"The novelist is required to create the illusion of a whole world with believable people in it, and the chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn't mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater." Flannery O'Connor (emphasis mine)
I wasn't going to see War Room. I'm not a fan most Christian movies because I think they tend to do violence to this precept from Flannery O'Connor: Christian artists have a greater obligation than anyone else to tell the straight-up truth about the real world.
Most Christian movies don't manage that very well. There's way too much manipulation of reality to make God look good, and I think he should be in charge of that if he's so worried about it, so I just stay home.
We're all happier that way.
Then I read that War Room was about how a failing marriage was saved by prayer. Since failing marriages are right up in my wheelhouse, I decided I'd better check it out.
First of all, let me say that it wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. The amateur acting ensemble does a reasonable job. It's heavy-handed and cheesy in spots, but I've seen worse. I was pleasantly surprised overall.
However, as expected, the events of War Room portray the natural world as less than real.
- Miss Clara shouts "NO! In the name of Jesus!" at a knife-wielding mugger. He drops his knife and runs.
- Liz begins praying for her husband, Tony, right when he's intending to commit adultery. He then starts throwing up so he can't go through with it. Soon after, he loses the job that gives him the opportunity to travel and mess around, and he is tortured by nightmares.
- Tony discovers Liz's prayer closet, with her prayers for him written on the walls, notices how nice Liz is being to him, and repents of his sins. (The problem here is the idea that everybody who's prayed for and treated nicely will repent of his sins, all by himself. Results not typical, is all I have to say about this one.)
- He apologizes to the daughter he has previously emotionally abused, and joins her double-dutch jump rope team. (Plot twist: they only take second place in the city championships.)
- By the end of the movie, Miss Clara's house has been sold to a pastor who magically can feel that "the prayers are just baked in" to her prayer closet (the eponymous "war room").
- There's a nice commission in the sale for Liz, Miss Clara's real estate agent.
- Tony is offered a lower-paying job, which will allow them to keep their gorgeous home, as long as they are careful.
- He reveals this while giving Liz a foot rub, and serving Liz the ice cream sundae she's been dreaming of.
The Kendrick Brothers portray the natural world as if:
- God is in the business of giving you exactly what you want.
- If you don't have exactly what you want, you just haven't prayed enough.
- If you're sick of losing out on what you want, pray and let God win for you.
Maybe we all WISH it worked like this.
Maybe we think that God COULD do it this way if he wanted to.
Maybe it feels really good to go to a theater and PRETEND, for a couple of hours, that terrorists and refugees and drunk drivers and cancer and rapists don't exist, and that we, too, could make it all go away if we just cleared out a closet and prayed real hard.
The problem is: we know better.
We may not like it one little bit, but we know better.
We know what the real world is really like.
And this story is not it.
Telling the story this way, when we all know better, makes it a lie.
They are pretty lies, for sure, all the beautiful people with all their happy endings, but they are lies.
The saddest thing about all this is that the movie had the potential to be incredibly powerful, if it had been willing to grapple with the real world, as it really is, instead of telling lies.
Because people DO change! Marriages ARE saved! That's my whole story!
I totally believe in Love and redemption!
I just object--vociferously--to the cheap promises of a magic prayer closet, when we've got the real truth about how real recovery really works in the real world.
I wish the Kendrick Brothers had asked me first, but since they didn't, Andy and I re-wrote the whole thing on the way home, and here's how it should have gone.
- Miss Clara should have handed over the money and let the mugger go. Then Liz could have asked why Miss Clara didn't rebuke him in the name of Jesus, and Miss Clara could have said, "Because the name of Jesus is not a magic wand, and prayer doesn't override the free will of other people."
- Instead of acting as if being attacked by a deranged meth-head was no big deal, Miss Clara could have talked to Liz about what she's learned about trauma recovery in her long and difficult life. (A counselor can dream...)
- Liz changes in the movie. She's calmer and less controlling, and that's awesome. They could have talked about how personal responsibility and good boundaries matter for everyone in relationships. But they don't talk about that. They just talk about letting God fight for us "so we can win." (Which sounds more like Donald Trump than anybody to me.)
- Tony could have made a real choice about what he wanted to do about his marriage, without the gastrointestinal theatrics. He might have even made a bad choice. And then we could explore whether God can do anything at all toward redemption after people make bad choices.
- That would have given Liz (and Tony, if he chose to work on his marriage) the opportunity to attend one of those excellent support groups they run over at the church where Liz's real-life dad, Tony Evans, is the pastor. I would a billion times rather have watched that sequence than the 20 minutes of double-dutch jump roping.
- Tony and Liz could have downsized like most people have to, when their new job pays half what their old job did. (That's mostly a selfish wish, because I seriously want to be at the garage sale when Liz's cuff bracelets are on the $5 table.)
I'm not against prayer. Let's all pray, for sure. Make a prayer closet if it helps you. I'm fine with that.
But while we're praying, understand this:
- We are not in control, we are not supposed to be in control, and no amount of praying is going to put us in control.
- Prayer does not override the free will of other people, and it doesn't stop the brokenness of this world from getting to us and our loved ones.
- We are not always going to get what we want, no matter how hard we pray.
Here's what I think about prayer at the end of the day:
Prayer aligns us with God and his great love for us and other people.
It reminds us that God is God, and we are not.
It gives us grace and peace to face what must be faced, no matter how painful and terrible.
It comforts us in our affliction, so that we can comfort others.
It gives us courage to step into our belovedness, to accept the belovedness of others, and to leave behind all the weights that drag us down.
Our great obligations as Christians is this: to tell the truth. That's where freedom lies for us: in the truth. Not in lies, no matter how pretty they are.