Beliefs Cathy Lynn Grossman: Faith and Reason Opinion

Which Christians speak for all? Hint: Not necessarily evangelicals

Who decides whether "Exodus" film is Christian enough? Some white evangelical voices claim to carry that flag. Image courtesy of 21st Century Fox

Christians like this. Christians don’t like that. Christians won’t like “Exodus” and they may be disappointed with “Unbroken.”

In the run-up to two big December movies — the sorta-kinda-biblical epic that opened Friday and the World War II biopic of hero Louis Zamperini opening on Christmas — multiple voices claimed the films aren’t “faithful” to what “Christians” want to see.

Louis Zamperini, who died earlier this year, worked with director Angelina Jolie to tell his story of survival -- and faith in God -- in the upcoming film,"Unbroken." Photo by Floatjon via Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1moNF5I)

Louis Zamperini, who died earlier this year, worked with director Angelina Jolie to tell his story of survival — and faith in God — in the upcoming film,”Unbroken.” Photo by Floatjon via Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1moNF5I)

Meaning: They aren’t literal to the Exodus biblical text or historic facts such as Zamperini’s born-again experience that changed his post-war life.

Wait.

Who are these Christians who claim to speak for all?

It turns out these voices are primarily white evangelical Christians, 19 percent of U.S. adults according to Pew Research in 2012.  Do they actually carry the flag for the remaining 54 percent, for Catholics, mainline Protestants, black evangelicals, Mormons and more?

No, said Diana Butler Bass, scholar of mainline Christianity and author of “Christianity after Religion.”

The takeover of the term “Christian,” she said, “makes mainliners bounce off the walls. We can’t even use the word any more because it’s become identified with a particular kind of politics and a particular kind of polity.”

When “some evangelicals who set themselves up to approve of the theological content of movies or books,” Bass said it reminded her of “the old-fashioned idea of a Vatican imprimatur on works of theology and literature”

“The problem is that they are not the pope and they claim to speak for millions of Christians when they speak for a very small subculture of most Protestants. It leave mainliners feeling like the Whos in ‘Horton Hears a Who’ — tiny voices trying to say, ‘We are here. We are here.’ It makes people feel invisible,” said Bass.

She expects many Christians of all types “will respond warmly” to the universalized message of faith in God that director Angelinia Jolie wove into in the life of Zamperini — at his request. He was reared as a Catholic before he became an evangelical after hearing Billy Graham preach in 1949.

White evangelicals objection is that “they think Zamperini’s real life began at the born-again moment. That’s the story they care most about,” said anthropologist of religion Susan Harding.

Who decides whether "Exodus" film is Christian enough? Some white evangelical voices claim to carry that flag. Image courtesy of 21st Century Fox

Who decides whether “Exodus” film is Christian enough? Some white evangelical voices claim to carry that flag. Image courtesy of 21st Century Fox

Biblical literalists – and some Jews — may be more disappointed in “Exodus” because the film downplays the supernatural and leaves people searching for God in a Moses-centered epic.

Scholar and writer Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, parish associate at Rivermont Presbyterian Church (USA) in Chattanooga, has no trouble with artistic reinterpretations of a scripture “that has already been interpreted and reinterpreted by hundreds of human hands across centuries.”

Merritt said, “You may not see what’s on the scriptural page but you are reminded of it’s meaning, the rhythm of the story.”

nones-exec-6That is, if you are open to it. With the onslaught of attacks on the Christian bonafides of “Exodus,” it’s become yet one more thing many, if not most, Christians, have to separate themselves from.

Merritt finds this “extremely frustrating… Nobody wants to define themselves by what they are not.”

Rev. Mark Sandlin, a Presbyterian pastor, blogger and editor of The Christian Left web site , says progressive and liberal Christians have felt left out of widespread media attention “ever since conservative evangelicals picked up the megaphone and claimed to speak for all.” He’s been writing for years now on how “I want my Christianity back —  without the ugly baggage.

Sandlin, Merritt and Bass see many ways to offer entertainment that conveys biblical truth without mirroring biblical text or punching every date on a timeline.

But that doesn’t cut it with the self-appointed defenders of a specific vision of Christianity, says David Kinnaman, head of the Christian research firm the Barna Group. He cites “an entire cottage industry of Christian enforcers who want to see only Biblical fact.”

But Barna Group research over decades has probed deeply into whether people are theologically by-the-book evangelical or just adopting a popular label. “It comes to 7 percent at best” among Americans, he said. So, the people who might be offended by theological or historical lapses in “Exodus”  or “Unbroken,” Kinnaman said, “are really just a tiny subset of Christians.”

Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt points out there may be many reasons people might avoid “Exodus” — the all-white cast, the bad-to-eye-rolling reviews. Taking Christian umbrage seems low on the list. Indeed, Monday, at least one conservative evangelical leading voice, the Rev. Albert Mohler, blogged that he enjoyed the film despite “major” theological problems with it.  

Soon, we’ll see if Zamperini’s view of how his own story should be told will pay off at the box office. Will people hear the message that Laura Hillenbrand, author of the book behind “Unbroken,” heard in more than 70 interviews with Zamperini?

She wrote: “When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him.”

About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues

23 Comments

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  • Fundamentalist christians use “Christian” to describe their own unique sectarian views because they want to intentionally create confusion between their ideas and the mainstream of christendom. To pretend their fringe views have a much wider level of acceptance than reality permits. It also denies the voice of moderate mainstream christian sects in public forums and political arenas.

    Even the term “Biblical literalism” is a form of intentional deception and conflation. To claim ownership for the Bible as belonging solely to fundamentalists. All other sects are claimed to be just not as “Biblically accurate” or “true to the word” as they are.

    The truth of the matter is the “literalist” views are just as interpretive and full of personal perspective as any others. Biblical literalists are just as willing to play fast and loose with scripture as others to fit a particular end. Its not being “literal” with the Bible its just showing agreement with the interpretations they are most happy with.

    These “defenders of the faith” feel that they speak for Christianity because their sects extol a notion that only Evangelicals are really Christians and reading the Bible “correctly”. No other sects or faiths need to be acknowledged in such a view. It is part and parcel with the lack of respect such groups have with anyone but themselves. In essence what they are looking for is validation of their religious interpretations and to enforce rather reactionary views in public discussion and media.

  • “Do [white evangelicals] actually carry the flag for the remaining 54 percent, for Catholics, mainline Protestants, black evangelicals, Mormons and more?”

    Yep. Pretty much.

  • From the article, one could infer that (1) all evangelicals are theological and political conservatives (2) all other Christians are theological and political liberals.

    That wasn’t the intent, but readers who don’t know the landscape very well could well infer that.

    For the better part of a century, the great divide in Christendom has not been evangelicals versus everybody else, but Christians of all stripes who are traditional in their understanding of their faith, and Christians of all stripes who are modernist, meaning their beliefs are informed by 20th century philosophy and skeptical views of the Bible and of the traditional creeds of Christianity.

    Thus, a traditional Catholic has a lot more in common with a traditional evangelical than with a modernist Catholic, while a modernist Catholic has more in common with a modernist mainliner than with a traditional Catholic.

  • In other words:

    (1) People who agree with Larry: goodness and light, best of motives
    (2) People who disagree with Larry: bad…..worst of motives

    In other words, there is no such thing in Larry’s mind as honorable opponents.

    I guess everyone has a Larry in their family. My cousin fits the bill pretty well. Nice guy, until anyone dares to disagree with him on the issues….

  • Part of this is a question of whose ox is being gored.

    If the author of the article went to a movie about a hero of hers that took major liberties with the story, it’s possible she wouldn’t be exactly a happy camper, either.

    It’s always a complicated thing to take an original story and reinterpret it or make changes. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be done. It is partly what movies are often about. But it is to say that once it is done, it is fair game for critics….and to attack critics for being narrow-minded risks shutting off useful dialogue rather than facilitating it.

    Example: Gone with the Wind was an exceptional movie, but it can be legitimately criticized for overly romanticizing life in the pre-Civil War south, failing to highlight the full evils of slavery, and taking a view of Reconstruction that was also pro-South.

    And of course, the same people who are essentially telling “evangelicals” to keep quiet and enjoy movies that take liberties in a way that they find objectionable will be the first to criticize liberties taken in films like Gone with the Wind for their failure to get a thing accurate.

    Again, it’s whose ox is being gored……and the answer is always to allow dialogue on all sides so fruitful discussions can occur.

  • Jack, I was elaborating on what the author was saying but going in a direction that she was unwilling to do. Rather than address my point, you went on a personal attack. How classy.

    The language employed by Evangelicals/Fundamentalists is deliberate and part and parcel with the idea of excluding out all other Christian sects from consideration. Staking a singular and exclusive claim on Christianity and the Bible.

    A perfect example is how “affirming” or “progressive” Christian sects are attacked as not even being Christian. It is completely without merit and assumes the evangelical sect has the sole right to chose who is Christian and who isn’t. The viciousness of the attacks of Rob Bell by Christians also provides a perfect example. Evangelicals claim such a level of ownership and exclusion of the notion of Christianity that they deny any interpretation but theirs.

    The whole point of “inerrency” and “Biblical literalism” is to exclude all other scriptural interpretations than their own. Allegedly only they are really reading it correctly. Everyone else is taking liberties. Its complete hogwash. The Biblical literalists and those who speak of scriptural inerrancy make the same types of leaps and personalized interpretations as everyone else. They just pretend otherwise in the most blatantly dishonest fashion possible. Again it shows a need to take ownership of the faith and exclude consideration of all other sects.

    The entire use of “Christian” to denote only their sectarian ideas is deliberate conflation and meant to sow confusion among those outside their group. To pretend the views have far greater acceptance than reality. To discount the rest of Christendom when it comes to basic concepts and beliefs but want to include their numbers in order to sound impressive and well regarded.

  • “And of course, the same people who are essentially telling “evangelicals” to keep quiet and enjoy movies that take liberties in a way that they find objectionable will be the first to criticize liberties taken in films like Gone with the Wind for their failure to get a thing accurate. ”

    They should do just that. Its not their work. Nobody has to produce artistic works to please their views. Criticism of liberties taken in adaption from print to screen are garbage. Outside of “the book was better”, it bespeaks of an immaturity in understanding the differences.

    To understand the nature of adaption from print to screen is to acknowledge liberties taken. The difference in medium demands changes to be made for the sake of the audience and form.

    Faithfulness to the source book doesn’t guarantee a decent film. Many great films have been made by heavily altering or even outright trashing the source material. For example:

    The Graduate, Ordinary People, Dr. Strangelove, Kiss Me Deadly, Starship Troopers, LA Confidential, Wuthering Heights, American Psycho, Yojimbo…

  • Thank you for proving my point.

    If it involves acknowledging the existence of other sects of the same faith besides your own, other interpretations but yours, it must be really attacking all religion. Therefore some kind of atheist plot.

    Evangelicals really own Christianity and everyone else is really just an atheist in disguise.

  • You’re a big boy, Larry. I’m sure you’re not melting from taking a wee bit of heat.

    Part of what’s happening here is an attempt by people who don’t like serious Christians of any stripe very much to play the old divide-and-conquer game……the strategy being to isolate evangelicals from other Christians who are like-minded in their acceptance of the traditional doctrines, beliefs, and mores of what CS Lewis once called “mere Christianity.”

    But divide and conquer doesn’t work anymore because most Christians care less about denominationalism today and more about where people stand on the basics. The traditional Catholic-evangelical alliance is pretty much total these days, especially among politically and socially active churchgoers from both camps. And for those of us linked to mainline churches, there are plenty of like-minded traditionalists in mainline pews who feel they’ve a lot more in common with people from evangelical groups as well as traditional Catholics than with the leadership of mainline churches.

  • There’s nothing wrong with critiquing movies, Larry. We’re a nation of moviegoers and movie critics.

    I’m simply arguing for consistency. All sides have the right to be critics.

  • Jack, Larry, Take it outside, okay? Seriously when you take over the comment forum as your private playground it discourages anyone else from chiming in. This is not actually your column. In the future, at least on my blog, you can file one comment per person and then I will remove all future ones. Email me at [email protected] if you would like to discuss this further.
    Cathy

  • I have no idea “who speaks for all Christians.” No time to find out either.

    But conspiracy theories like “an entire cottage industry of Christian enforcers” ? C’mon now, it ain’t that complicated.

    Let’s make it simple for all the Hollywood Execs out there. Wanna make big Christmas money off the evangelicals (regardless of their color)? Then go make some EVANGELICAL movies, bub. Period. No more jacked-up boo-boo mess. Simple, yes?

    You know how to pull the purse-strings of every other demographic. You give ’em what they want. So just do the same with evangelicals. Get some first-rate, compelling, **stick-to-the-Bible** movies on the marquee.

    And if you can’t do so, then don’t look for a big payday from evangelicals. It’s that simple. Times are tough and money is tight.

    If you try to sell UNIVERSALISM to an evangelical audience and pass it off as evangelical Christian feel-good, you might just wind up generating another box office DOGHOUSE FLOP, which is your usual speed anyway.

    So, Hollywood, your call. Make any movie you want. There are no enforcers out there. Merely a few movie critics here and there. And maybe a few biblical Christians who believe in pulling the curtains back whenever you moviemakers are messing up !!!

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    Addendum only applicable to Cathy Lynn Grossman articles ; “you can file one comment per person and then I will remove all future ones”.

    Ms Grossman, I will not make multiple comments on any of your articles, as I will no longer even read them. Strange how someone who should value freedom of expression so casually takes that right from others. If all others authors took that position, RNS would become nothing more than a digital newspaper. Better you push K.E. down an elevator shaft than ruin his website, by making up your own user agreement rules.

    Like with other comments I’ve made in the past that you don’t like, please let the power surge within you, remove it.

  • Dear Doc Anthony
    Even though I rarely agree with you, I almost always understand your comments. I do not understand the reference to atheism in this context. Am I being dumber than usual? I have zero credit hours in religion and sometimes that shows.
    Are mainline Protestants atheists in your view?
    Best Wishes

  • Dear Cathy Lynn
    Watching arguments like this is part of the charm of RNS.
    Please give these folks another chance.
    Thanks

  • The movies don’t even need to be first-rate or compelling. Most evangelical hits (such as “Fireproof,” “Facing the Giants” and, for black evangelicals, Tyler Perry movies) are pretty amateurish. Just preach to the choir and they won’t care about your hackneyed screenplay, wooden performances, and high school AV-club technical quality.

  • Earold, I do agree with you and will certainly remember your stand-up defense of freedom of expression. As for K.E., he’s a class act. We agree.

    As for the author, what can I say….viva la difference. Upbringing shapes us all and explains the differing strategies we each have for navigating life and dealing with people. Some folks learn early by word and deed that the key to success is controlling as many variables around one’s life as possible, even if toes are stepped on. That’s certainly one way of handling life. Other folks learn to choose their battles rather than battling all of the time — and that’s another way. Still other people don’t do battle at all and quite pacific…..that’s a third way. It takes all types to make a world.

    As for me, while I value freedom of expression, I will abide by the rule stated– and like you, take it farther by refraining from further posting. But thanks again for your comments. And thanks to Religion News for providing for them. I’m actually proud of fellow posters, including Larry, for keeping things far more civil here than what friends have shown me are typical elsewhere.

  • You are not “dumb” at all, Dmj76 — I was simply not being clear enough. That’s on me; I apologize.

    “Are mainline Protestants atheists in your view?” you asked.

    Nope (but keep an eye on ’em anyway). However, that issue is not what my reply to Jack was about.

    See his 4:08 pm post there. What he is describing there, is what I’ve seen **more than once** from atheists. In fact it’s almost like a trait, and if I were taking an Atheism 101 class, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it. Hence my reference to “Atheism 101”.

    But I apologize — I wasn’t really being very clear about it.

  • I can appreciate artistic expression but each of us will judge a movie based on what we value more closely. I cannot recommend Oliver Stone’s “JFK” because as a political scientist with a strong history background, I am irked by its creation of “facts” and its violation of Occam’s Razor regarding the death of Kennedy. Certain issues matter more to me because of my background and training, while for others they do not matter. As a Christian (with M.Div.) and an Evangelical, I prefer that the motives of biblical characters and historic believers be more faithful to the source material rather than less. I agree with the “ox gored comment” in that if the upcoming “Selma” movie portrayed Dr. King as an ambitious power-hungry opportunist- the right to “artistic license” would be quickly trampled by the mob midst cries of “sacrilege”.

  • Let each man speak for himself.
    No one needs to speak for Christianity.
    In the New Testament Christ speaks with the voice of God:
    I am the way and the truth and the light, no one comes to the Father except by me

  • Which specific evangelical Christians are claiming to speak for all Christians? I haven’t heard any make such a claim. They express their opinions and generally, it is clear they they are their opinions. In fact, I have never heard any claim to be speaking for all Christians, have you? It really isn’t their fault, if the mainstream media goes to the usual suspects: the handful of evangelical Christians who are often good for a controversial or goofy quote. As an evangelical Christian, I wish the media would go to serious evangelicals and, yes, to other types of Christians, but they seem to prefer to make evangelicals (and by extension other Christians) look as bad as possible. So they go back to the same few outspoken evangelicals who are most likely to say something ridiculous.

    Let’s look at the other side of this coin. What types of Christians are interviewed on serious issues by organizations such as the New York Times or National Public Broadcasting? My impression is that it is virtually never evangelicals of any stripe. I seem to recall one brief interview with Rick Warren on NPR a few years ago, but otherwise all serious discussions with Christians that I have heard or read have been with mainstream (non-evangelical) Christians. However, it has never been my impression that these Christians have sought out NPR or the NYT and claimed to represent all Christians. We are simply seeing the culture of the media organization reflected in who they select for interviews.

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