Movie Review: The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry

Sperry-POSTER-27X40            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.


6 responses

  1. Hey David,
    I got your note to us about your recent history. I cried… literally. And then life happened and I never contacted you. This blog is wonderful. And this post is great. The only thing I would add is that theatre nor cinema are viable platforms for preaching and propaganda. I have also seen many non-Christian movies where I was preached at for being pro-life or homo phobic etc. Either camp misuses the medium when they deviate from telling a good story in order to force their point of view. Write me…

  2. I am reminded of something C.S. Lewis once said… something to the effect that “we do not need more Christian writers, we need more good Christian writers.”

    The same is true in every area of the arts.

  3. Thanks for sharing this David. I don’t plan to see the film, but you have articulated perfectly the problem with so many of these movies. The cheesy dialogue and too-easy trials make it so difficult to connect… even for me (a believer). How much more for someone who doesn’t know Christ? I agree with your concluding statement that we ask them to come too far to get to our side. But I sometimes wonder how many of us who are ON this side actually experience life in this Mayberry fashion. Not many, I dare say. Love your blog, as always.

  4. Would love to see David or any other emergent Christian pick up a camera and shoot a brilliant ‘Christian’ film themselves.

    I’m not saying ‘Sperry’ was good – it was pedestrian. But so what?

    That’s like going to India and mocking a small church.

    These ‘blogs’ do NOTHING to help the body of Christ. Emergent Christians or ‘luke-warm’ Christians are playing Russian Roulette with their salvation.

    Why? Jesus said to people who were casting out demons that He didn’t know who they were.

    Do you TRULY believe Jesus Christ, God Almighty and the Holy Spirit applaud that you like ‘Dark Knight’ over ‘Jonathan Sperry’?

    Applaud you falsely imply we must be ‘relevant’ to our culture when Christ was not and never said we should?

    You’re extremely dangerous to the Body of Christ.

    I applaud Rich Christiano for having the GUTS to stand up for his belief.

    May all the other ‘subtle’ attackers rethink what they’re doing and either fulfill the Great Commission or keep quiet.

    God bless everyone.

  5. And Bill astonishingly, completely misses the point.

    This sort of “insider” gospel presentation does not help fully secular people encounter the gospel of Christ crucified, risen and necessary for salvation. Why? this is not a world most lost people have ever seen. It is a world that exists for churched people only, who are already convinced.

    I am simply encouraging Christians to find ways to more effectively engage the culture as it is and not as we wish it would be. It is our call to adjust language so far-from-God people understand us, not their responsibility to learn ours before they can get to Jesus. see 1 Cor. 9:19-23.

    And for the record— I am not emergent and hated The Dark Knight.

  6. I am an atheist who just started to watch the Jonathan Sperry film with my kids. I want them to respect and appreciate Christ and Christians, but after the first lesson was about getting a reward, and how God would arbitrarily give some people the knowledge of salvation and not others (“the directions to find the chocolate cake), I turned it off.
    I teach my kids we want to do the right thing whether we get a reward or have to suffer. Certainly that lesson is in the Bible, with martyrs and suffering because of following God’s word, but so much prosthelytising is trying to offer the Devil’s deal: eternal life for your soul.

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