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.