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The Shack (Movie Review): The Truth Is Better Than Fiction

Fr. Joel Church meets World

Why do bad things happen to good people? That question is at the heart of The Shack. It’s a movie about a father, Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) wrestling with a terrible family tragedy. The tragedy has rocked Mack’s faith and sent him into a depression. One day a mysterious letter arrives inviting him to a weekend at the very site where the tragedy occurs. There he literally meets God and gets to ask God all the questions we’ve always wondered.

The movie is based on a 2007 novel by the same name. The novel became a New York Times best seller and popular reading material for Christian book clubs. Its controversial depiction of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) has also led to a lot of criticism. The book was very wordy and preachy. The movie wisely cuts back on the preachiness though it continues to be wordy.

It’s a powerful movie and it gets a lot of things right. It avoids presenting a quick and simple answer to the problem of suffering. The answer is to actually enter back into the place of pain. There we discover God’s love in the midst of suffering. The dead have to buried, both literally and spiritually. Burying the dead allows hope and healing and new birth. We were never alone even in our darkest moments. God suffers with us and His love for us has the final word.

I liked the fact that Jesus looks Middle Eastern. It’s a good reminder that he really is one of us. The depiction of God the Father and the Holy Spirit take some creative license. The movie is fine if you know what Christians really believe. The poorly grounded could be confused by it. I disagree too with Jesus’ criticism of religion as, “too much work.” Evangelicals have a tendency to contrast religion and relationship, as though rituals are empty and meaningless. Religion, properly understood and exercised, is full of meaning and intensely relational. All our relationships thrive on meaningful rituals.

The movie presents an amazing experience of God. But it doesn’t explain how to live that experience in everyday life. Mack will go back to his home, family, and church with a new perspective on God’s love. But how and where does he encounter God’s love every day?

The movie also fails to portray the intense unity of the Trinity. In this movie Father, Son, and Spirit appear like three separate beings that work together and get along well. Each has a different role to play in the world and in Mack’s healing. But the truth is that Jesus is constantly united with God the Father through the Holy Spirit. While they are three separate persons, they are completely and totally one.

God shares this intense unity with every Christian. Theologians have explained that Jesus “opens up” the Trinity and makes room for us inside. We don’t become a party of 4. Rather, by being fully united with Jesus, we are also united with the Father and the Son. We come to share in the Divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity. In other words, Jesus shares his intense unity with us. We are invited into a deep and profound Communion with God himself.

All of this extraordinary generosity is hidden under ordinary things. Baptism with simple water makes us members of the Trinity. Through the Eucharist, Bread and Wine become a vehicle of total self-gift and intimate Communion. Prayer transforms every day life into extraordinary encounters. The Shack, for all the shock of its portrayal of God, actually falls short of the truth. The unity of the Trinity, and their unity with us, is even more amazing and beautiful than the movie depicts. For a Christian who really lives intimacy with God, every day is like a weekend at the shack.

Image stolen from http://www.theshack.movie/#home

There is one scene that the movie gets majorly wrong. Towards the end of the movie, “Papa” asks Mack to forgive the criminal that hurt his daughter.
Mack says, “I can’t.”
God answers, “Its not that you can’t, its that you won’t.”

The scene would have been much more powerful, and true to the movie, if it had happened this way:
Mack says, “I can’t.”
God says, “I know you can’t.”
After a short pause Mack says, “Well you’re supposed to be all powerful — can’t you help me with that?”
God says, “I thought you’d never ask. Look at me. When you look at your pain, you lose sight of me. I love you, and I love your daughter even more than you do. But I also love the man who did this like a son. Now I ask you to forgive my son for what he did to both of you.”
Mack takes his eyes off the little insect clenched in his fist and looks “Papa” in the eyes. After a few seconds he responds, “I can’t. But I want to. Yes, I do. I forgive him. I do forgive him.”
And with that he lets the insect fly free.

In my ministry I find many people who want to forgive but they can’t find the way to do it. Forgiveness is about opening ourselves more fully to God’s love. There is much we cannot forgive because our hearts are small. When we let God’s love live in us, His forgiveness flows out of us. With God all things are possible.