The Shack: Finding the face of God on screen

A man walks into a shack and meets an African-American woman, a Jewish carpenter and an Asian gardener. Far from a bad joke, The Shack is actually changing the way people around the world view religion, writes Jessica Morris.

If you met God face to face, what would you say to him? For Sam Worthington’s Mack Phillips, his first interaction with God since childhood is less than ideal. In fact, it has him holding a gun to Jesus Christ himself.

Sound overly dramatic? Well it’s not really, when you consider the premise of this new film is about confronting our deepest pain and thrusting it before God—daring him to make sense of it all.

When word broke that The Shack, a 2007 New York Times bestseller by William Paul Young was being made into a feature film, I was ecstatic. As a fan of the book, like millions of people around the world I had high expectations for what it would hold. The question remained though: how would a director depict the dramatic story arc of Mack and his meeting with the Holy Trinity (God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit) in two hours? And how would he make sense of this compelling story that critics have slammed for arguably falling outside biblical core values?

Director Stuart Hazeldine tells Warcry that his first priority was to portray a God of love—the God that he knows himself.

“[The Shack] was a great opportunity to sort of humanise and personalise God in a visual way so that a human character can interact with him with ease,” says Stuart. “What was important to me was that I felt it portrayed the personality of God and the way God feels about his creations.”

To watch The Shack, you need to toss all your preconceptions about religion aside. For starters, Mack is not your stereotypical ‘Christian’. Worthington’s portrayal shows an introspective and dedicated father, whose only knowledge of God is the beltings he received as a child after he saw his church-going father abuse his mum.

And then there’s God. Octavia Spencer well and truly blows any white-bearded and distant preconceptions about this out of the water. She portrays ‘Papa’—the name Mack’s wife (Radha Mitchell) has for God and which Mack thinks is a “bit too familiar for [his] liking”. But God is not a he—it’s a she. A motherly, middle-aged African-American woman who invites Mack to The Shack—the place where the last traces of his abducted daughter Missy were found—in a mysterious letter.

Then there’s Jesus. As Stuart tells Warcry, “I think it’s a truer portrayal of God in the funny little way that it’s the first time we’ve ever had an Israeli Jewish Jesus on screen,” and I couldn’t agree more. All the 18th century depictions of a holier-than-thou Caucasian male with soft, feminine features are disregarded in The Shack, when Avraham Aviv Alush, a Jewish actor, portrays the affable and approachable carpenter.

And then there’s the oft-forgotten part of the Holy Trinity—the Holy Spirit. Played by Sumire Matsubara, we meet this mysterious being as a mystic Asian woman with a passion for gardening who carries equal amounts of gentleness and strength.

Make no mistake though, just because this film vividly portrays God does not make it a religious drama. In fact, Stuart informally rejected an earlier version of the script three years ago when it was pitched to him as a small faith-based flick. And that is what makes The Shack different—it is not tidy or clichéd. Innately, it is the story about one man’s struggle to find healing. And that’s why Sam Worthington’s portrayal of Mack is so important.

“It was a big challenge for us to try to figure out who would play Mack, because we knew that there was every colour of the emotional rainbow needed to be inhabited by and expressed by whoever was playing Mack,” said Stuart. “Sam just brought a huge amount of passion and enthusiasm to the project because he felt a personal connection with Mack.”

Telling CBN News Studio 5 that he came to religion in his late 20s, Worthington’s connection with Mack was built from his own anger and questions.

“When I reached out to God, I found someone who listened for the first time and he wasn’t judgmental,” said Worthington. “I may not have got the answers back, but I had a comforting ear.”

With Stuart, the pair worked to create a version of Mack that was authentic and credible.

“Every day was like, ‘What are we going to discover today?’ About Mack, and about how to put that across, because it is a huge challenge and often there are five different ways that you can express anger, or disappointment,” says Stuart. It’s a case of trying a bunch of ways and saying, ‘What feels right?’ All my best memories of the shoot actually are figuring out how to attack a scene with Sam.”

Watching Worthington’s portrayal of Mack on the big screen, you are touched more by his body language, the pain in his eyes and the connection with his little girl, Missy, than his well-delivered dialogue. In this, Mack’s heartbreaking and incredible journey to restoration becomes your own, and whether he is angrily bombarding Papa with questions about the nature of a truly loving God, or running across the water with Jesus himself, you resonate with this fantastical story on a truly human level.

As Worthington points out in his interview, The Shack is a metaphor for our own brokenness. Its broken-down walls and blood-stained floor are the site of our anger, fear, pain and rejection. When William Paul Young depicted the idea that God could actually meet us in this place, it profoundly changed the way popular culture looks at religion. A far-off archaic being became an approachable and loving parent, friend and confidant.

A depiction of God that strays so far from Anglo-Saxon norms is always going to cause a stir.

People have labelled the story ‘heresy’, and argued it is detrimental to the Christian faith. That doesn’t worry Stuart though. “If God really is God, and…the true way is that compelling, then you shouldn’t be afraid. You shouldn’t be trying to keep things away that you disagree with. You should be using them as tools for discussion,” he says.

“Decide for yourself. I’m just happy that The Shack is something that contributes to everyone’s spiritual journey and they can decide whether it’s a helpful contribution or not.”

Is God really all-loving? Can he save the most broken souls? Why does he let bad things happen? These are all questions that are easier avoided than answered, but in The Shack we are given permission to wrestle with them head-on. And while the answers aren’t simple, they give us pause to wonder, “Could this God really play a role in my own life?”

This article was featured in Warcry magazine.

About Jessica Morris

Jessica Morris is an internationally published journalist, writer and social media manager.

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