“Confessions of a Bad Christian” – Critics on both sides put new movie on the End of the Spear

H.L.Mencken wrote that criticism is prejudice made plausible. I have a suspicion that recent reviews of  End of the Spear have revealed as much about some critics prejudice as they have about their views of the movie. And it is very possible that it is my prejudice that makes me suspicious. The movie opened Friday to criticism on both sides of the cultural divide. Many in the Christian community were critical of the “soft” presentation of the gospel message. Many secular critics were appalled at the overtly Christian message. Hmmmmm. Others in the Christian community were apoplectic over the casting choices in the movie. We will address that tomorrow. Today lets take a look at the critical reviews of the movie End of the Spear.

I have said before that if I had heard a preacher tell me that hell would be eternity spent with movie critics I would have hit the altar much sooner. These people really seem to be unhappy campers. The following is a sampling of some of the critics with my comments inserted parenthetically.

TV Guide’s Movie Guide wrote, “this ersatz jungle adventure is really a thinly disguised Sunday School lesson in faith, charity and the savagery of life without Christ.” (Yes, that would be because that is the story of the book on which the movie is BASED…sorry for raising my font voice. The reviewer makes that very point in the next line) “Based on the true story of Steve Saint and his father, Nate Saint, one of five American Christian missionaries slain by members of an Amazon tribe in 1956”… (So if the movie were based on a not true story then a Sunday School lesson could be fairly criticized. This is the story of  Christian missionaries sharing Christ and getting killed. It seemed important to the story to me that faith work its way in there at times. This makes as much sense as critiquing Glory Road with the same approach. This ersatz basketball adventure is really a thinly disguised affirmative action lesson in racism, courage, and the insensitivity of whites in the sixties. Glory Road is based on the true story of the Texas Western basketball team. End of the Spear is based on the true story of five missionaries. You can hate their mission or their methods but that doesn’t change what the bleepin’ story is about. Whew…I feel better. Next reviewer please.)

E! Online wrote “There are also some slayings, which are not met with retribution from the good missionaries – the savages aren’t “ready for heaven” yet, you see –  and that’s the big message. In this particular tale, turning the other cheek, while lovely, is heavy on the sincerity and light on the subtlety–and it’s a relief when the End finally comes. (I think the  “good missionaries” is a cheap drive-by  shot. Again, whether you agree with the missionaries or not they did put their lives at risk for a cause and they did not seek retribution. Should it be surprising to anyone that a Christian missionary would believe that Jesus is the big message and the way to salvation? That has not been a hidden agenda and, again, that happens to be the theme of this particular story. I thought the line about “turning the other cheek, while lovely” was condescending but amusing.  Perhaps the Sermon on the Mount could be reworked to reward such a noble idea. And Jesus said if,  “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, it would be quite lovely if you could possibly turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, it would be really sporting to let him have your cloak as well.” )

The Washington Post opined that “although the film invests time among the tribesmen, it never really explores the idea that one man’s missionary work is another’s ideological aggression.” (That would be a fair and interesting question. For another movie! This is Steve Saint’s story of his father. That story did not include Nate Saint wondering if his zeal to communicate with the Waodoni tribe was an “ideological aggression.” Trying to force that into this story would be disingenuous. Here comes my favorite review of End of the Spear. This one comes from Mark Holcomb of the Village Voice. Get out your bitterness mop and bucket…we have a cleanup on aisle four).

Coy crypto-Christian claptrap masquerading as feel-good ethnography, (Whoa…look at his gigantic vocabulary! I think I get what he means with this odd grouping of descriptive words. If I may interpret for my fellow Red Staters…the script is kind of teasingly deceptive and secretive in it’s message yet pretentious. But by definition ethnography is the scientific study of human cultures. I don’t think that End of the Spear every intended to be that type of movie. I think Holcomb might have picked a better fifty cent word for the finale) End of the Spear is part missionaries-in-peril potboiler – sans pot – and part Bush-era evangelical screed  (That is rich. And the award for most creative way to somehow work in a shot at George Bush totally and irrelevantly from left field goes to Mark Holcomb. Where did that come from? And why?) It’s the kind of oversweet cinematic Kool-Aid they used to force-feed us in Sunday school, a dramatic retooling of Beyond the Gates of Splendor, a documentary also directed by Jim Hanon that was marketed to churches. (Dude, sorry you had a bad experience with the flannel graph Bible stories but what does THAT have to do with this movie?) Both films tell the story of five American missionaries who were murdered by members of a remote Ecuadorian tribe while trying to establish contact with them in 1956, and of the subsequent conversion of said tribe to a less self-destructive lifestyle. But Spear is up to more than just grade-B jungle thrills, and its Davey and Goliath dogmatism (Okay, how could Goliath have been anything other than dogmatic? Just curious.) comes through as loud and clear as the sinister subtext behind its message of nonviolence—that the world’s nonwhite, “undeveloped” cultures continue to require prophylactic doses of Yank benevolence in order to survive and thrive. (I’ll bet he is still chuckling about working prophylactic into the Christian movie review.)

I can only speak for myself. I don’t view my faith as having a color. I simply have found a relationship with Jesus Christ that I want to communicate with others. I have no desire to force it on others. Jesus never did. His message was always communicated with love and gentleness. I wrote about the Unbelievers Bill of Rights in my book When Bad Christians Happen to Good People.

To be fair not all secular critics were nearly this harsh about the movie. The New York Times called the movie inspiring and several other critics were at least partially positive.

I thought that End of the Spear was a very good movie. It is not perfect. The story of forgiveness is awe inspiring no matter how much you might critique the script, actors, or production. Entertainment Weekly wrote that “the movie, which is atrociously scripted and edited, carries out the mission for them (the missionaries), turning Mincayani, a surly and handsome Waodani leader, from killer to saint without making psychological sense of either.” That conundrum is the very crux of this story. There is no psychologically sensible explanation for these events. There is an amazing and supernatural element to this story. Could I do what Steve Saint has done? Could I have remained in the Ecuadorian jungles and still desired to help that tribe like the wives of the slain missionaries? Could I forgive the man who took my father away in my childhood? Could I forgive my father for putting himself in such a position? Would I hold fast to the faith that caused him to do that? Those are questions I asked as I left the theater. For Steve Saint to forgive, befriend, and live with the man who murdered his father is an act of grace, strength, and redemption that humbles me. I think he has earned the right to have his story told the way he wants it told. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously noted, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right. You’ll be criticized anyway.”