Jonathan Sperry and the Messaging of Faith

sperry I took the family to see The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry last weekend. This is an independent “family” movie by Christian director Rich Christiano, with an explicitly Christian message and worldview. The movie had been vigorously promoted locally by some good friends of mine, who were obviously excited to see something in the theater that was not only not antithetical to Christianity, but which explicitly promotes Christian faith.

I understand the urge to try to gain a foothold for decency in all kinds of public arenas, but I had a hard time getting excited about the potential for this movie, in part because of my previous experience with Christian movies and other forms of Christian popular art, in part because of the doubt-confirming sappiness I detected in the movie trailers I saw, and in part because I think any attempt to sprinkle the local movie house with holy water is likely to be about as effective as baptizing a brothel these days, as these venues have truly become houses of sin, peddling fare that seems more and more debased each year, promoting grotesque visions of both humanity and God, blatantly contemptuous of virtues and virtuousness – especially marriage – and generally just being corrosive of character in every conceivable manner. It’s hard to see how spitting into that foul wind can truly be to our advantage.

Nonetheless, I packed up the family for the field trip, hoping that at least my youngest would like the movie (she did). The Christian sub-texts were easily identifiable: the need for knowledge of Christ in order to know eternal salvation; the power of personal forgiveness – including praying for others – to effect spiritual transformation in others; the power of personal evangelization to effect conversion in others; and the centrality of the Bible as the means of properly knowing God. This seemed like pretty standard evangelical fare – not without theological weaknesses, but certainly a worthy and important message to share with the world. But it is one thing to have a message worth proclaiming; it is another to proclaim that message worthily.

Movie-going is no intellectual exercise. Movies need to make their point through effective dramatization that leads viewers to understand the message the movie intends to convey. I think it’s fair to say that, as drama, this movie fails to compel, and so can hardly be considered an effective vehicle for the message it seeks to share, regardless of how worthy the message is. The plotline is feeble, corny, pat, predictable, and far from believable in the simplistic way its events conveniently converge, with nary a trace of struggle arising from either temptation or circumstance. In sum, it completely lacks what is these days called authenticity. The characters are paper thin, and weakly acted. The only sympathetic character in the movie, in my view, is the young friend who doesn’t know how to shut his mouth. Otherwise, this is a wooden story about cardboard characters. More proof, perhaps, that the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.

This kind of naively idyllic portrayal of the Christian experience could easily lead to disillusionment among the young or newly converted, as people don’t very often turn their lives around on a dime when you start praying for them. Nor does one’s own conversion experience very often reflect an unambiguous conquest of personal sin; rather, periodic backsliding, of a greater or lesser degree, is an all-too-common aspect of the spiritual journey. I appreciate that the story was not attempting to convey such a journey per se, being rather narrowly focused over a short time period, yet even great moments of repentance are normally marked by a gradual comprehension of the of the depth and scope of one’s transgressions, as well as a developing apprehension of the redemptive grace at work. Any such complexity was conspicuously absent from this story, and when the bully is wholly cured of his bullying ways after an emotional “calling out” to a hitherto unknown God, you sense the film has conjured up the fantastic conceit of cheap grace.

The only even remote resemblance to Christian community in the film were the Bible Studies the Jonathan Sperry character led the boys in at his house – which frankly came off more as Sunday School games with trite moral lessons than anything resembling immersion in the Word of God. Rather, everyone went off on their own to read their Bibles. Is that kind of mutual isolation for “devotions” supposed to somehow reflect the ecclesial unity for which Christ prayed? Yet the reading of the Bible was presented as something at lest pretty close to the pinnacle of Christian life. But reading the Bible – especially alone – not infrequently produces heresy as well as holiness, and we’re talking here about a group of thoroughly wet-behind-the-ears pre-teenage boys, with no apparent Christian community to provide them wisdom, temperance, and mature direction. Whatever role “church” played in the film’s home-town community, it was unrelated to the thematically crucial issues at the center of the movie, and peripheral to the lives of those characters who were meant to reflect Christianity. And that is a thoroughly impoverished view of Christianity.

Never mind community, these young boys didn’t even have families to speak of – they either didn’t exist, or they served as minor props. The plot’s most important parental character was the deceased father of the bully! In what was perhaps the most bizarre example of the disconnectedness of the film’s Jesus movement from the realities of human community, the wife of that man, whom were are told had thoroughly despised and rejected her deceased (ex-?) husband’s turn to Christianity, never even makes an appearance in the story as her son adopts of the same faith under the tutelage of the elderly Mr. Sperry. Are we to suppose that she would not have had some kind of reaction, which might somehow have complicated the story – at least for the boy? This is just clueless story writing.

It might be objected that I am criticizing the movie for not being what it did not set out to be. Fair enough. But if the point of the movie was to convincingly show how one person’s faith can influence others for the good, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to insist that the faith in question – and its alleged effects – be presented at a level of authentic personal engagement which exceeds that of a typical Care Bears episode, which is pretty close to where this film engages its audience. With better character development, it could have been a Hallmark Special with a Jesus message – not that I’d ever expect to find a Jesus message in a Hallmark Special, seeing how offensive such blatant religiosity is to the gatekeepers of cultural standards. But as a piece of evangelism, I have to say that I think the film fails for lack of believability and, hence, credibility.

molokai Ironically, the day after I viewed the movie, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Damien of Molokai, about whom a feature film had been made roughly ten years ago. The film, Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, portrays the life of Damien as he ministers to leprous outcasts exiled to to an island colony in 19th century Hawaii, becoming one of them, and eventually dying of their shared affliction. Rich Christiano could learn much about authentic presentation of the Christian faith, and its power to transform communities through the faithfulness of individuals, by watching this moving, and truly evangelistic, film.

Given the blank slate of pure fiction, Christiano created a bunch of cardboard characters engaged in a series of events that together make Christianity look unbelievable and childish, if not downright cartoonish. Director Paul Cox, by contrast – not even a Christian filmmaker, mind you – working with the actual life events and legacy of a real saint, painted a picture of Christian love that continues to inspire, and that reveals many of the finer aspects of a practical Christian faith. One hero is today known as the patron saint of HIV/AIDS sufferers, and their caretakers. The other will soon pass the way of a plastic Happy Meal toy. If evangelization is worthwhile, we need more of the former, and less of the latter; more message, less messaging.