The Shack assignment was meant to be a booby prize, awarded to Rebecca, because damn no one writes a pan of a truly ludicrous movie quite like her. But fate intervened, and she got Before I Fall, and I—the “lapsed Catholic”/atheist—got the latest shiny Christian drama. And as much as I tried not to go into the film with presumptions, I thought it’d be pandering, preachy bullshit that’d have me eye-rolling so hard I’d pull an iris. But goddamn, I cried. Not just cried. I wept again and again. And I felt foolish and embarrassed, and then I cried some more.
Don’t get me wrong. This is still not a good movie. It’s bludgeoning in its tragedy, and unrepentantly sentimental. It has characters whose sole purposes are to prop up the hero as a family man (Radha Mitchell is wasted as a wife whose only mode is supportive nodding). And Australian actor Sam Worthington’s American accent wobbles so much that clocking it could be a drinking game. Yet for all these flaws, The Shack got to me, pulling reluctant tears out of my eyes and down my cheeks til I was scrambling for a flimsy receipt in a vain attempt to dry them. (Note to self: always pack tissues.)
Based on the self-published William P. Young novel of the same name, The Shack spins the sadness-soaked story of an Irish-American farm boy named Mack. Within the first ten minutes of the film, we are rushed through an abusive childhood, where his drunken father brutally beats Mack and his mom, pushing her to suicide and the adolescent to murdering his putrid patriarch by pouring poison into his trusty drinking jug. None of this is subtly done. In fact, the scene where Mack gets abused happens at night, his dad wielding a belt like a whip, battering the boy as rain beats down, and as Mack’s wailing mouth spouts bible verses.
But that’s all prologue. Act one ends with grown-up Mack (Worthington) losing his precious and precocious daughter to a child predator, who snatches her away from the family campsite never to be seen again. All the Feds find is the girl’s red summer dress, abandoned and covered in dirt in a dilapidated shack. Her body is never recovered.
Mack’s relationship with God (who his wife Nan calls “Papa”) has been shaky for years. But with the loss of his youngest child, Mack shuts down completely, lost in his own pain and numb to the pain of his wife and surviving kids. Then he gets a note summoning him back to that murder shack, signed “Papa.” He goes, suspicious but at the end of his rope, so why not? And there, he meets Papa God (Octavia Spencer), Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) and the Holy Spirit (Sumire Matsubara), all in charming human forms, and notably all cast as people of color.
Over the course of the weekend, Mack bounces between the three, stargazing, gardening, running on water, and talking out his pain. He demands answers for why evil exists, but more specifically why his daughter was murdered. Why would God allow for that? All the heavy-handed drama of the first act was too clichéd and too hasty to hit me hard. But by this part of this modern fairy tale, I started to crack.
I fell back into memories of when my grandfather was dying of Alzheimer’s, and these were so vivid, I shuddered in the theater. I’d moved away for college, and would get recurring and always upsetting phone call updates of his decline. I remember on one my mom and me bawling, me because the news was bad, again, and she because her daughter was hurting and she was too far away to hold her and give comfort through touch. So she tried something else. She told me to remember, God has a plan. And I told her I had to go, and hung up abruptly. I didn’t want to scream at her, but I wanted to scream.
Years before I had left the Catholic Church, because I realized my beliefs conflicted too intensely with what I was being taught in my daily religion classes. I began to suspect God was not real, but a story we tell ourselves to make the world seem less chaotic and less terrifying. And I couldn’t believe in a God that would let a man as kind and selfless as my grandfather suffer like this, having all he is melt away, with him and us terrified witnesses, helpless to stop it.
I related to Mack’s anger and his pain, because life is fucking unfair. And the idea that God has a “plan” we’re subject to but not allowed to see, is only further infuriating. That platitude never made me feel comforted. It made me feel powerless. And as I grew into adulthood, I realized the religion I left behind was building a wall between my family and me that would always keep us from being as close as we were when I was a kid and Catholic. Flash to watching The Shack, Movie God forgave Mack for pushing her away. And I felt a pang inside of me, prying up more memories.
When I was little, I talked to God every night. It was prayer I guess. But it was less about praise or asking for things than just me recounting my day to God. To me, God was the friend who always had time for me and always listened and never told me I talked too much or too fast. It never bothered me that God never talked back. I had plenty of people who talked back at every thought I had. Which is why staring up into the darkness of my safe suburban room and chatting with God felt safe and special, a place to play out my thoughts and feelings. But as I became a teenager, I lost “faith.” I stopped talking to God. I started writing to explore my thoughts, and I began to think of God as an imaginary friend who was everything I needed when I was little, a confidante who was always there and never judged me. So when Movie God forgave Mack for forgetting her, this was like the Bing Bong moment of Inside Out for me, my imaginary friend accepting that I had to move on without them.
Watching The Shack, I became nostalgic for my faith, because as a kid it made me feel safe, loved, and part of a community. But as I grew and began to ask questions, I realized I wasn’t really like the rest of my church. I thought its rules were sexist and outdated. I believed the teachings on homosexuality were flat-out wrong, hateful, and harmful. And I told my teachers and my school’s priest so. I kept hoping someone would say the magic words that would make it all make sense, and make my doubts and pain melt away. But the more I dug and the more they talked, the more I realized I didn’t belong there anymore.
Mack doesn’t part with his faith. Meeting God in all forms helps him overcome his anger and move on to acceptance. Through his faith in God, he finds his way back to the world, to his family, to life. And I was happy for him. But not jealous, because I have faith too. Just not in God. I believe in people. And in that way The Shack worked for me too. Because outside of the deus ex machina that is the center of its plot, Mack has everyday people in his life who reach out to him in kindness and selflessness. In my life, when I’m at my lowest, I have people who do the same, helping me to move from grief and anger to acceptance so I can function, breathe, and live again.
I have faith in humanity. And yes, that too is challenged, lately more often than ever before. But every time I see another headline about a hate crime or tweet about a baseless, bigoted accusation, I see people speaking up to counter it. To be the voice of reason and hope. I look to the helpers, as Mr. Rogers famously urged. And like Mack, I rediscover the light that pulls me out of the dark.
You know what? I take back what I said. This movie is overzealous and deeply schmaltzy. But this religious film made a godless heathen like me feel seen and understood instead of ignored and ostracized. It took me to church, and reminded me that maybe the walls between me and the faithful aren’t as divisive as I fear. And that’s a little bit of a miracle.
Kristy Puchko hopes her mother never reads this, because she’d be really upset about the whole atheism thing.