I’ve been following the recent wave of Christian movies with curiosity — it’s fun to read reviews of bad movies and to see them parodied, as in SNL’s sketch this weekend. And the economics of the phenomenon are interesting, as discussed in this A.V. Club piece, “Can the new wave of faith-based films transcend propaganda?”
What draws me to the discussion is a mix of voyeurism and cringing at my own past. I was raised Catholic, not evangelical, but thanks to years in youth group I’m familiar with Christian habits like lifting your hands in the air while singing praise and worship songs, or starting every Bible study with a prayer to end abortion. I even attended youth retreats where people would be “slain in the spirit,” so overcome by the power of the Lord that they would pass out. I remember hymns punctuated with the sound of plastic folding chairs smacking to the floor as girls fainted.
Anyway, my interest has largely stayed in the “morbid fascination” range as I’ve read about faith-based films, but one line in the A.V. Club piece made me unexpectedly sad. In talking about how these movies are hamstrung artistically by the need to conform to both religious and financial requirements, writer Randall Colburn says, “If there’s a moment of violence, will the film be suitable for showings in small church groups? Because if not, there goes a good chunk of the profits.”
Immediately I thought of my own small church group, and of the movies we watched. I can’t remember all of our movie nights, but I do remember the first one I attended: 12 Angry Men. I was 14, just starting to get into youth group, and I was riveted as I watched Henry Fonda slowly convince his fellow jurors not to convict and sentence to death the boy on trial.
Why did we watch this movie in a Catholic youth group? Well, there’s the fact that the movie emphasizes the value of human life with respect to the defendant: One of the jurors rebukes another for worrying about a baseball game he’s missing while a young man’s life is at stake. In one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, a juror begins a racist rant about the nonwhite defendant (“you know what those people are like”), and every other man at the table stands up and silently turns his back on the display of bigotry. This is a movie about compassion for fellow people, and about honesty and decency in the face of opposition and social pressure.
But it’s also a movie about ambiguity. Fonda’s Juror #8 never establishes that the defendant didn’t commit the murder; he just shows that the evidence isn’t strong enough to convict. His character practically embodies the concept of “reasonable doubt.” That’s doubt in a legal, not theological, sense, and as the audience we’re always sure that Fonda is right — but the movie is about challenging assumptions.
That sensibility puts 12 Angry Men a far cry from today’s faith-focused movies, according to Colburn’s A.V. Club piece. He writes, “Subtlety and ambiguity, hallmarks of great cinema, aren’t likely to satiate a modern evangelical audience that wants to shout its faith from the rooftops.”
Faith has been on my mind often lately, as I’ve become acquainted through a work project with a local seminary. The seminary is progressive, social justice-oriented, and committed to interfaith discussions, and it’s affiliated with a church in my neighborhood. It’s been years since I went to Mass. But along with the self-righteous prayers and corny displays of devotion (not to mention deeper scars, like the pervasive idea that sexuality is sinful), I remember the music I loved, the thoughtful discussions, the kind and encouraging adults we were lucky enough to have in charge. I’ve been wondering if a more progressive church would satisfy my desire for a community that asks big questions, without forcing me to be sure of the answers.
Whether or not I end up in church again, I am thankful for a youth group that showed me 12 Angry Men — that trusted me and my fellow 14-year-olds to respond to a well-acted, well-directed movie about justice, empathy, and questioning what you’re told. I hope that between screenings of Fireproof and God’s Not Dead 2, at least a few of today’s Christian teens find 12 Angry Men, too.