Monday, February 22, 2010

To Save A Life

A member asked me to look into the movie "To Save a Life" for some kind of evaluation on whether or not it could be useful to churches, families, and youth in our area.

I haven't seen the movie and can't see it until it comes to our area. So I will proceed cautiously based on the movie's website, the production company/church website, and various reviews in the mainstream media available through

The Story and Purpose of the Movie:

From the movie website:

Jake Taylor has it all: friends, fame, a basketball scholarship and the hottest girl in school. What could be better?
Enter Roger Dawson. Roger has nothing. No friends. No hope. Nothing but putdowns and getting pushed aside. Things couldn't get worse...could they?
Jake and Roger were best friends when they were kids. But the politics of high school quickly pulled them apart. Now Roger doesn't fit in Jake's—or anyone's circle—and he's had enough. He walks onto campus with a gun in his pocket and pain in his heart and makes a tragic move.
Jake's last-ditch effort can't stop Roger, and the sudden tragedy rocks Jake's world. Something breaks loose inside and sends him questioning everything. Most of all, he can't shake the question Could I have saved Roger? In a quest for answers, Jake finds himself looking for the next Roger and reaching out to the outcasts and lonely. But he quickly finds that crossing class castes threatens all his world is built on. And it could cost him his own friends, his girl, his dreams and even his reputation. Is it worth the price to find the answer to his ultimate question: What do I want my life to be about?
This movie was written by a Youth Pastor Jim Britts and Executive Pastor Steve Foster at New Song Community Church of Oceanside, CA.

Their intent is: "to inspire young people to reach out to the hurting and lonely around them, the "To Save A Life" Film, Novel and Curriculum Study Kit are intended for use by Small Groups and teachers."

What to consider before seeing the movie:

Kids-in-mind rates the content 6.5.4. Parents should read this review to help them decide whether they want their children exposed to the material content presented in the film. That said, the fact of graphic content is only one part of such a decision. Another major part of considering content is the way in which the content is used either to encourage or discourage behaviors, and whether or not--in the end--the immoral and destructive behavior is glamorized.

For example, Black Hawk Down, Das Boot, Saving Private Ryan, Hotel Rawanda and Der Untergang all were very explicit in their portrayal of violence and gore. But though they were explicit and extremely disturbing, the graphic nature of the action served to show the depth of suffering, dedication, and sacrifice (in the cases of BHD, and SPR); and the horror and repulsive consequences of Statism, tyranny, and genocide. Whether it is necessary to use graphic action is a different question which each family needs to consider for themselves.

When considering violence and gore available over the regular television networks and cable networks this movie seems mild.

The portrayal of sexual themes listed in the kids-in-mind review sound about as suggestive as Captain Kirk in Star Trek, The Old Series, though the sexual language in the movie may be more comparable to contemporary "family" television. So the question is how do they use these situations to portray the benefits of and to encourage chastity. While the movie might be quite tame compared to other movies typically watched by teens (compare the many explicit sexual references in "Transformers") it is still a lame argument to suggest that viewing suggestively clothed teenagers in sexually compromising situation could improve their chastity. But I have not seen the movie, so I can only rely on what kids-in-mind have reported.

Possible Religious Themes and Problems

New Song Community Church is oriented around a Church Growth marketing appeal to its surrounding community. Their preaching and outreach are summarized as:

A Great Front Door (comprised of a) gifted artists sponsoring God-moments and experiences during each service, b) anointed teachers delivering relevant, life-changing messages, and c) an army of hosts welcoming newcomers into our church like they would welcome guests into their own home.) And...
A Great Serving Core (teams of people serving together in life-changing and people-
changing ministries both inside and outside of the church while doing life together in such a way that they know and are known, love and are loved, serve and are served, celebrate and are celebrated by each other.)
Their statement of belief shows them to be basically a Baptist Trinitarian church that denies the Means of Grace, viewing them as ordinaces established by Christ for believers to show their dedication and sincerity to God: for example, their "believer's baptism". In other words, the Means of Grace are stripped of Christ's grace and made into works done by people to demonstrate their own faith. From their statement on the Church:

We believe the Church is made up of all those who have trusted Christ as their Savior and Lord. We believe that Scripture commands believers to gather together to devote themselves to worship, prayer, teaching of the Word, observance of believers baptism and communion as the ordinances established by Jesus Christ, fellowship, service to the body through the development and use of talents and gifts, and outreach to the world.
This leads me to expect that the movie will confuse the Law and the Gospel. The ways I expect this to happen are the following:

  1. I expect that Conversion will be viewed as a decision made by the individual of his own free will. When in truth there is no free will. We are spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins and need God to make us alive (Eph. 2). Christ chooses us, we do not choose Him (John 15:16). We cannot give ourselves the birth of faith in any way (John 1:12-14, John 3). From the meaning of the Third Article in Luther's Small Catechism "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him.
  2. I expect that Contrition will be placed along side faith as a cause of salvation. That is, I think the movie will make the claim that a person has to feel really sorry in order to come to Christ. When, in fact, it is not our sorrow or its depth that moves God to love us, rather it is the suffering of Christ and His righteous life that is credited to us through faith alone that saves us. And that faith is given as a gift by God through Baptism.
  3. I expect that individuals will be directed to their own inward struggle and prayers to find a way they can give their hearts or dedicate themselves to God. This error is similar to the first two, and the false direction given is always to the condition of the sinner rather than on the explicit external Word of God.
  4. I expect that Baptism will be used as an outward act by the converted to show their dedication and sincerity to God and those around him. But in reality Christ gave Baptism as a Means of Grace through which He washes a sinner clean of sin, creates the faith that trusts in Him, and dresses the individual in His righteousness.
  5. I also expect that devotion and sincerity of faith will be viewed as marks of true faith rather than faith being God's work, as we confess "but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel and enlightened me with His gifts." The gifts mentioned in the Meaning of the Third Article in Luther's Small Catechism are those specific things Christ has given to His Church on earth for the creation and sustaining of faith, the Word and Sacraments.
There are other errors that I expect the theology of this movie to make, but this list should be a good beginning for examining the doctrine presented in the movie.

Looking through the movie's website and the supporting website that provides many "studies" which are available for purchase from the sponsoring group, I feel a bit cynical. The studies and advertisements and hoopla look to make a pretty penny for the sponsoring group should the movie prove popular among nominally Christian groups. I realize the movie and resources represent a sizable investment on the part of the sponsors. But it seems to me that there is a very big emphasis on buying product for the sake of souls. I do not approve of this kind of "Christian Guilt Marketing."

Also, reading through the sample materials and the websites, the "Christian Guilt Marketing" seems to be accompanied by the John Edward's approach used in his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The point of that sermon was to present hell as so terrible a place that the listener would be too frightened to want to go there and give his life to Christ. The materials seem to suggest that people going through the emotional trials faced by the characters in the move will be motivated by the horror of the consequences the characters face. But such motivation does not bring about faith. It brings about either despair or self-righteousness. Much will depend on how the Gospel is presented in the film, but it looks like the Gospel will be confused with Law by making the Gospel into a preaching of repentance.

Some Nice Things About the Published Reviews

This film does get the right kinds of reviews from anti-Christian critics the main stream media.

Andy Webster of the New York Times said:

The director, Brian Baugh, was the cinematographer for the conservative screed “An American Carol,” a clumsy parody of Michael Moore movies, and here similar politics come in adolescent camouflage. The film would be a mere nuisance if not for its shameless exploitation of school shootings to advance its agenda.

But forget the lame performances and arch, preachy sentiment; the movie’s sham hip-hop and spurious alternative music alone should keep teenagers away. Thank goodness.
Melissa Anderson of the Villiage Voice said:

What would teenage Jesus do if he felt responsible for a childhood pal's suicide, knocked up his girlfriend, and played too much beer pong? ...
To Save a Life wants to rescue kids from the Satanic messages of Gossip Girl—a benign, even worthy enough objective, but must alternatives to empty, materialistic adolescence require baptism in the Pacific? The film's handling of teenage pregnancy follows Juno's, with Kimya Dawson lyrics supplanted by a repugnant linguistic twist regarding "choice." For all its initial attempts to soften its religiosity—the SoCal setting, the youth pastor who's profoundly sympathetic to his charges, the wispy-banged messiah who's gifted at using social-networking sites—To Save a Life is about as subtle as this closing credit: "The producers would like to thank: GOD." 

The Austin Chronicle says:

You, too, can prevent teenage suicides, if you reach out as a good Christian … or something like that. To Save a Life is a well-meaning but ineptly made message movie
Madison Capital Times writes:

What’s worthy about “To Save A Life” comes purely from its nutritional value, and if a teenager becomes a more empathetic person as a result of seeing it, then it’s worth it for him. A lot of his friends, though, might be too bored to get to the redemption part.
Andrew Barker of Variety magazine writes:

Just as representations of human sexuality on film are often unpleasantly twisted by the grotesqueries of the porn industry, so, too, are filmic representations of religious conversion homogenized by the faith-based entertainment industry. Case in point: Debutante director Brian Baugh's "To Save a Life," which hints at becoming a thoughtful portrait of a teen's spiritual crisis, then abandons all narrative integrity to hit its church-mandated marks, which range from well-meaning to eyebrow-raising.
Lou Lumenick of the New York Post writes:

"The producers would like to thank: GOD" say the closing credits of the Christian drama "To Save a Life" -- and I had pretty much the same sentiment when it finally ground to a conclusion after two full, mind-numbing hours. ...
Produced with the best of intentions by a California church and directed without distinction by first-timer Brian Baugh, "To Save a Life" would be bland and boring even as a half-hour after-school special.
These kinds of reviews from these agnostic and anti-Christian critics almost convince me to go see the movie.

Based on the information gleaned and presented above I couldn't recommend either going to the movie or staying away from it. I'll probably have to go see it because of the impact it will have on the youth in our area. I just pray that the film doesn't backfire by 1) leading teens to think that sexuality outside of marriage is only bad because of pregnancy instead of being a sin before God, and 2) by leading the suicidal to despair even more with what appears to be a faulty "scared straight" lesson rather than the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ.

I don't doubt that the theological approach of the film will cause confusion of Law and Gospel in minds of most viewers. The agnostic and anti-Christian reviewers already demonstrate this, along with the film's defenders in the comments to those reviews. In this way, the film may provide an opportunity to talk explicitly about the value of the Means of Grace and properly dividing the Law and the Gospel.

But after all this is written, I just have a basic objection to the whole notion of "relevant" messages, of which the film is an example. When Christians start looking for "relevance" it means that they have decided that God's Word is not enough. The danger that the movie may present to the Christian with all its potential confusion of Scripture's Law and Gospel is in communicating a passing fervor of action toward the lonely based upon the passing emotionalism conveyed in the movie rather than a solidly scriptural desire to confront sin as sin and present the grace of God in Christ through the Means He has given.

Again, I have not yet seen this movie. These are some thoughts based on the information available. I hope that they are helpful.

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