What’s the difference between born-again and bad-to-the-bone? Saved! doesn’t answer and the press doesn’t care.
By Patton Dodd
Evangelicals on film occupy an odd if unsurprising position: they are almost always represented as aggressors. Consider Robert Duvall’s conflicted evangelist in The Apostle, John Swanbeck’s belligerent Baptist salesman in The Big Kahuna, and Robert Mitchum’s evil preacher in Night of the Hunter—three characters who could not be more different save for the fact of their evangelical confidence. Opinionated, self-assured, and willfully subversive of the (im)moral status quo, aggressive evangelicals like these are out to make converts—to Jesus, sure, but moreover to a robust and strident conservatism. They thump their Bibles and beat their chests, roaring about the way things should be, the way things used to be. They seek not merely to convince, but to compel, by force if necessary.
Adding to this representation of evangelicals is this summer’s Saved!, the only recent movie outside of evangelicalism’s own filmmaking industry to be entirely concerned with evangelicalism. Saved!, as many reviewers have noted, is Mean Girls in Evangelicaldom, which means it is about what happens when you take typically addled teenagers and add Christian rock and prayer groups. It is also about evangelical aggression—the problem of noisy, nosy Jesus freaks in a live-and-let-live world.
Having played thus far only on in large markets and at film festivals (wider release begins this weekend), Saved! has nonetheless garnered a great deal of attention in anticipation of the attention it could garner. With rumors of the film’s parodies of evangelical culture abounding,Christianity Today noted last week that Christian groups have been nervously awaiting the film for an entire year (the converse, perhaps, to the eager anticipation of Mel Gibson’s Passion Play).
Saved! might be best described as a muted comedy: not quite light, not quite dark, but somewhere in between. As the movie opens, the heroine, Mary (Jena Malone), receives the news that her boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) is gay. Less heartbroken for herself than concerned for his salvation, Mary decides to try to cure him by having sex with him (a decision which comes, Mary believes, at the behest of Jesus). But Dean is soon removed to a kind of psychiatric hospital for troubled evangelicals, and Mary is left alone to become great with child.
Writer-director Brian Dannelly and co-writer Michael Urban get this plot in motion early in order to spend as much time as possible spoofing evangelicalism, something they are clearly equipped to do (Dannelly attended a Christian high school, and Urban was raised Baptist). Familiar as they are with the idioms and nuances of Christian culture, the writers are smart enough to play those nuances fairly straight, and the movie’s first half is less a parody than it is a reflection. A Christian high school assembly with the pastor shouting, “Let’s get our Christ on! Let’s kick it Jesus style!” might seem over-the-top, but it isn’t. A voiceover narration from Mary sounds ironic, but it is unadulterated evangelical-speak: “I’ve been born again my whole life. Accepting Jesus into your heart and getting saved is a big decision—especially for a three-year-old.” Evangelicals have been laughing at (if not admonishing) themselves for years about these oddities, but, as Christianity Today mentioned in its review of the film, the big-screen emphasis of such silliness might serve as a helpful critique.
Indeed, in terms of critiques of religion, it is only in the straight depiction of such nonsense thatSaved! has something to offer. Unfortunately, Dannelly and Urban relegate such material to the margins to make room for another installment of an evangelical aggressor, this time a Christian bitch named Hilary Faye (played by Mandy Moore). Hilary is a stand-in for the kind of haywire Christianity that is unrelenting in its accusations, unrepentant in its hypocrisy. She forces Dean out of the closet under the guise of a school-wide prayer request, rails against the school’s lone Jew, and tries to exorcise Mary’s demons when Mary questions God. “I am filled with Christ’s love!” she shouts, slugging Mary in the back with a Bible. She relishes her role as judge, as the high priestess of fervent piety.
Though Saved! does not offer a legitimate foil to Hilary Faye, some reviewers have been determined to find one anyway. We can’t get behind the school pastor, Skip, who is dealing with a hypocrisy of his own, and the only characters affirmed in Saved! are the rebels: cynical Roland (Macaulay Culkin), his even more cynical Jewish girlfriend Cassandra (Eva Amurri), and, eventually, Mary. The one possibly-viable Christian, Pastor Skip’s dreamboat son Patrick (Patrick Fugit), is loosely a believer at best. Though Washington Post reviewer Ann Hornaday pats Saved! on the head for featuring “an appealing teen missionary” who proves it’s not “an anti-Christian screed,” Patrick coolly shrugs off the idea of himself as a missionary and nonchalantly encourages his dad to divorce—not heinous sins, perhaps, but not the stuff of evangelicalism, either.
Still, reviewers such as Hornaday, David Denby in the New Yorker, Peter Travers in Rolling Stone and others have noted that Saved! seeks to affirm something Denby calls “the Christian spirit.” In other words, the real foil to Hilary Faye is a happy ending in the Hollywood mold, where humanist piety saves the day by teaching the characters to save themselves. Mary keeps her baby and her new skateboarder boyfriend Patrick (who is totally cool with Mary’s impending motherhood). Dean gets a boyfriend of his own, Roland and Cassandra find love, and Mary’s mom begins to believe she can help her daughter cope with being an unwed teenage mother. As the camera settles upon this final idyllic scene of disparate unity, Mary intones, “What would Jesus do? I don’t know, but in the meantime, we’ll be trying to figure it out together.” This is all well and good, but it’s no religious alternative to Hilary Faye’s self-centered zeal.
Part of the mistake that is being made here is to read Hilary Faye as a fundamentalist, and therefore to assume that the film’s critique of religion is contained entirely by the most narrow kind of religious persuasion. Mandy Moore made this insinuation during a recent interview on The Late Showwith David Letterman. Asked who would be offended by such a film, Moore explained that it was only “the fundamentalists.” If Hilary Faye is a fundamentalist, of course, then she is the kind of Christian who can be easily dismissed. But she’s not a fundamentalist—she’s an evangelical aggressor. (She’s also just plain nasty, evangelicalism or no evangelicalism, but within the logic of the movie that’s neither here nor there).
To be sure, the kind of Christianity represented in Saved! is a traditionalist kind that leans toward literalist readings of the Bible and so on. But the moviemakers and some of their reviewers make the false assumption that there is a clear difference between fundamentalism and other kinds of conservative belief. To say that Saved! is “pro-faith” or affirming of the Christian spirit is to claim that it is about real Christianity—what we’d have if only we could leave the fundamentalists behind.
The problem, of course, is that it’s not always easy to tell the difference between a fundamentalist and another kind of conservative Christian. One clue, and perhaps the most important one historically, is that while the former guard their alien status in the culture, the latter seek to relate to mainstream society. Long before Stanley Hauerwas, fundamentalists in America decided that the best way to be in the world but not of it was to try their best to not be in it at all.
Evangelicals, on the other hand, maintain conservative values and theology but also seek to relate to the greater culture, never distancing themselves to the degree of unrecognizability. Witness the new young-evangelical flagship Relevant, which stakes its claim to cultural legitimacy from its title on down. Witness also Saved!’s Pastor Skip in his desperation to be hip to the vernacular of the kids he wants to save. Also in Saved!, as relentlessly narrow as Hilary Faye is, she also wants to relate to the larger world. Noticing the unsaved Cassandra approaching, Hilary Faye instructs her friends to act like they are having a grand time: “We need to show her just how cool we Christians can be!”
This fundamentalist-evangelical distinction might explain Christianity Today’s middle-ground review of Saved!, which found it to be lacking in terms of orthodox conclusiveness but ultimately “pro-faith,” and, as mentioned earlier, appreciated the movie’s joking references to the oddities of evangelical culture. A fundamentalist response would reject the film outright, but an evangelical publication reaches out to it while being careful to mark its territory.
Saying that Saved! is merely about the fundamentalist wing of Christianity is letting it off too easy. “Fundamentalist” means “minority,” “in decline,” “marginal.” But though its filmmakers don’t seem to realize it, Saved! is about something more crucial, more deserving of attention. Those depictions of Christian popular culture early in the film—its befuddling language of faith, the awkward and doomed attempts to be hip, Christian boy bands and interior design firms—those are slices of popular evangelicalism today. By not chewing on these slices in full, and by offering only nonreligious alternatives to religious problems, Saved! misses a chance to be anything more than a muted comedy about evangelical aggression.
Patton Dodd is the author of My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion, forthcoming from Jossey-Bass. Dodd’s last essay for The Revealer was a report from Sundance.