At first glance, The Shack looks just like any of the other Christian cinema dramas that are somehow killing it at the box office lately. It's the story of a man driven to madness (and potential atheism) following his daughter's gruesome murder. But he is rescued by three strangers who guide him through a kind of immersion therapy in the very shack his child was tortured in—his ultimate breakthrough is a restored faith in God.
It has all the tropes of Jesus-centric blockbusters (a masculine family man overcoming doubt in the face of tragedy), and with Tim McGraw lending a supporting role and hit duet with Faith Hill to the mix, the $42 million it's earned in the three weeks since it was released in theaters makes sense.
Yet some Christian leaders have their theological panties in a twist over the film's unconventional portrayal of the Holy Trinity (the three strangers). Here we have Jesus played by a Middle Eastern man (who could easily pass for a Syrian refugee), the Holy Spirit embodied by an Asian woman, and, perhaps most subversive, God as a black woman (Octavia Spencer).
"I felt the movie was too New Age for my tastes," wrote evangelical author Jerry Newcombe in a Christian Post op-ed. "If Oprah Winfrey were to make a 'Christian' movie, The Shack would be it. I felt it took too many liberties with the Person of God."
Others have been offended by the film's hints of universalism—the idea that God resides in all faiths of the world, not just Christianity.
It's not surprising that a female God who isn't hung up on labels would qualify as a scandal among evangelicals. After all, the de facto leader of this movement, Kirk Cameron, once accused the producers of the 80s family sitcom Growing Pains of being "pornographers" for portraying marriage-less romance.
Controversy surrounding The Shack represents the inevitable clash between America's millions of evangelicals and Hollywood's army of liberal-minded producers, two adversaries brought together by mutual economic interests without ever moving their culture-war battle lines.
"Christians are the dominant faith demographic in America, but they're a minority subculture in media. Hollywood's monopoly on filmmaking has left conservative evangelical Christians feeling their voice hasn't been heard. So they frame themselves as an oppressed minority," says Benjamin Sampson, a professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television, who is currently writing a book called Hollywood Meets Holy Wood.
Despite endless collaborations between Hollywood and Christian filmmakers in the past decade (inspired by the surprise $612 million Mel Gibson earned with Passion of the Christ), Sampson says "overtly Christian films almost always have to position themselves, in some way, in opposition to Hollywood. So Hollywood is funding movies that are basically a takedown of Hollywood."
This wasn't always the case.
For most of the 20th century, evangelicals and Hollywood remained in their separate cultural and economic corners. Following the humiliation they received via their media portrayal in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 (when a Tennessee school teacher was arrested for teaching evolution), many radical Christians believed—similar to today's Trump voters—that intellectual elites had it in for them and retreated from the spotlight. By the second half the century, evangelicals had begun slowly forming their own media entities, their own economic engines—and their own DIY art scene.
From the 20s through the 50s, Hollywood produced a string of biblical epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. But these films were driven by profits, not proselytizing. Hollywood was simply using Christianity as a propaganda tool against communism, and biblical settings were also a great environment to showcase the new CinemaScope technology.
When evangelicals started making their own movies in the 60s and 70s (many of them former hippies employing the Roger Corman/Dennis Hopper model of low-budget filmmaking), the priorities were far different than Hollywood's biblical epics. Acting, production, and story often took a backseat to a more urgent, pious priority: namely spreading the word that God and Satan are about to duke it out in an apocalyptic showdown that will destroy Earth. Could be today or tomorrow. Which side are you on, brother?
Popular among churches looking to frighten young people into conversion, A Thief in the Night dramatically portrayed the coming rapture (due any day in 1972), a time when all Christians will disappear into heaven and all others will be left behind to face a lot of supernatural unpleasantness.
Blending Christian-rock music (still in its infancy at the time) with horror-movie effects, the film was an instant hit, being screened in churches around the globe at ten times the rate of other contemporary Christian films, eventually becoming so popular it not only inspired three sequels of its own but also a veritable franchise of copycat books, film series, and theatrical productions.
At this same time, "nonfiction" book The Late Great Planet Earth (an impressively detailed case for why the world would likely end in 1988) was on its way to selling 28 million copies, and its film adaptation, starring an end-of-his-tether Orson Welles, sparked the tradition of Christians gleaning Hollywood's castaway stars of a bygone era. (Welles was followed later by trivia-status names like Mr. T., Gary Busey, Dean Cain, and Melissa Joan Hart.)
Since these films were almost never seen in mainstream theaters, churches became the de facto movie houses of this industry throughout the 60s and 70s, paying hundreds of dollars directly to producers for the right to screen a 16mm print of their movies during a Sunday night service. The VHS revolution of the 80s allowed churches to buy these movies for a fraction of a cost, and suddenly the economic legs that supported these projects were capped at the knee.
"By the end of the 80s, the 16mm industry died, and from the 90s to 2000s, there was a Wild West of people trying to figure out how to survive," says Rick Garside, who has been producing and directing Christian films for decades, working on projects for Billy Graham's Worldwide Pictures, among others.
Donation-based ministries would fund some Christian movies, but with no theatrical release and little video-store presence to make them lucrative, these movies would often play out as infomercials for the ministries themselves, with very little budget for artistic amenities.
Even without an economic or distribution model, there was always a demand for these films among Christian fundamentalists looking for artistic alternatives to the secular world.
By the 90s, Christians had already developed their own music industry (D.C. Talk, Jars of Clay, and Amy Grant were going platinum several times over) and often had books on the New York Times bestseller lists (most notably the Left Behind rapture-novel series, selling more than 65 million copies worldwide). Along with the art, there were (and continue to be) mechanics, plumbers, and accountants who would advertise themselves as offering a "Christian" take on the service, thereby capitalizing on believers' reluctance to engage in secular industries.
Christians wanting their own segregated (if not a bit plagiaristic) culture was best articulated in Billy Graham's popular edict that Christians be "in the world, but not of the world."
According to Graham, the secular world "is headed by Satan and based upon self, greed, and pride. This is the world that God warns about, and it is this world system and philosophy that Christians are to shun and remain free from."
Progressive tropes like feminism, vegetarianism, psychology, and moral relativism have often been preached as "of the world," thereby necessitating entertainment that wouldn't brainwash their children into becoming communist, dope-smoking mermaids (or whatever it is they were up to over there in California).
They also didn't care for all that gosh-darn swearing.
"Hollywood has always looked to push cultural barriers, some of which are near and dear to Christians," says Garside. "As a parent, there are very few [Hollywood] movies I feel comfortable letting all my kids watch. Even with 'family friendly' Hollywood movies, I'm like, Really? We wanted to show our kids Back to the Future, which is PG, and I didn't remember how much cursing there was. 'Jesus Christ, doc!' and all that."
However, Christian films wouldn't remain underground for long. Just as when Christian rockers like P.O.D., Switchfoot, and MxPx began getting MTV airtime and signed deals with secular record labels, in the mid 2000s, Christian filmmakers started to be courted by Hollywood production companies—particularly after Mel Gibson created the most lucrative R-rated movie of all time via a project that no one wanted to fund.
"The Passion of the Christ really solidified the marketing tactics that would make this industry so successful," says Sampson. "Gibson brilliantly marketed the film as being rejected by Hollywood, explaining that they wouldn't fund it, they wouldn't distribute it, and made a lot of hay out of his own personal faith story, which goes over well with born again Christians."
At this time, Sampson explains, American evangelicals were being consolidated into megachurches, making them an easier target to market films to. Gibson screened Passion for pastors and congregations, creating a grassroots momentum that paid off massively when the movie made it to shopping-mall cineplexes. (This tactic was also employed with great success by Tyler Perry in black churches when marketing his Madea comedy series.)
A generation or two earlier, visiting a movie theater was, in some Christian circles, a mortal sin. But with Passion, it was suddenly your duty to not only buy a ticket for yourself but ten or 20 for whoever you could get to join you. This economic spirituality continues with Christian films today—a Methodist church in Oklahoma recently dropped $8,000 on tickets to The Shack for its congregation, along with weeks of sermons about the movie, and it even built a shack of its own inside the sanctuary.
The success of Passion led to a small theatrical release of Facing the Giants—a Friday Night Lights–type sports drama with a Christian twist. It was almost unheard of for a low-budget Christian production to get a theatrical release, and it might've gone unnoticed if the MPAA hadn't caused a public outcry when it rated the movie PG.
"There was no swearing, no nudity, no nothing, so everyone expected it to be rated G," says Garside. The film's producers claimed Facing the Giants was given the scarlet letter of PG because it proselytized Christianity to young people. The MPAA denied the charge, but the idea of a Hollywood institution deliberately silencing missionaries of Christ had consumed evangelical blogs and pulpits—which inevitably made the film an instant hit.
"The Drudge Report picked up the story, and then it went completely viral," says Garside. "So they were given millions of dollars worth of free publicity from that."
Despite being given the stinkface by critics (the case with nearly every Christian movie), this $100,000 film would go on to reap more than $10 million worldwide, becoming another sobering slap across the face for Hollywood. "The studios all jumped in and created their own [Christian film] divisions, like FOX Faith or Sony's Affirm Films," says Garside.
The Kendrick Brothers—creators of Facing the Giants—used their new production deal with Sony, and the momentum built behind their cinematic martyrdom, to make a film about the modern persecution of evangelical Christians on today's college campuses.
God's Not Dead tells the story of a bitter, Richard Dawkins–esque teacher (played by Kevin Sorbo, of Hercules fame) who forces his philosophy students to sign their names to a document brandishing Nietzsche's ominous phrase, "God is dead."
One brave student refuses to sign, risking a flunking grade, and spends the film passionately debating God's existence with Sorbo, who is mercilessly cruel in his bullying of the young believer. Sorbo's character embodies all the tropes many conservative Christians see in the liberal media (including Hollywood): intellectual, condescending, arrogant, and either angry with God or aiming to overthrowing him (à la Lucifer) and make himself the most high.
After closing with a profoundly catchy title song by the Newsboys, the film encourages viewers to proclaim their faith and text everyone they know the phrase: "God's not dead." Like with Passion, this led to a grassroots movement that in the end netted the $2 million film $64 million in ticket sales.
God's Not Dead also benefitted from the backlash against Darren Aronofsky's very unbiblical Bible film, Noah (which subtly championed the sanctity of animal life while condemning humanity as beyond saving). Anger toward what was seen as heresy by some with Noah (not unlike the rage directed toward Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988) was capitalized on by Christian film stars like Kevin Sorbo as a way to simultaneously attack Hollywood and bring attention to his movie.
"There's a negativity towards Christians in Hollywood," Sorbo told FOX & Friends in 2014, when promoting God's Not Dead. "There's also a negativity towards people who aren't liberal. There's no question that it has hurt me in Hollywood that I didn't vote for Obama.
"The silent majority is starting to get annoyed with what's going on," Sorbo continued. "I think more people need to start speaking about it instead of just sitting there and taking it because we've turned into a bunch of wusses, and it's ridiculous. It's happening, you're getting attacked, you need to stand up for yourself and your beliefs."
Christians felt they were standing up for themselves against the atheist bullies and secular progressives when they would buy tickets to these faith-based movies. While being a missionary used to involve typhoid fever and violent natives, modern Christians could now dutifully obey the Lord via theater tickets.
And there have been no shortage of productions looking to cater to this audience.
After his attempts to turn the Left Behind series into a profitable movie franchise failed in 2000 (only to be rebooted 14 years later with a large budget and Nick Cage on the poster), Kirk Cameron plugged away at dozens of films starring his Tiger Beat dimples. Eventually, he landed the highest-grossing indie film of 2008 ($33 million) with Fireproof, the story of an adulterous fireman desperate to save his marriage.
While Sorbo, Cameron, and the Kendrick Brothers have continued to make films that primarily aim at converting non-believers and empowering the faithful, many Hollywood studios have found ways of turning down the theological volume on their movies enough to entice secular audiences, while still appealing to churchgoers looking for a family-friendly movie.
Like the Bible epics of the 1950s, many Christian movies Hollywood is producing today use the religion as more of a setting or a premise than the central engine of the story. Benjamin Sampson categorizes these as "soft-core Christian" films.
"These are films Hollywood is most onboard with. You have The Blindside, Soul Surfer, Heaven Is for Real, Miracles from Heaven. They all follow the same formula: true stories based on 'real Christians,' generally starring a b-list actor who needs the exposure. The films are soft-religious: God is real, faith is good, etc., and that's the way Hollywood likes it. But they don't market them to Christians that way—they're marketed to them as, 'These are your people and your community finally represented well on film.'"
Ultimately, this is what we have with The Shack: a heartwarming, family-oriented story that aims to capture both secular and devoted audiences. Though the quick resentment roused in Christians at the slightest whiff of liberal messaging in the movies they've paid to see—whether overt (in the case of Beauty & the Beast's recent gay-friendly reboot) or just a playful reimagining of God not as a giant dude sporting a white beard and sandals but as a black woman—can be just as merciless in their mass condemnation of movies as liberals can be toward comedies with offensive ethnic jokes.
Evangelicals are probably correct in their assumption that most studio execs in Hollywood don't care a whole lot about the politics, theology, or cultural nuance of Christian movies outside of how it affects their bottom line. For many believers, though, this stuff is life or death. It's about the spiritual and moral health of their children; it's about finding a "safe space" of entertainment (even if they likely wouldn't use that phrase).
So long as Hollywood can continue channeling that existential need into ticket sales, it'll have quite the cash cow on its hands.
Josiah Hesse is a Denver journalist covering religion, politics, crime, and pop culture. He is the author of Carnality: Dancing On Red Lake, a psychological horror novel about evangelicals in America.