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Friday, March 3, 2017

"The Shack" Movie Review

AUTHOR: William P Young
CAST: The film stars Sam Worthington (Avatar, Wrath of the Titans, Clash of the Titans), Academy Award®-winner Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress, 2012 –The Help; The Divergent Series film franchise), Grammy Award® Winner Tim McGraw (The Blind Side), Radha Mitchell (Olympus Has Fallen), Alice Braga (Queen of the South, Elysium), Aviv Alush (The Gordin Cell) and Graham Greene (Longmire). The screenplay by John Fusco is based on the best-selling faith-based book, “The Shack,” by William Paul Young in collaboration with Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings. Stuart Hazeldine (Exam) directs the film, which is produced by the Oscar-nominated Gil Netter (Life of Pi, The Blind Side, Marley & Me) and Brad Cummings.

This movie is based on the bestselling book of the same name, written by author William Paul Young. You can read the brief synopsis from the official resource page here. That would help readers who have not read the book to get a gist of the story.

I watched the preview on Wednesday evening, thanks to the gracious invitation of Graf-Martin Communications. Right from the start, we were asked to be prepared to shed tears. A Kleenex box was also provided for those who needed it. We were shown a brief video from one of the show's advocates, followed by a 2 hours and 12 minutes of heart-gripping story telling about God, the struggle of man with the issue of pain and suffering. and many theological matters that the Christian would be familiar with. Some of the themes include:
  • Justice and Love
  • Pain and Suffering
  • The Trinity
  • The Persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
  • Freedom and grace
  • Forgiveness
  • Family
  • Tragedy and Grace
  • New creation
  • Visions of heaven
  • Wisdom 
  • Human limitations
  • ... and many more

While there are many themes that the movie covers, there are five theological themes which I find portrayed very well.

First, the Trinity is portrayed by Papa, a female black woman (played by Octavia Spencer); Jesus (played by Avraham Aviv Alush); and the Holy Spirit (played by Sarayu, which means 'wind.') It defies conventions of a white Jesus or some father-look-a-like God figure. The use of a woman goes against the patriarchal culture that Bible readers have gotten used to. Not only that, by depicting God the Father as a non-white certainly runs counter to the Western movies we have all been familiar with. It is the author's way of telling us not to be too locked in cultural formulations and to describe God only in terms of a gender or any one particular ethnicity. Instead, we should look beyond visual representations toward spiritual understanding. If we cannot get past the initial human symbols, we would easily call this heresy. Rather than to dwell on this controversial point, I prefer to look at the way the three figures of the Trinity interact and fellowship together with. There is an image of Rublev Trinity, inviting Mack into the fellowship of the Trinity over the dining table. There is the co-existent and co-eternal understanding in the Trinity. There is also that pain of separation shared among all.

The Reality of Evil and Suffering is one of the most powerful issues depicted in the book and the movie. The murders of children by some deranged individual happen represent only a small part of the reality of mass evil all around the world. The movie could only show forth part of it. Mack, the grief-stricken father could not forgive himself for the loss of his little girl Missy. Worse, she was cruelly taken and murdered in cold blood. How could God allow an innocent little girl to be murdered so terribly? If God is love, surely He could have prevented the whole thing? The powerful acting is perhaps due to the way the main actor, Mack (played by Sam Worthington) personalizes many of his personal questions about life and suffering. I appreciate the honest questions being asked, something that many people, both Christians and non-Christians would ask too. In a way, Mack is speaking on our behalf as well the question: "How can a good God permit innocent people to suffer?"The central response is about the punishment not being of God but a consequence of sin. Not only that, God Himself understands as He too had suffered along. It would be wrong to see the movie as trying to give any comprehensive response to this difficult issue. It would be better to see the movie as trying to offer a perspective that we could all consider.

Third, the other two members are given representation through Avraham Aviv Alusha, of Middle-Eastern origin, and Sarayu, the Holy Spirit. There are scenes from the gospels like walking on water, looking at Jesus, walking together with Christ, trust and seeing the scars of sacrifice. There are examples of the presence and the moving of the Holy Spirit in the interactions with Mack. Though not as strongly portrayed compared to the Father, the producers manage to squeeze in just enough to show the unique personalities of the Son and the Spirit. They are not meant to be comprehensive, just a representative, or a glimpse of unique characteristics. Christians would be familiar with many of the scenes.

Fourth, the part on Wisdom and Justice is particularly striking. By pointing out the folly of Mack's presumptions, we are reminded that we are all capable of judging God and thinking we are wiser than God. We all have our own cultural sensitivities and our interpretations of what is fair and what is just. The problem with us is our imperfections trying to judge a perfect God. That is most preposterous. Yet we do that every day. The movie clearly showcases this to maximum effect.

Finally, the Forgiveness virtue is narrated in a very touching manner, showing us that the way to bring closure to our pain and suffering is forgiveness. There is no freedom without forgiveness. It is important to grieve. It is also important to forgive. Without forgiveness, we become our own worst enemy.

Would a non-Christian understand the movie? I am not sure. The film is designed more for Christians rather than non-Christians. For many of the themes like the Trinity and the representations of the members of the Godhead are familiar teachings in the Bible. Those without such knowledge would find it hard to grasp at the significance. That said, if accompanied by Christians, it could be worthwhile as the issues involve not only faith but the harsh reality of life and need for faith.

I know there are controversies around the book, how it retells the theology of the Bible. Just like any other movie, it is but a person's narrative of the difficult issues mentioned above. The author has maintained that it is fiction. Some non-fiction books are written in such a way that they appear rather fictitious. Some fiction books are written to bring out truths. This movie is one such attempt to display much theological truths that have been taught through the centuries, and clothes them in modern paraphrase that many would be able to understand. Be aware of the controversies and critiques of the movie. At the same time, don't let them distract you from the beautiful image of God's love and the power of forgiveness. Let the Lord be the Final Judge.

Overall, this is a beautiful movie that does a good job in bringing the book from print to screen. It is probably one of the most honest "Question and Answer" narrative about the problem of evil and suffering. It brings to life the doctrine of the Trinity and the complex issue of Justice and Wisdom. Go see it this weekend at a theater near you.

Resources Below
  • The Author's Blog (link)
  • Movie Listings (link)
  • Free Ministry Resources (link)
  • Discussion Guide (link)

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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