So, I’m in my hometown the other night to celebrate my dad’s 77th birthday. After dinner, we decided to take in a movie. Well, it’s Halloween weekend, so the choices were fairly limited. One caught both our eye—The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry. It starred old guy actors like Gavin Macleod and Robert Guillaume, and had young kids, so it looked like the sort of independent character-driven movie that I’m always drawn towards.
I knew I was in trouble as soon as the opening credits rolled and I saw Paul Crouch, Jr. listed as the producer. Paul Crouch is the namesake of the founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which has produced/financed some of the truly awful movies of all time.
Here’s the problem: this was a “Christian” movie.
Now I know that seems like a weird thing for a Christ-follower to say. We’re supposed to applaud wildly and buy blocks of tickets on opening weekend when faith-friendly, family-safe entertainment shows at the multiplex next to the latest offerings from the godless, liberal Hollywood crowd. It’s one of our primary cultural battlefields.
But here’s the thing: there’s a huge difference between a “Christian” movie and a movie as story-telling made by Christians from a gospel-formed imagination. People immersed in our secular world expect, parody and dismiss the first as a transparent attempt to proselytize. Jonathan Sperry is one of those, and plays into the worst of the stereotypes that often keep Christians out of the larger cultural dialogue.
What are the problems? Problem #1: the setting. Picture a small town in the early 1970’s where freshly-scrubbed, short-haired young boys go fishing in the river or cut yards in the mornings, stop by the diner for a chocolate sundaes in the afternoons while nervously getting up the courage to talk to the pretty girl, and face their biggest struggles dealing with a bully who steals time at the pinball machine. It’s a gauzy, romanticized view of the world that Christians often long for and seem to want to recreate. But that world didn’t exist, even in the early 1970’s. It contributes to the idea that Christians don’t deal well with reality and have nothing much to say to the world as it is.
Problem #2: the dialogue. Everyday conversations have a sort of “gee whiz, Wally” quality, like Opie talking with Aunt Bea over chocolate milk. Too safe, too controlled, too predictable. In addition, it is talk loaded with “insider” assumptions of Sunday School and church folk. But even worse is the sense that conversations only happen as a pretense to get to the next moral lesson or “witness about Jesus” moment. It is a Billy Graham film without the crusade scene. It is a gospel tract come to life.
Let me hammer on this a bit more. Most far-from-God people will hear this dialogue as unrealistic and struggle to make a connection with it. But even more, this will feel like a bait- and- switch to people who may be drawn, like my dad and I, to see a movie about an old guy and some kids. But when the old guy suddenly takes the boys to a graveyard and asks them to lean close to the gravestones listen for the voices of the dead pleading “why didn’t you tell me about Jesus so I wouldn’t have to come to hell”; well, that’s more likely to tick people off than draw them into a consideration of the gospel.
Problem #3: the teaching. “Just read the Bible and you’ll see” is the primary approach. I would affirm that the Word of God is primary to nurturing both saving and sanctifying faith. (“Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.”—Rom. 10:13) But the presentation of God’s Word in Jonathan Sperry is a bit too magical and clean. Part of this is because everything is presented to and for children. Adults who wrestle with the authority or validity of Scriptures will find it very easy to dismiss.
Now, all this is not to say that Jonathan Sperry has no redeeming value. The presentation of intergenerational relationships and especially of an older man taking the initiative to mentor young boys is very engaging. The need for many young men to have a fatherly and Christ-centered influence is certainly true. The impact of one Christ-centered life on a community is clearly demonstrated. And in one final (and underdeveloped) plot twist, the power of forgiveness is beautifully portrayed.
But Jonathan Sperry is clearly meant for the already convinced. It is an affirmation of a certain brand of Christian values and cultural preferences. But it really has no business at the multi-plex with other wide-release films. It should be shown and discussed in church fellowship halls.
There are other films—less predictable, less overtly ‘Christian”, more compelling and intriguing in matters of faith (see Henry Poole, Juno, Bella, Babbette’s Feast) We need to discover, find, fund and applaud such films. Even so-called “secular” movies have the potential for huge discussions over coffee about matters of faith and life. (The Dark Knight, Doubt, Defiance, etc.)
The redemption of movie media is a fertile mission field that, like any mission of reconciliation, demands that we take the initiative to meet secular people where they are. That’s the loving thing to do. Jonathan Sperry asks them to come too far to where we are. That’s just not loving – or effective.