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Love, the human form divine

08 June 2017

Stephen Brown sees The Shack and asks about its idea of God

Homely God: Sam Worthington with Octavia Spencer in The Shack

Homely God: Sam Worthington with Octavia Spencer in The Shack

THE SHACK (Cert. 12A) is based on William P. Young’s hugely pop­ular (especially in North America) novel. The author’s folksy page-turner serves as an apologia for Chris­­tian belief. Mack (Sam Worthington), after the murder of his youngest child, is deeply de­­pressed. His wife, Nan (Radha Mitchell), holds the remaining chil­dren toget­­her through a gentle but firm trust in “Papa” (God). Mack attends church, but is unable to worship.

One winter’s day, although there are no prints in the snow leading up to his mailbox, he finds a letter signed “Papa”, which invites him to the shack where the slaughter oc­­curred. Despite his scepticism, he travels to the scene of the crime and is quickly introduced to the Holy Trinity, who appears to him in hu­­man form.

Surprisingly, experiencing the God­­head in this manner shocked many readers of the book, almost as if such representations were entirely novel. It is hard to take this ser­­iou­­sly, when painters such as Andrei Rublev and William Blake have previously visualised the divine in such ways. It will be interesting to see whether British audiences take exception to Octavia Spencer’s por­trayal of Papa as a black woman.

We have already seen Morgan Freeman — in Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty — in similar vein, and, before that, the comedian George Burns as the cigar-chomping deity featured in Oh, God! There are also numerous hard-copy and online study guides hostile to The Shack. A little prudence needs to be exercised in regard to what one uses. A YouTube docu­mentary, for in­­stance, criticises an absence of repent­­ance before grace can abound. This is despite Mack’s clear admission of the error of his ways before amendment of life. The theo­logical and cinematic problems lie elsewhere.

We are told that every word in the Bible is true, but nowhere sub­sequently are we vouchsafed any insight into what this actually means. The film is more New Age than New Testament: it is plat­itudinous and evasive in an­­swer­­ing its own key question: if there is a God, then why does there have to be suffering? The nearest we get to a considered response is when Papa says: “I just want people to know about me so we can be friends.”

All persons of the Trinity bear wounds from the crucifixion, but, that apart, there is little evidence of God’s active sharing in the sorrows of the world today. The film works best in scenes that relate to the be­­­rea­ved father’s pain; and the British-born director, Stuart Hazeldine, judiciously orchestrates cinematic epiphanies from time to time to pep things up. Overall, however, The Shack plays as a Socratic dialogue rather than a feature film.

The most unsatisfactory sequence is Mack’s encounter with a person­ification of Wisdom, Sophia (Alice Braga), who effectively demon­strates that Mack is in no position to judge God or anyone else, and trots out a risible version of penal substitution as the only way in which humanity’s sins could be atoned for. If God is to blame, she says, then he should be the one who goes to hell. That theory presup­­poses that some­one (Jesus) must be punished; but why? Retri­bution sits very awk­wardly with the merciful Godhead whom we have seen so far in the picture. It is left to those whose love is touched by the divine to practise mercy.

In the film, as in the book, this makes Mack feel much better. I suspect that audiences will find difficulty in sharing his elation. This well-meant theodicy is likely to satisfy only those who are already fans of the book.

On release from today.

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