Thursday, July 29, 2021

"Classic" Christian Films Face the Giants

Facing the Giants
It should probably be stipulated that this month's "classic" Christian films aren’t necessarily, well, good, but all of these films have a unique place in the growth of the Christian film industry. 

Facing the Giants is the second film from the Kendrick brothers, Alex and Stephen, after their debut film, Flywheel. This second film broke through commercially, bringing in ten million dollars on a million-dollar budget. After Facing the Giants, the brothers went on to make several financially successful films. In 2008, the Kendrick brothers made a film about marriage called Fireproof on a budget of half a million that went on to earn 33 million dollars.

Facing the Giants is the story of Grant Taylor (Alex Kendrick), the football coach at Shiloh Christian Academy. As the film opens, Coach Taylor’s Eagles lose the final game of their season to end a losing record. He is struggling financially, and we learn that he and his wife, Brooke (Shannen Fields), have been unable to have children (though they’ve been attempting to do so for four years.)

film flashes forward to the first day of school the next year. Oddly, the first day of school at Shiloh Christian Academy seems also to be the first day of football practice. At most every school I know, football programs begin weeks before the school year starts. And that same week they begin school and practice, they have their first game. The Eagles go on to lose their first three games. Coach Taylor’s job seems to be in danger.

But then Coach Taylor goes to the woods behind his house and begins to pray. And things begin to turn around. There is a revival at his high school, beginning in the Bible class. Students are praying all over the school property. And at practices, Coach begins to challenge his players to play not just for the win, but for God. This turns the kids around, and they start to win games.

Now it seems like in some conferences, three losses might already know you out of contention to win the division. Not necessarily, but it could. Instead the Eagles begin to win every game. And then every playoff game. And soon they are on the way to the state championship.

But that’s not the only thing that turns around for the coach. Because he’s praying, apparently, he is given an increase in salary. And he is given a free, spanking new truck. (The father of one of his players is so thrilled that the coach told him to respect his father, the father gives him a truck.) I would worry greatly if someone gave me a gift like that with no explanation. If for the tax liability alone.

Best of all, his wife goes to the doctor’s office and gets good news (eventually.) This is one of the most unprofessional doctor’s offices I’ve ever seen. The coach’s wife goes in the office and one of the nurse’s announces loudly to the other, “It’s Coach Taylor’s wife! I sure hope she’s pregnant this time!” And do you know what? She is!

That is the way things go in the world of Facing the Giants. Though there are problems for these Christians, everything eventually goes their way. God must want everyone to win the big game. (But what if there are Christians playing against them? It can’t be.) And God must want every Christian to be financially successful. And no Christian could possibly be impotent.

Now there are two big problems with this type of storytelling. It builds false hope that all will eventually go well in life if you have enough faith. But the Christian life often doesn’t go swell. The Apostle Paul was beaten, arrested, stoned, shipwrecked, and eventually beheaded. A far cry from winning the state football championship. (And you might recall how Jesus’ ministry ended. When the people brought Him before Pontius Pilate, He didn’t get a pay raise.)

The second problem is dramatic. To have everything go the way of the protagonist is not very interesting. Even in sports movies. Rocky is one of the greatest sports movies ever made because the hero doesn’t win in the end. But he gives his all.

Shiloh Chistian Academy is a small school with so-so players. God could miraculously take them to the state championship, but why? It seems a rather pointless miracle.

But we have bigger problems here at Movie Churches. Because though there are plenty of Christian characters in the film, there isn’t a church in the story or any clergy. (Fireproof at least had Alex Kendrick as a minister that leads the main couple in a renewal of their marriage vows at the end of the film.) So it would seem we don’t have anything to write about. Fortunately, a church shows up in the credits. Because the film is produced by Sherwood Pictures. And Sherwood Pictures isn’t an ordinary production company but a ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia.

So it is rather cool that a church has a film production company. It’s just too bad the Prosperity Gospel in the film is not very solid theologically. On the other hand, the gospel is presented in the film, so we’re giving Sherwood Baptist Church, who provided money and many extras for the film a Movie Churches rating of Three Steeples.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Recently in a Theater

Recently, Movie Churches got to see this year’s Best Picture winner in a theater, and if you're thinking that film was Nomadland, you would be wrong. Nomadland merely won the Best Picture Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We're talking about the winner of the Drive In Academy's Best Picture award -- the coveted Hubbie -- presented by the nation’s preeminent drive-in reviewer, Joe Bob Briggs.

This year's Best Picture Hubbie (engraved on a genuine Chevy hubcap) was presented at the First Annual Joe Bob’s Drive-In Jamboree at the Mahoning Drive-In in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, and it was writer/director Jeff Wedding's second feature film, Tennessee Gothic. Based on a short story by Ray Russell, this certainly is a unique film.

Tennessee Gothic is the strange tale of a farmer (Victor Hollysworth) and his grown son, Caleb (William Ryan Watson). They find Sylvia apparently assaulted and abandoned -- near death -- and take her into their home. As she recovers from her injuries, she expresses her gratitude by taking on cooking and other chores, including farm work. Before long, she shows her gratitude to Caleb in more sensual ways, with a literal roll in the hay.

Most disturbingly, she then takes Paw, Caleb’s father, as her lover as well.

Actually, this might not be the most disturbing element of the film to us here at Movie Churches, because the Reverend Simms (Wynn Reichert) comes to the farm, concerned about the, shall we say, moral climate. He is concerned that Sylvia is underage and that it's not proper for her to be staying in the home of a widower and his young adult son. When he first visits the farm, the Reverend tells Paw it would be best if Sylvia went to live in a Home for Young Women.

But before any action is taken, the Reverend agrees to meet with Sylvia privately. She tells the Reverend she would like to stay on the farm. And she uses everything in her power to make her point -- including her sexual power. (As you might have guessed already, there are a number of graphic, sometimes humorous, sex scenes in the film.)

The Reverend agrees to allow Sylvia to stay on the farm if the Reverend could come back every Friday to provide “spiritual counseling” for the young woman. The form of this counseling ensures that our Movie Churches rating for the Reverend is our lowest, One Steeple. 

It should be noted that he's married, and the dinner at the farm with Sylvia, Paw, Caleb, the Reverend Simms, and Mrs. Simms (Christine Poythress) is beyond awkward. From this scene on, it becomes obvious that while the men in the film deal with most matters rather ineffectively, it takes a showdown between the women to bring resolution to the film.

So look for the film in a drive-in near you. But you’ll be more likely to find it on Blu-Ray or streaming. 

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Classic Christian Films Get Scary

Image of the Beast

Hollywood has had many successful film franchises, from the Universal Monster films to the Hope and Crosby Road films to the Bond films to the Star Wars franchise to the Fast and the Furious movies….There are lots. But Christian film franchises? The Thief in the Night series of four End Times films is one of the first. 

Since then we’ve had Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind trilogy (there have been other non-Cameron Left Behind films, too, such as the Nicolas Cage remake). More recently, there's been the God’s Not Dead trilogy and quite a number of films in the Pastor Jones film series (directed by and starring Jean-Claude La Marre.)

But that early series began with 1972’s A Thief in the Night, followed by 1978’s A Distant Thunder, followed by this week’s film, Image of the Beast, the third in the quartet of films. All of the films are the work of writers Donald W. Thompson and Russell S. Doughten Jr. (and all are directed by Thompson). All of the films take place in the End Times of a Dispensational worldview. Though we are supposed to focus on clergy and churches here, it seems worthwhile to detour into eschatological theology.

Through the centuries people have developed a variety of interpretations of the Bible passages that discuss the last days of planet Earth. Those Scriptures primarily include the books of Daniel, First and Second Thessalonians, Revelation, and various teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. These passages have been discussed and debated endlessly.  

For instance, Revelation 20: 1 - 6 talks about a thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ on Earth. Premillennialists believe this reign will take place after Jesus’ Second Coming. Postmillennialists believe the reign takes place before the Second Coming. Amillennialists believe the reign is symbolic.

Is there anyone still reading? If so, thank you very much.

In the 1800s a man named John Nelson Darby introduced a new theological system known as Dispensationalism, which neatly divides all of history into different “dispensations” or sections. He was the first to tidily divide the Last Days into discrete little sections. He wrote that we are now living in the “Church Age,” and the next dispensation, the Seven Year Tribulation, would occur after the Rapture of the Saints (when all Christians would be taken into Heaven when Jesus meets us halfway without coming down to Earth). At the end of the Tribulation, Jesus would return and begin his thousand-year reign on Earth. And after that comes the Final Judgement and then eternities in Heaven or Hell.

The Thief in the Night films (like the Left Behind series), treats the Dispensational System as, well, Gospel. This is made clear in the opening scroll of Image of the Beast: “The book of Revelation reveals a time to come, of great tribulation. A time of such great catastrophe, that no film could portray its reality.” (Especially on this budget). “It is the belief of many Bible scholars that the facts presented in this film story could become a reality in your lifetime.” (I love the use of the word “facts” to describe events in a fictional film. And arguably many more Bible scholars would say things won’t happen in the way they are presented in this film.) “After watching this film, we hope you will take seriously what God says in His word about these prophecies, and turn to Jesus Christ -- and avoid the events you are about to experience in this motion picture.”

So what are the "events you are about to experience"? This film opens the way the previous film, A Distant Thunder ends, with the heroine of the first two films, Patty Myers (Patty Dunning), looking up at the blade of a guillotine. In the world of these films, those who won’t take the Mark of the Beast (a tattoo on the forehead or hand) are doomed to execution by the government. Patty wouldn’t become a Christian prior to the Rapture and didn’t in Tribulation either. And so Patty, facing the blade, calls out, “I’ll take the mark! Don’t kill me!” Sadly, at that moment a great earthquake makes the blade comes down and slices off Patty’s head.

Patty’s death might be frustrating for people who cheered for her in the first two films, but it makes sense with the theology expressed at one point in the film: those who refused to become Christians prior to the Rapture can’t become Christians during the Tribulation. Someone says that Paul wrote this in First Thessalonians and I have no idea what they're talking about.

So in Image of the Beast, we follow new folks: Leslie (Wenda Shereos), Kathy (Susan Plumb) and her young son, Billy (Ben Sampson), and David Michaels (William Wellman Jr.) who is trying to wage a civil war against the government. I suppose none of these people had the Gospel clearly presented to them before the Rapture because they all seem to have a possibility of salvation. In fact, early in the film, Leslie trusts in Jesus as her Lord and Savior, but during an escape attempt from government forces is paralyzed from the waist down. She puzzles over why God keeps her alive.

Toward the end of the film, we learn why Leslie is kept alive. She is able to present the Gospel to young Billy using the Wordless Book. (This is a book composed of different color pages which each represent the aspects of the Gospel. If you went to Vacation Bible School in the seventies or eighties, you probably know the Wordless Book.) Having become Christians, Leslie and Billy are able to face the guillotine without fear.

I was more puzzled by the salvific situations of Kathy and David. Had they received a clear presentation of the Gospel before the Rapture? If they had watched one of those Worldwide Films where Billy Graham clearly presented the Gospel at the end of the film, were they done for? If they had stumbled on a Chick comic tract pre-trumpet call, were they doomed?

Even more puzzling is the fate of the Reverend Matthew Turner (played again by writer/executive producer Doughton). In these first three films, he plays a pastor who taught falsely prior to the Rapture, but then becomes the go-to source for expositional explanation of the Dispensational Chart of what is happening in the End Times. In this film, he lives in a cabin in the woods and feeds Leslie, Kathy, Billy, and David with produce from his little farm. Turner seems to now be teaching the truth about Jesus and exhibiting the Fruit of the Spirit, but can he truly be a Christian if he didn’t accept Christ prior to the Rapture? The film never really answers the puzzling question.

We do have a church in the film. The World Church of the film collaborates with the government, corporations, and Brother Christopher (who the film presents as the Antichrist). Kathy and David attend a service in a local congregation of the World Church, and it really does seem more like a stockholders' meeting for the One World Government rather than a time of worship.

Reverend Turner explains, by pointing to his End TImes Wall Chart, that the World Church is the Whore of Babylon described in Revelation 17. Since I’m puzzled by the actual motives and stance of Rev. Turner (perhaps things will be clearer in the fourth film of the series, The Prodigal Planet), I’m just going to give our lowest rating, One Steeple, to the World Church of the film (a church being pro-Satan and anti-God is not good in the Movie Churches book.)

Friday, July 16, 2021

It's Dead in Church!

Back when I was a youth pastor, I once organized a zombie night for the high school youth group. A woman, not part of the church or (as far as I know)  connected to the youth in any way, sent me an email. She had heard about the event and wanted to let me know I was exposing the youths to great evil and imperiling souls. 

Here I thought I was teaching the kids some important spiritual truths.

This incident came to mind as Mindy and I were sightseeing in Pennsylvania recently. Early in the morning, we went to Evans City to see their cemetery, the one used in the opening scenes of the 1968 horror classic, Night of the Living Dead. The film opens with a brother and sister, Barb and Johnny, visiting their father’s grave. Their dialog is all that brings the film into the realm of Movie Churches.

Barbara is praying when her brother says, “Hey, come on, Barb. Church was this morning… I mean, prayin’s for church."

She responds, “I haven’t seen you in church lately.” 

He answers back, “Well, there’s not much sense in my going to church.” Though zombies have yet to make an appearance in the film, Johnny is foreshadowing the possibility that judgment is inevitable and it is too late for any redemption the church might have to offer him.

These themes are made more explicit in the 30th-anniversary commemorative edition of the film that had additional scenes, including some with the Reverend John Hicks, a clergyman who warns, “This is like the flood that happened during Noah’s time or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah! We are being punished for our sins! The dead are rising, and Judgment Day is upon us!” It appears in the film that the Rev. Hicks and other ministers didn’t do enough for the Church to bring people to repentance, possibly, along with other possibilities like chemical warfare and a virus in space, causing the rise of deadly cannibalistic zombies.

The themes of spiritual emptiness and spiritual needs return in the first sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead.  In that film, a small group of survivors from zombie attacks take refuge in a shopping mall (specifically, the Monroeville Mall, which Mindy and I were also able to visit, though the museum was closed). Zombies flock to the mall (though they are initially locked out) and one of the survivors, Francine, says, “What are they doing? Why do they come here?” 

Stephen, another survivor of the zombie attacks, responds, “Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

This reference to the mall as an important place in the former lives of zombies not so subtly satirizes the materialism that dominated many lives, leaving little room for the spiritual. (There is no church in the Monroeville Mall; churches in storefront spaces wasn’t a thing back in 1978 when the film was made except in some very large cities downtown areas. It's more common in suburbs now.)

Though there isn’t much church or clergy in either film, the films’ director and co-writer, George Romero had some interesting church connections in his life. Romero wrote and directed the 1973 film, The Amusement Park, for the Lutheran Society, condemning our society's abuse of the elderly. But apparently, the organization found the film too bizarre and grim and wouldn’t release it. In 2018, a print of the film was discovered, the film was restored, and this year it was released on Shudder, the horror streaming service.

Romero also played a role in saving a church. In 2011, Romero made a contribution of $50,000 to repairs for the chapel of the Evans City Cemetery, spearheading the funding raising drive. Along with the donation, he wrote a letter to the city thanking them for their contribution to making the film that made his career. The chapel doors were locked the day we visited, but through the front windows, we could see enough to know that the drive was successful.

Still, I think the greatest contribution of the Dead films is the way they bring a spiritual truth to life. The Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 2, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you followed the ways of the world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I can't read, “You were dead,” “gratifying the cravings of our flesh,” and “we were dead” without thinking of Romero’s shambling zombies. So that was the scripture passage I sent to the concerned emailer, I never heard from her again.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Horror goes to church

The Last Drive-In
(a show on Shudder, a subscription video-on-demand service) gives out The Silver Bolo Award for excellence in horror media. On occasion, movie blogs have received this highly prestigious award, but sadly, Movie Churches never will -- only, we're sure, because horror isn't the exclusive topic here. Nonetheless, it's amazing how many horror films have been featured in this blog about clergy and churches.

But maybe it isn’t amazing at all. 

Many horror films presuppose something beyond the material world: the supernatural is a reality. That's right in line with the beliefs of the orthodox church and clergy. 

The Horror subgenre of Exorcism films is probably the easiest example, beginning (of course) with The ExorcistIt's one of the most acclaimed horror films of all time. , and everyone who remembers the film remembers the heroic priests in the film. 

Roman Catholic priests are usually featured in exorcism films, though surely some Protestants have taken on the job. We've discussed the churches and clergy in several exorcism films, and there are others we haven't talked about (yet). Check out The Exorcist III  (but not yet The Exorcist 2: The Hereticthough we'll get to it), The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Rite, and The Nun (which has some discussion about exorcism).

Of course, there are a number of horror films with priests where the confrontation is with Satan or evil forces where possession is not the issue. We've dealt with plenty of those: Prince of Darkness, Pastorela, and The Unholy. The End Times are often the setting, as in The End of Days,  The Rapture, The Omen, The Calling and The Way of the Wicked.

Sometimes the clergy provide the horror, which happens in The Night of the Hunter, Day of Wrath, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, The Purge: The Election Year, or any of the very many films about nuns. Sometimes it’s just murder in an ecclesiastical setting as in Primal Fear or Alice, Sweet Alice or Heathers (well, in this one a few scenes take place in a funeral home, but still).

Of course, not all of the supernatural elements in horror films are the same kinds of things you find in the Bible -- like, say, the ghosts in Carnival of Souls or Poltergeist II: The Other Side. There have been a surprising number of vampires in Movie Churches -- Stake Land, Thirst, From Dusk Till Dawn, Priest, Vampyr, Van Helsing and John Carpenter’s Vampires. There have been a few werewolves, in The Wolfman, Silver Bullet, The Curse of the Werewolf, and The Howling VI: The Freaks. And there’s been one weredinosaur in The VelociPastor.

There’s even been churches and clergy with alien invaders in Signs and War of the Worlds.

So though we’ll continue to look at sappy Christian films, depressing foreign films, musicals, thrillers, and comedies… Horror films will always have a place here at Movie Churches.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Classic Christian Film Month Checks out The Cross and the Switchblade

The Cross and the Switchblade

It’s tough to watch old films about youth gangs without snickering. West Side Story is a wonderful musical, but watching those tough guys do ballet steps in the marvelous opening scene makes the average moviegoer giggle. Through the years 1970's pioneering Christian film The Cross and the Switchblade has been the recipient of much mockery. Deservingly so.

The first of only three films directed by actor Don Murray (who earned some cult cred by playing Governor Breck in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Bushnell Mullins in the reboot of Twin Peaks.), it tells the true story of a small-town preacher, David Wilkerson, who went to Brooklyn in 1958 to minister to the gangs. Wilkerson served as a technical advisor on the film. (The film opens with a word from the producer warning that you might find this story “unbelievable” but assuring us it’s true.)

In spite of its status as nonfiction, some aspects make for difficult serious viewing now, starting with the casting of Pat Boone as Wilkerson. In many ways, that casting makes good sense. Wilkerson is supposed to look clean-cut and out of place, but with Boone, we’re getting the very personification of clean-cut. The man made commercials extolling the virtues of milk and was known for making rock’n’roll “safe for the young people." He really seems like a nice guy but isn’t the greatest thespian (though there is no greater admirer of his work in Journey to the Center of the Earth than 6-year-old me). Nonetheless (at least according to Wikipedia), Boone worked hard to get David Wilkerson's book made into a movie.

Making his screen debut in this film is Erik Estrada as Nicky Cruz, the roughest of the rough, the second in command of the Mau-Mau gang. It’s difficult for audiences of a certain age to not think of Ponch, the motorcycle officer from the long-running series CHiPs. He went on to play the role of Erik Estrada in movies like Van Wilder and shows like My Name is Earl.

Everything in the film looks much cleaner than one would expect, and the gangs seem much better dressed than I expect. Wilkerson encounters street people with cute names like Little Bo, Bottle Cap, Mingo, Augie, and Big Cat (the leader of the Bishops, the Mau Maus' African American rival gang).

A common complaint about Christian films that deal with a criminal element is that the language is kept pure, and it is rather jarring to hear a gang member exclaim, “Aw, shucks!” The same complaint might be made about films about young thugs (such as Blackboard Jungle) made while the Motion Picture Production Code (the Hays Code) was still in effect. In this film, there's an attempt to give a flavor of rough language in the film. When Nicky asks a fellow gang member why the preacher seems to have picked him out for special attention, his friend responds, “Because you’re the worst, craziest bastard there is. If he can reach you, he can reach anybody.” This “B” word is used at least twice in the film, along with a scattering of “damn”s. This must have come as quite a shot to those who were watching 16mm prints of this film in churches during the seventies, but verisimilitude is still an issue here.

The soundtrack by Ralph Carmichael (who provided the soundtracks for many of Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures) is not very representative of the time or place. It often sounds more like the background music in TV shows like The Brady Bunch or Dragnet, when a “rock” album would be playing at a party (without any vocals).

But fortunately, this blog doesn't exist to review the films, but to review the clergy and churches in films. And the Reverend David Wilkerson (as portrayed in this film, certainly) was a very admirable man. He is literally willing to give the shoes off his feet. The film shows his passion for young people in gangs and on the streets of New York City. He left a comfortable ministry in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, to serve the impoverished youth of New York City. His ministry had an impact on gangs and young people struggling with addiction.

He managed to preach effectively on the streets of New York City (sometimes with, and sometimes without the support of local law enforcement). “I’m just a country preacher 300 miles from home. Is there anything in your life you’d like to change? You got hate sticking out of your eyes. You pretend you don’t want anyone to touch you, but inside you’re crying out for love. Pray with me that the Holy Spirit will come into your heart and make you a new man.” In another street sermon, he says, “May I say something? There is someone who loves you very much, He knows about the drinking and the marijuana and He knows what you’re looking for when you’re playing with sex. You guys talk about getting high, He’ll get you high but He won’t let you down.”

He clearly assures the gang members, addicts, and homeless that they are loved by Jesus.

We also see Wilkerson accepted (and housed) by a Hispanic church fellowship when they discover he has been sleeping on the streets of New York in his car. They are quite surprised to find him, “What miracle brings such a fine young man to our troubled streets?” asks the pastor. That same congregation takes in a young woman, Rosa (Jacqueline Giroux), to detox from her heroin addiction.

The end credits note that Wilkerson went on to found Teen Challenge, an organization that continues to help people deal with alcohol and drug addictions. (I currently work in this field, and I should note that the organization continues to do fine work.)

So Wilkerson and the churches that support him receive our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Is it just me or does Gil Frazier as Big Cat look a lot like a young Samuel L. Jackson?

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Classic Christian Films Month: Here's Joni


We here at Movie Churches readily acknowledge (along with most critics) that the majority of Christian films are pretty bad. In spite of that, we're celebrating Classic Christian Films month, and we're happy to say that this production from World Wide Pictures (Billy Graham’s production company) is quite different. It’s a biographical film starring its subject, Joni Eareckson.

Hollywood has a mixed record of people playing themselves. There have been notoriously bad self-portrayals by sports figures such as Jackie Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story and Muhammad Ali in The Greatest. On the other hand, World War II hero Audie Murphy’s portrayal of himself in To Hell and Back led to a long, successful film career. Joni is Eareckson’s one narrative film performance, but it was lauded by Janet Maslin of The New York Times.

Joni begins with the diving accident that resulted in a fracture between the fourth and fifth cervical levels, resulting in tetraplegia (in other words, Eareckson was paralyzed from the shoulders down). The rest of the film is about Joni coming to accept her diagnosis and her learning to live her new life. 

She was 17 years old at the time of her accident and had been quite athletic, enjoying horseback riding, hiking, tennis, and swimming. She quickly knew she would no longer be able to use her legs, but in time she learned she would never have full use of her arms as well.

Many Christian films, such as the recent hit, Breakthrough, portray healing from a medical standpoint. Many Christian films about sports portray Christian athletes always being victorious, winning the big game or the big race. This film offers no physical healing. 

Many Christian films portray a troubled person turning their life around when they come to faith in Christ. Eareckson was already a Christian when she dove into the lake, breaking her neck. The film shows how her God was present with her through anger, depression, doubt, and suicidal thoughts. Those aren’t places most Christian films are willing to go.

Another major theme in the film is Joni’s romantic life. At the time of her accident, she had a boyfriend. While she was recovering, he supported her in many ways, but as time went on, the relationship reaches a point where Joni breaks up with him because she feels it's not fair to him to continue. She meets another man who believes that he has enough faith for Joni's healing. He takes her to an empty church and asks her to pray for healing. They do pray, but that healing doesn’t come. And that relationship ends.

This is another example of the film not offering easy answers. It portrays the real longings of a quadriplegic woman for romance, for a relationship. (It doesn’t shy away from kissing scenes between Joni and the actors who play her boyfriends, either.) But the film doesn't give Joni a romantic happy ending. (Sometime after the film came out, Eareckson did find a lasting romantic relationship. She and Ken Tada were married in 1982, three years after the film was made. And they are still married.)

Perhaps you’ve noticed there isn’t much in the way of clergy and churches, which are supposed to be the focus here. It's surprising we don't see clergy visiting Joni in the hospital or rehab facility.

At one point, we do see Joni wearing a Young Life t-shirt. Young Life is a parachurch organization that works with high schoolers. According to her autobiography (which is the basis for the film), Young Life staff greatly influenced Joni, but we don't see them. We saw her visit an empty church with a boyfriend, but there is nothing about the church itself (it seems to be Roman Catholic -- lots of candles -- but that's all we know about it.)

In the conclusion of the film, we see Joni speaking at a church, telling her story. We then see Joni speaking at a Billy Graham crusade. There is a cameo from Billy Graham himself -- we see him but don’t hear him. 

Joni went from a time of great pain (physical, spiritual, and emotional) and doubt to being an encouragement to people around the world. The film demonstrates Joni’s work as an artist (holding pens and paintbrushes in her mouth) and a singer. It doesn't show what happened later: she founded “Joni and Friends,” an organization that has done much to advocate for the disabled, particularly in the church.

I greatly admire Joni Eareckson Tada and her ministry. Though we don’t see much about the church at the end of the film, or the crusades of Billy Graham, any organization that invites her to speak gets Four Steeples from Movie Churches.