It's just good art

Posted: Jan 27, 2006 12:01 AM

The Christian community has good reason to feel encouraged by the new film, End of the Spear, if we will let ourselves. Not because it is a great movie (it isn’t, though it is a good one). And not because it will earn huge Passion dollars that will make the world sit up and take notice (with only tepid box-office so far, it seems obvious that it won’t).

We should feel encouraged because End of the Spear demonstrates that followers of Christ, after decades of churning out mostly trite, sloganeering entertainment, are finally recapturing the artistic imagination that inspired great works like Milton’s poetry and Bach’s concertos.

The names Jim Elliot and Nate Saint are as familiar to most evangelicals as their story. In 1956, the two men, along with Peter Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully, made contact with the violent Waodani tribe of the Ecuadorian jungle. Their aim was to share the Gospel and teach the Waodanis a more peaceful way to live. Sadly, the fierce tribesmen misinterpreted the missionaries’ intentions and speared all five men to death.

End of the Spear retells these events, and those that occurred after when the wives and children of the slain sought out the Waodoni to offer them forgiveness and hope, with impressive depth and authenticity.

The film makes mistakes, but, in a strange way, even these are encouraging as they are mistakes common to many movies with much bigger budgets and much bigger names attached (names like Disney and Bruckheimer in particular).

Several scenes are emotionally overplayed and scripturally underdeveloped. The score is far too intrusive, and a major payoff moment, the conversion of a conflicted tribesman, is brushed over so lightly we’re not even sure when it happens.

Yet, what the film gets right is much more striking that what it gets wrong. Mainly, it demonstrates that Christian filmmakers are finally learning to tell their own stories rather than simply making bad copies of secular films with biblical themes tacked on.

Spear focuses on a narrative that is personal to Christians but relatable to anyone. One needn’t be an expert in eschatology to feel for the Saints. It allows the plot to unfold realistically—singular occurrences don’t bring the Waodonis to their knees, weariness with their way of life does. And it strives for the highest production values on every front.

This brings us to the most important change End of the Spear illustrates: filmmakers of faith have finally figured out who their audience is—everyone.

Like To End All Wars, a brilliant film released in 2002 starring Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Carlyle, the producers cast the best actors who auditioned for the parts—actors who would bring the story alive for every audience member, religious or not.

It was a good move considering how many otherwise acceptable Christian films have been ruined by abominable acting. Plus, it indicates that mainstream Hollywood is finally ready to take part in our projects.

But rather than celebrating this accomplishment, some believers are using it as an opportunity to stir up dissention in the ranks. Why? Because one of the lead actors in the film is Chad Allen: an outspoken homosexual.

One religious writer carped that he fears the gay star will distract people and take them out of the film, though it’s worth noting that none but a handful of viewers would have known about the sexual proclivities of Allen had not the religious media made an issue of it I certainly didn’t know and I follow Hollywood for a living. What’s more, Spear’s filmmakers didn’t know until they were already in production and some helpful and terribly outraged columnists pointed it out to them.

Whatever controversy has come from casting Allen as Nate Saint, Spear’s filmmakers displayed much better judgment than casting ill-fitting, well-known names from “Growing Pains” or “The Love Boat” just because of their public professions of faith. It makes for a better work of art, and a better work of art is more likely to engage the secular public and not diminish God in their eyes.

It is my understanding that the actress playing Mary Magdalene in The Passion has posed in nude photos. Knowing this didn’t make me any less inclined to marvel at Mel Gibson’s artistic vision.

Keifer Sutherland has been known to go on a public bender or two. But his apparent struggle with alcohol didn’t make me feel any less affected when his character in To End All Wars finally finds life while building a railroad of death.

Two of the leads in Chariots of Fire were homosexuals. This fact does not in the least way detract from the lasting beauty of that film when I watch it again today.

However, if we believers must analyze more than the art itself and ask “what message” the casting of Chad Allen sends, maybe it is this: Those who seek to live like Christ will love a man beyond his transgressions. They will acknowledge that his lifestyle is sin (as the filmmakers have done with both Allen and the public), but they will be loyal friends and employers who honor their commitments, and they will not cast him out as unclean once the synagogue begins to squawk. Finally, they will continue to share meals with him no matter how much the pious wring their hands, and they will pray that their love and friendship will lead him to find the love and friendship of Him they are trying to emulate.

But for those who want their Gospel as uncomplicated, obvious and narrow as their art, I guess there’s always hope for another Left Behind.