Imagine that you are enjoying a delicious ice cream cone on a hot summer day. There’s something soothing about the frigid, creaminess that alleviates the scorch of the sun. Now imagine that someone comes and tells you everything that’s wrong with the deliciousness that you are enjoying or even goes so far as to knock that cone of goodness out of your hand. If you are like me, you would not take very kindly to that gesture, especially for something that was giving you such relief and comfort. You would feel violated in a way.
Unfortunately, I think that’s very much the sentiment whenever critiques or criticism arise with popular Christian books or movies that many, many Christians enjoy. And I believe there is a good reason. For Christians, our faith is the most defining aspect of our lives and hopefully, the lens through which we view life. It’s life shaping and intensely personal. But the Christian life is wrought with challenges – trials, temptations, difficulties, periods of lethargy and even apathy. We need fuel and encouragement. And so when we encounter movies and books that give us that lift, we will want to embrace it with all our might. God forbid that someone come and try to mess up that mojo with words of warning!
So what I want to do here is not knock the ice cream cone out of your hand but rather ask you to examine the kind of ice cream that will give true relief that we really need. Because I’ve noticed a common denominator with each release of popular books and movies that people praise – “It encourages my faith.” But I think a more important question is at stake. Is that encouragement produced by something that is faithful to the whole counsel of Scripture?
I came across this review of the War Room, The Faith of Faith-based Films. First, in full disclosure, I have not seen the movie so I cannot comment except for what I understand the premise of the movie to be. Now the author of this piece readily admits and agrees that this film provides such an encouragement to pray. We do need that, don’t we? I don’t know about you, but I go through bouts of challenges with my prayer life. Who doesn’t want encouragement to pray? But there is a deeper issue at work according to Mayward of a sub-Christian foundation of Moral Therapeutic Deism, as he defines it, “if I pray hard enough, then God will bless me with good things. It’s what I’ve called the ‘candy dispenser God.’ I put in the prayer, and he gives me the blessing, all in accordance to my quotient of faithfulness.” Here is a snippet of this challenge according to Mayard but I certainly commend reading of the whole article;
In this genre of film, most or all of the Christians turn out happy, healthy, and smiling by the film’s conclusion. The non-believers often are killed, jailed, or otherwise come to a painful end. This narrative structure aligns with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’s soteriology–good people are blessed and happy, while non-believing bad people experience suffering. The audience response, “It made me feel good!” certainly rings with MTD’s belief system. Of course it makes you feel good! That’s what God is meant to do for us. And you know something is true and beautiful if it’s always positive and uplifting.
Not only do these films make you feel good, they give you clear, practical instruction on how you are to behave in response to the film, a behavioral practice that is guaranteed to make your life happier and better. For War Room, it’s “make a plan to pray more.” For God’s Not Dead, it’s “text everyone about God now.” These behavioral prompts are like the application points to a sermon, given a simplicity and an immediacy that makes for an easy discipleship. Having one’s lifestyle and practices be changed by a film isn’t wrong or bad–my own life has been significantly transformed by a few key moments in film–but faith-based films are more overt and didactic in their approach, and directly connect audience’s response with their Christian faithfulness, i.e. good Christians will do what this film says. It’s the filmic form of those Facebook memes prompting you to share a photo or Bible verse with all your friends, where the implications are clear: if you don’t share, then you’re not being true to Jesus.
I imagine the recent box office success of War Room will be celebrated as a victory for God’s kingdom, because in the paradigm of MTD, any sort of financial gain would obviously be considered a good thing and a clear answer to prayer. God rewards and blesses those who are faithful and obedient, right? MTD is also a very individualistic endeavor; there is nothing in its central tenets about the need for community or accountability. My faith is my faith, and who are you to question how I think and feel about God? This corresponds to my original question above about personal experience; it doesn’t much matter if it’s the true God as found in Jesus, as long as I’m a good person and happy and don’t bother anyone else. After all, being a Christian is best summarized as being nice in the name of Jesus, right?…
I have seen God is not Dead and I think he is on point, which leads me to affirm what he says about The War Room. This review from Christianity Today, Lazy Writing, Cheap Restoration also resonated with me as well concerning the nature of Christian films in general. But I think Mayard rightly challenges us concerning HOW we obtain exhortation not necessarily THAT we obtain exhortation. So please don’t see this as knocking prayer because neither is he. If you are encouraged to pray, great. (But if Mayard is right regarding the premise, we can’t just declare it a good thing because it makes us feel good if the premise is not entirely faithful. He goes on to say;
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is almost Christian, just enough that many of us may not even recognize the difference in ourselves. The response of “I liked it, so stop critiquing it” may be an indicator that our faith is placed in something less than the death-and-resurrection power found in Jesus and the reign of his kingdom values in our world. Jesus doesn’t invite us to be nice so that everything works out to make us happy. He bids us to come and die, to live a life of sacrificial love, compassion, justice, and mercy. Prayer is not meant to fix all my problems or get me things I want; it is intended as a means of holistic transformation in the relational context of conversation and presence with the Divine.
Again, it’s hard to not enjoy something we think affirms our faith. I have found this same challenge in the widespread embracing of Jesus Calling. I’ve even heard those I thought would never rely on such a troubled premise say things like, “but it encourages me,” as if the encouragement alone makes it valid. Same thing when the Shack came out, “it really makes me think about God,” even though it distorted the character of God.
Saints, the fact that you read or hear something packaged in a way that encourages you is no excuse for a lack of discernment of fidelity to the Christian faith. Just because something provides comfort doesn’t mean it necessarily should or at least cause us to examine if this is truly consistent with the witness of Scripture. Otherwise, we might fall prey to clever marketing based on feel good sentiments that ultimately might not satisfy our faith.