• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Sunday, July 23, 2023

    The Shack (2017)

    Ideally, I probably should have watched The Shack (dir. Stuart Hazeldine, 2017) before I finished writing my book. The novel, originally a bedtime story that William Paul Young wrote for his kids and was encouraged to convert into a book, had sold 20 million copies even before the film came out,1 and was certainly big at my old church. The summaries I heard didn't really appeal to me. Then it got a $20million adaptation, and while it made five times that back at the box office, it didn't get released near me. 

    By the time I was writing with real purpose, it was available on DVD, but it seemed to be more of a Christian film than a Bible film. Yes it features Jesus played by an actor from Israel (Aviv Alush), only three years after Robert Savo's The Savior (2014) had first done the same, as well as portraying God as a Black woman (played by Octavia Spencer). Yet while both of these things made me consider it briefly, its story is fictional, not biblical, and even the appearance of the Trinity (rounded off by Sumire as "Sarayu", the Holy Spirit) is ultimately portrayed as something that happens in the protagonist's mind/heart.

    So I decided to pass and I would probably have left it for a good while longer but for the fact someone asked me about it at an academic conference recently. I was presenting on authenticity in biblical films and then also had a hint of a chance of appearing again on BBC Radio 4 talking about Christian movies, so I decided I should really get on with it.

    On reflection, I'm glad I delayed because I hated this film. Indeed I'm fairly stunned to find reviews by some of the Christian reviewers I know (and respect) were lukewarm about it. As a general rule I tend to try not to dwell too much on the negatives of a film. I'm sure The Shack will have profoundly touched, moved and even changed some people, perhaps even help them through their grief. I don't wish to trample on that, so I'll refrain from going into why I think it fails both as entertainment as as an apologetic.2

    In any case, given my mind has a tendency to over-literalise things, perhaps I'm just missing the point. I guess it's trying to be more of a parable, though in terms of form, though, perhaps it closer to the Book of Job. The Shack's protagonist, Mack (played by Sam Worthington) is well and truly brought low. Already a survivor of domestic violence and then having his daughter abducted, raped and murdered, now his marriage is falling apart and he's losing (less literally) his remaining kids as he (understandably) struggles to process his emotional pain. Only then are we given a peek into God's inner circle and the chance to understand the bigger picture: Mack finds himself at a remote cottage talking with personifications of the three persons of the Trinity, and then with the personification of wisdom (Sophia) as well.

    I get that the intention is to portray God-the-parent, God-the-son and God-the-Holy-Spirit as loving and approachable, but I'm not sure this really maps to the kind of Job-esque peek behind the scenes that the filmmakers seem to be attempting. Moreover is Job really a good apologetic in the first place? To me Job is at it's best when it's giving expression to human suffering – suffering we all feel at one time or another, not when it's trying to explain it away. Indeed even the court-scene framing – which many scholars consider later additions – doesn't really attempt to give acceptable justification for why God allowed Job to suffer. Theologically the problem is that The Shack wants to a) given a reasoned explanation for suffering; b) present God as being active, all-powerful, present and intervening in the world; and, c) loving and good and I think you really only get to choose two.

    Octavia Spencer is a decent actress and she deserves better than this. Splitting the trinity into three persons (plus wisdom) really seems to weaken the potential appeal of each and while Spencer's homely, compassionate motherly persona might win over those who believe in God, but that he hates them, the character doesn't really have enough charisma and the homespun wisdom (not something I'm a huge fan of in general) falls a long way short of comparative biblical material (be it from Job or elsewhere). The problem is that personifying God then leaves little room for Jesus. He can show Mack how to walk on water and reinforce the point that both he and God-the-parent are loving, but while there's mention of his own suffering he doesn't even really seem to reflect on his and Mack's shared experience.

    So while it's a most welcome change to see a Black Woman playing God, and an Jewish Israeli playing Jesus they are not really given any decent material to work with. It's not really a Bible film, it's an adaptation of Bible fan-fiction, and a poorly executed attempt at that.

    1. Getlen, Larry, "This man wrote a small book for his family — and it became a bestseller", New York Post. December 27, 2016. https://nypost.com/2016/12/25/this-man-wrote-a-small-book-for-his-family-and-it-became-a-best-seller/

    2. If you want to experience it being dismantled, then plenty of other reviews have done that already, including the podcast "God Awful Movies" (also available on audio only) which spends nearly two hours comprehensively dismantling it – though I find some of their views pretty deplorable.


    Monday, July 03, 2023

    The Chosen (2019) s1e08

    In many ways, it felt like episode 7 of The Chosen's opening season was the climax to its various story arcs, so the decision not to end there seems like a curious one. It's true that one of those arcs – that of Nicodemus – moves on a step further in this episode. We leave him hiding round a street corner crying because he cannot follow Jesus to Jerusalem. Yet neither of the main two story lines in this episode are primarily about major characters. One revolves around the healing of Peter's Mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31) who has featured before, as has Peter's wife, but they've mainly functioned as filling in Peter's back-story as significant characters in their own right. Secondly, there's the woman of Samaria who, is an entirely new character as this is the first time we've really seen Jesus moving beyond Galilee.

    And perhaps this last point is why this series ends where it does. It's not driven so much by story arcs and characters, as the breaks in the text, which, I suppose, say something about Jesus' story arc. His ministry is about to extend beyond it's initial Galilean base and begin a new phase. This is an interesting decision in terms of its use of the gospels. The three Synoptics only have Jesus go to Jerusalem once (as an adult); John has three visits. The writers are harmonising here and it makes me wonder how this structure will continue in future seasons. 

    It's curious too that we see Quintus making a decree banning religious gatherings and saying Jesus is sought for questioning. Is this merely coincidental timing and Jesus is unaware he is wanted. Or is Jesus' move south supposed to be motivated by fear?

    It's also noticeable how both of the major story lines in this episode revolve around women, and this has been one of the strengths of this series – though I don't know whether this derives from a theological conviction or the need to appeal to a wider base. In addition to the Samaritan and Peter's mother-in-law, we've already seen a lot of emphasis on Mary Magdalene and Jesus' mother Mary, which might be expected but in the former case is certainly sooner than might be expected. Plus we've also seen a fictional character, Tamar, framing and almost overshadowing the story of the man healed from being paralysed (ep.6), as well as the most prominent child in children-only episode (3) being female.

    Given Peter's mother-in-law is healed then I'm curious as to why the filmmakers decided not to have Peter's wife join them on their travels. There's no scriptural precedent for this of course. After all we only really know Peter even has a wife because we're told he has a mother-in-law. But it does show Magdalene making the trip, seemingly as the only woman. There's some precedent for Magdalene being present – in Luke 8:1-3, she is named as being on one of Jesus' preaching tours – but in The Chosen she seems to be the only woman, as opposed to the "many other women" (8:3) Luke mentions (on a separate occasion). Is the difference that Peter's wife is married and so the filmmakers consider her 'rightful' place to be at home? If so what about Joanna, whose husband Chuza still appears to be on the scene.

    The main biblical incident in this episode, though, is Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (here called Photina following Eastern Orthodox tradition). The fictionalised backstory to this one starts from the opening scene which heads back to (an oddly specific) 1152 BC and a conversation Jacob has with a local named Yassib. Yassib thinks he knows that it is impossible for Jacob (and his 12 sons) to dig a well as the water circumnavigates their land. He also thinks its strange that Jacob is relying on promises made to his ancestors (and, by implication that Jacob's ancestors relying on promises to him would be equally odd). Of course, in mere seconds Yassib is proved wrong. Water miraculously springs up through the ground seconds later.

    This is a bit odd for a number of reasons. Firstly because the Hebrew Bible has no mention of Jacob's Well. This is something that is only found in the New Testament and subsequent traditions. There's no reason to assume that Jacob's well has any link to the patriarch of the latter part of Genesis, not least because the NT writers still seem broadly happy to operate under the cultural assumptions that Samaritans are bad and untrustworthy.

    Furthermore, it's hard to tell what the point of this scene actually is. If it's that Jacob's god is different in that he expects you to wait generations for him to come through on his promises, then the (almost instantaneous) miraculous (?) provision of water, rather seems to undermine Jacob's argument. Perhaps it simply serves as a reminder that, like the Jews, Samaritans also owed at least part of their inheritance to Jacob (or Israel as he is also known in Genesis) and that Jesus' ministry is for all of Jacob's 'sons', not just the descendants of his son Judah. I also noticed that when we jump back to the incident in the Gospels, it's dated as 26AD, thirty years after the latest date usually given for the end of Herod the Great's reign (this was also the date given in s1e3).

    There's further filling in the gaps later on as well, namely around Photina's current and previous relationships (which in John has Jesus summarise as "you have had five husbands and the man you are living with is not your husband). I've heard various takes on this over the years. It's often read that this is a woman of low morals, but even she is valued by Jesus - a fleshed out portrait of Jesus' reputation for consorting with sinners. Another view points out that marriage was not really something women were active partners in. Your first marriage was dictated to by your family, and if your first husband divorced you (which he could do relatively easily according to some traditions) then society gave you no way of supporting yourself other than by finding another husband. This view casts the woman as a tragic figure, forced to move from one dead/fickle husband to another by patriarchal society.

    The fleshing out of Photina here chooses neither approach, but incorporates a hint of both. An early conversation with her fifth (still living, still not divorced) husband. She is trying to divorce him, as she now lives with another, but he won't because she is his "property" and he doesn't "part lightly with his possessions". He wants her to return, but also recognises that some of his predecessors have mistreated her in divorcing her when each "gets bored" and that she married him for "stability". In other words this is a more complex and nuanced scenario than either of those presented above, and while it's not necessarily logical, I kind of like it, because life, and marriage, is rarely logical either. Later Photina is shunned by a street vendor, though even in that conversation there's a suggestion that while he can't be seen to associate with her, he's not entirely unsympathetic to her plight.

    We also get a bit of further exposition of the relationship between Jews and Samaritans and the fact that Jesus seems to go out of his way to talk to this woman. There's mention of some of the reasons for the animosity between the two peoples. Initially, the conversation itself holds fairly closely to the text of John 4, but then Jesus goes beyond knowing about the five husbands and the one to giving a detailed breakdown of her first relationships. He also explains that he "came to Samaria just to meet you" and tells her that he has not revealed to the public that he is the messiah. 

    Finally the disciples return, there's the conversation about his food being doing God's will before the series ends on a more general note with Jesus saying "it's been a long time of sowing but the fields are ripe for harvest".

    I haven't decided yet whether to post a few reflections on season 1 as a whole next, or move onto season 2. Watch this space I guess.