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Something to Overcome
Last night, our family watched Overcomer, which is the latest leader in the genre of “inspirational” Christian movies. It was, indeed, both inspirational and Christian, and, all in all, a good family film.
It also had a feel common to many of these mainstream Christian movies that I couldn’t previously put my finger on. They certainly have an overt didacticism (which bristling unbelievers might call “preachy”), but I’m not sure that’s the cause of their tone so much as a consequence of something more fundamental. Overcomer overcame its genre for a brief moment that highlighted what is often missing in this sort of movie, because, for a second, it wasn’t.
At its core, religion is about the most cosmic events imaginable, and this trait is especially pronounced in Christianity compared with some other religions. Yet, the alternative to conversion and prayer in these movies never seems to be quite so profound. Conversion appears almost as a brand of therapy, because the failure to convert results in nothing much worse than a mundane life mired in ordinary human foibles. There is no evil in the films.
The moment of exception in Overcomer arrived through one character who harbors a fifteen-year-old resentment against another. For just a moment — a single well-delivered line in the script — the resentment seemed like something more than just human-animal frailty, something more like the work of an active force of evil in the universe. And then the moment was gone.
The title of the movie played a role in my revelation, too, because it raises the critical question: What must be overcome? Is it just the characters’ hangups, or is there something more?
Perhaps one reason this question often doesn’t come through in inspirational movies is that the Christians producing them are reluctant to create characters who don’t in every moment resonate with their fundamental human value. A production team full of people who have trained themselves to see their loving God in everybody they encounter may find it difficult to display characters in whom that deity is not visible.
This limits the range of the plots from start to finish. The audience enters the story presented with a cast good people, some of whom are just going through bad spells. By the end credits, the characters have gotten over their hangups, experienced a good turn, and are at peace. That doesn’t feel like much of a transition, because their lack of peace never seemed existential, but merely a little uncomfortable and implicitly temporary.
Character development requires that we start with something bad and get to something good, with something real and substantial at stake. For storytelling generally, the thing at stake doesn’t have to be your immortal soul, but in Christianity, that’s what is at stake. It is strange, then, that this is often not a palpable part of mainstream Christian movies.
This contrasts with a turn our lived world has taken, especially with the proliferation of social media. Regular social and political discourse seems increasingly to be conducted with an existential fierceness. Even local budget battles are handled as if the universe hangs in the balance, and the opposition is a force of evil to be destroyed — politically, personally, and professionally.
Perhaps both overly sunny Christian movies and social media zealots are missing the same concept: The person is not evil. At most, evil is using the person. In a Christian movie, a character can play the role of a villain as a vessel of evil without being intrinsically so. (J.R.R. Tolkien did this very well.) And in real life political disputes, people can come to very different positions because they have different assumptions, not because they are bad people. In both cases, the goal should always be to save the person while limiting the harm he or she might do.
However, if the latter objective leads us to rationalize destroying the person with whom we disagree in order to stop them, that is strong evidence that evil is acting within us, too. Now, there’s a chilling notion! Even an individual may find it difficult to separate him or herself from demons lurking within. Sometimes, when we face the prospect of positive change in ourselves, we can hear that voice: “You are not you without me.” It has become part of our identity.
Who am I without that darkness? A peculiar anxiety of the pre-conversion modern can be that conversion might turn him or her into a walking inspirational Christian movie. In the face of such a possibility, C.S. Lewis’s explanation that — Don’t worry! — tadpoles probably don’t much want to become frogs, either, isn’t much of an encouragement. One can see the development inherent in that amphibian transition, whereas one can sense that something of life’s richness is absent from movies that lack an awareness or, at least, an acknowledgment of evil.
Fortunately, the reality is quite different. Conversion is development. The questions become deeper and the challenges more profound. Character development is not elevation into a condition of boring consistency, but advancement to the next level of understanding. Movies tend to stop well before a conflict arises at the new, higher level only because their producers chose specific conflicts to address in their allotted couple of hours.
Movies that lack this element of existential risk can fit well on a quiet quarantine Saturday evening, but they will tend to limit their effect to affirmation for those who already believe. There’s a place for that, of course, especially in a world turning against traditional beliefs, but to win converts and reverse the cultural tide, we need more art that shows what’s truly at stake in a compelling, attractive way.