• 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.



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