The movie, The Shack, based on the best-selling book by William P. Young, provides a cinematic retreat for the audience. In two hours it invites the viewer to go deep, to examine one’s life, relationships, and struggles with faith. As Tim McGraw, who plays Mack’s friend and pastor, Willie, in the film, says, this story “impacts viscerally.” One cannot but be moved by such a profoundly impactful film. The movie draws each viewer into the emotion-laden experience of the characters and asks them to find themselves there.
Mackenzie Philips (Sam Worthington) takes his children on a camping trip in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest while his wife Nan (Radha Mitchell) visits family. When Mack rushes to help two of his kids who tipped a canoe in the lake, his youngest daughter, Missy (Amélie Eve) goes missing. After many hours of anguished searching with the police, Mack discovers that Missy was abducted and murdered. Racked with guilt and depression he shuts out life, his family and God. On a snowy evening he sees a letter in the mailbox addressed to him. Opening it, it reads to meet at the shack (where Missy was murdered), signed “Papa.” Nan always taught the kids about God and calls him Papa. Drawn by the letter, Mack heads to the shack.
Artistic Image of God
This next part of the film is an artistic interpretation of who is the Trinitarian God. I consider it a visual poem, which uses the lush visual language of film to convey a deeper truth, to image God who is “I Am who I Am.” When Mack arrives at the shack he encounters an African-American woman named Papa (Octavia Spencer), a young Middle-Eastern carpenter who is Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) and an Asian woman named Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara), representing the Holy Spirit. This encounter leads Mack on an unexpected retreat, an inner journey to greater forgiveness, trust and faith. He faces the universal questions: Why do good people suffer? Why is there evil in the world? How does one forgive? Why believe?
The way of imaging God in this film is the same as experiencing art, such as a painting of the Trinity icon by Rublev. God is imaged so that we can understand this mystery in our finite concepts. Icons are windows to the soul and so is film. As author William P. Young says, “Good art creates more space than it uses.” So, it is meant to pass through the senses to be contemplated in the soul. Co-producer, Lani Netter says that the film is a “love language to those who do not know God.”
From a theological point of view, this film is not an absolute image of God, since God is immaterial, pure spirit. Yet, it visually expresses God’s attributes to help us understand how God works in our lives generating his goodness and love.
As a participant in God’s self-communicating love, Mack receives God’s generative grace as they converse at the shack and in the garden, a symbol of Eden before the fall. He is so immersed in God’s goodness, mercy and unconditional love, represented visually by Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu, that he cannot but contemplate the deeper truths about his life. He receives God’s generativity through simply being in God’s presence, open to receive light and love.
The Shack offers a poetic visual for us to reflect upon our relationship with God and our understanding of God as One in Three. Most importantly, it gives us an artistic image that can help us relate to God in a personal way, as a friend. God wants to be in relationship with us. God desires our love.
Communications spirituality leads us to live within the communion of love in the Trinity and being so imbued with God, we, as faithful witnesses, are to bring others into the life of God. This is fundamentally self-giving communication. We are the instruments. We are the face of God to the world. We are to be way, truth and life for our brothers and sisters, just as Jesus is.
The Shack offers us this image through the powerful medium of cinema. Only by entering into our own suffering can we discover the God who sacrificed his only Son to save us from self-destruction. God, creator of all and Love itself, alone understands the human heart. He is there, waiting for us, inviting us to enter into an intimate encounter with him, with Love.
For Sister Rose Pacatte's review of The Shack, please click here.
For Sister Helena Burns's review of The Shack, please click here.