August 2004 – With the box office success of Bruce Almighty and, more recently, The Passion of the Christ, it appears that religion will remain a topic for Hollywood films for some time to come.
The approach to religion taken by those two movies, however, highlight the divergent religious impulses in America. One is biblically-based and Christo-centric; the other is a personalized, syncretistic approach to spirituality that often cherry-picks a few elements from Christianity and tosses them with other pagan tenets into one big religious pie.
A recent example of this latter tendency is the film Saved! The movie attempts to portray what the producers believe is true Christianity, while simultaneously mocking Bible-believing Christians.
Set in the fictional American Eagle Christian High School, the movie revolves around the conflicts between the school’s openly Christian youth and a handful of unbelieving rebels. The former is led by Hilary Faye, who heads up the Christian Jewels, a teen gospel singing group, consisting of Hilary Faye’s devotees, Tia and Veronica, and the heroine of the film, Mary.
Cassandra, the only Jew to ever attend American Eagle, is openly disdainful of Christianity and rebellious against what she sees as the school’s rigid system of morality. Hilary Faye’s wheelchair-bound brother, Roland, who is a nonbeliever as well, is attracted to Cassandra.
At the beginning of the movie, while swimming, Mary’s boyfriend Dean confesses to her that he thinks he is a homosexual. In a horrified spasm, Mary hits her head on the pool ladder, and thinks she sees a vision of Jesus telling her to help Dean. She decides to “help” by having sex with Dean – for the first time – in an effort to cure him of his homosexuality.
Not only does she become pregnant, but Dean’s parents find out about his homosexuality and wisk him away to a place called Mercy House, where he will undergo the process of “de-gayification.” Stricken by the bitter turn of events – just prior to what she had hoped would be a perfect senior year – Mary begins to struggle with her faith and turn away from Christ. She drifts away from the Christian Jewels and becomes the third member of Cassandra’s little rebel gang.
Evangelical straw man
In dealing with the real-life issues that confront these kids – issues like homosexuality, teen sex, unwanted pregnancy, and the normal nastiness of high school life – religion and religious beliefs come front and center in the film.
Saved! actually does a good job of poking fun at some of the more ludicrous manifestations of modern-day evangelicalism, as when Tia excitedly tells her friends, “I think Jesus appeared to me in my fish tank!”
Also a target: the tendency of evangelical Christians to create their own, parallel – and sometimes goofy – universe. Mary’s mom, Lillian, for example, receives an award as “the number one Christian interior decorator for the entire region.” In another scene early in the film, Hilary and Mary are at handgun practice at “Emmanuel Shooting Range,” which has as its motto, “An eye for an eye.”
The tendency of some evangelicals to desperately want to fit into the culture is lampooned when Pastor Skip, the school’s principal, makes his entrance on stage at the opening day assembly. He hypes up the crowd of kids in what he apparently thinks is hip fashion: “Let’s get our Christ on, let’s kick it, Jesus-style! You all want to walk with the ultimate rebel, right? The ultimate CEO? The biggest celebrity of them all? Who’s down with G-O-D?”
The fact of the matter is that many evangelicals simply make too fat a target for Hollywood to pass up, and a little good-natured ribbing just comes with the territory.
That’s a far cry, however, from saying that Saved! is fair in its treatment of evangelicals. It is not. The film simply sets up an evangelical straw man and then pounds it into the dust.
Hilary Faye is the proto-type Christian in the movie, but she is insufferably self-righteous, hateful, and judgmental. She is what The New York Times’ A.O. Scott calls “a kind of mean girl for Jesus, sitting atop the school pecking order.”
Some movie reviewers seemed only too eager to accept this presentation of evangelical Christians. In a particularly nasty review, Claudia Puig of USA Today called Saved! “a sly send-up of the tyranny and hypocrisy of domineering pseudo-moralists,” and applauded the film because “it exposes the abuse of religion to control others and the hypocrisy among apparent devotees.”
Most Christians probably have never met many believers who are as repugnant in their behavior as Hilary Faye and her “posse,” and if they did, they would probably be as indignant as Puig.
But that’s the point. If most evangelical Christians would be as put-off as Puig by such Pharisaical tomfoolery, then who is really the movie’s target?
As it turns out, Saved! isn’t targetting a handful of bad apples in the evangelical barrel, it’s throwing the barrel overboard – and some secular reviewers saw through the facade.
Annlee Ellingson of BoxOffice magazine, for example, said, “[A]s Hilary Faye is the film’s only representative of the vehemently faithful, one can’t help but equate the attack on her with criticism of Christianity itself. There are no reasonable Christian foils to counter her histrionic zeal.”
Of course, no one connected with Saved! admitted to ridiculing Christianity. Actress Mandy Moore, who steals the movie as the nearly fascist Hilary Faye, insists, “Obviously some things are exaggerated for comedic effect, but the message of this film is not about mocking Christians.” The movie’s Web site contains similar statements from nearly every principal involved in Saved!
However, numerous secular reviewers disagreed. In the Washington Post, for example, reviewer Michael O’ Sullivan says the film “paints a derisive portrait of believers as folks who are not just naive but vicious idiots who vacillate between nastiness and hopeless nerddom.” He added that the movie involves “two-dimensional stereotyping of the worst kind.”
How is it that what was so obvious to others was not obvious to Moore and the rest of the Saved! crew? The answer may be found in the fact that, according to the postmodern worldview – and the film is steeped in postmodern relativism – there are two different brands of Christianity.
The historical, Biblical faith, as evidenced by the evangelicals in Saved!, is narrow-minded and intolerant. The movie’s Web site hints at this when it says: “The film does not criticize Christians, religion, or faith. The film speaks out against those who are intolerant and their inability to open their hearts and minds to others’ way of thinking ….”
Open-mindedness, on the other hand, characterizes those who practice the truer version of Christianity. Jena Malone, who plays Mary, told USA Today that Saved! “basically has a very Christian message about love and acceptance, those are the basic teachings of Jesus Christ.”
In the film, Pastor Skip’s son, Patrick, becomes the perfect image of this mild-mannered sort of Christian fellow. Before the new school year began, he had spent the summer doing missionary work with his mother and completing “a world tour with the Christian Skateboard Association.”
Anastasia McAteer, an evangelical and associate director of development at the respected Annenberg School for Communication, applauded the character of Patrick, whom she called “the most admirable Christian in the entire movie.”
But how could she tell he was a Christian? It’s difficult for anyone to discern, because Patrick never confesses Christ or Christian beliefs in the film.
Even his missionary activity is not really a clue. When Patrick introduces himself to Mary, seated with Hilary Faye and the other “Jewels,” he’s asked, “Like, how many [heathen] did you actually save?” Patrick seems uncomfortable with the question, and sidesteps it, saying that he spent most of his time skateboarding. Ellingson notes Patrick’s odd silence, saying that he “never talks about his faith, and ultimately he’s too bland to serve as a Christian alternative, seeming to be agnostic at best.”
L.A. Daily News film critic Glenn Whipp says that Patrick’s beliefs are “not exactly against Jesus. He just never mentions His name.” He’s placed in stark contrast, Whipp says, to the Christians in the film – like Pastor Skip, Lillian or Hilary Faye and her followers – who “are portrayed as stupid, narrow-minded pretenders. The closer you get to Christ, the less you show his love.”
This is the sort of Christian that postmodernists seem to want in America – the kind that avoid all that problematic Scripture-based truth and adopt the open-minded view that all beliefs are equal.
In the film’s concluding voice-over, as Mary celebrates the birth of her child in a hospital room filled with her mom and her friends, she says, “I mean, really, when you think about it, what would Jesus do? I don’t know. But in the meantime, we’ll be trying to figure it out. Together.”
By the end of the film, Mary’s spiritual journey has led her to abandon the Bible and come to the conclusion that no one can truly know God’s will. Or if they can, they discover spiritual truth from personal effort and interaction with other people.
A glaring indictment?
However, the most troubling thing about Saved! is not the hyperbolic and vicious portrayal of evangelicals, but the disturbing portrait of many Christians as being at ease in the world.
Commenting on the movie for the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s two major national newspapers, reviewer Liam Lacey noted that Saved! “shows how mainstream, respectable and upscale Christian fundamentalism can be.” He added: “Saved! is about a religion for the comfortable, people in spacious suburban homes who drive sport utility vehicles. They listen to sexy Christian rock, wear designer clothes, watch game shows and know, as Pastor Skip puts it, that Jesus is ‘the ultimate CEO.’”
While evangelicals can dismiss Saved! as yet another example of Hollywood’s penchant for mockery of all things Christian, Lacey’s insight may be a glaring indictment that should wake up the church.
If evangelicals live a life that is a virtual carbon copy of their unbelieving American peers, how can such Christians be salt and light? And if they cannot be a witness to the world, how will Hollywood ever understand the gospel?
The price for not accurately demonstrating the gospel to the world will be, among other things, more movies like Saved!