‘American Sniper’ or ‘Selma’: How Christian is your movie choice?

January 20th, 2015

It’s no surprise when we talk about the influential power of the Christian pocketbook when it comes to politics, culture, or any other part of the social fabric in the United States. The conversation has been evolving for quite a while now, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its standout moments. One such moment was the unexpected box office power of "The Passion of the Christ." Large numbers from various faith communities urged their members to buy tickets in an effort to send a message with their purchase. They wanted the box office numbers to speak for Christian influence in the notably secular realm that was, and is, Hollywood. They wanted their money to talk.

I don’t see it as much of a coincidence that, according to the Hollywood Reporter, "American Sniper" finished its four-day debut on Monday — Martin Luther King, Jr. Day  with a historic $107.3 million take. The previous best for a non-Hollywood-tentpole drama? "The Passion of the Christ" with $83.8 million.

Now, these two openings aren’t directly comparable. There are obviously different sets of circumstances surrounding the two films, including star-actor power, Hollywood support, and (for the purpose of our discussion) how much Christianized effort was involved. The buzz around "American Sniper" isn’t the same as when people purchased tickets to show support for "The Passion of the Christ," even if they didn’t plan on seeing the film. Still, "American Sniper" brings us face to face with the issue Americans can’t escape in our modern society: the conflation of faith and patriotism.

A week ago, Ministry Matters ran an article from Religion News Service highlighting the role of Christian faith for Chris Kyle, the sniper and main character played by Bradley Cooper in the Clint Eastwood film. Several quotes from his book were used to call attention to the prominence of faith for Kyle in real life versus the lighter take on it shown in the movie. The article ends with one such quote:

“I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation.” … “But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.” 

Even if such language is patriotic for those who defend a black-and-white, us-versus-them ideology when it comes to combat, it is disturbing at best in a Christian context. First, Kyle makes the mistake of judging the life-value of another, something Christ implores us to leave to God (Matthew 7:1-2). Second, such language highlights the issue I mentioned earlier, the conflation of faith and patriotism. It’s a difficult idea to pull apart and examine, especially if both subjects are important to your daily life and identity. Even so, we’re asked to be thoughtful about our relationship to God and our neighbor. We’re even asked to go beyond that by loving God and loving our neighbor in the same way we love ourselves. Believing that ending the life of a neighbor, no matter what they’ve done, is outside the realm of sin or God’s judgment is a precarious Christian position to take.

Yet many are quick to defend the problematic Christianity of Kyle. They defend it with a vehemence, and they defend the beliefs present in the book — and now in the movie — in many cases because they personally hold similar beliefs. This is what makes all of this so troubling for me: Many Christians are eager to speak out in the wider culture using their money (something I’m not sure is a completely Christian or grace-inspired tactic to begin with, but that’s another discussion), yet the overwhelmingly dominant film is a war biopic chronicling violent individual accomplishments, not the one about one of the greatest teachers and leaders of our time, a preacher with a Christ-driven message of non-violence. 

The latest box office numbers for "Selma" were also released today following the MLK holiday weekend. The film reportedly brought in $11.5 million through Monday, bringing its domestic total to $29.1 million. "Selma" debuted last month, and it has made roughly under one-third of
"American Sniper" debut earnings.

There’s a disconnect here, right? Even while we don't have the data to show the connections between the Christian movie audience and the audience of "American Sniper," we can still talk about how certain films are supported financially throughout the culture, some pick up support from perceived Christian audiences and some struggle to gain traction in Christian communities despite their alignment with Christian values. While viewers of both "Selma" and "American Sniper" certainly fall on a spectrum between religious and non-religious, we’re still talking about a lack of support in the U.S. market for a movie that places justice and Christ-centered values front and center. 

You might say that the dominant film is the one speaking to the dominant culture. It's easier to imagine heroics in terms of violence and war rather than peaceful protest. It's easier to imagine that civil rights are an outside phenomena, one that doesn't have to worry or bother those on the inside of the mainstream dominant culture. It's easier to lend quick support to catchy militaristic phrases than love your enemy. It's definitely easier to defend America as "the promised land" rather than notice what work desperately needs to be done to make it a "promised land" for all.

We can safely say the box office numbers for "Selma" signal a lack of support from Christian communities because we have financial successes like "The Passion of the Christ" to point to when we talk about large groups of Christians using their money and resources to name their priorities. We can name it as a lack of support because many of us who follow Christian media and news are seeing the renewed groundswell behind the story of Chris Kyle as an example of American Christian service and morality, rather than someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. And we can name it as a lack of support because works like "Selma" offer us chances to renew the conversation on freedom, justice, civil rights and the overarching Christian ethic, yet they struggle to make headway.

Obviously, we're not making the most of our opportunities to lift up the art and commentary currently speaking to Christian truth. Maybe the problem is that we’re getting confused about which version of Christianity we support.

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