I have to confess. The Shack was not on my must see list.
Admittedly I didn’t know too much about it and I don’t remember even seeing the trailer. But it was the flick du jour so I did a little pre-research before heading for the screening – as skeptical as the lead in the film, Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips (Sam Worthington). Still, it didn’t capture my attention. A guy spending a weekend with God at God’s invitation at a remote shack in the middle of nowhere where only bad memories existed. It sounded pretty dark to me.
To bring everyone up to speed before the meat of the encounter, Mack’s father was an outward church elder/inward drunk and abuser. It was intimated the young Mack, after outing his dad and a horrific beating, mixed some strychnine in his booze.
Fast forward. Mack is married to Nan (Radha Mitchell), the believer in the family with a special relationship with God whom she refers to as “Papa.” They have three children, Kate (Megan Charpentier), Josh (Gage Munroe) and Missy (Amelie Eve). The family, sans Mom who had a conference to attend, goes on a camping trip. Just before returning home, Kate starts showboating in a canoe, which capsizes, trapping Josh underneath when the strap to his life jacket gets stuck in the canoe seat slats. Mack dives into the lake and rescues and resuscitates Josh … but in the frenzy, Missy is abducted. Her blood stained dress is found in a nearby shack, but her body is never recovered.
The shambled shack is desolate and Mack, reeling with guilt and grief, turns a gun on himself, the suicide thwarted first by a deer, then by a young, Jewish man with a modest beard and an ear to ear smile … Jesus (Avraham Aviv Akusha). He leads Mack down a path where the shack is transformed into a neat cottage and the driven snow replaced by green grass, flowers and soft breezes. There, Mack meets Papa – unexpectedly a middle aged black woman (Octavia Spencer) – and Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara), the “Spirit” in this Trinity.
Mack remains the skeptic through these encounters. He challenges Papa about His omnipotence. And he asks the proverbial question all who go through tragedy ask God … Where were You? How can You allow evil?
“I am always there,” replies Papa when asked how He could abandon even His own Son as He shows Mack the nail prints in His hands. “I am with each and every one all the time,” He adds.
Jesus, also a carpenter working on a special project in His workshop, emphasizes to Mack the need to keep his eyes on Him. Sarayu works on Mack by bringing him to a garden, a somewhat unkempt garden. As they work on a patch, Sarayu tells Mack the garden is a reflection of him.
But the highlight, in my mind, was a trip into a deep cave. Jesus led Mack to stairs with the instruction to keep walking until he could go no further … then continue onward and through. Sure enough, Mack comes to the end of the road and deep, slippery rocks. He reached in and moves to the cave where he encounters Wisdom (Alice Braga) sitting on a throne. “It’s judgment time,” she says … but it’s not Mack who is to be judged. It’s Mack’s role to judge as his father and his father’s father – also a drunk and wife and child abuser – come before him. And then his daughter’s abuser and killer and his father, also abusive. Mack says send them to hell where they belong!
But Wisdom then brings Kate and Josh before him. Since Mack is acting like “god,” she says, send one of them to hell. They both are sinners, she reasons, but Mack breaks down and says, “No. Don’t make me do that. Take me instead.”
I thought that was the pivotal scene, especially given our penchant to play “god.” How quick are we to condemn … even, and perhaps more so, people in circumstances we don’t know.
Mack is led to the edge of the cave and sees his precious Missy playing happily with other children. He also finds his father, with both father and son seeking forgiveness.
On the trip back, Papa – this time personified as a Inuit (Graham Greene) – leads Mack to another cave where his daughter’s remains are interred. And Mack is asked to forgive her assailant as they prepare her body for burial in the coffin Jesus was making in the workshop. During the funeral march Mack continually pleads, “I forgive” each step becoming more convincing. The little girl is laid to rest in the garden plot Mack had been working on with Sarayu. This time, however, the camera pans out to see the intricacies of the garden rather than the thorns and thistles up close.
The God visit sequence was bookmarked by an encounter with a tractor trailer. Going to the shack, Mack gunned it and averted the crash. Coming back … the scene shifted to a hospital room with Mack regaining consciousness after three days in the belly of unconsciousness.
There were some oversimplifications in Mack’s visit to the shack. I doubt if theologians or biblical purists will jump to the film’s (or book’s) defense. But there were enough very deep questions being addressed as Mack poked and prodded his deliverers. Sometimes those questions were answered. Other times, they were more cryptic.
The Shack was not on my must see list. But I’m glad I went. I could see myself challenging God in His triune nature … and probably everyone else would have a similar experience. And that’s good … not just for believers but for other skeptics as well. This world is clamoring for answers. The film might be a stepping stone to getting some of them answered … or at least getting the conversation started.
Mack’s life was transformed by his encounter in the shack. I wonder how many other lives could be similarly transformed by visiting our personal shack where we got “stuck.”
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: So many distractions compete for our attention we can miss the wonders right under our nose.