Posts Tagged ‘True Story’

BernieNo, this is not a review of Weekend at Bernie’s, that classic 1989 dark comedy about a wealthy dead man who is kept “alive” by his two idiot employees. Ironically, this Bernie is also about a dead rich person who the town thinks is still alive–but it’s a woman this time, and is actually a true story. The film stars Jack Black as Bernie, the sweetest man in small town Carthage, Texas. Shirley MacLaine is the wealthy widow that he ends up murdering, and Matthew McConaughey is the quirky D.A. who prosecutes Bernie. You need to watch Bernie simply for Jack Black’s incredible performance as the lead character. Personally, I’m not a big fan of his movies–other than Kung Fu Panda–but he really captures this part perfectly.

Spoiler alert! Bernie Tiede comes to a small East Texas town and becomes its assistant funeral director. He is a chubby, partially effeminate man who the old ladies find intoxicating because of his sweetness to grieving families. The movie opens with Bernie training young morticians in the art of preparing a dead body for a viewing, as well as how to care for the bereaved. But Bernie is much more than an incredibly sensitive funeral director. He is the lead tenor in the Methodist church choir. He teaches Sunday School. He volunteers his time to teach drama at the local high school. He even acts and sings in the high school musicals. And the list goes on. Bernie finds time to help almost everybody in town in some way.

Bernie’s practice is to visit widows a few days after a funeral to check on them–especially the elderly ones. On one such occasion, he reaches out to the richest (and meanest) widow in town, Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine). Gradually, he becomes her personal assistant, taking her to dinner, traveling with her, and even handling her financial affairs. The townspeople don’t know if Bernie has become her paramour or is just being sweet (because he may be gay anyway). In the end, Marjorie becomes so controlling of his life that Bernie shoots her in the back five times and stores her body in the freezer. For nine months, he goes about life as usual, giving the appearance that she is still alive, and just reclusive. Only the local D.A. (McConaughey) and Marjorie’s stockbroker are suspicious, since they never succumbed to the saccharine sweetness of Bernie.

What’s fabulous about this movie is how the true story is interspersed with the “real” townspeople of Carthage, giving their play-by-play analysis of the entire tragedy. These characters really capture the feel of small town Texas, that’s for sure. And, unfortunately, they are pretty typical Bible Belt evangelicals too, albeit on the naive side of the spectrum. With their descriptions of Bernie, you would think they were describing Jesus Himself–which caused quite a dilemma when Marjorie was discovered to be murdered. Even then, many of the people of the town either dismissed the idea of Bernie’s guilt, or found ways to rationalize how he could have committed such great evil. In the end, the trial actually had to be moved to another small East Texas town because there was no way Bernie could have had a fair trial–he was too universally LOVED!

Which brings me to the main question of this post: Why do we have trouble believing that sweet, kind people can do evil things? We seem to be able to understand the Adolph Hitlers and Osama bin Ladens of this world. After all, evil people do evil things, right? But even then, if evil people show the right amount of remorse and sorrow, we are tempted to exonerate them, no matter how horrible the crime. So it is even worse when a “good” person does something really out of character! Bernie had done so many great things for so many people that it was beyond belief that he even had an evil thought, much less commit murder.

The problem is that so many people, even evangelical Christians, don’t really believe in total depravity. I see it in the eyes of parents when they talk about how unbelievable it is that their “good” child could have done such bad things. They attempt to explain their child’s sins away, blaming friends, fatigue, or some bit of misfortune. In this humanistic age we live in, many do not want to believe that people really are depraved and sinful.

But the truth is that there is no such thing as a good person. Jesus himself said: “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good–except God alone.” (Luke 18:19). When we don’t believe in total depravity and the deep-seated wickedness in the heart of man, then we will easily close our eyes and excuse behavior instead of expose it. Bernie is a film that exposes our desire to see the world as a place where good people do only good things and bad people do all the bad things. This sort of thinking doesn’t leave room for a good God who alone saves even the “sweet” people of this world!

Now this is a much better movie poster than the one in yesterday’s post!  In this UK version, we see a better picture of what Argo is all about–the involvement of Hollywood into the dramatic political events of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.  As I’ve already discussed, Argo takes its name from a fake movie used by a CIA operative to attempt to free American hostages during its fake filming in Tehren.  You will have to watch the movie to find out what happened (even though the ending may not be the part that is “based on a true story”).

Argo introduces us to some courageous people who attempted true heroics in a crazy-but-daring rescue scheme.  People who risk their lives to save others should ALWAYS impress us since it points us to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!  Of course, not all heroes are motivated out of a love for Jesus and/or a love for people, but the sacrifices they make are very Christ-like in nature.

But I would suggest that movies like Argo can also remind us of the heroic stories found in Scripture.  (If they don’t makes us think of those true stories, maybe we spend too much time watching movies rather than reading our Bibles!)  From the beginning to the end of God’s Word, we see men and women risking their lives to save and deliver others.  Abraham’s daring rescue of Lot comes to mind.  Then there’s David and that slingshot saving an entire army and people of God.  Or maybe you recall Rahab risking her life to protect Israelite spies.  How about Samson defeating all those Philistines in his own death!  Finally, some of my favorite vignettes “star” David’s mighty men as the ultimate Navy Seals and Army Commandos.

One of my favorite stories of heroic, risky intrigue appears in the Book of Judges.  It’s so good, it’s worth quoting in it’s entirety:

15 Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, and the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The people of Israel sent tribute by him to Eglon the king of Moab. 16 And Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length, and he bound it on his right thigh under his clothes. 17 And he presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. 18 And when Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent away the people who carried the tribute. 19 But he himself turned back at the idols near Gilgal and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” And he commanded, “Silence.” And all his attendants went out from his presence. 20 And Ehud came to him as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And he arose from his seat. 21 And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. 22 And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out. 23 Then Ehud went out into the porch and closed the doors of the roof chamber behind him and locked them. 24 When he had gone, the servants came, and when they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “Surely he is relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber.” 25 And they waited till they were embarrassed. But when he still did not open the doors of the roof chamber, they took the key and opened them, and there lay their lord dead on the floor. 26 Ehud escaped while they delayed, and he passed beyond the idols and escaped to Seirah. 27 When he arrived, he sounded the trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim. Then the people of Israel went down with him from the hill country, and he was their leader. 28 And he said to them, “Follow after me, for the Lord has given your enemies the Moabites into your hand.” So they went down after him and seized the fords of the Jordan against the Moabites and did not allow anyone to pass over. 29 And they killed at that time about 10,000 of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men; not a man escaped. 30 So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest for eighty years.  (Judges 3:15-30)

Now that’s a story more than worthy to be a blockbuster Hollywood film!  As fascinating as the heroics of the characters in Argo might be, we are blessed to be given stories of people like Ehud that should absolutely blow us away every day.  These hero stories should deepen our awe of a God who providentially equips His people and controls situations according to His good pleasure.  But they also point us to the most amazing hero tale of all time, the one about a hero who sacrificed His life on a cross at Calvary to deliver us from the ultimate enemies of sin and death.  Our sovereign Script-writer and Director came up with the ultimate plan, which is the most successful rescue in all of history!

Argo: Based on a True Story

Posted: October 11, 2012 by John C. Kwasny, Ph.D. in Uncategorized
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I know what you’re thinking: This is definitely one of the blandest movie posters of all time!  And the title?  Argo?  What’s up with that?  But then you hear it’s Ben Affleck’s third major directorial effort, and you become interested.  Follow that up with the buzz surrounding a possible Best Picture nomination and suddenly this lame movie poster morphs into a must-see motion picture!  But for some people, including my beautiful wife, there is a much simpler way to get them interested in this movie.  All it takes is just five words on a movie poster or in a trailer: BASED ON A TRUE STORY.  I joke often that these words will get an almost automatic response from my wife and even my daughters: “I want to see that!”

Argo takes us back to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, a time in American history I remember vividly (being 13 at the time and just getting interested politics and world events).  My main memory of these series of events was the bumbling failed efforts of President Jimmy Carter to free the hostages, followed by the strong leadership of our next President, the great Ronald Reagan, and the hostages’ eventual release.  But unknown to all of us at the time was the true story of a CIA operative who hatched a plan to create a fake movie in order to smuggle six American hostages out of Tehran–the story told in Argo.  The odd movie title Argo was the actual name of this Star Wars rip-off film that enlisted Hollywood personnel to make it look as real as possible.  From all the early reviews, this “declassified true story” is quite a brilliant, humorous, and dramatic thriller.

Now back to my wife’s five favorite words when it comes to movie selection: BASED ON A TRUE STORY.  So why do those words motivate her, as well as millions of other filmgoers, to flock to movies like Argo?  Personally, I used to avoid any movies that claimed to be true stories like the plague.  My rationale was that I lived around enough true stories all the time, so I wanted my movie watching to take me AWAY from all that reality!  I wanted stupid, mindless comedies, or science fiction, or comic book flicks, or…well, you get the idea.  BASED ON A TRUE STORY always made me think the movie would be an emotional gut-wrencher that would just wear me out rather than refresh and revitalize me.  I even avoided the movie Titanic for years by telling people who begged me to watch it: “I know how it ends.  The boat sinks.”  But, thanks to being forced by my wife to watch hundreds of “based on a true story” movies, I have come around (or maybe I’ve been brainwashed) to  see the value in this genre.

So back to the central question of this post: Why do we watch these movies?  Why does it fascinate us to watch film renditions of true stories?  One could argue that it is because of our fleshly voyeuristic tendencies: we simply enjoy watching the trials and travails of others.  Or, maybe we just like to be “in the know,” and watching a theatrical history is easier than just reading or hearing about it.  Those might be contributing factors, but I would like to believe the primary reason is connected to our status at image-bearers.  We love true stories because our souls long to learn more of the true story of God!  All true stories are pieces of HISTORY and history is really HIS STORY–it is all about God, His Plan, and His world.  Whether the average person recognizes it or not, true stories tells us more about God’s creation, God’s providence, human sin, and the course of His wise plan.  Thus, these stories can and should fascinate our hearts.

If my reasoning is sound, then Christians should be even more enthusiastic about movies that are BASED ON A TRUE STORY!  Now that doesn’t mean that every true story is worth watching, especially as produced by Hollywood.  There are many that just sensationalize all the wrong things about our world.  But the true stories that give us opportunities to think about what God is doing in history and how He works in the lives of people are good for us to enjoy–and learn from.  We’ll talk more about that in relation to Argo in tomorrow’s post.  Until then, give thanks that ALL of OUR true stories, even the difficult ones, are simply part of a sovereign, loving, and gracious God’s plan!

(guest post by: Brad Davis)

I’m a sucker for inspirational sports movies. I love stories that chronicle the hard work and dedication of underdogs who achieve the impossible. My guess is that I’m not alone. The fact that a majority of men spent a significant part of their childhood playing one sport or another makes these movies the perfect setting to communicate powerful messages to us. As I’ve watched numerous sports dramas throughout my life, I’ve noticed a disturbing personal trend. For some reason, with sports movies, I tend to drop my guard and mindlessly buy whatever the story teller is selling. My ability to personally identify with the characters often causes me to absorb messages from the film that are in stark contrast to the truth of Scripture. Needless to say, this is dangerous.

The focus of this post is the film Rudy, arguably the greatest football movie of all time. If you’re one of the three men over the age of ten who HAVE NOT seen this film, you’re in for a treat. It tells the true story of Rudy Ruettiger, a 5 foot 6, 165 pound kid with dyslexia whose one dream is to play football for Notre Dame. Rudy’s limited size and athleticism, not to mention his learning disability, made this goal virtually impossible to reach. But against all odds, he persevered through every imaginable trial, and by sheer heart, hard work, and determination solidified his (on-screen) character and made his dream a reality.

As the dramatic final scene of the film plays out, the viewer is left with the sense that Rudy has arrived. You feel as though his integrity and character have been permanently cemented through this experience. You envy his accomplishments in spite of insurmountable odds and long to be as he is, seemingly mature and complete, lacking in nothing and prepared for whatever lies ahead in life.

The underdog theme is common in almost all sports dramas, and what can be misleading for Christians is that it appears to be Biblical. After all, overcoming obstacles through hard work is a Christian virtue, right? Aren’t we supposed to persevere and endure trials so that we can be mature and complete (James 1: 2-4)? How does Rudy’s gospel differ from the Gospel of the Bible?

The gospel of Rudy appears to be that Trials + Perseverance = Character & Success. Hard work is the lone vehicle of Rudy’s salvation and is the key ingredient to his character development in the film, but does it work in real life? Can hard work save us? Does it build character? Can it bring us success?

According to the Bible, the answer to each question above is NO. Scripture explicitly warns us against the dangers of trusting in ourselves for salvation, sanctification, and success. Our salvation is a gift from God and not the result of our works (Ephesians 2:8). Our character is also a gift from God as we are ‘credited’ with the righteousness of Christ (Romans 4). While we are commanded to work hard at whatever we do (Col. 3:23), we are also reminded that hard work doesn’t guarantee success. Scripture informs us that this too comes from the Lord (Proverbs 21:31). Rudy’s gospel is the gospel of the world and of the American Dream, but it isn’t the Gospel of the Bible.

So how did Rudy’s gospel work out for him in real life? On one hand, his external life was radically changed by the events portrayed in the film. In addition to having a movie made about him, Rudy went on to become a successful motivational speaker and have numerous awards and scholarships named in his honor. He’s been given keys to various cities and has received honorary doctorate degrees. But unfortunately, the character building formula portrayed in the film was discredited by Rudy’s own actions. In December of 2011, he was charged by the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission) in a scheme to deceive investors into buying stock in his sports drink company. He produced a product similar to Gatorade and lied to potential investors about its performance and demand in the market place. Investors were conned into believing the product was on the rise and as a result purchased large amounts of stock in his company. Just before the sham was revealed, Rudy sold his shares of stock and walked away with nearly $11 million dollars, leaving his investors holding an empty bag. Rudy’s gospel failed to equip him with the character we thought he’d developed in the movie. Instead, it gave him popularity and fame that he leveraged to steal from those who trusted him.

It’s easy to demonize Rudy for his deplorable actions, but the truth is, we are no different. Apart from Christ, all of us are despicable human beings capable of much worse if we trust in ourselves for salvation, sanctification, and success. Hard work alone never builds character! It may help us reach goals and achieve some degree of success, but it can never save us. Rudy’s gospel is the exact opposite of the Gospel of the Bible. The beautiful message of the Cross is that our character has already been built for us through the hard work of Jesus Christ. We simply have to cling to it by trusting in Him alone…which ironically, is hard work.


Brad Davis is a former missionary at Zhengzhou University in central China, where he taught English for two years.  He was also a public school teacher and currently works in healthcare.  He currently lives in Brandon, MS with his wife Christie and their one-year old son, Hayes.

(Rudy agreed to settle the charges against him by paying $384,000. By doing so, he neither admitted to nor denied the allegations. For more information and to read the main article referenced in this post, click here.)

(WARNING: Due to the graphic nature of this film, and the raw honesty of Godawa’s writing, the following post has been rated PG-13)

Yesterday, Brian Godawa discussed the moral honesty in the film, Machine Gun Preacher.  Today is the continuation of that post.

Spiritual Honesty

And that brings me to the spiritual honesty. While Sam becomes a hero, the movie does not white wash him nor whitewash his faith.  His faith and sensitive conscious create a complex moral tension in his life that is not completely solved by the end of the story. Sam becomes so focused on his cause of rescuing people on the other side of the earth that he neglects his own family given by God. Sure, he sells what he owns to save the children, but that means what he owns is taken from providing for his family. This is a common problem with “full time” charity and ministry workers. Christian salvation does not always result in a balanced life. Christians often continue on as a mixed bag of good and bad qualities that God uses in spite of our flaws. Kinda like the Bible. But all too often unlike the Christian movie genre.

When Sam cannot get donations from the selfish rich people around him and he sees that the kids are not being helped, he has a crisis of faith and gets angry with God to the point of cussing him out along with his family. Oh my goodness! A Christian who cusses when he gets angry? Heresy! The film portrays Sam repenting from his suicidal hatred and coming back to a justice orientation, but it does not show a spiritual resolution. Maybe this is just part of that uneasy ambiguity of the tensions in our own lives. The reality is that while Sam remains married, he remains a scarred and imperfect man with a bad attitude, who still screws up. It is a messy situation and no one gets away clean or undamaged. There is redemption, but it is no fairy tale happy talk prosperity salvation.

At the end of the film, we see a video of the real Sam Childers telling us he is not capable of clearly delineating the right and wrong of what he does. But he asks us the question, “If it was your child who was kidnapped, and I could bring them back to you, would it matter how I got them back?” Making it personal challenges the self-righteous who would sacrifice the lives of other’s children on the altar of convenient arm-chair philosophizing. These are real people’s children being kidnapped, raped, enslaved and murdered, not abstractions for an argument. Talk is not enough. Action is required. Evil can only be stopped with violent force. And violent force, even in service to righteousness, is not without its negative effects on us. But the evil will not listen to talk. So your only choices are: Allow innocent children to be kidnapped, raped and murdered or kill the evil perpetrators? Which will you choose?

Portrayal of Evil and Redemption

Straight up, this is a hard R-rated film. Unlike “Christian movies,” It is full of the F-word, has a crude sex scene and is very violent. In other words, many Christians will be offended by it. In my book, Hollywood Worldviews (Read the Preface free along with unused chapters of the book at the URL link) I have a chapter on sex and violence in the movies and the Bible where I explain that in a story, the power of the redemption is only equal to the power of the sin depicted. If you do not portray evil Biblically as the seductive yet destructive reality that it is, your message of redemption will not be truthful or believable.

While I do not condone all portrayals of sin in movies (some of it can be exploitative. Read my book :-), in this case, the depth of the depravity is essential to the potency of the redemption. The problem with some Christian movies is that when they portray real world evil with a filtered “protective” sugar coating like some 1970’s television bad guys, they degrade their redemption story to an unrealistic anachronism that doesn’t ring true to human nature. If the real world they portray is not real, how can the redemption be real? The reason why Sam’s Old time Religion salvation in a corny quirky Evangelical church is not off putting to unbelievers is because it is depicted as a polar opposite of Sam’s equally extreme pre-Christian lifestyle. We understand and accept that it takes extreme measures to save an extreme sinner.

Christians often have a hard time with the F-word in movies. They will sometimes accept violent shootings, stabbings, or riddling bullets (as long as they don’t show too much blood), but for some contradictory reason, they just think that the F-word is too harsh for their holy ears. Look, I’ll agree that sometimes it can become excessive, but I’m sorry, if I see a biker dude in a Christian movie saying “friggin” or “dang” or whatever other substitute cuss word for how they really talk, I do not believe the reality of the character and subsequently do not believe the storytellers understand human nature because they are afraid to face it like the Bible does. Their fear of accuracy is a reflection of a lack of faith, reminiscent of hagiographic biographies of saints. Just too good to be true. The book of Judges depicts far worse than Machine Gun Preacher ever does.

When Sam has quicky car sex with his wife in the car by the side of the road, we are saddened by the dehumanized crudity, and that is Biblical (Don’t worry, wives and girlfriends, they don’t show any skin). That is Biblical because it portrays exactly the kind of dehumanization that has destroyed Sam and destroyed his ability to find intimacy with his own loving wife. Every aspect of this man – love, sexuality, relationships, human concern — is spiritually damaged almost beyond repair. Why, that is almost as bad as the Bible’s detailed description of dehumanizing sexuality in Ezekiel 16 and 23  (Read my book for a whole lot more).

And of course, when we see a person whose lips have been cut off because they talked back to the terrorists, or when we see a child whose legs have been blown off by a mine, or a child forced to murder his own mother, we are repulsed because we cannot imagine such evil. But rather than being “sensitive” to family audiences or avoiding “excessive violence”, this movie does what is morally right: It shows the evil so our consciences will be convicted and we will act (I betya parents don’t let their children read Ezekiel 16 or 23 either). If we never saw the grotesque images of the skeletal myriads of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, we would not have the moral growth necessary to “never again” let it happen. If we do not see what is happening to the innocents in Sudan and around the world, we will remain ignorant and spiritually and morally immature, preferring political arguments in our safely removed lives to actual moral actions.

I will conclude this analysis with a translation of a famous Tony Campolo charge that struck my heart and never left me years ago:

Rebel terrorists have murdered over 400,000 Sudanese, and enslaved over 40,000 children and many Christians just don’t give a shit. And the most tragic fact of all is that many Christians who just read that statement were more offended by my use of the word “shit” than by the fact that 400,000 Sudanese have been killed and 40,000 enslaved by terrorists.

God, forgive us of this sin.

Jesus, thank you for Machine Gun Preacher.

Brian Godawa is the screenwriter for the award-winning feature film, To End All Wars, starring Kiefer Sutherland and the newly released, Alleged, starring Brian Dennehy as Clarence Darrow and Fred Thompson and William Jennings Bryan. He previously adapted to film the best-selling supernatural thriller novel The Visitation by author Frank Peretti for Ralph Winter (X-Men, Wolverine). He has traveled around the United States teaching on movies, worldviews, and culture to colleges, churches and community groups. His book, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment has been released in a revised edition from InterVarsity Press. Go to his website to get free articles and watch videos of his work.

Machine Gun Preacher: A Pissed Off Christian Freedom Fighter

Review by Brian Godawa

Relativity Media

Directed by Marc Forster

Written by Jason Keller

(WARNING: Due to the graphic nature of this film, and the raw honesty of Godawa’s writing, the following post has been rated PG-13)

From the opening scene of a Sudanese village pillaged by LRA terrorists who force children to kill their parents to the closing credit monologue of the real life Sam Childers’ plea to rescue the kidnapped Sudanese orphans by any means necessary, Machine Gun Preacher packs a punch to the gut of our moral conscience. And it does so with a nuanced spiritual and moral reasoning that challenges our American couch potato activism that prides itself in political debates over moral action. Oh, and did I say it involves Jesus?

Machine Gun Preacher is based on the true story of Sam Childers, a drug addicted motorcycle riding criminal who gets saved by Jesus and goes to help rescue the orphans of Sudan from kidnapping, enslavement, torture and murder by rebel terrorists.

The story begins with an unrepentant Sam being released from prison, telling the Guards to go “F” themselves. What “poor” Sam learns is that his faithful wife has found Jesus and quit her stripping job to lead a respectable god fearing life raising their daughter. And now she wants him to come to church. Needless to say, that pisses Sam off big time and launches him on a self-destructive raging crime spree of drugs, robbery, and violence. But he is brought to the end of himself and believe it or not, gives his life to Jesus, being baptized and getting a respectable job in construction. This ain’t your low key Tender Mercies.

One day, Sam hears about the church mission project of building churches in Uganda and he takes off to go see how he can help. What he discovers on his trip is an evil world more wicked than he even realized. Joseph Kony’s terrorist group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), crosses from Uganda into Sudan and burns down villages, kills adults, tortures those who speak out, and forces children to become soldiers in their terrorist group. The result is myriads of orphans without much help from anyone to protect them.

Well, as you can guess, this pisses off Sam, and he gets a vision from God one day to build a church on his property for street people rejected by “proper” churchgoers, as well as an orphanage in the Sudan to help the children. Once, his new orphanage is burnt to the ground, he starts over, but this time with a new spirit – or rather, an old spirit redeemed with a new purpose. He joins the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a counterinsurgent militia that protects the oppressed children with lethal force. Thus the title Machine Gun Preacher. Sam clings to his God and his guns. And thus the tremendous moral tale that asks the questions worthy of the Good Book itself: “How far will you go to save helpless innocent human life?”; “How does God’s redemption apply in a violent world of evil run amok?”; “Is self defense morally justifiable in rescuing women and orphans?”

A Christian Movie?

I have to be honest, this movie contains in it what I usually criticize in a typical “Christian movie.” Big bad biker dude’s wife finds God, brings him to a corny red-bricked church and he accepts Jesus into his heart, “gets saved” and baptized, turns his life around, starts his own church, and helps the poor children, yada yada. Christian clichés and memes we are all too familiar with in the Christian world.

However, this movie is not a cliché Christian movie. It is a deeply moving honest portrayal of “muscular” Christian faith alive in the complex real world we live in that draws respect even from unbelievers. So why do I say that? What makes it different if it carries some of the very same elements of Christian movies?

Well, first off, let’s be honest that the most obvious major differences are good production values, good writing, good directing, and good acting, that is so absent from “Christian movies.” Now, I am not going to go on a Christian movie bashing binge. And I am not going to make digs at specifically named Christian movies (and you know who you are :-). As a matter of fact, I think in general, they are getting better in all these categories as the years press on. I have been a part of some mediocre movies as well, so I know how hard it is to make a good movie, period. But there are several things in the storytelling itself that I think make this film work where Christian movies approaching similar themes often do not. First, in its moral and spiritual honesty and second, in its portrayal of evil and redemption.

Moral Honesty

While the movie wrestles with the moral issue of how to rescue widows and orphans oppressed by murderers, it does not promote hero worship or give pat answers and it deals honestly with the moral ambiguity of violence as a means to an end that exists in the real world.

First off, the villains in the film are fairly represented. Though the bulk of the murdering done in Southern Sudan has been by Muslims against Christians, Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, claims to be a Christian. Now, this would be a perfect opportunity for the typical Hollywood politically correct spin to ignore the Muslim violence and paint it as a picture of “Christian” terrorism. But the movie does not do this. It tells us about the Muslim violence and then communicates that Kony claims to be a Christian, but is clearly not a Christian, but a wolf in wolf’s clothing, using the Christian God’s name in vain. The issues are just more complicated than knee jerk moral equivalency will allow.

The movie also struggles honestly with the issue of using violence to defend the innocent against violence. Rather than creating another left/right divide of the issue or pacifism versus warmongering, this story promotes action, yet questions itself with an ambiguous thoughtfulness. When Sam sees the evil of the LRA cutting off the lips of protestors or the mine field death of a little boy, he realizes that this kind of evil cannot be stopped except by force and draws upon his past violence to overcome it. But his past nature is redeemed by channeling it to do good. Other than unborn babies, can there be any more helpless victims in need of protection than these? Can a pacifist in good conscience actually choose to allow orphan children to be murdered instead of stopping their murder with lethal force? As the Bible says, killing in self-defense is morally justifiable (Exodus 22:2-3) and rescuing widows and orphans from the wicked is commanded (Jeremiah 22:3; Psalm 82:4; Proverbs 24:11).

But neither does the movie degenerate into a bloodfest of vicarious catharsis of violent joy. It raises the issue, through a U.N. peace worker, that the use of violence even in service of a good cause can turn heroes into villains. She claims Kony too started out as Sam did, trying to do good with his violence but ended evil. But rather than capitulate to this simplistic moral reductionism, the movie goes deeper. Sam gets to the point where he becomes so filled with hate for his enemies that he gives up on God in the face of all the evil and is driven to suicidal thoughts. But he finds a way out back to God and draws a line of distinction between righteous and unrighteous violence based on the motive of hatred. One can achieve justice rather than vengeance by not allowing the hatred of the enemy to grip our own hearts. According to this movie, there is righteous violence in service of the good. In fact, Sam ends up rescuing that U.N. worker with his guns, providing delicious irony that reminds one of how American soldiers provide the freedom and protection to protestors to hate and accuse America of denying freedom.

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Brian Godawa is the screenwriter for the award-winning feature film, To End All Wars, starring Kiefer Sutherland and the newly released, Alleged, starring Brian Dennehy as Clarence Darrow and Fred Thompson and William Jennings Bryan. He previously adapted to film the best-selling supernatural thriller novel The Visitation by author Frank Peretti for Ralph Winter (X-Men, Wolverine). He has traveled around the United States teaching on movies, worldviews, and culture to colleges, churches and community groups. His book, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment has been released in a revised edition from InterVarsity Press. Go to his website to get free articles and watch videos of his work.