this presentation of pain and the response to it. That’s the real controversy here. There is no more sacred space for me than to walk with people through their joy and pain. I know that for me as an outsider and even as a spiritual leader to try to explain away or contextualize people’s pain is pretty shaky ground. My greatest regrets in ministry are things I’ve said to hurting people. The measure of this movie will not be it’s Hollywood credentials or its theological orthodoxy, but whether it responds to pain in a way that is real and right and good.

Booking for clues

Not long ago I wasn’t really a big fan of funerals. I didn’t like how artificial they seemed and how anything remotely wrong a person did was instantly forgotten. I was uneasy with how morbid they were; that a bunch of people could casually sit in the same room as a dead body. Also, like most men, I wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea of being a place where my emotions, grief, sympathy, fear, etc., might override my ability to maintain an outward appearance of keep-it-togetherness. So, it is still odd at times that I am now in a professional situation where I am called upon to not only participate in, but to lead these funeral services, to speak hope and comfort into an audience of mourners.

I got a random phone call from the hospital not long ago about a man on his deathbed that wanted to talk to a pastor. I went to see him and some family members and friends who had gathered at his side. I was there for an hour and a half, mostly listening and observing, but I also got to pray with him, which was a powerful thing to experience.

The gentleman passed away a few days later, and I was honoured when the family asked if I would perform the funeral. I asked if I could meet with a few of them ahead of time to talk about the man, to hear some stories and get to know a little bit more about him, so that when it came time to speak about him, I could speak from a position of honesty and understanding. They told me stories about his work and his play, but they also told me about how he would spend a lot of time, especially later in life, praying and reading the Bible. As a pastor I always love if I can use a part of the Bible as a building block to a public speaking opportunity, so I asked what he read. Did he read about the patriarchs, about the founding of the Jewish society, law and religion? Did he read the Psalms, the poems of praise and anxst? Did he read the gospels, the stories of Jesus and his followers? They didn’t know. I could tell they were worried that I didn’t believe them. He wasn’t always a church-going man, and his language was often more colourful than it was spiritual, and all of this was part of the reason I was randomly called in to the hospital than to have his normal pastor visit. They seemed worried, as though maybe I was trying to catch them in a lie and revoke my willingness to participate in and bless this service. I might have read them wrong, but I think for a moment they might have been reading me wrong.

“Can I see his Bible?” I asked.

A few of them looked around, unsure if they would be able to find it, but I already knew where it was. His Bible was sitting exactly where he had left it, beside the chair where he would sit and watch the birds, beside the pile of coasters on which he would put his morning cup of coffee, and among the photographs that showed memories of happier and healthier times.

I flipped through it, hoping to see certain passages underlined or highlighted, but even though none were, it was still clear that this was a well-read Bible. I held it up to the light, and I could see that the edges of the book that were once a shiny silver were now dulled and worn. A few pages were more crinkled than others, and so I opened it to those places. I could tell that he was the kind of reader who licked his thumb before turning the page, because there was a kind of round indentation on a lot of the top corners. The page with Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, had a coffee stain on it. The page were it talks about Jesus feeding the five thousand had a crease in it. The spine of the book was actually broken right where the book of Revelation starts.

Did he read these passages more? Did he like them? Did he hate them? Whatever these clues mean, I found this to be a highly spiritual exercise, to leaf through the pages that contained the words that brought hope to a dying man, and words that engaged his mind and spirit when he was more active. Maybe this will be lost in a generation that reads digitally. Maybe this will be lost when our whole society is spiritual but not religious. But maybe, someday someone will try to connect with me after I’m gone, and the things that I read and the things that I write will leave a trail for them to follow.

Flower Power

I enjoy volunteering at my kid’s school. It sometimes means juggling my work schedule, but I’m lucky to have the flexibility required to make that work. The school encourages this kind of parental involvement for a variety of reasons. I like being able to see how my kid behaves out of the house, and it’s good to be able to meet her friends and teachers as well.

There are tense moments. I worry that the good-natured teasing my daughter has gotten used to will somehow traumatize one of her friends (fortunately though it’s far more common that the other kids will laugh at a joke she has long since written off as no longer funny).

There are tense moments, like when I don’t know how to react to another kid because they are not my kid and I’m not sure what the school’s protocol, like when a girl in the group I was watching on a field trip peed her pants.

There are awkward moments too where I worry about what my kid will say. At the Halloween party each group of students needed to count the seeds in our pre-assigned pumpkins. When my daughter heard about the task, she exclaimed proudly, “Oh good! My daddy is an expert in counting things!” I guess I can’t deny that I’ve left a legacy for my children.

There are always funny moments too, but sometimes they border on the profound.

Among the Elsa’s and the ninjas, there was one girl dressed as a hippy. It was an ironically well-assembled outfit. She got a few compliments from the other parents, most of whom were also too young to remember that period of our history. But the most interesting exchange of the day came when another teacher came in, also dressed as a hippy. The young hippy looked up and seemed proud that somebody else liked the idea enough to do it too. Then, as a show of solidarity, the older hippy greeted the younger one, by extending her arm, raising two fingers and exclaiming, “Peace out!”

The look on the little girl’s face made it clear that she had no idea what that phrase meant and why it was supposed to be associated with the clothes she was wearing. I laughed to myself and looked around. The teachers had moved on to another conversation amongst themselves, other parents were busy helping to count their pumpkin’s seeds, and the kids, well the kids had no idea that anything remotely interesting had happened. There was nobody there to share the joke with me.

One of my professional responsibilities as a pastor is to visit seniors. Very often these are people who have already or are needing to downsize their living space. To do this they need to decrease their possessions. Limiting your possessions has always been a spiritual task when it’s done voluntarily, but when it is forced on your, it’s a little tougher to swallow. Their options usually are giving them away, throwing them away or putting them in long-term storage. The preferred option is always to give them away, but that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Usually, if you’ve kept something for most of your life, that thing has intrinsic, sentimental and/or non-financial value to you. The problem is, it might be tough to find anyone who attaches anywhere near the same value to those things that you do, and try as you might you cannot force someone to attach value to something.

The seniors that I visit often have closets full of things that they value that nobody else does. It’s a joke that they can’t share. The next time you visit a thrift store, you will likely see some of those items. That often means that someone has died, and since nobody in the family wanted it, it was redistributed.

We could say that this is evidence that our society values our possessions too highly, but it could also be evidence that we value stories too little. The next time you visit a senior in your family or community, and if you aren’t doing that you should, ask them about their stuff. Their possessions hold their stories.

Playmobil Advent – Day Twenty-three

Today’s Santa Claus comes from kit #4889 and can be viewed/ordered here.

Some would argue that Santa Claus doesn’t belong with the Nativity set. I read a valid point this week that if we put Santa and baby Jesus side by side as equally worthwhile symbols of Christmas, then when children grow older and realize that Santa doesn’t exist, they will assume the same is true of Jesus. I would also argue that Santa doesn’t need to be part of our religious rituals, but I felt that with this set, I could put Santa and St. Nicholas side by side and use them to paint a fair picture of where the story of Santa comes from. Santa exists because of Jesus. The original gift-giving that inspired today’s frenzy was initiated by a man motivated by Jesus’ teachings.

Day 23 – Malachi 3: 1-6 (TNIV)
1 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years. 5 “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.
6 “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.

Playmobil Advent – Day Twenty-two

Today’s lantern is from Playmobil kit #4884 and can be viewed/ordered here.

On the second day of reading about Jesus as the light come into the world, we get the only electric piece in the set, a cute little lantern with an auto shut-off. The light even flickers like a lamp would.

Day 22 – John 1: 9-18 (TNIV)

9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

Playmobil Advent – Day Twenty-One

Today’s wise man is part of Playmobil set #4886 and can be viewed/ordered here.

Finally, all three wise men are present. Of course we set them up for the time when they realize that there is no mention anywhere of specifically how many were in the party of the Magi, but each king brings a different gift, which sets the scene up nicely. Already the various pieces of the camel’s heavy load have been spread around.  The coins in the chest of gold have been spread around and the ropes around the camel itself need to be re-wrapped a number of times.  As the platter fills though, the approaching Christmas celebration becomes easier to grasp.

Day 21 – John 1: 1-8

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

Playmobil Advent – Day Twenty

Today’s wise man is part of Playmobil set #4886 and can be viewed/ordered here.

Today we met a second wise man, with a second different kind of gift, and representing a second different race.

Day 20 – Matthew 2: 7-12 (TNIV)

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Playmobil Advent – Day Nineteen

Today’s wise man and fully stocked camel are part of Playmobil set #4886 and can be viewed/ordered here.

Playmobil has once again demonstrated their theological astuteness by making the wise men a separate package.  It might even be smart of me to not bring them out until after Christmas or even to hold off on buying the package until a few years after starting the tradition.  The Magi are still a part of the story, and now that Jesus is here, the celebration continues.  The first of three racially distinct wise men comes with a fully loaded camel, included a chest full of gold coins.  We won’t tell the kids that there are loose coins in that chest, because if we did, they wouldn’t survive Advent.

Day 19 – Matthew 2: 1-6 (TNIV)

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 ” ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ “

Playmobil Advent – Day Eighteen

Yesterday’s second smaller angel is part of Playmobil set #4889 and can be viewed/ordered here.

Each angel in our set is assigned to a particular group of other characters.  The first large angel speaks to Mary and Joseph. The first small angel speaks to the shepherds and second angel speaks to the wise men who will arrive soon.

Day 18 – Isaiah 52: 7-10

7 How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
8 Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion,     they will see it with their own eyes.
9 Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.

Playmobil Advent – Day Seventeen

Today’s two doves are from Playmobil kit #4884 and can be viewed/ordered here.

There were two doves in the pocket for today.  One of them is visible in the picture behind the smaller angel, and the other one fell down in between me setting it up and me taking the picture, and I didn’t notice. I don’t know if they were intended to be turtle doves, of they manufacturers had today’s reading in mind, but it was quite appropriate to be reading about doves, after Jesus was born and before the wise men arrive.

My daughter’s ginerbread house is also included in the photo.

Day 17 – Luke 2: 22-32

22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”