CGB Review of The Shack (2017)

A very learned friend of mine had this to say about The Shack: Perhaps God used flawed means, such as a movie like The Shack, to show us a much bigger and more completed portrait of His love.

This is my review of The Shack!

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Mackenzie Phillips, or Mack as he is called, is your average working man. He has a wife he adores and three kids (Josh, Kate and Missy) he would die for.  He is especially close to his youngest Missy.  During a camping trip, Mack sees Josh and Kate on a canoe when Kate stands on it and causes it to capsize.  While Missy is focused on her coloring book, Mack rushes to the lake to save Kate and Josh. He gets Kate and Josh safely back to shore…but Missy is nowhere to be found.  A desperate search leads to the devastating discovery that Missy has been murdered by a serial killer.
Only her red dress remains.
Completely torn apart by the death of his child, Mack is angry when he receives a note in the mail that reads, “Mack, it’s been a while.  I’ve missed you.  I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together,” written by someone called Papa–which he rightfully perceives to be a cruel joke.  This single note leads Mack to the very shack where Missy’s dress was found.  However, instead of finding her killer, Mack finds the very Person he’s been running from: God.  He meets God in the form of the three persons of the Trinity: The Father (Octavia Spencer), the Son (Avraham Aviv Alush) and the Holy Spirit (Sumire Matsubara).

Before We Commence…
So before I begin this review, there are a couple of things I’d like to address: The original novel by William P. Young is NOT a theology book.  It was never meant to be one.   While both the book and the film do have quite a few theological hiccups that I will make note of, to completely dismiss the story is missing the forest for the trees; it’s like denouncing Beauty and the Beast because of its Stockholm Syndrome-esque undertones and ignoring its emphasis on redemption, forgiveness and the freeing power of true love.   That said, I can see the arguments for and against The Shack; those who deeply care for theological accuracy are right to err on the side of caution.  Meanwhile, there is nothing wrong with those who do find meaning in the story’s overarching message of God’s love and healing power.  My point is this: By all means, stay true with your convictions, but be sure to view all things in a balanced perspective.

Okay, so with all that out of the way, let’s get to the review.

The Hits
The portrayal of the Trinity is absolutely masterful.  Yes, yes, The Father, aka “Papa” is an African-American woman, the Son is an Israeli man, and the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman.  I understand that there’s an uber-problematic “God the Mother” movement, so portraying God as a woman is a controversial artistic choice.  Fortunately, there’s this beautiful little thing called context and it is important sometimes….actually–scratch that–ALL THE TIME!  😀  Anywho, so the reason God/Papa is manifested as a woman is because the only comforting person Mack could turn to during his turbulent childhood was his next-door neighbor, who happened to be Octavia Spencer.  This is how he perceived comfort and unconditional love.  A close friend of mine pointed out to me that in the book, it is better explained when Papa says something to the effect of, “If I came to you in My true form, you would not be able to handle it.”  This explanation does conform to what we know from Sacred Scripture, where we see Moses having to cover his eyes when he approaches the burning bush.  It speaks of God’s pastoral nature and how He meets us where we are so that He can begin to guide us to where He wills us to be.
Back to the Holy Trinity: When Mack asks, “So which one of you is…[God?]…” all three of them respond, “I AM.”  All three of them are distinct in personality, yet united in purpose.  They each have their own individual creative gifts: The Father cares for the dwelling place, the Son is a carpenter (imagine that 🙂 ) and the Holy Spirit tends the garden.  During my second viewing, I noticed how the Father, Spirit and Son have their own style of clothing, yet their color schemes always match one another.
One Person I am especially fond of is The Holy Spirit.  If you’ve been following Catholic Girl Bloggin’ for a while, you may have noticed that I’m a big fan of the Paraclete.  Let’s just say He’s helped me out quite a bit within a last year and has become my hero as a result.  🙂 Anyway, as you can imagine, an accurate and sensitive portrayal of the dove from above matters a lot to me.  So how did Sumire Matsubara do?  My friends, she is a wonderful interpretation of the Holy Spirit!  Ethereal, kind, consoling, this soft and breezy figure breathes life into the role.  She drops some convicting truth bombs on Mack in a comforting way, much like the real Holy Spirit.  I like that she’s a gardener because it speaks of the Holy Spirit’s own life-giving and creative nature.   Also, ten extra brownie points for making her shoulders shimmer every time she walks in sunlight.
Sam Worthington gives this performance his all.  An anguished father drowning in his own personal Hell, all he wants is justice and revenge; anything will do.  Having survived a brutal childhood, he managed to create an idyllic family life that was shattered at the hands of a callous predator and cannot bring himself to even begin putting back together the remnants of his broken family.  Though the faith of his grieving wife never wavers, Mack flat out (and understandably) blames God for this injustice upon his family.   Mack is a tortured soul in desperate need of healing and restoration, and Sam Worthington has the everyman persona and depth that such a role demands.
This movie really nails the love and mercy of God, and it’s not a permissive love where Mack is allowed to remain angry and jaded.  It brings to mind an epic quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “God seeks us where we are, not so that we stay there, but so that we may come to be where He is, so that we may get beyond ourselves.”  The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit seek out Mack where he is in his grief and [quite literally] bring him to where they are (the titular Shack) so that he may be challenged to grow, heal and move on.  Each person of the Trinity empathizes with Mack all while slowly but surely bringing him out of his inward anger.  This movie really demonstrates that at its core, Christianity is an encounter with a Person: Jesus Christ.  It is an encounter that will change you and the course of your life forever.  By the end of his journey, Mack is a changed man.  His perception, his actions, even his family are fundamentally transformed by this spiritual odyssey.   To encounter Christ is to be changed to your core, and if anything, the Shack understands this and it is a point that this movie hits right out of the ballpark.

The Misses
So early on in the movie we learn that Mack may or may not have succeeded in poisoning his drunken, abusive father.  This is brought up in Tim McGraw’s narration of Mack’s childhood (though I kind of wish Octavia Spencer’s Papa had been doing the narrating, but whatever)…and then is NEVER brought up again.   There is a deleted scene where it is mentioned, but it’s clear that the filmmakers weren’t quite sure what to do with this aspect of Mack’s character.
Though I did praise to high Heaven the film’s portrayal of the Holy Spirit, I will admit that the script does get a little wishy-washy with the Advocate at times.  They definitely got the “comforter and consoler” to the tee, but keep in mind that the Holy Spirit is both the love of God and the wrath of God.  Sometimes He roars, sometimes He whispers.  He will sound the alarm and shake an unrepentant sinner to their core if that is what it takes to save them.  If there ever are future cinematic depictions of the Holy Spirit, I do hope that He is written as the kindly Teacher who will lay down the law with (holy) fire when necessary.
I was all onboard with The Son’s character until He said this line: “Religion…it’s too much work.  I don’t wants slaves; I want friends.”  I literally facepalmed and said aloud, “Darn it, you had to go there?!”  Yeah, the Son went the same route as the “I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” guy.   Granted, I probably should have seen that coming given that the author has a more–let’s be kind and call it–progressive view on religion than a Catholic gal like myself, but still…WHY?!
All right, so the biggest theological elephant in the room concerns the sovereignty of God, i.e. the “God in the control” aspect of Christian doctrine…and this is what the movie tries to tackle and, at the same time, also tiptoes around.  Throughout the flick, Mack challenges the Father about why an all-powerful and merciful God would allow the innocent Missy to be brutally murdered.   The movie tries to use the “God is good” and “God can bring marvelous good out of terrible tragedies,” but it tiptoes when God’s goodness and control are further challenged.  There is one unspoken question that does loom over the script: Was Missy’s death the work of evil, the will of God or maybe even both?  If one of the main characters wasn’t God Himself, then this question could afford to go unanswered.  However, because the Triune God is one of the story’s protagonists and the movie is trying to make sense of this tragedy, the question itself almost can’t be answered because it would create some plot holes.  Suffice it to say, Papa tells Mack (paraphrasing here), “I can bring incredible good out of unspeakable tragedy.  Remember that I do not create the tragedy.”
I think it’s okay to admit that the topic of God’s sovereignty is a very difficult one to comprehend with our finite understanding.  Now that does not mean that we shouldn’t bother to study it; on the contrary, study and read every book written on the subject to your heart’s content!  However, keep in mind what Saint Thomas Aquinas once said, “If you can understand it, then it’s not God.”  Learn and try to understand, but don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself unable to fully comprehend the mystery of our God.

Final Verdict
Is the Shack perfectly sound on a theological basis?  No.  There are some questionable lines and logic that will rub people the wrong way.  As I said before, I completely understand students of theology who will not get behind The Shack.  They are not wrong in their caution.
All of this being said, as a conversation starter on the love and mercy of the Lord, as a tale of one man’s spiritual journey towards healing and restoration of self, The Shack shines bright.  It stumbles on some theological aspects of Christianity, but in demonstrating the radical transformative power of an encounter with Jesus Christ, the Shack does not hold back and shows this element of the Christian religion in all its glory.  Perhaps movies like The Shack are willed by God to challenge believers and non-believers alike to go out and learn what the Christian faith is truly all about.  Those concerned about theological errors can be emboldened to study more and argue eloquently, while those who find meaning in this story can be renewed in God’s love for all humanity.   That, my friends, is how God writes straight with crooked lines; by using flawed means to show us a much bigger and more completed portrait of His everlasting love.

Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, pray for us.

You Are Welcome Here: The Holy Spirit and Pentecost

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Come, Sweet Paraclete!
Imagine if you will the Apostles in the upper room.  Jesus has just ascended into Heaven and they are sitting around, twiddling their thumbs, wondering, “What the camel are we gonna do now?”  Maybe one of them looks over at Peter, who responds with something to the effect of, “I’m just as lost as you are, guys.”
Meanwhile let’s imagine that Jesus is back up in Heaven, looking down at His disheartened Apostles, His beloved friends.  He turns to the Father and says, “Is it time to send him down there?”  “Yes, My Son, it is time.
Back on Earth in the upper room, a sudden mighty wind shakes the walls, causing the Apostles to look around frantically and jump from their chairs.  Darting their eyes upward, they see a large flame above them.  The single flame splits into individual flames, each one resting atop their heads.   A deep sense of peace and power fill them from within, casting out all the fear and uncertainty that had been perturbing them.  As if their bodies are functioning without them, they begin speaking in other languages as if they have been fluent their whole lives.
That night in the upper room, the Holy Spirit made his public debut as he came upon the Apostles and overshadowed them with the love of God.

Friend and Champion
So before I explain Pentecost, I think it would help to understand the Holy Spirit himself.  Who is he, a distant force or a most determined Advocate of our salvation?
The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity.  He is the love between the Father and the Son manifested.  While the dove from above does make his official appearance in the Acts of the Apostles, we are foretold of him through the Old Testament, starting with Genesis.

Genesis 1:1-2, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters.”

Did you catch that last line?  “…while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters?”  Sound familiar?  The Spirit came in the form of a mighty wind that shook the walls of the upper room where the Apostles were residing.

We see him again in the Book of Samuel just after Samuel anointed Saul.

1 Samuel 10:10, “When they came to the hill, there was a group of prophets to meet him; then the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them.”

It is not until the Annunciation when we finally hear of the Holy Spirit by name.  After she is told that she will give birth to the Messiah, Mary reasonably asks the Archangel Gabriel how this virgin birth is to happen, “since I have no relations with a man?” she questions.

Luke 1:35, “The Angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Then, at Jesus’ baptism, there is a visual representation of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 13:16-17, “After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him.  And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I AM well pleased.”

We can safely say that the Holy Spirit has been active throughout history and continues to be flying around the globe to this day.  With this logic, we can conclude that the Holy Spirit is not some vague, distant ghost who does little and says even less.  The third person of the Trinity is alive, vibrant and ever seeking the salvation of our souls.  There’s a reason why he is also known as the Advocate, Comforter, Helper and so on.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes upon us as a roar, a mighty wind that shakes us to our core and wakes us from our apathy.  Other times the Holy Spirit is like a feather landing on our heads; sudden but gentle.  He whispers to us and caresses our souls with the love of the Father.
Now that we know who the Holy Spirit is, we can move on to understanding what Pentecost is.

A Church is Born
Pentecost is what happened in that upper room.  The Holy Spirit, having first appeared to Mary in a private setting, then revealing himself again in the public setting of Jesus’ baptism, was now making himself known once more in a small room where the apostles were gathered in seclusion.  He came upon them and brought them out of their isolation, bursting open the closed doors of fear and doubt into a world hungry for the Good News.  He empowered them, equipped them and readied them for their mission: To preach the Gospel to every living creature and baptize the masses in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
This mission is alive and well today.  It is the duty of every Christian to pick up the torch that was handed down to us at our baptism.  However, our world does not make that task easy at all.  Our world fights against us, making that path difficult to say the least.  This is where the help of the Holy Spirit is absolutely needed.  As scripture has shown us, the Holy Spirit is not an abstraction or an uninvolved force; he is a person.   He is the love between the Father and the Son and as it says in 1 John 4:18, “Perfect love casts out fear.”  As our advocate, he speaks to us and for us.  As our comforter, he lifts us up when we are knocked down.  As our helper, he guides us to wisdom and truth.  As our friend, he is always there for us and ready to stand beside us.

Let us end this piece with a prayer to the Holy Spirit.

Holy Spirit, you are welcome here.
In your presence there is no room for fear or anxiety.
You are the champion of our souls and the fiery advocate for our salvation.
Come fill our minds with knowledge and truth.
Come fill our hearts with compassion and love of neighbor.
Come fill our souls with the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding.
May your friendship and unfailing help in our lives shape us into the men and women Christ has called us to be.

Amen.

CGB Review of Moana (2016)

Why do I get the feeling that this movie was written by someone who read the Book of Esther during a weekend on a Polynesian island?

This is my review of Moana!

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In the beginning, there was the Word…and that word was ocean!   Then comes the goddess Te Fiti who, with the power of her swirly heart (there’s a swirly circle where her heart is), creates island and island and so on.  Te Fiti then goes into a slumber, manifesting herself as a lush, green island.  All is cool until the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) quite literally steals her heart, which has taken the form of a jade gemstone.  His theft unleashes a freaky sea demon called Te Ka and basically, like the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s screw-up, the world falls into darkness because Maui just had to steal the heart of Te Fiti.
Enter the island of Motunui, which is home to a free-spirited girl named Moana (Auli’i Cravalho).  Moana is being groomed by her father Chief Tui to become the next leader of Motunui, but the call of the ocean has a strong pull on her heart.  This primarily has to do with an encounter she had with the ocean as a toddler.  When Motunui begins to experience decay and famine, Grandma Tala reveals to her that the ocean chose her [Moana] to find the demi-god Maui and guide him across the sea to face off against Te Ka and return the heart of Te Fiti to its rightful place.

The Hits
The animation is fluid, colorful and gorgeous to look at.  The voice work is awesome!  Never once was I distracted by the celebrity voices because all of the characters are well-written and distinctive.  Auli’i Cravalho definitely brings Moana to life as both a youthful teenager and a kind-hearted young woman.  She doesn’t sound like a late-twentysomething voicing a sixteen-year old, neither does she sound jarringly young; her character’s age is conveyed by Cravalho’s performance.  I really love Moana’s childhood connection to the ocean.  Granted, it does make this a typical “chosen one” narrative, but Moana herself doesn’t have any magic powers or some random birthmark that displays her chosen-one-ness; she’s a regular girl who was called upon by the ocean.  Now I mentioned that this movie made me think of the Book of Esther.  That’s because Moana is next in line to rule a land and must save her people from dark destruction.  While she doesn’t have to marry a king like Esther did, she does have to find the king-like Maui and take him to Te Ka.
Speaking of the ocean, the idea of having it as a sentient being is fantastic!  They don’t push the envelope too far by making the ocean a god or something, but the ocean does act similarly to the Holy Spirit; calling upon Moana to go out, to leave her comfort zone and sail into the unknown for a greater purpose.  The ocean reminded me of Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Now, mind you, Moana doesn’t travel to Judea or Samaria, neither does the ocean give her the ability to speak in tongues or prophecy, but the ocean’s influence and friendship gives her great courage, helps her to find peace in the chaos, and does enable her to travel far to take Maui to defeat a volcanic sea demon in order to restore peace to the other islands, which brings to mind the Apostles being empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to preach the Gospel and open wounded hearts to Jesus.
Moana’s pet pig Pua reminded me of a puppy, which makes him adorable, but her chicken Heihei is to this movie what Kowalski is to Fantastic Beasts; a show-stealing comic relief.
Dwayne Johnson is perfectly cast as Maui!   You can tell that he is having the time of his life voicing the character and we are having fun alongside him.  Maui is your typical “self-centered powerful dude who needs to be knocked off his high-horse,” but his humor and soft-spot for humans does keep him from being unlikable.

The Misses
Yeah, this movie gets pretty predictable towards the third act.  I pretty much was able to correct predict all the actions of the main characters in the film’s climax.  I like this movie a lot, but you can tell that there is a Disney checklist that the filmmakers need to fill (princess, comedic animal sidekick, songs, etc.) and it’s not hard to see where the story is going.

Guys and gals, I really enjoyed Moana!  It’s a charming, delightful action-comedy that the whole family will love.  Fun lead characters, thrilling action and some intriguing (if not unintentional) Biblical parallels make Moana an end-of-the-year slamdunk.  I’ve already seen it twice and I just might see it again for a third time.

Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, pray for us.

CGB Review of Doctor Strange

As the election results have shown us, life can be stranger than fiction.

This is my review of Doctor Strange!

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Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a successful but arrogant surgeon whose career ends after a terrible car accident practically destroys his hands.  After speaking with a formerly-paralyzed man who has since been completely healed, Doctor Strange journeys to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and finds himself getting swooped in to a mystical battle with dark forces led by the sinister Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).

The Hits
Holy cow, the visuals are INCREDIBLE!  The battle sequences are truly a sight to behold.  I love the idea that these mystic warriors actually bend time and physical space in order to do battle.  The reality-bending is just so COOL!  I like how it’s not all shaky-cam and impossible to see what’s going on.  The spells cast are bright and colorful, the fight choreography is smooth and well-paced, and the battles themselves are brimming with imagination.  This is one of the rare films where the 3D enhances the experience and isn’t just a nauseating gimmick.  You’ll still enjoy it in 2D, but if you are thinking of seeing it in 3D, then DO IT!  Of course, if you are concerned about cyber sickness, then here’s my review of The Walk, where I offer tips and tricks on how to prevent cyber sickness:  https://catholicgirlbloggin.net/2015/10/11/cgb-review-of-the-walk-2015/
Benedict Cumberbatch has yet to disappoint me.  I think it’s been established that you could cast this guy as a lampshade and he would still give a great performance.  While the role of Stephen Strange himself is not entirely compelling, Cumberbatch has the time of his life with this character.  He makes Stephen Strange arrogant but likable; his sense of self-importance doesn’t harm anyone, it only makes it satisfying when the movie allows him to get his humbling comeuppance.  The movie has an awesome moral about humbling yourself for something greater, which is Christianity in a nutshell.
Tilda Swinton is another actor who can do no wrong (in movies, I mean).  She brings a complexity to her character The Ancient One.  Yeah, she’s basically a tall, female Yoda, but Swinton gives a grounded performance that enables her to make the role her own.
I’m sorry, I just can’t get over how much I LOVE the mythology of this world!  There’s a line where one character says (I’m going to paraphrase here), “The Avengers protect the physical world, while we fight off more mystical dangers.”  It made me think of the battles that take place in the spiritual realm where angels and saints fight for us against sinister forces.  In our secular world, it’s refreshing to see any big budget film embrace the idea that there is an invisible reality within our physical world where two opposing forces do battle for our souls.   Also I appreciate how Kaecilius is basically a discount Lucifer (a powerful being who becomes drunk with pride, wants more power and causes division in his wake); yeah, the similarities are there.
I don’t want to go into spoilers, but I’ll just say that how Doctor Strange defeats the main antagonist is quite clever and fun to watch.

The Misses
The relationship between Doctor Strange and his (ex-girlfriend-ish?) Christine Palmer is underdeveloped.  I’m glad that it’s a mostly platonic relationship, but they don’t have enough scenes together where we get to care for them as a couple.
Okay, so the Ancient One runs this whole mystic, inter-dimensional operation with Mordo, Wong and…a handful of other people?  Yeah, even though we do see other sorcerers training, when the actual fighting starts, we only see Ancient One, Mordo and maybe two other unnamed characters doing battle.  I kind of wish both the Ancient One’s group and Kaecilius’ gang had more members.

Overall, I really love Doctor Strange!  Benedict Cumberbatch alone makes it a must-see, but the creative and energetic battle sequences and the clever use of 3D makes even more worthwhile.  Like Kubo and the Two Strings, the story and the visuals enable Doctor Strange to stand tall and proud in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Saint Timothy, pray for us.