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Cinema in Focus: ‘The Shack’

4 Stars – Inspiring

In 2007, office manager William P. Young wrote an analogy that he self-published. Within a year, his book was a best-seller and quickly hit the 10 million mark in readers.

Now this novel approach to understanding the Trinitarian God of our Christian faith has been effectively brought to the big screen by Stuart Hazeldine.

As is often true of theological concepts that were developed in the third and fourth centuries, a description of the triune nature of the Biblical God is difficult to understand.

It is also difficult to understand the reason for the presence of pain and evil in a world created by an all-powerful, good and loving God.

Though many have written on these subjects, what this unique film does is show that these difficult concepts are easier to understand in relationship than with cognitive concepts. As such, this analogy is an inspired journey toward understanding.

Though the story is narrated by his neighbor, Willie (Tim McGraw), the central character is Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington). We first meet him as a child (Carson Reaume) when he takes vengeance against his father for his drunken abuse of his mother and himself.

What makes this confusing for Mack relationally and spiritually is that his father is a leader in their church but is living a duplistic life.

It is upon this damaged foundation that Mack builds a lonely life of superficial love and faith, even with his devoted wife Nan (Radha Mitchell) and three children, Josh (Gage Munroe), Kate (Megan Charpentier) and Missy (Amélie Eve).

When a tragedy strikes their family, Mack retreats into self-blaming sorrow and a pervasive guilt that isolates him from his family and traps him in a depressing spiral.

But in a miraculous moment, he is invited to return to the place of his deepest pain, a shack deep within the woods, where he encounters God. This encounter is profound in both the characterizations of God as well as the conversations that occur between them.

Noting that Mack would have difficulty experiencing and trusting God as a Father or Papa due to his childhood of abuse at the hands of his human father, God appears to him as a nurturing African-American woman named Elousia (Octavia Spencer).

We soon meet the dark-eyed Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) whose Mideastern manner, congenial warmth and friendly charm attract Mack immediately. Noting that he feels a special connection to Jesus, Jesus simply responds, “It is because I am human.”

Mack replies that he is also God. This incarnational gift of having a recognizable Savior is powerfully portrayed.

The Spirit or breath of God is Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara). Explaining that her name means air or wind, as is true of the Biblical word Ruah, Sarayu prepares Mack for the moment when he must face his greatest pain and his greatest spiritual need and begin to breathe the breath of God.

In a way that works surprisingly well, the film also includes a fascinating study in logic for Mack with Wisdom, appropriately named Sophia (Alice Braga).

It is in this deeper cave experience that Mack begins to reason through his idolatry of placing himself in judgment over God, due not only to the abuse of his childhood, but also to the tragedy of his adulthood.

Though not everything presented in the film may be in agreement with the historic Christian faith, there is no doubt this analogy is an inspiration as it brings us into one man’s story of his personal encounter and physical conversations with God.

Though we learn at the end of the film the nature of that physical experience, it is no less inspiring in its healing effect on Mack and his family.

We recommend it to all adults — those who already have faith in God and those who are seeking love and truth.

Discussion

» The power of a dramatic portrayal of God’s healing work in a person’s life is moving to witness. With what in Mack’s journey did you most identify? What was most disturbing?

» In pastoral counseling, we often use prayer to go back into abusive pasts and ask God to heal those memories and bring about confession, repentance, forgiveness and peace. Is there anything in your past that you need to bring to God and ask for His healing?

As is true of all analogies, they are often incomplete and sometimes hint at beliefs that are less than adequate. However, many of the more troubling concerns that were voiced about the book do not appear on the big screen.

» Did you identify anything in the film that was not in agreement with historic Christianity?

The theological insights embedded in the film’s conversations are worthy of further contemplation. Here are some from the book:

https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/2666268-the-shack-where-tragedy-confronts-eternity

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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