A Tale of Two Movies

As a general rule, David and I rarely go to the movies, but we’ve been to see three movies already this year. The first one was Hidden Figures, which is a must-see for everyone, but the other two were explicitly Christian movies that made it to the general box office: The Shack and The Case for Christ. What a contrast!

Shack MovieI did not read the book, The Shack, because I had heard that it contained all sorts of heretical teachings, and since my opinion of inspirational novels is so low already, it was easy to skip. The hubbub went on for quite a long time, however, and people were so excited about the movie that I decided that I could spare a couple of hours of my life to see it. It’s tough to criticize something when you’re not really sure what you’re criticizing. We showed up half an hour early to the evening showing on opening night, and it was sold out! We bought tickets in advance the next day, and the theater was completely packed. I braced myself to be outraged by ignorance and heresy…, but I wasn’t.

There is so much wrong with the theology in this movie. For an iconoclast like me, one could start with just the portrayal of God in a movie, but I had known about that going in. The main scriptural problem is that there seems to be no identification of sin or expectation of judgment, which sounds great, but since the plot deals with wife beating, child abuse, and the kidnap and murder of a child, most humans would be seeking justice.

Shack castOn the other hand, there is so much right with this movie. If you know someone who is struggling with guilt and unforgiveness, or who feels that God has abandoned them, this is the story for them. And that’s just it: it is a story, one person’s way to portray particular attributes of God and his own emotions about God.  Even though it deals with such tragic subjects, it manages to be—dare I say it?—charming, sweet, and heartwarming. Furthermore, how many movies portray the Trinity? When the main character walks into the shack, I knew from the trailers that we would see Octavia Spencer portraying God the Father, which is already interesting, and I immediately figured out that the young Israeli man was supposed to be Jesus—a great casting choice, by the way. It is so nice to see a portrayal of Jesus without the long, flowy hair and bland expression. However, when a young Asian woman walked into the room, I thought, “Who’s this chick?” The Holy Spirit! That took some adjustment, but I did rejoice to see the Trinity depicted in a popular work of fiction. I also enjoyed the metaphor of a garden representing a person’s life. It looks like a random mess from the ground level, but from above, it forms a beautiful pattern. The story tries to answer the problem of evil, and whether or not it is successful is up to each individual. There were many tearful scenes, and the writers play straight to the heartstrings, but when the audience left the theater, everyone felt happy and beloved.

Case for Christ movieThe Case for Christ was a much more cerebral movie, as well as being the first movie I’ve seen this year without the wonderful Octavia Spencer. However, this one did star Erika Christensen, which was great for these two Parenthood fans. The movie is based on the book by Lee Strobel, telling the true story of his effort to disprove the resurrection of Jesus. Strobel was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in the early 1980s, when his wife was converted to Christianity. Lee considered this to be insane and a betrayal of their marriage, and he set out to gather evidence to turn her back to “the way she used to be.” He visits archeologists, clergymen, medical doctors, and others in his obsessive drive to destroy his wife’s faith, which almost destroys his marriage, instead. There are several subplots— since this is real life— that deal with Strobel’s relationship with his own father, his job at the Tribune, and his success in jailing an accused cop killer. To paraphrase a reviewer, since the movie title is The Case for Christ, we know how it will end. All happy, with updates before the credits to let the audience know where all of these people are today.

Case for Christ husband wifeIf you want to have facts to back up your faith, or if you have a beloved unbeliever of an intellectual bent, this is the movie for you. Some scenes are unabashedly didactic, but certainly informative. There are also scenes of Chicago’s famous Willow Creek Church in the early 1980s, with long-haired women and hairsprayed men in wide ties enjoying early contemporary worship music. It was interesting that this movie connected with two books that I reviewed recently on EatReadSleep. Shauna Niequist, who wrote Present Over Perfect, is the daughter of Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Church. Secondly, the main topic of Strobel’s research is Jesus’ resurrection, which is also the subject of N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. The movie’s release is, of course, perfectly timed for Easter viewing.

Something for the heart, something for the mind. As a movie, The Shack works better, although it has a bit of a cheesiness factor. For theological points, go for The Case for Christ. Either way, grab the popcorn and enjoy.