Note: there are spoilers here for those who have yet to read the book or see the movie. So proceed with caution.
Alrighty then, here we go…
It’s been years since I’ve read the book. At the time, it tore through my heart, forcing me to examine my faith, and left me reeling as Mack’s grief reflected back at me something I’d long been trying to avoid. His questions were the same ones I wrestled with, and seeing them in print was shattering.
Like Mack, the Father Heart of God wasn’t a love I could understand. Back then I was a broken young woman who’d grown up in spite of terrible trauma, one that had blackened my soul as I’d bargained my own worth for what I saw was the greater good. Left alone to struggle through the aftermath, and shut inside my own pain lest it bleed out and infect other people, there was no beautiful figure of love and gentleness to walk me into a place of healing. I called it My Story and it was as raw and as terrible and as gut-wrenching to me as Mack’s grief was to him. I wept so hard through The Shack book that I had to read it twice.
I was very excited to see the movie.
The Shack movie is devastatingly beautiful.
There was a part of me that was already emotionally tense as the opening scenes unfolded, because I knew what was going to happen, and I knew it was going to be a journey in need of Kleenex. I wasn’t wrong. It stays true to the book – not surprising since one of the producers is also one of the co-writers of the book – and it’s not long before we see the broken Mack (played by Sam Worthington) who’s been devastated by his daughter’s death. As the story weaves between what was then and what is now, we relive the flashbacks of the better times, the laughter and sparkling beauty of a family that is warm and tight. We see the days when Mack’s eyes are bright and his smile effortlessly creases his face, and we compare that with the shattered man whose universe has caved in upon itself until he can only see through the knothole of his pain.
There’s no easy answer that’ll take your pain away.
– Papa (The Shack)
Grief is complicated. It manifests at the most inopportune times and, when it does, the heart crumbles under the weight of its own anguish. As Mack grieved for his child and wracked himself with guilt over being helpless to prevent it, I felt an empathy roll through my soul and leak tears down my face, because I realized I understood. Though our circumstances were vastly different (and his was, technically, a fictional movie), having had four miscarriages over eight years made me far too capable of relating to the rage and devastation he was feeling. The whole time up to that point, I’d been telling myself I was finally fine with it and had moved on. But I was wrong. I was horrible, furiously wrong. Mack was speaking for me and I was heartbroken for him, and we were both angry beyond words at God.
As we journey with Mack to the place where it all went wrong, the snow covered shack in the middle of the woods, the scene is wonderfully crafted to be both haunting and lonely. The stillness and the thick snow speak metaphors to the layers of nightmares, anger, and guilt which have stacked themselves upon Mack’s soul, yet we still see the remnants of the tragedy upon the floor. It’s a stark reminder that no amount of snowfall can cover the truth, and I found myself aching with him. Though I’d read the book, and I knew the beautiful journey that was going to come next, there was something hollow in my stomach as I watched his pain explode across the screen, for this is the two sides of grief – the screaming and raging at God and the world that rips out of your being because it’s too huge to contain, and the empty space inside your heart where your hope and promise and tomorrow used to be before it all went wrong. I wept.
Mack: Where were you when I needed you?
Papa: I never left you. I never left Missy.
Octavia Spencer is wonderful as Papa.
Papa is gentle. Papa is kind and soft even when Mack is angry and withdrawn. Instead of a God figure who is distant and somewhere outside of the story, Papa is right there beside him, not pushing him or preaching to him, but loving him with a purity of heart that your own soul aches to know. A love that lets you be you while nudging you ever so sweetly towards the healing that you so desperately need, that’s a rare love to behold.
The movie reveals to us how our image of a Father God is tainted by the flawed human father we’ve each been given. For those who grew up with a violent father, the idea of a loving Father God is a foreign, troubling concept. It’s one of the reasons Papa appears to Mack in the manifestation of a wonderful woman who is familiar to him. For me, in the film and in the book, this resonated deeply with me because I’d gone through such a trauma as a child and there were no authority figures who stepped in and stepped up to see me through it. As I stumbled into adulthood, there were very few adults who were nurturing to me and, like Mack, there were very few sweet, kind people I’d let through the walls I’d painstakingly built to protect myself.
The film made me realize that the God I picture in my head is a collage of how other people I trust see Him. I don’t fully comprehend a God that is loving to me because I’ve only experienced glimpses here and there, like reflections in a pool or an echo within someone I know. I can count a handful of times God has talked to me directly, the most profound of which was Him saying to me, “I’m not going anywhere.” That statement changed my life, and just over a year later I was living in a new country, with a new husband, a new name, a new family of friends, and a whole new existence outside of the broken child I’d long held as my identity.
The representation of Jesus (played by Avraham Aviv Alush) is who I imagine the real Jesus to be. He’s confident but not arrogant, at ease yet always vigilant, and with infinite patience and kind humor that makes me want to sit at the dock all day and talk to Him. He’s the friend you need as much as the one you want, and it’s delightful to see the bond forming between them. The film uses beautiful visuals and angles to show Mack’s journey into letting himself trust Jesus, and the trailer itself gives a peak into how much fun that trust leads to.
As we weave our way through Mack’s journey, there are moments when I’m panged with knowing what’s to come and the ache in my heart is almost unbearable. When you have to face the ghosts of your past, whether as an adult looking back on childhood trauma, or as an angry, broken soul raging against your version of God who is cruel and unkind and unfair, there’s a lot of emotional unpacking that needs to take place. This was no less true for Mack, who had to make the choice to forgive the person who hurt him the most, while fighting with his inner self who wanted the person to feel the depths of his pain.
Since I first read The Shack, I took that journey and it wasn’t easy. The innocent child broken by trauma had evolved into an adult who struggled with anxieties so crippling it kept me anchored into the past, forever defined and controlled by a sequence of events I couldn’t change. Walking through it was the hardest thing I had to do because there would never be an acknowledgement from the perpetrator of the pain, something Mack has to realize too. At first they feel like words that would sooner suffocate you than leave your lips, for a part of you knows that if you let go, everything you’ve known up to that point will change. Perhaps it’s a fear of the unknown, perhaps it’s a fear that the God we think doesn’t love us enough to nurture and protect us will in fact magically absolve the perpetrator of every wrongdoing beause we said we were fine. The forgiveness I learned (‘forgive and forget’) was not the one I walked through, and neither was it like that for Mack. It was raw, and honest, and gut-wrenching, and powerful.
Forgiveness in no way requires that you trust the one you forgive.
– Papa (The Shack book)
As Mack walked through his forgiveness of the perpetrator, preparing himself to complete the last part of his journey, he’s repeating “I forgive you, I forgive you,” each step of the way, and I’m not the only one weeping with him. It’s a powerful, beautiful, sensitively crafted moment that speaks truth to what it’s like to forgive someone you’ve only ever wished harm upon. It’s a process, and you have to go there over and over until you get to that point where you feel Papa with you in it, and it’s memory no longer has the power to consume your soul.
Mack has to close the chapter on the horror which befell Missy with some powerful, tearful moments that make your heart swell because they’re so elegantly and carefully crafted. You feel his pain, yet among all the beauty of the garden there’s a sense of release, of taking something that was dark and tragic and terrible, and transforming it into something that is lovely and whole and wondrous.
It’s more beautiful than my own journey which was far less graceful, and layers more complex, but it’s what I hope mine turns into eventually. For there’s a peacefulness that comes from understanding this garden; this jumbled chaos of wondrous plants is a representation of Mack himself. The hole they dug in the midst was to transform the pain of his grief into fresh new growth, fed by the tears that had been lovingly collected by the Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara). It was a symbol, to me, that our tears aren’t wasted. They don’t fall into the darkness to be forgotten, but are seen, heard, and acknowledged by Papa.
As Mack returned home, and we see the pieces of his life fall back into place, we also see the transformation of his daughter, Kate (played by Megan Charpentier), who’d been carrying her own horrible guilt over the tragedy. It’s a testament to the power of forgiveness, and it’s a wonderful representation of God’s love that isn’t preachy or overly scriptural, but is raw and real and personal, the way Papa’s love is supposed to be.
The Shack movie, much like the book, left me asking myself so many questions about how I saw God. He really is a collage of all these other representations and testimonies I’ve been given by those I love, but the movie poked a hole right through my own grief to show me I’m filtering Him through the knothole of my own pain.
Going through the miscarriages was brutal for we never made it across the six week mark so there wasn’t even a sonogram or the memory of a heartbeat to cling to as the depths of our pain began to drown us. Through it all we had nobody to share it with, so we plodded on until we were spent, and then we buried it inside and pretended we were fine. Someone said, “it’s probably for the best,” with well-meaning, but it just stabbed at the unfairness of our failure, but the most brutal heartbreak came from someone I once looked up to who made it clear to me how disappointed they were in me for not making it happen.
Then The Shack came along with its big emotional stick and poked it right in the heart of that pain.
The movie showed me that the God I see in my mind is not the one of love, but one still being filtered through the lens of My Story. The little child abandoned to the trauma of my childhood is still inside me, shaping the view of this father figure into something more human and mean than the gentle, sweet Papa that He wants us to know.
That’s painful, because it calls for a lot of introspection and soul-searching, and I know it’s not going to be easy. But that’s how we grow.
The Shack movie is beautiful, heart wrenching, sweet, loving, humbling, and will make you cry.