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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The War Room: musings on Christian Entertainment

Last night I viewed The War Room, a film produced by the Kendrick brothers, directed by Alex Kendrick (who also has a bit part in the movie). This is the latest production from them, others being Courageous, Facing the Giants, and Fireproof. The only other film of theirs that I have seen is Fireproof, and I cannot recommend it for its horrendous acting, and tendentious storyline. The viewing for The War Room contained the trailer for Courageous, which apparently fits neatly into the high school mythology of football in America. How football, with its history of violence and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, fits into a Christian lifestyle--all of these are Christian movies--I cannot fathom. I won't be seeing Courageous anytime soon. [Photo by Matthias Karlsson.]

The movie is possibly slightly better acted than in Fireproof, but that isn't saying much (the ever-present Kirk Cameron, king of evangelist acting, is thankfully absent). The direction is ham-handed and the writing is atrocious (at least for its plot; the dialogue actually has some redeeming value). There isn't any point in the movie where anybody has trouble forecasting coming events. The movie takes place in a village that bears little semblance with any reality I know of, and deeper issues of race and poverty--actually any deeper issue you care to pick--are simply not evident.

But, there are many awful movies produced; I don't want to waste time discussing the relative demerits of this one. The deeper issue at hand is the problem of prayer and the place of commerce within the greater Christian community.

The War Room in question is an elderly woman's closet, where she prays. She takes another troubled soul under her wing and this younger woman--her acolyte, disciple, what have you--then strips her own closet of clothes and converts it too into a prayer War Room in order to save her marriage. You can imagine the rest for yourself. Guess what? God wins, Satan loses, and everyone is happy ever after. Just like in real life!

Prayer is a divisive topic in today's Christian world due to many holding onto an idea that prayer influences the cosmos, influences God, and so becomes a magician's trick. Prayer is seen as the most important play within the Christian's playbook (football metaphors come in handy within Christian examples despite its violence). We have to read the Bible and pray over our families, pray for our country, and for the missionaries in the field. Churches hold prayer meetings seemingly forgetful of Jesus' admonition not to pray in public, but to go into your closet in prayer (and yes, kudos for the actual closet within the film). 

The other side of prayer is the non-magical sort, and this too is within the film. The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.--Kierkegaard. The character of Elizabeth, the woman experiencing a life crisis within the movie, does pray in this manner, as well as the former, in that she recognizes that she must submit to God's will, that she cannot force the hand of her husband, that she is not in control. Her attitude thus changes and also her interactions with others, in particular, with her husband.

But then the magic hand of God also makes an appearance. At the assignation of Tony (the husband) and Veronica, a woman who took an interest in him at work, there is a sudden illness that overtakes Tony, and he is unable to go back to the woman's apartment. This was after or perhaps during a prayer session of Elizabeth, Tony's wife.

We also see Elizabeth's frantic shouting at the devil to remove itself from her home and family; the scene is straight out of a healing ceremony at a Pentecostal revival. This is supposed to represent the power of Christ, power that faithful Christians can use in their lives. What it reminded me most of was the Vampire movies where someone would hold up a cross to chase the creatures away.

Prayer as magic is not a recipe for a fulfilling faith. Crises come and prayer will not magically cure anything. Even Christian Science churches no longer preaches this anymore (I hope). But the attitude of Kierkegaard, which regards prayer as more of a kind of meditation-slash-psychology can better one's life, can make one more attuned to the place of self within society and one's environment. It can quiet, it can focus, and it can clear one of extraneous possessiveness. It can do some good, in other words.

Donna Compton, a hospital chaplain, in a recent article from ProgressiveChristianity.org, has a phrase to describe how she views prayer:  "Leaning into the good.’ That’s what prayer is to me-mentally, spiritually, and even sometimes physically, leaning into the good."

She cites Romans 8:26 “In the same way the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what prayer to offer or how to offer it as we should, but the Spirit knows our need and at the right time intercedes on our behalf with sighs and groans too deep for words.”

Notice it doesn't say here in Romans that the intercession will be to magically do some work, change someone's behavior, or alter some world event. It merely states the Spirit knows our need and that we will get intercession with sighs and groanings which are so deep that they cannot be contained in language.

The other thing I wanted to discuss was the element of commerce within Christian films and books and whatnot. Christian business is a big industry, very profitable. Rupert Murdoch has bought up a large chunk, perhaps as much as half, of the Christian publication industry. One questions the motivation of a business that profits this much from Christ's teachings. Is it to evangelize? Or is it to profit? Some might say both, but since Christ's teachings pretty much are against personal aggrandizement, we can safely eliminate that. 

American Christianity is full of examples of pastors making themselves quite wealthy from the sales of Christian self-help type books (for example, look at the millions made from John MacDonald's books and John Hagee and a hundred others) and from television broadcasts. The Kendrick brothers seem to have one-upped them all. The War Room, as of the time of this post, has grossed almost $70 million dollars with a budget of only $3 million. That is some serious profit. Fireproof grossed over $33 million on a budget one-sixth that of The War Room. Alex Kendrick has a list of five director credits, and three as producer, on IMDB.com. We are talking some serious dinero here.

None of these movies can be said to be an artistic success. Simply look up the general reaction from critics on a site such as Rotten Tomatoes. These are not movies for the general audience, but are finely tuned to appeal to a particular type of evangelical, usually protestant, Christian. An audience that might have some willingness to spend money in order to hear their own echo--or their pastor's echo--back at them. 

It is a kind of manipulation, an emotional manipulation, that by-passes any rational discussion of theology, any questioning of normative values. It does not want to prick anyone overmuch; it does not want to probe for answers that do not come too quickly, if at all. It is a falsity; it is truly something that is against Christ, against honesty and truth. It is against the human proposition of true creativity, and isn't that what we are? Creative beings, made in God's image?