Modern Christian art tends to be a sad affair. Not because it’s melancholic, or reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, but because it’s bad. Instead of telling a powerful story in a unique way, much of modern Christian art prioritizes validating the general beliefs of its Christian audience and/or evangelizing to secular audiences over artfulness — the equivalent of hitting a nonbeliever across their head with a Bible in the expectation that, once they recover from their concussion, they’ll convert to Christianity.
That’s why most of the Christian contemporary music played by local Christian radio stations sounds far less inventive than the melodies played on pop and hip-hop charts, and why the idea for the film God’s Not Dead probably should have died during the brainstorming session of its creators. These works of art tell generic, safe, Christ-themed tales through worn clichés.
The Shack, the film adaptation of a 2007 New York Times-bestselling novel, is no different.
On paper, the film’s premise — the story of a man who returns to the cabin in which his daughter was murdered by a serial killer and, in his despair, has a physical encounter with the Trinity — veers close to the territory of melodrama and sentimentality, with minimal realism and zero subtlety. Onscreen, the film walks the rest of the way into this landmine at its own peril.
The Shack utilizes trite dialogue, fails to flesh out its main character (or any other characters) beyond the grief he carries, and presents easy answers to a person’s struggle to believe in God’s goodness during a period of tragedy. It’s a bit of a wonder to me how a nonbeliever could be moved by this film’s narrative unless they 1) have positively engaged with Christianity at some point in their life, and 2) haven’t watched many films in their lifetime. I can’t recommend anyone go see The Shack unless they’re fans of the novel and can’t help themselves.
I wonder how long it will take creators of Christian art to realize that, if they want to successfully evangelize through the entertainment industry, they must focus more on their craft and begin to tell stories in ways that are unfamiliar and will subvert the public’s expectations.
I wonder also whether Christians who enjoy the sort of modern Christian art I’m criticizing will ever grow dissatisfied with these works that coddle them and uplift their predetermined beliefs, instead of challenging them to engage in tough ruminations about humanity, their faith, and God.
In reality, the most thought-provoking, cinematic meditations on faith and existence have come more from the “secular” film industry than from the Christian film industry. An example of this is The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick. The film wows with its unusual form, its striking visuals, and its focus on questions about interconnectedness and the vastness of the universe. Instead of fashioning unrealistic characters and story from a message, The Tree of Life makes it seem as though its message has come about organically, birthed from the realistic lives of the film’s characters.
Although The Tree of Life isn’t explicitly Christian, the thoroughness of its inspection of what it means to be a human being is reminiscent of the Bible. I finished watching The Tree of Life with tears streaming down my face, and in the silence that followed I considered my mortality.
Silence brought me to a similar state of mind. Unlike The Tree of Life, the novel Silence, written by Shūsaku Endō, a Japanese-Catholic writer, and its film adaptation from Martin Scorsese, are as explicitly Christian as The Shack. Yet Silence tells a surprising, challenging, complex story that many people have yet to encounter.
The Gospel isn’t simplistic, and its representations shouldn’t be, either. If The Shack were created with this creed in mind, perhaps it would be a better work of art. Instead, sadly, it’s nothing more than a religious tract.