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The Shack: Christian Film with a Catholic Touch

Matsubara star in the adaptation of The Shack. (Photo by Jake Giles Netter/Lionsgate)

In 2007, Canadian author William P. Young, with the help of two minister friends, self-published The Shack, a novel that he had written as a Christmas gift for his six children. It became a USA Today and New York Times best seller that has now sold over 20 million copies. Gil Netter, known for producing such films as The Blind

Side and A Walk in the Clouds, has made this novel into a film that will be coming to US theaters for a March 3, 2017, release, timed for the weeks before Easter.

The Shack is a challenging story because it goes where no filmmaker—or novelist for that matter—has gone before: into the imagined or visualized theological realm of the Holy Trinity engaging with human beings. The 15thcentury iconographer Andrei Rublev gave us an idea with his icon The Trinity that depicts sitting at a table three distinct angels whom Abraham welcomed in Genesis 18:1–8. As moviegoers, we’ve been to heaven often (e.g., Heaven Is for Real and The Tree of Life). We’ve met God the Father and God the Son. Perhaps we’ve experienced a sense of the action of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives via Hollywood. And goodness knows we’ve seen a lot of the devil. But the three divine persons of the Trinity have never been imagined together for cinema until now.

The Catholic imagination is rich with metaphor, analogy, a sacramental sense of the people and things around us. God is present and active in the world, and the world is good. The Protestant imagination, by contrast, tends more to view God and reality in terms of either/or. The Protestant imagination tends to accent how things are unlike rather than similar; the Catholic imagination welcomes the paradox that both of these ways—unlike and similar—go together in imaging God. The Shack was written by a Protestant (in his own words, “fundamentalist and evangelical”). One of the film’s producers, Gil Netter, was raised Catholic. The two traditions find an outlet here.

The film is a cinematic poem that makes profound demands on our Catholic imagination because it requires us to visualize what the persons of the Trinity might look like and how they relate to us and we to them. Some evangelical Protestants this writer talked to were uncomfortable with The Shack until the idea of cinema art and the religious imagination entered the conversation.

Story of Loss and Connection

Mack walks out of the cabin where he spends a sacred weekend. What was snow and cold is now, miraculously, welcoming warmth. (Photo by Jake Giles Netter, Lionsgate)

Here’s the plot, in a nutshell. Because his wife, Nan (Radha Mitchell), has to go to a conference, Mack (Sam Worthington) gathers his three children—teens Josh (Gage Munroe) and Kate (Megan Charpentier) and the youngest, Missy (Amélie Eve)—to go camping at the lake.

On Sunday, Missy is drawing at the picnic table while Mack is packing up for home. Josh and Kate are in the canoe when it overturns. Mack runs to save Josh, who is pinned underneath and in danger of drowning. Meanwhile, Missy disappears. No one has seen her since. Despite a thorough search, they find only Missy’s red dress and bloodstains in an old shack. Her murderer and Missy are gone. A long time passes.

Mack and the family still go to church, but Missy’s death is overwhelming. Kate blames herself because she was the one who unbalanced the canoe, causing the chain of events. Mack blames himself for not finding Missy.

One weekend when the family is away, Mack plows the snow past the mailbox and sees a letter there, but no footprints leading up to the box. The few words invite Mack to the shack, and the letter is signed “Papa.”

Mack decides to go back to the shack and confront, he thinks, the killer. He packs a gun and borrows his neighbor Willie’s (Tim McGraw) truck.

The shack is a mess and unoccupied. Outside he sees someone behind the trees. It is a young man who invites Mack to follow him. There unwinds a story of Mack being introduced, one after the other, to Jesus (Avraham “Aviv” Alush) and the two women as “Papa” (Octavia Spencer) and Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara). Astonished and confused, Mack realizes he is in the presence of God, so he asks, “Which one of you is God?” They answer together: “I am.”

Mack is polite at first, but his seething anger at God soon erupts. In his long encounter and conversation with God, Mack’s perspective on his daughter’s death—and his own life—changes. At a later time in the weekend, Papa explains why God is both mother and father: God—she—tells him that it is because he needed a mother’s comfort. It’s a long and mysterious experience for Mack. 

The Producer’s First Interview

Producer Gil Netter is a man who loves and respects a good story. He reads about 12 scripts a week and at least one book. He and his wife, Lani, a coproducer on the film, talked with me over lunch about making the film. I was surprised—and honored—when Gil told me that this interview was the first he had ever given in his 30-year career. Why? Because it was for St. Anthony Messenger. “This is the most significant film I’ve ever done. Because of the subject matter, that people will have discussions afterwards, and because it is a gift to my wife, it was important that my first interview be with a magazine like yours.”

Lani says that what impressed her about the story was that it used “God’s love language for those who do not yet know him—or don’t really know him.” Gil adds: “Or don’t have a relationship with God—that’s what the story is really about. God created people with free will and it’s our free choice as to whether we want to have a relationship or not.”

Sam Worthington, who plays Mack, said via an e-mail interview that he loves the themes of a forgiving God, forgiving yourself, and forgiving your enemies that he found in the script—he read the book afterward. He and his wife, Lara, had their first child (a son) just before filming began. “The love that he brought me and the feelings that he opened up in me and what it did to my wife and me, were so unbelievable. The tragedy that befalls Mack triggered something deep within me. I, too, have held on to so much anger, fear, and guilt in my life. I thought it would be a disservice to the role if I didn’t delve deep into these waters and allow my newfound pool of emotion and awareness to help color Mack’s character and his journey.”

Octavia Spencer, who says you “cannot come from Georgia and not have a background in church,” tells St. Anthony Messenger that the story resonates with her because it addresses an “everyman’s story, including mine.” About portraying God, she says, “Honestly, I tossed and turned when I realized that I would be playing the Almighty. As actors we bring certain elements of ourselves into the various roles we play. The idea of somehow understanding—then executing—the omniscience and omnipresence of God became quite daunting, so I had to come at it from another angle. I had to truly see myself as parent and Sam’s character as my child. Then, every door was somehow open for me. I felt a deep and emotional bond to him.”

The movie is set in Oregon but was filmed in Canada. The beautiful cinematography showcases the outdoors as a mystical backdrop to God, who is our benevolent creator, loving redeemer, and joyful sanctifier.

Images of God

This film forces us to think. Octavia Spencer reaching out as God the Father challenges a tidy image of God, who is larger than we can imagine. (Photo by Jake Giles Netter, Lionsgate)

I didn’t read the book until after I first saw the film last October. I was not prepared to like the film since, in my experience, Christian films tend to lead with a lesson rather than the story, coming off as preachy. But this film took me in immediately. Mack’s personal history as a child, with his abusive father, is achingly real. Mack realizes only now that God has been looking out for him all his life.

But it is the Holy Trinity that dwells in this story. Some have expressed concern over the book’s theology, but perhaps that isn’t an issue for the film. The screenwriters, John Fusco, Andrew Lanham, and Daniel Cretton, successfully smoothed out the book’s wordy dialogue. Catholic faith, in its broadest sense, is reflected on the screen. The Trinity is artistically and artfully presented as one, true God in three divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Thinking of God as both father and mother is reminiscent of Henri Nouwen’s meditation on Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son masterpiece. Father Nouwen (1932–1996) points out that the father’s hands on the prodigal’s shoulder are both masculine and feminine.

Every visual element and sound in The Shack is there on purpose. Director Stuart Hazeldine gives us images and sequences that point to salvation history in the Scriptures; sacraments, especially Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, and Confirmation, are present, as well. Even Missy’s insect box and butterflies have meaning in Christian art: resurrection, heaven, life after death. The music speaks for itself.

The cast is highly diverse, from African American, to Jewish (Netter says Aviv is the first Jew to ever play the role of Jesus in a Hollywood film), to Asian, to Native American. Anyone who watches the film will find a character with whom to identify. 

The Shack is an inspiring parable rich in metaphor, human tragedy, and a theology that is accessible and enlightening. In the final analysis it’s not what The Shack teaches us that is most important. It’s what we learn if we are open to seeking and to finding God in the dark. At the movies, we suspend disbelief in order to believe.


Sidebar: Movies Starring God

This is not God’s first imagined appearance on the silver screen. Here, God, played by Morgan Freeman, puts Bruce (Jim Carrey) to the test in 2003’s Bruce Almighty. (Universal Pictures, Photofest)

Numerous films throughout the history of cinema depict the second person of the Trinity, Jesus, but portraying God the Father proves much more challenging. How do we image God as father? Jesus Christ became a human being. Who knows what God looks like? How can God be imaged in the concrete, visual medium of cinema?

In classic biblical fashion, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) uses symbols and sound for God. The unconsumed burning bush captures our imagination, as it did for Moses.

Amid 20th-century secular humanism, filmmakers such as Carl Reiner gave God a human, reasoned image of a comedian. The Oh, God! trilogy cast George Burns as a crusty, cigar-smoking God. He tells Jerry Landers (John Denver), the assistant supermarket manager whom he has come to help, that he looks like he does because “I

picked a look you’d understand.”

Comedic expression provides a way of communicating what is difficult in everyday language. The art of story, laughter, and language often masks profound truths and existential questions. Director Tom Shadyac masterfully offers us a glimpse of who God is by highlighting God’s attributes in Bruce Almighty (2003) and Evan Almighty (2007). Morgan Freeman, as God, works miracles and commands nature while also showing God’s loving care for every human being.

Artists continually grasp at communicating the spiritual, what is beyond our finite imagining. They touch profound truths when they give us pause to reflect deeply on the reality of God and God’s intimate closeness to us.

—Sister Nancy Usselmann, FSP


This article appeared in St. Anthony Messenger’s March 2017 issue. To learn more about
The Shack, click here.


 

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