Film Review: The Shack Bad Humor, Bad Theology, Bad Religious Metaphors

How bad is the scripture-based humor in The Shack, a film that hit theaters Friday and is being promoted as an uplifting spiritual journey? When Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) first meets the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (played by Octavia Spencer, Aviv Alush, and Sumire Matsubara, respectively), he asks, “So which one of you is…you know?”

“I am,” they all say simultaneously. Then a horrible laughter breaks out between the four of them—a cacophony from career hell.

In another scene Mack asks Jesus what he’s going to be up to all day. Yes, you guessed it—the Son is going to be doing some woodworking. He suggests Mack keep busy himself with some—wait for it—fishing. He even offers Mack his lucky pole. What, you’re not amused? Well, at least Worthington and Alush are in on the joke. They’re laughing that horrible laugh again.

How bad is the theology in The Shack? The context of the story is simple enough, and yet the story is somehow remarkably convoluted. Mack was raised by an abusive father. He’s vowed never to treat his wife and children the same way he and his mother were treated. Mack’s now grown up. His wife (Radha Mitchell) is beautiful and loving. His three kids are remarkably well-behaved. And he must be financially blessed because he’s got a wonderfully big home.

How well-behaved are his kids? Even though two of them are roughly middle-school age, they still don’t mind being told “no” and absolutely love hearing their dad’s recycled, old stories. They beg him to tell the story about the Indian princess again—after all, their youngest sister hasn’t heard it yet. The story turns out to be a great one for six year olds. The Indian princess kills herself by jumping off a waterfall so that God (or “the great spirit”) will relieve her village of a deadly plague.

As great as all this sounds, things eventually go terribly wrong for the Phillips family. The little girl is kidnapped and murdered during a camping trip. This destroys both Mack and his family—although Mack only notices that it destroys him because all he can think about is his guilt and suffering and no one else’s.

But anyway, to the theology. Mack gets a mysterious letter in the mail from God telling him he ought to return to the shack where his daughter’s body was found. Mack reluctantly goes, and it’s there he meets the holy trinity. As mentioned, the character of God (who goes by the name “Papa”) is played by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer. The portrayal is a pretty typical cinematic one. She is wise, temperate, just, and magnanimous. She’s got worldly wisdom but speaks in an enigmatic fashion. She’s solemn in temperament but isn’t afraid to dish out the occasional wisecrack.

The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is evidently the flower-power branch of the trinity. She decries humanity’s propensity for war and strife, uttering sentiments about our violent nature while intoning, yogi-like,  “This was always meant to be a conversation.” She’s supposed to answer the problem of evil for Mack. She tells him that when one sees evil and badness in the world it’s only because one is seeing “a very incomplete picture.” As an example of what she means, she shows Mack a flower that is poisonous on its own, but when it gets combined with another flower it becomes a medicine. Okay, fair enough. But then why is the Holy Spirit so upset about the evil and badness in the world if it’s all part of a benevolent totality? And why can’t God just make the medicine without the poisonous plant? These are questions every child would ask the Holy Spirit, and the answers the Holy Spirit gives to Mack are those that only an adult with a predisposition for piety would find satisfactory.

The most theologically questionable scene comes when Mack is made to choose which of his two surviving children will be sent to heaven and which will be sent to hell. The purpose of the scene is to make Mack realize the difficult decisions God has to make and that Mack has no right to judge those decisions. Of course unable to decide which of his children should be damned to hell, Mack volunteers himself instead. “Ah!” the biblically literate might exclaim, “that’s just what God did in the crucifixion!” At this moment, pastors watching the film will no doubt squeeze their armchairs in discomfort since this seems to imply that the Christian God is not the author of the universe and is just as much trapped by fate as the dead divinities of Greece and Rome were.

How bad are the film’s religious metaphors? Even the most stout nonbelievers and secularists ought to recognize in much Christian art and rhetoric a profound metaphorical brilliance. The Pensées of Blaise Pascal, the poetry of Dante, the confessions of Søren Kierkegaard, the wit of G. K. Chesterton, and the apologetics of C. S. Lewis are all each teeming with low-concept metaphors that are persuasive and powerful even when they are imprecise. The Shack has plenty of metaphors, just none that work. They either undermine the point the film is trying to make in using them or they’re not really metaphors at all—more like symbolic gestures meant to appeal to the phony spirituality and ecumenicalism that lie at the center of the film’s narrative.

What are the positives? Worthington’s Australian accent drifts in and out as the film drags along, which is quite funny the first couple times it happens. What else? Nothing else. The Shack is a film that makes being bad as uninteresting as being bad can possibly be. Worse off, it isn’t even confident in its own propaganda. Right before the credits roll, a voiceover tells the audience that the beneficial consequences for believing in God are merit enough to believe, so even if you weren’t convinced by the film you should still buy into what it’s selling. That isn’t even bad faith. That’s no faith at all.