Almost exactly a year ago, Film Forum featured a survey of critics and readers regarding portrayals of Christians in film. Which were the most profound examples of Christians onscreen? Which were the most lamentable?

It is likely that Brian Dannelly's satire Saved! could end up on both lists, depending on which viewer you ask.

Saved! portrays the Christian students of a strictly evangelical Christian high school. These Jesus-praising students have embraced a superficial, judgmental, legalistic form of Christianity that leads them to treat unbelievers and troubled peers with condescension, arrogance, and "intolerance." When Mary (Jena Malone), one of the popular, outwardly pious Christian girls, finds herself pregnant after making a big mistake, she becomes a social outcast. Thus, she learns to sympathize with the other spiritual exiles in the corridors of the school—the wheelchair-bound cynic (Macaulay Culkin) and the Jewish girl (Eva Ammuri), who rejects this peer-pressure form of faith.

Most Christian film critics are appalled by the film, offended by the portrayal of Christians as judgmental, aggressively propagandistic, and condescending. Granted, Dannelly does tend to paint all Christians this way, betraying an unfortunate prejudice. But then again, the film does accurately reflect the un-Christlike behavior of certain sections of the church. Some Christians are speaking up that the film does reflect parts of Christian culture that they have personally experienced.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "The truth is, the movie is ultimately pro-faith and does make some perceptive criticisms of evangelicals. But not all is well. The problem is a lack of balance between hypocritical, judgmental Christians and loving, accepting Christians. In fact, the movie almost exclusively shows two kinds of people—hypocritical, judgmental Christians who cause problems, and loving, accepting non-Christians who make things right."

"While the film's mocking tone and unflattering wall-to-wall stereotyping of fundamentalists will leave evangelicals feeling anything but enraptured, much of what passes as humor should leave an equally bad taste in the mouths of mainline Protestants and Catholics as well," says David DiCerto (Catholic News Service). "But turning the critical cheek, Saved! does seem sincere in trying to remind viewers that religion can be twisted into something divisive rather than unifying, and can be used as an excuse for intolerance. The film also deserves credit for showing a young, unwed mother taking responsibility for her actions, rather than opting for the easy abortion route."

Article continues below

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The script has an obvious axe to grind regarding institutional Christianity and the actors are hamstrung into stereotypical behavior as a result." He also looks at Mandy Moore's character of Hilary Faye, concluding, "With a holier-than-thou attitude and a mind narrowed by pride and smugness, she represents what happens when love is removed from religion." In conclusion, he admits, "I would be hypocritical myself to say that hypocrisy does not exist in the church. It does and it is fair game for satire and sarcasm. But Dannelly paints such a one-sided picture that his points, even if valid, lose their emphasis."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "Dannelly claims that Saved! presents 'authentic Christian teens who make poor choices, have a crisis of faith, seek answers, and ultimately emerge with a genuine faith made strong through the fire of life.' But what Dannelly considers 'genuine faith' is expressed onscreen as nothing more than feel-good, wishy-washy pluralism."

Jeremy Landes (Christian Spotlight) strictly criticizes the film in his review. In answer, Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus) answered him point for point:

Landes: "Christians are depicted as notorious gossips."

Wright: "As a former church elder, I can vouch for the veracity of this charge."

Landes: "Pastor Skip begins an affair with Mary's mother, who also professes to be a believer."

Wright: "I can provide first-hand accounts of plenty of church-wrecking affairs by pastors. I mean, really, this is no secret, is it?"

Landes: "Christians, especially leaders, are depicted as liars, adulterers, and hypocrites."

Wright: "We're certainly not exempt from those failings."

Landes: "Based on this movie, one could easily get the idea that calling yourself an evangelical Christian puts you in the categories of judgmental, rude, violent, and stupid."

Wright concludes: "Why should we be surprised when satires like this—based, yes, on very justified stereotypes—come along? And why get worked up about it? The world will know we are Christ's disciples by our love, not by nice, clean little movies that depict Christian High Schoolers and teachers like the plastic little saints that we know they're not. In my book, the church has got a lot more to account for than films like Saved! Can't we save our harshest judgment for ourselves? God knows we deserve it."

Article continues below

Chris Utley (Hollywood Jesus) says the movie is making fun of hypocrisy, not mocking Christianity. "There are people who have walked away from the Lord because of girls (and boys and even men and women) who behave like Hilary Faye."Addressing" holier-than-thou evangelicals" (and he includes himself among them), he says, "Close your Bibles, get off your knees, and get out to the theatre. See this movie when it hits your town. When and if you feel ashamed and disgusted by the film, go to the nearest mirror and let that shame and disgust fall upon yourselves. May we repent as we drive home in our cars."

Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) says, "Those who have gone to Christian schools or grown up in the evangelical youth culture may find that the film hits a few bullseyes along the way. Full disclosure: I attended Christian schools myself, and I recognize much of the absurdity on display in this film, from the pastor who uses juvenile buzzwords and catchphrases … in an earnest attempt to sound relevant to teens, to the parallel universe we Christians have formed for ourselves, with its own skateboarding associations and interior-decorator awards."

Chattaway adds that some aspects of the movie "do not ring so true. Most significantly, the film tends to divide the characters into two camps: those who are overly pious and judgmental … and those who shrug off moral concerns with a sort of I'm-okay-you're-okay indifference. The film ends on a preachy note of its own, rejecting just about any belief or moral standard that might get in the way of letting people do their thing."

Just as Christianity Today Movies' Stefan & Jeanne Ulstein interviewed Brian Dannelly here a few weeks ago, Chattaway questioned Dannelly about the research he did for the film. The writer/director responded, "I would … go so far as to say that everything in the film is something I experienced or researched. I didn't try to make up stuff." The filmmaker does admit, however, that he could have done a better job representing "the middle-road Christian. [The Patrick character is] very kind and he never denounces his faith."

While I agree with Greg Wright, that the film's critique of Christians is well-deserved, I also agree that the kind of Christianity Brian Dannelly ends up recommending is a variety that all-too-easily excuses notions of right and wrong. While we are all loved by the God that made us, we are also encouraged to show love to each other, and that includes having the conviction to help others understand the difference between behavior that glorifies God and behavior that offends him. God makes it clear that he loves sinners, but he also tells us that he hates sin. Thus, Saved! is right about the problem, but wrong about the answer.

Article continues below

Many mainstream critics have also made the distinction that the film is reprimanding Christian hypocrites, not attacking the Christian faith.

MaryAnn Johanson (The Flick Filosopher) says, "The Automatons for Jesus who really, really need to see this movie will avoid it because they'll have been told it's anti-Christian, and Automatons for Jesus do what they're told. Saved! isn't anti anything, except perhaps intolerance. And self-righteousness. And the idea that slapping a 'Christian' label on anything makes it holy."

Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) also praises Saved! He says the movie is "arguing not against fundamentalism but against intolerance; it argues that Jesus would have embraced the cast-outs and the misfits, and might have leaned toward situational ethics instead of rigid morality. Saved! is an important film as well as an entertaining one. 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. And that all of this takes place in a sassy and smart teenage comedy is, well, a miracle."

Skip The Day After Tomorrow

The environmentalists were right. The President and his administration were wrong. That is the premise of The Day After Tomorrow. But Roland Emmerich's blockbuster action movie is much more a special-effects extravaganza than it is a scientific argument. And in spite of the participation of such fine actors as Dennis Quaid (The Rookie), Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko), and Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings films), most critics say the movie is just a frail echo of Independence Day, with bad weather taking the place of the aliens in the role of wreaking devastation upon historical landmarks.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Last year's The Core also included a single reference to God, mainly to emphasize that no one should bring him up; now The Day After Tomorrow follows a similar path. Between this, the dull writing, and the hypocritical message—it waves an anti-consumerist flag, yet the disaster genre is itself all about the spectacle of consumption—this is one film viewers might want to put off until some time long, long after the day after tomorrow."

Article continues below

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "While the actors gamely give it their all … [they are] eventually swept aside by the overwhelming sensory overload that Emmerich dumps upon us. The film's major flaw is in its overt politicizing of the environmental issues that supposedly lie at the heart of this film. The movie's depiction of the political administration is a blatant condemnation of the Bush presidency and its arguments devolve into an overly simplistic 'I told you so' rationalization unsupported by scientific fact."

"In more than one way, this is the ultimate comeuppance movie for big bad Republicans," reports Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk). "There's also a strong nihilistic message about the end of the world, with nothing to do but listen to environmentalists for our salvation." But is the movie worth seeing? "I didn't expect more than a few visual thrills—and I wasn't disappointed. We need to respect the environment, but this movie will only make people hang onto their SUVs. After all, four-wheel drives can be very handy in the snow."

Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) says it "may be the summer's biggest letdown. The one thing this movie forgets is that we as an audience want to care more about people than we do special effects. We see so many characters in this movie that we would like to know more about, but, unfortunately, only get brief glimpses of them."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) catalogs the film's illogical events. "Men trekking into the teeth of a subzero blizzard walk from Philadelphia to New York City in just a day or two. There are a few other plot holes large enough to drive a snowplow through." And yet, he concludes, "Implausibility aside, The Day After Tomorrow is an exciting, morally grounded summer thrill ride full of noble characters that knows how to balance spectacle with virtue and restraint."

But Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) implies that the film is meant to influence the political convictions of the viewers. "In addition to the lasting effects of the scariness, impressionable teens and preteens will of course carry away the implied belief system, and those issues should be discussed. Even some 'post-teens' will be swayed by the message, and could be influenced at the ballot box in November. I wonder if this film's budget needs to be counted in the campaign spending limits set by the Federal Election Commission?"

Article continues below

Mainstream critics are classifying it as yet another empty and forgettable summer movie.

Raising Helen ho-hum, not humorous

In Raising Helen, a career girl played by Kate Hudson (Almost Famous) suddenly finds herself responsible for her sister's three children. The responsibilities and challenges cause a serious disturbance in her professional life, but they also open a romantic opportunity with a Lutheran minister (John Corbett of My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

Religious press critics are divided as to whether the film treats religion in an admirable manner. They're also split over whether the movie is any good.

Agnieszka Tennant (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "Although predictable in places, the romantic dramedy represents Hollywood's refreshingly realistic correction of the 20th century feminism: It is possible for unexpected, ill-timed motherhood, with all its emotional and financial hassles, to gratify a woman in a way unsurpassed even by a successful career in the fashion industry, a Manhattan zip code, and lenient sex life."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "What humor exists in this film plays flat and the drama is of the maudlin variety. The tone is off, the pacing is slow, and the characters are uninteresting. Kate Hudson is certainly cute enough but isn't able to establish a sympathetic connection with the audience. The wonderful Joan Cusack gamely gives her best effort in playing a one dimensional character and John Corbett has trouble reaching even that one dimension."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, "This film is very playful, yet coherent, and tells a sweet kind of uplifting story. It upholds good morals and even carries with it some touching moments. Seeing this movie is an easy-going way to raise your spirits."

Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) points out some "imperfections," and then concludes, "This is an enduring story of lives changed by selfless choices and the intangible return of investing in others. It's also the story of one cool mom!"

Gene Edward Veith (World) says, "The best part of the movie is how it portrays a pastor. Pastor Dan is strong and wise, ministering both to Helen, the rookie mom, and to the still-grieving children, including rescuing the teenage girl from some bad company. This so-called 'sexy man of God' is in refreshing contrast to Hollywood's usual portrayal of ministers, who are usually presented as either evil hypocrites or ineffectual wimps. Pastor Dan is clearly a man of faith, though not a lot of the content of that faith is articulated in the movie. Critics are saying that the movie is cloying and has various other faults. Though they may have a point, the movie is enjoyable and positive (though not for children), representing a post-Passion Hollywood."

Article continues below

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) has a very different opinion of Pastor Dan. She's troubled by the idea that a good pastor would date an unbeliever. She also criticizes the portrayal of a Lutheran pastor who claims to believe in purgatory.

Finally, Robertson observes, "On the surface, the message of Raising Helen is that mothering is more important than anything else we could pursue in life, including career. Dig a little deeper, however, and a second message about motherhood emerges—one that contradicts the first. Ultimately, according to the film, the best mom is the one who can somehow manage career and home. The film clearly implies that single mothers are far better than couples (even happily married, loving, experienced parents)."

Mainstream critics are less than enthusiastic about the film.

Soul Plane soul-less

Want to spend a couple of hours with a bunch of stereotyped characters behaving badly on an airliner … just for laughs?

Neither did the religious media critics. But a couple of them suffered through Soul Plane anyway, and they come back with nothing but tales of woe.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The stereotypes come at us fast and furious. There's not much of a story behind the film. Soul Plane consists of a series of Airplane-like sketches and sight gags. Some work. Most don't. And more than a few are downright offensive."

Todd Campbell (Christian Spotlight) says, "Soul Plane is little more than a Sodom and Gomorrah in the air with, essentially, the inmates running the asylum. This movie is not worth the price of admission or the gas price to get to the theater."

Mainstream critics are similarly air-sickened by the movie.

More on Shrek 2,Super Size Me,Troy, The Passion

A few reviews for previously released films appeared in the religious press these past two weeks.

Reviewing Shrek 2, Andrew Coffin (World) says, "The sequel to the phenomenally successful 2001 hit features even more impressive computer animation, some great gags, and an engaging storyline. And it's not quite as offensive as the first film. Despite a balance shift for the better, though, Shrek 2 still contains enough inappropriate material to be disturbing to parents."

Article continues below

Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) writes, "Shrek 2 lacks much of the charm of the first movie. It has too much intrigue and not enough whimsy." But he calls it "a good movie. Shrek 2 will entertain you, but it lacks the warmth and the grossness of the original. That may not be your cup of tea, but the child in your life will be the one who misses it most."

Josh Hurst (Reveal), on the other hand, says it's "one of those rare sequels that outshines its predecessor in every way, and, in the process, gets in a few good jabs at the excesses of Hollywood … . While not a flawless film, Shrek 2 finds the franchise growing up a bit, gaining more mature storytelling and finding a stronger moral compass."

Reviewing Super Size Me, Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Mr. Spurlock's journey is alternately funny and disgusting, and it is likely to encourage viewers to watch what they eat. He takes the film on some interesting tangents, including a depressing look at school lunches. But as an indictment of McDonald's itself, the documentary is less convincing. Mr. Spurlock admits that his experiment was extreme, but as McDonald's points out in a press release responding the film, and other publications have also documented, Mr. Spurlock's diet was way over the top, even by his own standards."

Having seen Troy, Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) call the movie "a Hollywood spectacular that succeeds in entertainment value. When it comes to the heart, it only shows what destruction comes from selfish desire."

As we did in Film Forum a few weeks back, Kenneth Woodward (First Things) takes the time to look back at the outrageous claims made by critics of The Passion of The Christ before its release. He concludes, "As a creative interpretation of sacred texts rather than a straightforward reading of a scriptural story, [the film] deserves to be treated with the respect we normally show to all sincere attempts to search out the fullness of God's intention. Sadly, such respect was shown by few critics of Gibson's Passion."

Next week: The boy wizard is back in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.