Faith and forgiveness in The Shack

The Shack is one of those books that everyone has read and has an opinion on, so when Stuart Hazeldine took on the task of turning it into a movie it must have seemed like a daunting task. As we all know, reading a book and watching a film are very different undertakings. A book can be read at ones’ leisure over a period of time allowing rumination on its themes and ideas. But a film is a two hour presentation which attempts to hit the major themes of its source material – and rarely satisfies those who have read the book.

If there is a problem with the film adaptation of William P. Young’s best-selling sensation, it is that it must cover a lot of ground in its two hour run time, but its value lies in the conversations that could and should ensue after you leave the cinema.

For those who haven’t read the book, the film will be a somewhat harrowing experience, primarily because it deals with the abduction and murder of a child. Every parents’ nightmare. Let this serve as a warning for those who may find this type of content challenging.

Forgiveness, grief and loss

Mack (Sam Worthington) is a dedicated dad who is grieving in ways that most parents couldn’t possibly imagine. While on a family camping trip, Mack’s daughter is kidnapped while he is distracted by a canoe accident involving his other children. Police determine that his daughter was murdered by a serial killer in a hunting shack, but do not find her body.

Sometime later, Mack finds a note in his mailbox asking him to come back to the shack where his daughter was killed. It is signed by “Papa,” which is the name his wife calls God. A suspicious Mack tells no one about the note except his friend and neighbour, Willie (Tim McGraw), and goes to the shack while the rest of his family is away for the weekend. At first he finds no one there, but a man passing by invites him to walk. It turns out that the man is Jesus, and he leads Mack to a beautiful mountain cottage inhabited by “The Trinity:” “Papa,” portrayed as both a woman and a man (Octavia Spencer and Graham Greene); the Holy Spirit, portrayed as a quietly mysterious woman named Sarayu (Sumire); and Jesus himself (Aviv Alush). As Mack becomes acquainted with the Godhead, they lead him on a journey of trust, faith and forgiveness.

The family at the centre of the story feels very real, and the movie is at times both charming and funny, such as when Mack’s daughter Missy asks, “If God is always with us, why does he care if we’re late for church?” The way Mack and his family respond after Missy is kidnapped is portrayed with a believable degree of realism. It’s also easy to appreciate Aviv Alush’s portrayal of Jesus as a friend and gentle encourager as Mack journey’s toward healing and reconciliation continues throughout the film.

Forgiveness is explained very carefully as something that is done every day. When Papa describes that the path to forgiveness is a steady one she is quick to point out that there is anger along the way. This is because Mack’s family of origin story (which opens the film) doesn’t allow him to access the unconditional love of a Heavenly Father (hence the reason why God is mostly portrayed as a woman in the film). His earthly father was an abusive drunk and an Elder at their church. Suffice it to say that his relationship with God is in need of some serious unpacking.

In these early scenes we see Mack brutally whipped by his dad upon returning home for having announced his father’s abuse in church at an alter call, and his dad recites a verse from Colossians as he whips him. Mack’s relationship to his past is further explored when he tells his neighbour and pastor (Tim McGraw) about the note delivered mysteriously in his letterbox. His response is simply, “Have you prayed about it?” and his response: “Papa is too familiar for my taste.”

This unpacking of some of Mack’s issues with a loving God who would allow his suffering enables viewers access to some of the film’s most salient points around forgiveness and judgement.

Life-changing lessons taken from the Bible

It is hard to criticize a film that presents the idea of a relationship with God as a personal and life-changing one. Some of its visual cues are pulled directly from the Bible: such as when Jesus encourages Mack to get out of a boat as they cross a lake and begin the process of forgiveness and trust in God. This represents Mack’s journey toward trust in God and is a lesson for us all to note from Matthew 14:22-33.

As Mack struggles with who to blame and judge for the bad things that have happened to his family, there there is a poignant scene with ‘wisdom’ or Sophia (Sonia Braga). Mack is asked to cast judgment on criminals, then upon his teen children who are sinners themselves. Sophia insists that Mack choose one child to condemn, but Mack says he’d sacrifice himself in their place. That is when Sophia makes the connection to God giving Jesus to die on the cross: “You judged your children worthy of love even though it cost you everything. Now you know Papa’s heart.”

As previously mentioned, perhaps one of the failings of the film is that it attempts too much in its two-hour run time. It is also important to note that some Christians will find fault with this movie. Many details of this story and the Trinity are indeed contradictory to Scripture. That said, the film, like the book, is a thoughtful allegory about a myriad of themes: pain, forgiveness, trusting God, why God allows bad things to happen to good people, blaming God, how depression affects family members, healing, and repairing relationships among many. There are a lot of issues to digest.

As to the elephant in the room and the films most talked-about aspects: Yes, The Trinity is portrayed as three people. Nowhere in Scripture do we find the Holy Spirit embodied as a person. When Mack asks them all the important question, “Which one of you… [is God]?” they respond in unison, “I am.”

Just how viewers respond to the interpretation of the Trinity is a measure of how viewers will ultimately respond to the film as a whole. Elsewhere on the web there have been arguments that authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien have dabbled with Christian allegory. So if you are not a fan of the book, chances are the film will not interest either.

For some of its problems in the end there is some wisdom shared in The Shack. Faith, forgiveness and reconciliation are it’s touchstones. On Mack’s journey to forgive his father and Missy’s killer, God teaches him that though Mack is truly loved, evil finds its way into the world. That is where God can work “incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies.”

As author William P. Young says, “The movie’s emotional, and inspirational – and challenging too.’ He wants people to come out of the cinema knowing ‘that you’re not alone, that forgiveness matters, that your choices matter. That God will meet you anywhere you are. He climbs into these broken places with us, and then begins to help us create something that is living.’

The Shack has the potential to serve as a conversation starter about Christianity with those unfamiliar with faith, or to get someone asking questions of Christian friends and ministers.  And this is its greatest strength.

We think The Shack is worth talking about – download our discussion guide

For more resources Damaris in the UK has a Church Booklet and study guide for use in small groups

Adrian Drayton

Adrian Drayton is the Director of Reel Dialogue. A film critic and commentator on culture for 20 years, he believes in the power of cinema and the power of God to start conversations about faith and culture. He is also a massive Star Wars nerd.