Look at this headline from a movie review in The Metro:
The evangelical entertainment ‘The Shack’ is almost a real movie
I’m not entirely sure why, but what struck me most about this headline was not the clever zinger, but the term “evangelical entertainment.” When I read that, I thought: “It is?” I suppose I’ve become too habituated to seeing evangelical critiques of the book’s thin theology and possibly blasphemous depiction of the Trinity to remember that, to most of the world, The Shack is what evangelicals mean when they ask for books and movies for them. Mainstream critics label The Shack movie as evangelical entertainment not because it is entertainment that is evangelical, but because it is entertainment that evangelicals consume.
And the question is, why do evangelicals consume it? I haven’t seen any review of the book to make me think that the answer is The Shack’s quality of writing. And, based on the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score of 17%, I don’t believe the reason evangelicals will (in all likelihood) flock to see it is because it is a cinematic masterpiece. The key factor in The Shack‘s popularity isn’t excellence, because it lacks excellence. And the key factor is obviously not compelling orthodoxy or theological insight. So what is the key factor? Why is The Shack “evangelical entertainment” despite the fact that it’s not really either?
One theory: Evangelicals love The Shack because it is family-friendly. And for many evangelicals, family-friendly is just a euphemism for “Christian.” This, I believe, is the problem of contemporary Christian entertainment. Evangelical audiences accept poor aesthetic quality and erroneous theology if both are wrapped up in a veneer of religious respectability.
Consider just how much of evangelical cultural engagement is “discernment lit.” Finding solid evangelical analysis and critique of mainstream movies is much more challenging than finding sites dedicated to telling you how many profanities are used in a given movie. Those publications, by the way, are overwhelmingly recommending that Christians go see The Shack. Now of course these places have their uses. Christians shouldn’t stop caring about content. But when evangelical culture lacks a thriving artistic worldview and instead relies on cottage industries of promoting family-night discernment, we ought not be shocked when what evangelicals eventually own as “their” kind of entertainment is art that is neither theologically faithful nor aesthetically excellent, but merely safe for the whole family. Francis Schaeffer’s guide to Christian engagement of art seems almost quaint by comparison.
I’m not saying that evangelicals should throw caution about worldliness to the wind. But I am asking if big box office returns for The Shack actually represent the kind of Christian culture that we really want. Yes, The Shack is PG-13 with no hints of sexuality and no profanity. Many youth groups will schedule trips to see it with no awkwardness. But is squeaky-clean and deeply problematic for our conception of God and Christianity the kind of trade-off we should be proud of? I don’t think so.
The Shack has illustrated the inadequacies of engaging with pop culture merely with family-friendly metrics. When Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales, recently apologized for the moralistic, non-gospel content of his popular show, he wasn’t apologizing for making it kid-friendly. He was apologizing for confusing kid-friendly with Christian. When your only real demand of your entertainment is that it be clean, clean will soon be the only thing you have. That’s not a good thing, as The Shack amply demonstrates.
Listen to this sad thought from mainstream film critic Peter Sobcynski:
As “The Shack” plodded on (it clocks in at over two hours and makes you feel every one of those minutes), I found myself thinking more and more about “Silence,” the recent religious drama from Martin Scorsese that came and went through theaters a few weeks ago. Like “The Shack,” that film dealt with the kind of spiritual crisis that can develop when someone devotes their life to praying to a God that seems more interested in letting you suffer endlessly rather than answering those prayers. But “Silence” took its questions about spirituality and the nature of God seriously, resulting in a spellbinding film that even those without any sort of strong religious background might still find thought-provoking. “The Shack,” on the other hand, is little more than pabulum that invokes all the right words but fails to invest them with any kind of meaning that might allow it to mean something to those not already pre-disposed to liking it. Of course, thanks to the book’s extensive fanbase, there is an excellent chance that “The Shack” will make more money in its first weekend than “Silence” did in its entire run—a thought depressing enough to inspire spiritual crises in any number of moviegoers.
Evangelicals will pack the house for “The Shack” while many remain completely unaware of the existence of “Silence.” The Shack is PG-13. Silence is rated R. But which of these movies is the more Christian movie?