Audiences Are Demanding More Faith-Based Films

'The Shack' opens over expectations despite growing controversy about its depiction of God

by Zachary Leeman | Updated 06 Mar 2017 at 10:59 AM

The big box office news to come out of the weekend had to do with the performance of “Logan,” the latest chapter in the comic book-inspired “X-Men” movie franchise. While the positive press was well-deserved, the success of that R-rated superhero adventure overshadowed the strong opening of another film, “The Shack.”

The faith-friendly movie continued the trend of proving just how strong the audience is for films that take faith seriously. “The Shack” blew away expectations and earned over $16 million in its opening weekend. Its production budget, meanwhile, was a mere $20 million.

Based on the best-selling book by William P. Young, “The Shack” follows a father (Sam Worthington) who loses a daughter while on a camping trip — and then discovers she was abducted and murdered. In the midst of his grief, the father receives a letter inviting him to the cabin where evidence of his daughter’s murder was found. The letter is signed by “Papa” — what his young daughter called God — and he spends a weekend in the cabin overcoming grief and becoming closer to God.

The drama was predictably dismissed by mainstream critics, who dismiss all faith-based movies, including the classic “The Passion of the Christ” — earning only 16=-percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

Voting audience members, however, awarded the film 88-percent positive reviews. There are 42 critics’ reviews that have been counted, compared to over 7,000 viewers who have voted on the site.

“The Shack” also earned an “A” score from Cinemascore, which collects data from opening weekend audiences.

For decades, Hollywood studios balked at anything remotely friendly to faithful American audiences. This forced projects like “The Passion of the Christ” and “God’s Not Dead” to be independently financed.

Related: ‘The Shack’ Sparks Controversy Among the Faithful

Now, Hollywood seems to begrudgingly notice the faith-based genre and is releasing a handful of modestly budgeted films each year. The hunger of culturally ignored audiences, however, seems to be growing. The opening of “The Shack” marks one of the biggest for the faith-based genre in some time. Recent releases like “War Room,” “Risen,” “Miracles from Heaven,” and “Hacksaw Ridge” all opened to less than $16 million in their opening weekends, though all pulled in very hefty totals.

While “The Shack” is enjoying success with many audience members, it hasn’t been a total runaway success with the faithful. Pastor and host of the documentary “Hollywood’s War on God” Joe Schimmel told the Christian News Network the film’s physical depictions of God — a black woman named Papa played by Octavia Spencer, a Sarayu, and an Asian gardener — “lends itself to a dangerous and false image of God and idolatry.”

Evangelical blogger Tim Challies also declared he would not even see the film as it dared to depict God at all.

The controversy with the film's depictions seems not to have harmed its popularity with moviegoers, however — at least so far. The fact that many faithful audience members were able to look beyond the controversies likely further suggests how desperate they are for projects from Hollywood that seriously deal with the faith and values long not taken seriously in film and television.

"I love the way this story brings forth the Love & Forgiveness God wants us to have for each other," wrote one Facebook user on the official page for "The Shack." "I'd like to believe that God will always approach us in a way that is loving and inviting."

"For me it was life changing," commented another user, proclaiming the film had him rethinking the idea of abandoning his faith.

Wayne Jacobsen, who collaborated in the writing of the book and helped start the publishing company that put it out into the world, directly answered many of the controversies surrounding the story of "Shack" in a blog post for lifestream.org. "I'm hearing increasing rumblings from people who want to denounce the story as dangerous for Christians to see. Mention the movie in your Facebook feed and you'll hear from at least a few of your friends or family decrying it as heresy."

One Twitter user described the movie as "blasphemous," while another said of the film, "Do not use heretical teaching for a conversation starter."

Jacobsen explained that the original manuscript by Young had heavy universalist themes — the idea that all will receive salvation — and Jacobsen insisted they cut back so it would appeal better to the average Christian.

Jacobsen also insisted the controversial depictions used in the film were merely a tool to help push the greater themes of the story. "The characterization in the book doesn't speak to God's gender, but through whom he chooses to reveal himself," wrote Jacobsen. "The point is that he can reveal himself as easily through a black woman as a white male, an Asian senior, or a Latino child. It doesn't get more Incarnational than that."

Jacobsen concluded his defense of the book and film with, "The point of the story is that none of us are so lost in our pain or despair that we are beyond the reach of a gracious Father."

Still, Jacobsen's words have not calmed the fires of many who see the film as heretical and offensive. One Twitter user described the movie as "blasphemous," while another said in reference to the film, "Do not use heretical teaching for a conversation starter."

Related: Seven Faith-Based Films to See in 2017

No matter where moviegoers and faithful audience members fall on the controversies surrounding the story of "The Shack," there is little doubt that its success over its opening weekend — in the face of giant superhero blockbusters and highly promoted franchise films — is proof that a large portion of America is demanding more projects from Hollywood that don't ignore faith or the values of people long shunned by pop culture and the media.

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