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Stranger Than Christians

This year, the members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. accomplished something that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago: they produced a feature-length motion picture that was picked up and released by a major Hollywood distributor. The staff and congregation nurtured resident talent, pooled their resources and made a movie. An honest-to-goodness, you-can-see-it-in-a-theater-near-you, movie. They did an admirable job, too.

The movie’s title, Facing The Giants, is also an apt description of what the self-professed amateur filmmakers did. A mostly volunteer crew and all volunteer cast joined forces to tackle one of the most labor-intensive of all enterprises: physical production of a movie.

While the church was making their film in relative obscurity, a highly touted studio-backed project was wrapping up in Los Angeles. Stranger Than Fiction, written by Zach Helm, had been a hotly pursued script in Hollywood. The production boasted an experienced and distinguished crew. An impressive cast signed on including Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhall and Queen Latifah. But there is something more noteworthy than budgets or the level of industry support that differentiate these two films.

I saw Stranger Than Fiction and Facing the Giants within a few days of each other. And while I dislike using the word as an adjective, it seems appropriate here to say that I found Fiction to be a more authentically “Christian” film than Giants.

Facing the Giants is about a high school football coach who has not had a winning season in six years. His discovery that disgruntled parents are plotting to have him fired stirs an already brewing crisis of confidence. Then, as if his manhood hasn’t taken enough hits, his doctor informs the beleaguered coach that he’s the reason his wife can’t get pregnant. Coach Taylor emerges from this crucible with newfound faith and a new game plan for his team. I’m not giving anything away by telling you that at this point everything in the coach’s life improves in miraculous proportions.

The official website for Facing the Giants has numerous endorsements from celebrities, sports figures, evangelical leaders and average moviegoers. Among the quotes found on the website is this jewel: “The storyline was right on it: with God, all things are possible. There is a lesson for all that can be learned from what we saw. Hopefully the word can be spread and Hollywood will get the idea. This is one of the few movies that you wouldn’t mind Jesus sitting next to you and sharing the popcorn.” (No attribution for this quote is given on the website.)

As long as we’re invoking the image of going to the movies with Jesus, I’d love to hear what he has to say about Stranger Than Fiction. I’d spring for his ticket.

Stranger Than Fiction is the story of Harold Crick, a solitary IRS auditor who leads a humdrum life until two extraordinary things happen: First, he becomes aware that his life is being “written” by an author whose voice he suddenly begins to overhear narrating his daily activities. This goes from disturbing to alarming when the narrator announces that Harold is going to die. Then he falls in love with the passionate, empathetic, sensuous woman whom he is auditing. Now that he has something, or more accurately someone, to live for, he sets out to find the author in the hope that he can extend his life.

Like a parable, Fiction introduces characters and situations that engage the imagination and foment questions. The elements are familiar enough that we don’t feel lost, unexpected enough that we’re given an opportunity to think about life and death in fresh ways. Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) said, “I saw Stranger Than Fiction as the story of a man who’s been asleep for most of his life and suddenly wakes up and realizes he has very little time left and that he has to do something we all would like to do in some way—change our story. I thought it was a fantastic script, a very funny comedy with heart and soul.”

Facing the Giants doesn’t tell a story so much as it builds a case. The people who made it hope that the end result of their efforts will be … well, more Christians. This comes from the official Facing The Giants website: “Our church has been able to take the football teams from two of the largest high schools in the area to see the movie in the past two weeks. Out of the over 300 people that saw the movie, 66 young men accepted Christ because of your movie. Thank you!” (No attribution.)

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Giants is an infomercial for a brand of Christianity. From the moment it starts to its never-in-doubt conclusion, it does what all advertising does: sells. The pitch is clear: Buy Jesus now and as a bonus He’ll fix everything broken in your life from a bad alternator to a middling football team … even a low sperm count.

Art often begins with a question that propels us on a journey to discover the answer. Advertising begins with an answer—whether certain or dubious—and creates questions to lead us to that answer. Stranger Than Fiction is art, even if it’s fluffy pop art. No matter how well made or how sincere the intent, Facing the Giants is essentially a commercial.

I’m glad both films were made, and I’m glad I saw them. I loved Stranger than Fiction. I didn’t hate Facing the Giants. I respect the filmmakers of both movies. I suspect they might be confused, if not irritated, by my comparison of their films. My point is not so much to compare the films but rather my experiences of watching them.

I won’t presume what Jesus’ take would be on either film. But I wouldn’t mind chatting with Him about it over a tub of popcorn during all those commercials they play before the trailers.

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