In the old days, when man struggled to scratch a living out of the dirt, when the world was wracked by plagues and pogroms, the thought of Heaven must have been much sweeter than it seems today. In our world of creature comforts and great prosperity, when we devote many hours of our lives to being entertained, when it seems the masses worship celebrities more than God, faith appears to some as more anciently foolish than ever.
That's especially true if you make movies for a living. The reason Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" stood out so severely from the pack was its orthodox vision of Christ as our suffering Lord, not the whimsical thumbs-up hippie of Kevin Smith's "Dogma." Believers are used to being mocked by the popular culture, and therein lies the paradox. Hollywood likes to think it's firmly on the side of the geeks and the nerds against the dominant cliques and bullies, but that's not true when it comes to matters of religion.
Look no further than "Saved!" -- with the exclamation point to underline its acidulous irony. As usual, the geeky outsiders are the heroes, but the evil clique to be defeated is Christianity. The geeks channel their immoral-minority view into a Christian high school until everybody cries "Uncle" and surrenders to the very trendy worship of Tolerance.
Here's the plot, in a nutshell: the virgin -- named Mary, of course -- has sex with her boyfriend Dean, because he thinks he might be gay. She thinks Jesus wants her to "redirect" Dean's desires. As summer vacation ends, Dean is sent by his parents to "Mercy House" for "degayification," and Mary learns she's pregnant. Once a part of the "Christian Jewels" clique at American Eagle Christian High School, Mary is quickly abandoned by Hillary Faye, the queen bee of the judgmental Jesus freaks. She's then adopted by the cool, skeptical outsiders, Eva, the inexplicable Jewish girl attending the Christian school, and Roland, Hillary Faye's wheelchair-bound brother.
From there, it's a festival of mocking Christianity. Scenes include a teenage boy hanging on the cross during a school play, wearing nothing but a loincloth as a girl employs a double-entendre about "being hung on a cross." Hillary Faye hurls a Bible, narrowing her eyes and seething through her teeth, "I am filled with the love of Christ!" The stick-figure hatred of the film is all summed up by the film's cynical heroes when they see Mary coming out of Planned Parenthood. There's only one reason for that, one suggests. The other asks: "Planting a pipe bomb?" The film ends with our Bible-ducking bullies triumphant, and the Christians seeing the error of their self-righteous ways.
With that ending, the movie title ought to be "Depraved!"
In this film, every committed Christian is either an uncharitable hypocrite, a fairy-tale-believing fool, or perhaps even a violent killer if challenged too mightily. You know what that means. Film critics loved it. The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday, the same one who thought "The Passion" was troubling in its "inaccuracy," declared this corrosive screed "bears the unmistakable stamp of authenticity, even at its most outrageous."
Poor Roger Ebert was even worse, suggesting the filmmakers had to destroy Christianity in order to save it: "Jesus counseled more acceptance and tolerance than some of his followers think. By the end of the movie, mainstream Christian values have not been overthrown, but demonstrated and embraced. Those who think Christianity is just a matter of enforcing their rulebook have been, well, enlightened."
Not everyone was so sanguine. Some questioned the film's plasticity; another Post critic, Michael O'Sullivan, protested that he thinks "right-wing moralists" don't deserve any sympathy, "But I do think they deserve better than this film, which paints a derisive portrait of believers as folks who are not just naive but vicious idiots who vacillate between nastiness and hopeless nerddom. ... It's two-dimensional stereotyping of the worst kind." Amen to that.
There is, sadly, enough of an anti-Christian market in America -- certainly in Hollywood -- to make the most obnoxious Christian-bashing films acceptable for mass distribution. As some of the film's detractors have noted, it would have never made it to theaters if the producers and writers savagely mocked a Jewish school or wickedly satirized an Islamic academy. "The Passion" was the exception. The rule is back.
Serious Christians have to travel through a world with enough ridicule and loathing and snarky satire to know that heaven is still a sweetly different destination. Thank God they don't have to waste their hard-earned dollars viewing this act of cinematic vandalism. May it sink to the bottom of the rotten barrel where it belongs.
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