Thursday, January 13, 2022

It's Satire -- You Get It, Right?

Believe Me
 (2014) & Faith Based (2020)

Satire is a tricky business. The goal is to (comically) look at a topic and exaggerate to make a point. The satirist must decide whether to exaggerate slightly or greatly.

For instance, there have been many satires of Western films; for example, Destry Rides Again and Cat Ballou slightly tweak the conventions of the Western. In Destry, James Stewart plays a lawman who doesn’t like to use a gun. In Ballou, Jane Fonda leads a gang of outlaws. They made minor adjustments to the conventions, but films like Blazing Saddles and Three Amigos made broad changes, with a man punching a horse and a singing cactus and breaking the fourth wall and admitting it’s all just a show.

There’s a place for both approaches, but the satirist needs a good grasp on the subject. Blazing Saddles is revered as the best satire of Westerns, even with its extreme silliness, because writer/director Mel Brooks has a great knowledge of and affection for classic Hollywood Westerns.

This week we’re looking at two satires of modern Evangelical culture, Believe Me and Faith Based. One takes a much more broad approach to satire and one seems to be more knowledgeable about the subjects involved.

Believe Me is about a college student, Sam (Alex Russell), who decides to pay off his college debt by starting a phony charity. He recruits three of his buddies to promote “Get Well Soon,” supposedly a project to build wells in Africa. They give such a good presentation at one church that a large ministry books them on a national tour. They realize that they need to be careful to avoid getting in trouble with the law, so the three decide to give all the credit card gifts to Africa and only keep some of the cash gifts.

Faith Based is about a pair of buddies, Luke (Luke Barnett) and Tanner (Tanner Thomason), who learn how lucrative Christian films have become -- so they decide to make one. Even though they aren’t Christians. But Luke’s father is a pastor, so they raise money from the father’s church.

It is interesting to see how both films handle some of the foibles in the church. 

Both films have vacuous worship leaders performing inane praise choruses. In Faith Based, worship leader Ezor Wallbath (Ryan Harrison) and his band Lambsong perform a song called, “I Hung a Cross.” Here are the lyrics:

I hung a cross to remember you by,
It’s eight feet tall and six feet wide.
To remember the things you said,
I hung it over my bed.
That monstrosity that was your tomb,
It takes up most of the room.
I hung a huge cross,
Because your love’s so pure,
And if it fell when I was sleeping,
I’d be crushed for sure.

The song is funny, bragging about an empty outward display of faith, but I didn’t really believe this song would actually be performed in church.

In Believe Me, the song leader Gabriel (Zachery Knighton) leads a song that consists entirely of the name, “Jesus.” The song is apparently a hit on the Contemporary Christian Music charts. He says, “I realized it was supposed to be about Jesus, so what were all those other words doing there?” I' ve sung praise choruses with almost as little content, so I found this much more believable.

Both films satirize prayer in evangelical circles. Luke’s preacher father (Lance Reddick) in Faith Based uses a lot of “Lord, Father God” phrasing in his prayers, and the larcenous college students in Believe Me do an in-depth study on prayer clich├ęs and prayer stances. “There are four basic hand raising methods: The Gecko [hands at side], The Five [one hand up], The Strait Jacket [palms out, arms down], The Shawshank [both arms up]”.)

Both films, obviously, center on money-making schemes. In Faith Based, the goal is to make money by making a Christian film. When Luke and Tanner look at the grosses of films like God’s Not Dead and The War Room and decide they want a piece of that. I'm sure many people today have that mercenary dream, but the silly twist in this film is they decide to make a green screen sci-fi thriller titled Prayer in Space. The idea is that the astronaut in the film will make the first prayer made in space. They use the tag line, “One Woman, One Planet, One Prayer.” The astronaut does have a funny line, though. She tells her mother, “I’m a scientist now, I’m not allowed to believe in God.”

Those ideas of science being opposed to faith are funny and a part of our culture, but of course, there have been many prayers made in space. Many astronauts have been people of faith. On Apollo 8, the astronauts read Genesis 1 on Christmas Eve. Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian elder, brought bread and wine to the moon for communion.

But that’s all fine, because Luke and Tanner are portrayed as idiots, and they could well not know these things.

A great bit about their quest to make a film is their goal to have a minor celebrity take a role in the film, because so many Christian films have the likes of Lee Majors, Billy Baldwin, and Robin Givens. Luke and Tanner unsuccessfully try to get their childhood hero Butch Savage (David Koechner) in their film when they learn he has been born again. (It is baffling to see a flashback of the boys watching a Butch Savage movie on TV where Butch both drops an F-bomb and does a commercial. What strange blend of HBO and TBS would this be?) Eventually, Kevin Sorbo is added to the film.

The money-making scheme in Believe Me is much more nefarious. There is a real need for wells in many parts of the world, and lives are at stake. To falsely claim to be giving people’s money to that cause would be an awful thing. To their credit, Sam and his friends Pierce (Miles Fisher), Tyler (Sinqua Walls), and Baker (Max Alder) come to release this. A couple of them want to get out of the project, but worry about implicating their friends. They all come to see that “most” of the money should go to the wells in Africa, but when the leader of the national organization sponsoring “Project Get Well Soon” learns the men are not on the up and up, his reaction is, let us say, nuanced. 

Ken (Christopher McDonald) realizes that if he goes public with accusations of fraud, it will hurt the giving to his organization, which has endorsed the well project. He tells Sam to finish up the tour and give the money to legitimate projects. If he does these things, Ken won’t turn him over to the authorities. I found the tolerant attitude toward corruption to protect a Christian organization’s reputation frustratingly true to many Christian organizations in the real world.

We also see some corruption at the top of the film company, Jesusflix (obviously a nod to PureFlix) in Faith Based. Margaret Cho plays Jane, one of the film company’s executives, who's obviously primarily concerned with making money rather than spreading the Gospel, and she's also rather free with vulgar language. I didn’t find this quite credible, because someone in such a position should at least be able to put up a convincing front when meeting new filmmakers. You'd expect she'd need to assume the filmmakers are Christians. (I do like Jane’s assertion about Christian films, “They don’t have to be bad… But they don’t have to be good.”)

I found it interesting that both films showed people with genuine faith who seemed to be living a true Christian life. Callie (Johanna Braddy), Sam's love interest in Believe Me, seems to be a true believer. Tanner’s love interest Lisa (Lisa Schwarz) invites him to a small group at Elevate Church, and he seems to appreciate it, calling it “just a group of people trying to do life together.” Tanner, a bartender, says toward the end of the film, “There’s one thing the church and the bars have in common. They both believe in community.” 

Since my wife and I spent a year (and wrote a book) about this very thing, we appreciated this.

Faith Based is the much broader satire of the two, and I felt like it didn’t know the church quite as well as Believe Me. In Faith Based, all ends well with the heroes not only making their film, but coming to have a positive relationship with Luke’s father and his church. Believe Me has a much more Lady or the Tiger? ending not quite revealing whether Sam decides to pursue a life of faith.

I’m giving the churches and Christian organizations of both films a rating of just Two Steeples, but I appreciated that both films take faith seriously.

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