A few years ago I had an epiphany. There was a period in my Christian life where I became extremely frustrated and upset about the depiction of serious Christians in popular culture. When I watch movies and television or listen to music I often see Christianity misrepresented with straw men caricatures that are easy to mock because they are ridiculous in the extreme. Christians are usually portrayed either as unloving, judgmental hypocrites or as pollyannish, pie in the sky optimists who don’t have a clue what the real world is like. I used to become infuriated at these preposterous portrayals. I would sit and fume and think of what kinds of responses I could send to these persecutors of the Church and her Lord. Then came the epiphany.
I was struck by the question:“Are these people sitting around all day thinking of the best way to make Christianity look hateful and ridiculous or are they simply portraying what they actually see?” As I thought about this, I began to watch movies and television in another way and to listen to music differently as well. I began to realize that a lot of the caricatures I saw in popular culture looked awfully familiar. What was even worse was the moment when I realized some of them resembled me! This revelation brought about another epiphany, “Maybe God has more of a problem with his people acting in ways that deserve mockery and less of a problem with the people who do the mocking.” In the Old Testament, God used the wicked Assyrians and Babylonians to rebuke and discipline his people, all the while holding these two nations responsible for their actions. Could it be that in our day and age God is using Hollywood in much the same way?
If there is any plausibility to this question what do we make of a movie like Saved!? This movie is an undisguised, unapologetic attack on conservative Christianity and its claims to knowing the truth. It is a satirical portrayal of a fundamentalist Christian high school and a look into the lives of several of its students. The movie follows the crisis of faith experienced by its main character, Mary. Up until her senior year of high school Mary has lived an idyllic life in the Christian ghetto of some unnamed American suburb. In her opening monologue she tells us that she professed faith in the Lord and was saved at an early age and grew up surrounded by Christians. Her friends have all been what she considers to be strong believers. She celebrates the fact that she has the privilege of attending a quality Christian school which she has been extremely involved in. She is in a Christian praise group, attends sanctified Christian rock concerts and even has a really great Christian boyfriend.
Before the beginning of her senior year, her boyfriend confides in her that he struggles with homosexuality. After this she embarks on a mission to save him from his sin. When several of her attempts to change him fail she decides to take the final step and make him a heterosexual by having sex with him since she is convinced that this is the Lord’s will and that he can make her a virgin again spiritually. Not only does this final attempt fail but she also becomes pregnant. From this point on her eyes begin to open to the judgmental and hypocritical attitudes that surround her. She begins to associate with the school’s two most notorious outcasts and finds true community in the friendship and acceptance among the “lost.”
Many in the Christian community have had a vehement reaction to this movie. One evangelical leader called it the most hateful film to come out of Hollywood in recent history. Other Christians I have spoken with about Saved! simply refer to it as blasphemous trash. Interestingly enough, upon further investigation and conversation with these same Christians I find that many of them often have not even seen the movie. It seems the popular opinion is that anything which would dare to criticize the church must be inherently evil. Ironically many of these Christians unknowingly support several of the stereotypes in Saved! by rejecting it out of ignorance. I have seen the film several times now and have had the opportunity to take people who insisted the film was worthless with me on my subsequent visits. Many of those who hated the film before viewing left the theatre with a different perspective.
This is what prompts the question within me, “Is the Lord trying to tell us something through this movie?” When the judgment of the Lord upon Judah was nigh at hand in the form of Babylonian conquest and exile, the prophet Habakkuk cried out, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” Habakkuk’s cry was one of frustration and confusion. How was it that this blasphemous nation was going to crush the Lord’s own people? Was this not a perversion of justice that a nation more wicked than Judah would be the ones to execute the judgment of the Lord? The Babylonians would not be concerned with the Lord’s fame and glory while they were decimating his people. Why then would God allow them to be his chosen method of judgment?
How could God allow Hollywood to produce another film which mocks and ridicules his people? Surely the American church is imperfect but it is still better than Hollywood, isn’t it? How then is the film industry justified in condemning Christians? Isn’t this a reversal of how things ought to be? It’s not like the producers of this film are trying to bring biblical reform to the Church. The accusation is made that they are merely attempting to belittle and marginalize the Christian Church. What possible good could there be in this? Maybe in this situation we should hear again God’s answer to Habakkuk.
When God answers Habakkuk’s complaint, he personifies the Babylonians by describing their king, “See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright…” God states also that those who were crushed by Babylon will become the taunters of Babylon when that nation is judged in its own turn. The Lord shows Habakkuk that he understands the situation. He knows how wicked the Babylonians are and yet he still chooses to use them. The rest of the Lord’s answer in Habakkuk 2 is an assurance to the prophet that Babylon too will have her day of reckoning. What God doesn’t do is tell Habakkuk why he has chosen to use these brutal, idolatrous Gentiles to judge his people. He simply (profoundly) asserts his sovereignty over the situation and declares that holiness and justice will prevail in the end.
Could it be that God, while acknowledging the pride and lack of uprightness present in Hollywood, is still willing to use a film to bring discipline upon his people? Would this bring God’s holiness into question? If the Lord could use the fierceness and brutality of the Assyrians and the Babylonians and yet remain holy, why would he not be able to use the mockery of the film industry to awaken us from our slumber? Maybe this is his way of opening the eyes of the American church in particular to its folly. Could it possibly be that God is trying to tell us something through the judgment of unbelievers? If so, are we willing to listen? Of course I m not suggesting that the situation of the American church is completely analogous to that of ancient Israel; but is there any reason to suppose that God, who once chastened his covenant people with the severity of a wicked nation, could not now discipline a portion of his covenant people with a scathing movie?
Besides being labeled as sacrilegious, blasphemous and irreverent I have also heard another charge brought against this movie. I have heard it said that this movie is direct evidence of the persecution of the church in America. Personally I think this is an unwarranted charge. First, I think this view trivializes the real persecution that our brothers and sisters in Christ face around the world. American Christians live in comfort and ease while Christians around the world are being hunted down, maimed and murdered for their faith. Labeling a movie like Saved! as persecution is clueless at best. Label it sharp criticism or dogmatic attack, or whatever else, but out of love and respect for those suffering true persecution let us not call this film persecution.
The other big problem I have with placing Saved! in the category of persecution is that the film’s criticisms, attacks, and denunciation of particular Christians is well deserved. If I were to give a conservative estimate I would have to say that 95% of the things the movie mocks deserve to be mocked. In 1 Peter 4:12-19 (see also 1 Peter 2:13-25, 3:15-17) we learn how to endure suffering and that when we suffer for doing good it is considered a gracious thing in the sight of God. However, Peter makes a distinction between those who suffer unjustly for the sake of righteousness and those who suffer rightly for doing evil. If a person suffers due to ungodly behavior their suffering is not persecution, rather it is just discipline. When a Christian suffers scorn and ridicule at the hands of unbelievers the question to ask is whether or not we deserve it. If we are receiving the rebuke that we deserve we have no right to complain. Rather, we have the responsibility to repent. In addition to this, even if the contempt this movies piles upon the American church were unwarranted, we are told to endure suffering with great patience and James even tells us that we are to consider it pure joy when we suffer for the name of Christ (James 1:2-3).
What reward does the American church have when we suffer rightful criticism with great whining and complaint instead of endurance and patience? Saved! presents us with the unfortunate picture of Christianity that many people throughout the world have. It is a picture of Christianity as a religion of loveless legalism that is antithetical to true Christianity (picture Mandy Moore’s character throwing a Bible a Jena Malone while angrily stating that she is “filled with the love of Christ”). While many in the church would be the first ones to speak out against such a view of Christianity, these same people are not comfortable having unbelievers make this assessment of the Church visible. Maybe part of the problem is that we are too quick to judge the world while neglecting to judge ourselves which is the exact opposite of what we are called to do (see 1 Corinthians 5).
In his booklet The Mark of a Christian, Francis Schaeffer talks about love being the final apologetic in the life of a Christian. Referring to Jesus’ new commandment to love one another in John 13, Schaeffer points out that Jesus has given the world a very real basis by which to judge those who call themselves his followers; their love for one another. While preparing to make this movie, the producers and several of the actors did research by attending Christian youth rallies and concerts. Macaulay Culkin relates that his most memorable moment during this “research” occurred while attending a Christian concert in California. While chuckling he describes the scene of Christians in the parking lot picketing the Christians in the concert. Does Saved! fail to depict true Christian love because they refuse to acknowledge its existence or because Christians have failed to depict it themselves? With great lament I fear that it is probably the latter.
Ultimately most Christians will not agree with many of the conclusions of this movie regarding faith (I don’t). While we cannot agree with these conclusions, how can we expect any conclusions other than the ones presented if we aren’t willing to live a life of genuine love and authentic faith which would point to the reality of Jesus’ love? While the acting and technical excellence of this movie are less than desirable at times I still think it is a film worth watching, especially for Christians. We may learn much from this movie about how the watching world perceives us and we may find in it many things that call us to repentance. Could it be that the Lord has sent a movie like Saved! to save us from ourselves?