Priscilla Shirer and Beth Moore in 'War Room'
Alex and Stephen Kendrick, darlings of the Christian film industry, are back in theaters today with War Room, their fifth film overall and their first since 2011’s Courageous. War Room is produced by Provident, but it’s being distributed by TriStar, which shows that they’ve come far—and that commercial studios are certainly willing to court Christian viewers.
A few years ago, a studio executive told me that the primary place in which the typical Christian film suffers, compared to its mainstream peers, is in the writing. Many Christian productions are willing to hire experienced, professional directors; even when they’re shot by self-taught cinematographers, the result is usually at least adequate. Christian productions now attract familiar stars: Robert Duvall in Seven Days in Utopia; Sean Astin in Mom’s Night Out; Cybill Shepard in Do You Believe?
But when it comes to screenplay writing, the genre seems stuck in a rut. It’s more committed to heavy-handed providential plotting than imaginative explorations of character or setting.
War Room follows the increasingly dreary pattern familiar to anyone who has seen more than a handful of Christian films. Karen Abercrombie and Priscilla Shirer are easy to like as a spiritually mature senior on the one hand and a beleaguered housewife on the other whom the older woman teaches to pray. T. C. Stallings plays a flatter character: Tony, the not-yet philandering but not exactly faithful husband to Shirer’s Elizabeth. The women deliver lines like “Devil, you just got your butt kicked!” and “Go back to hell where you belong, and leave my family alone!” with the requisite earnestness to make viewers believe that they believe.
But believe what exactly? That prayer is good?
Because that seems to be the film’s thesis, and it is so anxious to underline and demonstrate that thesis that it jettisons any bit of characterization or plot incident that isn’t immediately and directly tied to Clara’s or Elizabeth’s prayer life.
Tangential question: are addresses to Satan prayers? I found it odd that in a movie about the centrality and necessity of prayer, the characters are shown contending with Satan more often than attending to God. This seems to be a subtle way in which the film—and maybe the strain of Evangelicalism it is made for—flirts with turning prayer into a work.
Elizabeth’s prayers themselves are implied through montages and post-it notes, and Miss Clara’s instructions seem to have more to do with manipulating the external environment than the content or execution of prayer. The film’s one specific piece of advice—you should have a space dedicated exclusively to prayer in your home—is certainly not bad. But it’s also one of several places in which the film is more exclusively directed towards the affluent viewer who has that space to spare than it perhaps realizes.
Priscilla Shirer and Alena Pitts in 'War Room'
College English professors teach their freshmen a common axiom: if you pick a thesis for your argument that nobody could, or does, disagree with, it’s a bad thesis for a paper.
That goes for films, too. In this case, the thesis is that "prayer changes things." It just does. End of story.
Christian Films frequently avoid controversy by being innocuous. They smooth the edges and elide the elements of our faith that we struggle with or argue about. This is a problem.
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