The Second Book of Job

Most people are acquainted with the beginning and the end of the Biblical story of Job. They know about God letting the Accuser, Satan, test Job’s devotion through all manner of calamities. (The book reflects an earlier Hebrew understanding of Satan as a servant of God, before influences from cultures that conquered Israel turned it into an adversarial relationship.) Job passes the test and has all he’s lost restored to him plus more beside. In between, though, there are 36 chapters of dialogue between Job and three of his friends – though with friends like these you don’t need enemies. They’re convinced that Job has sinned, because why else would all these calamities happen to him, and they basically tag-team Job to get him to confess. Job resists and keeps his faith in God. In the end God re-enters the scene, puts everyone in their place, and honors Job’s faithfulness. In a way, you could think of the new movie The Shack, and the book on which it’s based, as a different version of Job. In this case the calamities have broken Job’s faith, and instead of facing unhelpful friends, Job goes directly to an encounter with the Trinitarian God to gain understanding of suffering and grace.

Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) grew up in the church, but it was a toxic relationship. His father, a church elder, was a closet drunk and wife-beater. Mack breaks his silence in the church to help his mother, but instead of receiving help he ends up being beaten himself by his father. A couple of decades later, the adult Mack is living in Oregon. He’s married to a wonderful woman, Nan (Radha Mitchell), and they have three beautiful children: Kate (Megan Charpentier), Josh (Gage Munroe), and Missy (Amelie Eve). They attend church with their neighbor Willie (Tim McGraw), and Nan and the children have a close relationship with God, who Missy calls Papa. Then, while the kids are camping with Mack, Missy is kidnapped. The FBI believes she’s been taken by a predator who’s struck five times before. While canvassing the area, they find Missy’s dress and blood on the floor of a dilapidated shack, but her body’s never found.

By that winter, Mack is a shell of a man, devoured by his grief. Then a note appears in his mailbox, addressed to Mack only by name. It says they haven’t talked for a long time and if he’d like to meet, then come to the shack the next weekend. It’s signed Papa. Mack goes to the shack, wondering if it’s a ploy by the man who took Missy. Instead as he approaches the building he steps from winter into a beautiful summer day and finds the shack changed into a lakefront cottage. Inside are Papa (Octavia Spencer), Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush), and Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara).

It took ten years for this bestseller to make it to the screen. At one point Lionsgate was the primary production company, and Forest Whitaker was attached as director. Summit Entertainment took over for Lionsgate, though they’re still a distributor. Whitaker dropped out and Stuart Hazeldine was selected instead. Hazeldine was known mostly as a script doctor, having done uncredited rewrites for Knowing and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but he’d also received good reviews for his debut feature, a psychological thriller entitled Exam. The Shack had a modest budget for a major US feature these days – $20 million – and Hazeldine makes it look like he had five times the money with which to work. The screenwriters – John Fusco (Hidalgo), Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham – created an adaptation that is remarkably faithful to the original book.

Worthington, Spencer, Mitchell, and McGraw are all well-known and bring a competency to the movie that is too often missing from what’s identified as Christian film. Often that’s used as an excuse: “It’s a good film for a Christian movie.” The Shack doesn’t need that qualifier; it’s a good film that happens to deal with Christianity (more on that later). Spencer is wonderful as the personification of God throughout most of the film, in particular for her ability to deliver witty zingers to Mack while still communicating deep love. I will note two minor quibbles with Worthington: early in the film, he shows Mack’s depression by speaking so softly you can hardly hear him; later, when emotions come out, so does a trace of his Australian accent. Otherwise, he was effective in a challenging role.

The film also features Graham Greene and Alice Braga in smaller roles, though they are integral to the story. A pleasant surprise was the performances of Avraham Aviv Alush and Sumire Matsubara as Jesus and the Holy Spirit respectively. (Sarayu, the name used for Matsubara’s character, is the Sanskrit word for “wind,” which is how the Spirit is described in the Bible.) Alush is an Israeli actor who’s blessedly natural in the role. He’s also not blond or blue-eyed, which is a large step toward authenticity in my humble opinion. Matsubara comes across at first as delicate and ephemeral, but later we also see her strength. Megan Charpentier is also excellent as the daughter who comes close to following her father’s path.

Usually films dealing with Christianity or the Bible wind up at two ends of the spectrum:  faithful but amateur, or high-end mush. This can be seen in a couple recent releases. On the faithful amateur side there’s God’s Not Dead, with its stiff acting, cardboard characters, and a script that had the subtlety of a 2×4 to the head. (You could also include any film that Kirk Cameron’s done in the last two decades.) On the other side you have high-budget Hollywood pictures that make a complete mess of the story, like the Russell Crowe Noah or Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. The satirical site the Babylon Bee recently ran a story that the Oscars would hand out an award for the least-offensive Christian movie this year. “Academy members reportedly sat through hours of grueling Christian films in an effort to select the one that was the least offensive in terms of quality, production value, writing, and acting.” As with all satire, it’s just a little bit past reality.

The Shack charts a different course by dealing realistically with problems that so many people face – problems that have driven people away from God. The old question that sums up the stumbling block for many people is, “How can God be a God of Love when He lets these horrible things happen?” The Shack confronts that question straight on, in a way that is both spiritually valid, and emotionally raw. The author has said that the shack is a metaphor for the soul.

The book was written by William P. Young as a way back from his own spiritual nadir. He’d been a missionary kid in Papua New Guinea, living among the cannibal tribes until he was six and sent off to boarding school. At the school there was systematic abuse, a Protestant version of the Catholic priest scandals, and Young was a victim. While he was outwardly okay with a wife and family, inside he was broken and reached bottom after having an affair with one of this wife’s friends. He wrote “The Shack” over the course of six years as he struggled with the nature of God in light of what had happened to him. When he finished, he printed copies and gave them to his family as a literary mea culpa. Following that, he tried to get it published. Twenty-six publishers rejected it, so Young self-published. Word of mouth pushed it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for trade paperback novels, with it selling over 4 million copies in a little over a year. Young now has an arrangement with the major publishing house Hachette.

While many have embraced the story, there has also been a strong negative reaction to it among Evangelical Christians. Some object to its portrayal of God as a black woman and the Holy Spirit as a mysterious asian woman; they claim it promotes feminism, or a form of goddess worship. Others say it’s just a novel or just a movie but it shouldn’t be taken in a theological way. A professor at a conservative Christian college in Portland wrote an article about the book calling it “the greatest deception foisted on the church in the last 200 years.” His main problem with it is termed “universalism” which is the idea that all humanity can be saved by God. (It’s the same controversy that caused the Evangelical church to disown Rob Bell when he published “Love Wins.”)

There is a strong strain of paternalism in some branches of Christianity. The thought that God could exhibit female traits strikes them as heresy, even though in the gospel of Matthew Jesus says of the people of Jerusalem, “…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” This insistence on the dominant male God has become a stumbling block for many today who, because of abuse or other family problems, cannot relate to the idea of God as a loving father. In fact, Papa explains to Mack that that’s the reason for her form. (Later in the movie, Octavia is replaced by Graham Greene for a sequence because, as Papa then tells Mack, “For what you face now you need a father.”) For me, my answer for this is: If you proclaim God as omnipotent – all powerful – then why limit God by your own prejudices?

While The Shack is written as a novel and presented as a film entertainment, that doesn’t negate it as a source of theological thought and reflection. For many, the novels of C.S. Lewis, such as the Narnia series or “The Screwtape Letters,” are as much theological commentary on life as they are novels. And it should be remembered that almost all of the popular imagery of heaven and hell comes not from the Bible but from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” written in 1320.

Universalism flies in the face of conservative Christianity because of their strong focus on sin and repentance. It has its seed in the Protestant Reformation, which was partially the result of the Renaissance Popes monetarizing grace through the selling of indulgences – basically “Get out of Hell Free” cards. As happens, reactions can go far to the other side of the spectrum. Later in the Reformation some put forward the idea of predestination, that a person is formed as righteous or fallen before birth and there’s nothing they can do about it. That teaching has pretty much gone the way of the dodo, but some believers are offended at the idea that people they consider horrible sinners could still receive grace from God.

The Shack, though, features a sparkling explanation of grace and redemption through the course of the film. The answers it gives aren’t easy or simple, since the questions aren’t easy or simple either. But for those who bring up universalism as their complaint against the film, they should remember that after the rich young ruler went sorrowfully away in the gospel, the disciples wondered how anyone could be saved. Jesus’ response was. “For man some things are impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Again, we shouldn’t let our human understanding and prejudices shrink God down to our size.

So some Christians will be upset that The Shack doesn’t fit their notion of God. I heard someone created a meme with a picture of the shack along with every heresy they believe the story contains. Other Christians will find it illuminating and affirming (I’m one of those). The focus is on restoration and renewal of the relationship between Mack and Papa, and through that the restoration of the reader/viewer’s concept of God. Throughout the movie, the dialogue gives you plenty to think about, but it goes down like a cup of fresh, cold water.

But what if you feel like you are a Job, burdened and broken? What if you’ve lost any belief in God, or have turned away because God now seems to be the mascot of politics and of those who put condemnation before love or grace? What if you know your own shack is run down and hardly habitable, but you see no way to repair it? Then please do see this movie.

Hidden No More

I’m a history buff, and I love to discover history that has been lost or missed for decades. It often makes a good movie, as we’ve recently seen with Louis Zamperini (Unbroken) and Desmond Doss (Hacksaw Ridge). Now we can add the names Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson to that list, the triumvirate at the center of Hidden Figures. I’d been looking forward to this film from the first time I saw a trailer; I was not disappointed.

Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) was a child prodigy in mathematics who grew up to work for NASA during the early days of the space race. She was a human computer, checking calculations made by scientists. This was at a time when prejudice held that science wasn’t suitable for either blacks or women. There was a full contingent of black women working at the main NASA facility at Langley, Virginia, before its later move to Houston. They were segregated into the West Building – the only place where there were “colored” bathrooms – under the de facto supervision of Dorothy (Octavia Spencer). It was de facto since the bureaucracy, embodied in the character of Vivian Mitchell (Kristen Dunst), refused to give her the designation and the commensurate pay raise. Mary (Janelle Monae) was permanently assigned to the engineering group, a discipline in which she had distinct talent.

The movie chronicles the racism they faced even as they sought to help the country make the leap into space. It could be systemic, like the roadblocks in Mary’s way to prevent her from getting the education credit to be recognized as an engineer. It could be personal, like the engineer played by Jim Parsons who redacts much of his work before turning it over to Katherine, even though the redactions make proper checking impossible. Or it could be technological advancement like the IBM computer that stands to replace the West Building group, if the computer engineers can get it to work.

What makes the movie a winner is the wit and determination the women utilize to overcome the obstacles. In particular Henson knows how to deliver a devastating comeback with the sweetest smile, though she does also have one scene where Katherine’s frustrations explode in volcanic fury. Sitting in the audience, I wanted to cry out “You go, girl!”

Octavia Spencer is fantastic as always, especially in her scenes with Dunst that are a masterclass for actors. Next month she’ll be back on the screen in The Shack, playing God. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Almighty lobbied for her to be cast. A delightful surprise is singer Janelle Monae, who’d only done a couple of voice acting jobs before a double debut with Figures and Moonlight. She’s perfect as the sassy and smart Mary, holding her own with both Spencer and Henson like an experienced pro. The film also features Kevin Costner as NASA administrator Al Harrison. Costner has developed into a fine character actor, proving there is life after stardom.

Director/Producer/Screenwriter Theodore Melfi was known mostly for the Bill Murray film from 2014, St. Vincent. He collaborated with Allison Schroeder on adapting Margot Lee Shetterly’s book for the screen, and they did a stellar job of it. The dialog crackles, but this is also a movie where silent looks speak paragraphs. Particular kudos to Production Designer Wynn Thomas, Set Decorator Missy Parker, and Costume Designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, who nail the look of the early sixties.

It’s wonderful timing that Hidden Figures is being released now. It gives a very strong reminder that the “good old days” were not good for everyone, and lets us see not only how far we’ve come but how necessary it was that we made those changes. The movie ends with footage of the real Katherine Johnson, now in her 90s, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

These figures should never be hidden again.

A Day To The Death

Movies have the power to change people’s hearts and minds, because they give you the chance to experience life from another person’s perspective. Among the many examples of this: Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which led to the elimination of chain gangs; Sidney Poitier’s early films, which changed attitudes about race relations (The Defiant Ones, Raisin in the Sun, Lilies of the Field, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night – take your pick); or Tom Hanks giving a face to the AIDS crisis in Philadelphia. In light of the recent incidents in Ferguson and Staten Island, I watched a movie from 2013 that I’d missed during its theatrical release – Fruitvale Station.

During the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III was shot in the back while being restrained face-down by San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police on the platform at Fruitvale Station in Oakland. He died later that morning. The police had responded to reports of a fight on the train that was crowded with people returning from ringing in the New Year in San Francisco. They held the train in the station, so several passengers recorded what took place on their cell phones. That footage is what starts the film, though the screen goes black just before the fatal shot is heard.

The film then jumps back 24 hours to show Oscar’s last day. Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is living with his girlfriend Sophina Mesa (Melonie Diaz) and their 4-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). The main focus of their day is preparing for the birthday party of Oscar’s mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer) that will take place that night. While he hides it from others, Oscar is in a rough place. He’s recently lost his job at a market, and the rent is due in a couple of days. Oscar had made bad choices when he was still a teenager, which led to him being sent to jail. The day becomes a personal odyssey for him as he decides to make changes in his life that honor Sophina, who he loves, and Tatiana, whom his adores.

Writer/Director Ryan Coogler had access to the principles involved in the story and crafted an excellent film that presents Oscar as neither saint nor sinner, but as human with whom you can identify in spite of any cultural differences. Coogler took some liberties with the story for the sake of the movie, but they were minor changes or the events happened at another time. For instance, early on in the film Oscar is in the market where he use to work, getting supplies for his mother’s birthday dinner (which did actually take place on that day), when he sees a young woman having trouble at the meat counter. She wants to fry fish since that’s a meal her husband loves, but she’s never done it before and doesn’t know what she’s doing. Oscar calls his grandmother and puts the woman on the phone with her so his grannie can teach her how to fry fish. While it didn’t happen that day, Oscar did do that earlier when he worked at the market. Slate magazine did an article that breaks down the accuracy of the film, though of course that means the article does contain spoilers.

When the film gets to the climactic scene at the Fruitvale Station, Coogler is meticulous in recreating the incident. He obtained permission from BART to film the scene on the platform of the actual station, and he pulled dialogue for the scene from the cellphone footage. The footage has been posted on YouTube along with contemporary news reports about the incident. This was the first feature film made by Coogler, and it is a stunning achievement.

It helps that Michael B. Jordan gives a mesmerizing performance as Oscar. Jordan started acting when he was twelve, with early credits on shows like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” After extended roles on “All My Children,” “Friday Night Lights,” and “Parenthood” Jordan had a break-out role in the sci-fi sleeper hit Chronicle. Several scenes in Fruitvale Station have little or no dialogue, but the emotions that play out of Jordan’s eyes speak volumes. He will be an actor to watch in the future, in the mode of Don Cheadle and Terrence Howard. Matching him is Octavia Spencer. She portrays Oscar’s mother Wanda as a clear-eyed realist who gives tough love when necessary. It makes the end of the movie all the more heartwrenching.

It’s become a bit hackneyed to say you can’t judge a man until you have walked in his shoes, but that doesn’t negate the truth of the words. Fruitvale Station slips Oscar Grant’s shoes onto your feet and laces them up tight, and you’ll still feel them there long after the movie is over.