Mack Phillips is abused by his alcoholic father and eventually poisons him. He grows up to have a normal family--but then his youngest daughter is kidnapped and murdered. The grieving Mack gets a mysterious invitation to spend the weekend at a shack, where he meets the three persons of the Trinity and heals from his anger and grief.
132 minutes (2 hours 12 minutes).
March 3, 2017
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Director: Stuart Hazeldine
Writer: John Fusco, Andrew Lanham, Destin Cretton, and William P Young
Composer: Aaron Zigman
Starring: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Radha Mitchell, Avraham Aviv Alush, Sumire Matsubara
Genre: Christian Spiritual Drama
The Shack is entirely sincere, earnest, schmaltzy, direct, and unsubtle. It rarely says anything about its themes without simply having a character say it out loud. This tone is easy to mock, but it would be wrong to do so. The truth is that certain essential questions cannot be filed down or smoothed over. They strike us and the blow cannot be softened. When real people grieve we ask the same questions that Mack does–and we ask with this movie’s bluntness. No, this movie cannot be faulted for its direct approach. It probes the ability of a standard evangelical Christian’s faith to endure and heal from real loss and suffering, with a lack of condescension that is rarely seen in film. There is nothing wrong with the tone or questions of this movie. But there is a great deal wrong with its answers.
Violence/Scary Images: A man is shown hitting his wife and child. A child poisons his father offscreen. A murder scene and dead body are shown and a character considers suicide.
Spiritual content: Direct discussion of why evil happens and how God is or is not involved. The three persons of the Trinity are each depicted in bodily form in a way that some would consider unbiblical or blasphemous.
Other negative themes: Grief, depression, and false guilt are shown and resolved.
Positive content: Affirms that God loves everyone, does not do evil, and is present with everyone as they suffer.
This movie stars the three persons of the Trinity and therefore presents itself as Christian teaching. But its misunderstandings and omissions of basic Christian doctrine are so widespread that I couldn’t unpack them all in a ten thousand word review. Let me just mention three serious problems. One, it doesn’t appear to believe in the general resurrection and new creation. At one point Mack says he wants a life without pain and Papa says that there isn’t one, that evil will be around as long as there is free will. How far we’ve come from Revelation’s promise that “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” The great renovation of the universe that Jesus promised and that has sustained Christians ever since–what an unreasonable expectation! I guess we should all buckle up for an eternity of pain. Or look forward to the removal of our free will that is required for the new creation to be without suffering.
Two, Papa dismisses the idea of divine wrath when Mack raises it. Apparently, sin is its own punishment. This neatly severs the movie’s representation of God from both the Old and New Testaments. This isn’t just a problem with not being honestly Christian–it robs the movie of what could be its strongest material and its most interesting dynamic. There is no response to evil from God; Papa only identifies and grieves over it. This makes God fundamentally passive and puts the weight of correctly responding to sin on Mack’s shoulders. He forgives the man who murdered his daughter not because of anything God or Jesus has done or said, but because he rediscovers his own power to forgive. And because Papa isn’t interested in punishing sin, she doesn’t bring up how Mack murdered his father–a tangled question of participation in evil that could occupy a whole movie by itself, but in which The Shack seems uninterested. The narrow version of God on display constricts what the movie can meaningfully address.
Three, we see nail marks in the wrists of not only Jesus but Papa, who says that she did not abandon Jesus for a moment but suffered with him. This is a heresy called patripassianism (suffering of the Father). It sounds great and loving because it affirms the unbreakable bond between Father and Son. What it also does is undermine the distinction between Father and Son as different persons and the necessity of the Son taking on flesh. The effect of this is to make the three persons basically the same person–just different masks or ways of relating that God adopts. This is something to which The Shack is predisposed. Mack talks to whichever person of the Trinity he needs, and Papa takes on different faces as is best suited to Mack. God has many faces and changes based on what we need, apparently.
If the Father already suffers for us why would the distinct person Jesus need to come? In fact, the reason for Jesus’ death is a question the movie raises itself through the legend of a Native American princess’ sacrificial death. And we never receive an answer. The Shack has no idea why Jesus died or what it meant. It’s hard not to draw a direct connection between this and the refusal to talk about divine wrath and punishment. Because God does not relate to evil with wrath, there is no need for Jesus to atone for evil, and so no reason that Jesus would be central to our relationship with God. At one point Jesus says the very Jesus-like line that he is the best way to relate to God–seeing Jesus is seeing the other two persons. And yet the other two persons are there in the flesh! The movie’s basic premise undercuts what Jesus says.
Let’s talk about this main conceit: the representation of not only Jesus but the Father and Spirit by human actors. It’s stronger than symbolism or figures (like the Spirit appearing in the form of a dove). These people do not stand in for the divine persons; we are told they are the divine persons. I would argue that this is blasphemy in the technical sense: saying something about God that is not consistent with his character. The three persons are not separate individuals in the manner of human beings. They are three persons with one being, one divine essence. And the Father and Spirit do not exist as concrete individuals like the Son. They are spirit, without form or flesh. This is what makes it such a big deal that Jesus does take on flesh and live in our world as one of us. The way that the Father and Spirit are presented makes it harder to understand them and harder to understand why Jesus is so amazing.
So The Shack is not a good Christian movie. Is it a good movie if we consider it apart from Christian faith? No. Firstly, it spends a great deal of time trying to be a Christian movie, so it fails to understand the faith from which it draws. Secondly, the disconnection from Christian faith sucks the marrow out of the movie. What remains are slogans about trusting God, forgiving enemies, and moving on. Papa simply avoids or slaps down the hard questions about why God allows evil; the closest we get to an answer is free will, baby. Can’t have free will without evil. It is not intelligent or thought-provoking; Papa comes off as the gentle theist counterpart to the bizarre ranting atheist Lex Luthor from Batman v Superman (another movie that had nothing to say, and failed to say it by betraying the tradition from which it came).
Now, none of these intellectual and theological issues are the fault of the visual execution. The direction and editing are competent but unexceptional. As far as acting goes, Spencer and Greene are solid as different versions of Papa, and Megan Charpentier does some fairly complex work as Mack’s guilt-ridden elder daughter Kate. If there’s a weak link it’s Worthington, whose Mack is never anything but what we’re expecting and whose accent turns suspiciously Australian in emotional scenes. But this movie’s center of gravity is so much in its dialogue that the performances can do little to cover over the sins of the script.
It’s the smooth competence of the movie that is its undoing, in both the visual and spiritual sense. As Mack helps Papa in the kitchen, receives inscrutable wisdom from Sarayu, and forms a bromance with Jesus, I couldn’t help but think of encounters with God from scripture: of the fire and darkness and thunder that spoke to Israel at Sinai, the still small voice that Elijah heard, the interrogation that Job received from the whirlwind, and the unhelpful prophecies with which God answered Habakkuk’s questions. I couldn’t help but remember that the Jesus of scripture has all of this movie’s compassion, but also an unyielding confidence in himself as savior and the boldness to demand and receive everything from his friends.
If The Shack was more influenced by scripture, it would be more cutting, more bizarre, more rigorous, and I think more visually interesting. Infusing the trappings of Middle Americana with spiritual power and symbolism is a familiar and strategy, from Gaiman’s American Gods to the early seasons of Supernatural to No Country for Old Men. The Shack does not possess even the limited independent creativity of these works; it does not mine the rich Christian tradition of questioning God for the ideas that might make it stand out.
Non-Christians who want to know how Christians react to suffering: read the book of Habakkuk instead (or Job if you have a lot of time on your hands), and then try the gospel according to Mark.
Christians: I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that you shouldn’t watch an explicitly heretical and gravely mistaken movie. But even if it were, this movie would simply not be imaginative or wise enough to be worth your time.
+ Occasionally quite pretty
- Spiritually and intellectually lightweight
- Makes it harder to worship the true God