Sunday School Musical: Why do Christians Do This?

Pop Quiz Question: If you decided that there needed to be a “Christian” version of Disney tween sensation High School Musical, why would you keep essentially the same message (“Be yourself!”, “Singing and dancing is fun!”, “We can do anything together!”, etc.), while neglecting to include the caliber of choreography that is the HSM franchise’s best feature?

The sad truth is that many may answer that question by saying, “That’s the sort of thing that Christian knock-offs of pop culture always do.” Imitative Christian pop culture manages to be derivative while bringing the overall quality down several notches-and without introducing any gospel truth.

While clearly inspired by High School Musical in its packaging (the cover of the straight-to-DVD movie, released in October 2008, features leaping teens clad in choir robes rather than graduation robes, but other than that, it’s almost identical to poster for October’s High School Musical 3) and its singing, dancing, multiethnic stars, Sunday School Musical also borrows significantly from other movies. Sunday School Musical‘s plot: soulful African American singer-dancer brings life to straightlaced, slightly off-key white choir. Sounds suspiciously like . . . Sister Act! Of course, the whole movie builds up to a state choir competition, so there’s the sports-movie cliché, too. Are we surprised when the competing choirs put aside their differences and conquer all odds together? Not in the least.

In between, there are a lot of conversations filled with awkward pauses and a lot of obstacles introduced for the sake of the plot – obstacles that are chucked nonchalantly aside when they become inconvenient. Our young hero Zach has to join the staid white-people choir in the first place because his family moves to another part of town, 45 minutes away from his church-school (it took me a while to figure out whether the choirs in the film were representing churches or schools – it seems, however, that the Los Angeles-like area in which the film is set is populated entirely by churches that are rich enough to run their own schools). Yet, throughout the rest of the film, the young choristers seem to have no difficulty traipsing back and forth between their respective schools. It’s not entirely clear why Zach had to switch church-schools, except to bring funk to the white people.

The irony of the whole situation is that Zach tells the white choir that “music isn’t something you learn-it’s something you feel” and instructs them to “be themselves”-before telling them that they need to loosen up. Of course, what they really need is to learn to stay on pitch, but somehow that magically happens once they start grooving to Zach’s beats.

Other than the fact that the schools are also churches, and a couple of lines about how “God has a plan,” there’s not much distinctively Christian content to Sunday School Musical. At his new school, Zach is failing Bible class, and the preacher’s daughter Savannah decides to help him out. (Apparently, black boy=rhythm, white girl=brains; anyone see a problem here with racial stereotypes?). Together, they try to interpret Proverbs 27:19 (which has apparently been given to them in the King James Version): “As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man.”

Zach: “Wait, so they’re both about reflections?”

Savannah nods.

Zach: “So . . . when you know your heart, you can understand someone else’s.”

Savannah: “Right. (Uncomfortable pause) So what does that mean to you?”

Zach: “Well, um, that we’re all the same deep down, even though we may seem different.”

Savannah: “Exactly!”

And that’s as deep as it gets, folks. I’m telling you, Sunday School Musical makes High School Musical look psychologically complex.

The young singers in Sunday School Musical are actually quite talented – in fact, I think their voices are much better than those of the High School Musical crowd. They’re desperately in need of a well-written and well-directed vehicle to let their gifts shine.

I generally try to find whatever value, however small, there may be in teen pop culture, because, let’s face it, teen culture is so easy to mock. But it’s hard to find a silver lining in what seems a calculated attempt (whether for financial or evangelistic gain) to piggyback off another popular trend. Maybe Sunday School Musical will accomplish something good for God; God has certainly used unlikely vehicles before. But Christians need to stop using “my [God's] strength is made perfect in weakness” as an excuse for artistic mediocrity.

About Carrisa Smith
  • http://opuszine.com/ Jason

    FWIW, I don’t think the company that put this out — The Asylum — is a “Christian” company per se. Rather, they’ve simply built their entire business model around releasing knock-offs of theatrical releases straight to video in time to capitalize on their popularity.

    Some of their other films include The Day The Earth Stopped (The Day The Earth Stood Still), Da Vinci Treasure (The DaVinci Code), I Am Omega (I Am Legend), and Transmorphers (Transformers).

    So, to be honest, I’m not at all surprised that there isn’t much “distinctively Christian content” in the film.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Jason, the trailer does credit it to “Faith Films” which must be a subdivision of the company.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com Drew

    Carissa,

    I must commend you for having the endurance to watch a film titled “Sunday School Musical” in its entirety!

    If you are going to completely rip off of another movie and add on a “Christian”-vibe, at least make it distinctively Christian. After reading your review, it seems that tweens would be no better off having watched this movie instead of High School Musical.

    I guess the fact that this movie was released, shows that there are Christians out there that will purchase something just because it has a “Christian/churchy” label on it.

    Drews last blog post..Tuesday is for Music: Ten Out of Tenn

  • Matt

    I saw this the other day – http://www.guitarpraise.com/

  • http://opuszine.com/ Jason

    @Richard: You’re right, I had completely missed that. Here’s their website. But I have a suspicion that Faith Films isn’t quite the separate entity as it may appear.

    For example, the two companies share at least some of the same talent. The director of Sunday School Musical, Rachel Goldenberg, has also worked on several Asylum titles, including 18 Year Old Virgin and Death Racers.

  • Carissa

    Re: whether Asylum is a specifically Christian company or not, I haven’t looked into it much. They, along with Faith Films, do use a “.cc” domain name, which, though it’s officially the country code for the Cocos Islands, is often used by Christian organizations (and others, too). (There’s a random fact I only know because our church uses a “.cc” domain.)

    From watching a little of the film’s special features (it’s like a train wreck . . . so bad, yet so fascinating), the writer-director of Sunday School Musical looks to be about 20 years old. I briefly considered whether I ought to be kinder in my judgment of her work because of her (apparent) tender years, but then a friend reminded me that that’s like when readers give Christopher Paolini a free pass for writing his awful, semi-plagiarized Eragon books, just because he was a teen when he started them. That doesn’t mean he had to publish them.

  • http://micknick.wordpress.com Nick Keutzer

    So, was there ever a presentation of the gospel in the movie?

    Nick Keutzers last blog post..Spasmodic Syslogism #2

  • Brooke

    wow.. I am shocked. I never heard about this “Sunday School Musical”.
    However, I did hear about Guitar Praise.

    I didn’t necessarily see anything wrong with the original High School Musical movie. So to have a christian version seems quite odd. It looks like someone is trying to make a dollar off of the High School Musical fad.

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  • human

    Apparently Sunday School Musical was a project originated at Asylum (horror and schlock), where a few junior level producers said “hey let’s write it, they are looking for a writer” and with no known church affiliation whatsoever they wrote to a Christian audience following the HSM formula. They worked on a few pictures a Christian would be embarrased to have worked on.

    Does anyone in L.A. go to church or temple or other place of worship with the writers (two young women under 30, maybe under 24)?
    Does anyone have any idea if they know anything at all about Jesus other than what they put in the script?

    Not a terrible film, rather like an afterschool special, but not a faithbuilder. Tame and formulaic but not awful. I think 11 year olds would like it (the same audience for HSM 11 and under maybe). But with only 14 days to shoot of course not the elaborate dance moves.

  • Jordan

    I’d like to get one thing out on the plate 1st “The Asylum” cant imagine it being a christian company especially when they promote a film called “666 The Beast” as a trailer on the DVD . . . . . Point Proven.

    As for the film itself, not good but not bad. Im guessin that a film like this would probably be better suited as a stage show and not as a film. The story is good and does show what kind of troubles a church goes through (lack of money, risk of clossure).

    Fopr me the film didnt really flow and did seem a bit all over the place, the musical numbers though kinda save it, the songs are catchy and have a good flow. Just needed to look a touch more professional.

    More of a rental film than a buying film

  • Jordan

    Just an add on to what I said.

    Faith Films. Isn’t a christian lead film company just a film campany that base their films on faiths, just cut the following paragraph from their website:

    Faith Films is a new production and distribution company dedicated to creating exciting films that honestly portray subjects, themes, and people of faith.

    Im not convinced

  • Jordan

    I take back all Ive said.

    THE ASYLUM = RIP OFFS

    Every film is a rip off of a sucessful film thats been made, some needs help and maybe THEIR OWN IDEAS

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  • http://MooreArtsministry.com Moore Arts Ministry

    I’d love for you to check out scenes from our interp of “SUNDAY SCHOOL MUSICAL.” Our production is very child and teen friendly. It centers around youth from different walks of life meeting in Sunday School. They end up doing a production together that is interupted.
    We are looking for financial backers to travel with this awesome perfroming arts group and take this production EVERYWHERE! This production is very different for HIGH SCHOOL or the film version of SUNDAY SCHOOL. The children are very talented,have worked very hard and have a passion for the message. W ebelieve the innocence of children is well preserved in this story but real life is definately addressed. The ADULT LOVED THE PLAY and so did the teens.

    Enjoy the scenes and be blessed!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VkvSiuxvBQ

  • Alan Noble

    So I take it “Moore Arts Ministry” did not read this post, at all. This is one of the most distressing aspects of dialoguing on the Internet. The people who will agree with you and/or are open to your ideas are people who probably have nothing to gain or learn from your perspective. Meanwhile, the very people who you hope will listen and consider your perspective either blindly disagree or use your post to promote the very thing you are trying to call into to question.

    Ahh, interwebs. What are we going to do with you?

    Alan Nobles last blog post..What Would Rush Do? Now Do the Opposite.

  • http://MooreArtsministry.com Moore Arts Ministry

    Wow! That’s inteersting. Thank you for commenting. I was actually interested because the article really talked about how there seemed to be the lack of “GOSPEL TRUTH.” We strive to keep the biblical perspective and steer away from “Other than the fact that the schools are also churches, and a couple of lines about how “God has a plan,” there’s not much distinctively Christian content to Sunday School Musical.”

    We will continue to promote what’s real and relevant according to our faith in Christ. I hope you continue to question. It’s good for all of us.

    Gos Bless you.

  • http://MooreArtsministry.com Moore Arts Ministry

    GOD bless you! LOL!!! Typing too fast!

  • Carissa

    Oh wow, so there’s a DIFFERENT Sunday School Musical, a touring theater production that has nothing to do with the film? I’m curious, Moore Arts Ministry: why did your writer choose the name “Sunday School Musical” for your show?

  • http://MooreArtsministry.com Moore Arts Ministry

    Honestly writing this play was just so much about the observation that took place. The children were so obsessed (if you will) with the first HSM. They knew the words to every song and steps to every dance. The children of this ministry are very talented and are professionally trained in drama and dance 5 days a week. They are drawn to musical movies and plays. We wanted to write something that would enable them to put the focus on the study of God’s word and learning more scripture and songs that would encourage them throughout their life’s journey. SSM has nothing to do with “boy meets girl” but is more about children from different walks of life who learn more about God’s love, each other’s different experiences and themselves. The writer actually never saw the first HSM before writing SSM. (Just heard it on the TV in passing) The name was attractive, admittedly, to get the children’s attention. Most of the play takes place in a Sunday School classroom. All the children agree that its nothing like the movie BUT they love presenting this play and the audience response has been overwhelming. We don’t think anyone even thinks about the movie when they are watching our production. Nice sharing. Thank you.

  • http://healtheland.wordpress.com Job

    I own “Sunday School Musical”, and while it is far from perfect, it does contain a legitimate discernible Christian message and virtually no questionable content. Now that alone, its giving a real alternative for 90 minutes to the New Age/secular humanist/occultish junk filled with rebellious content and packed with sexuality (including an increasing amount of homosexuality) on Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network by its very existence makes it worthwhile.

    For all its flaws – which I will not recount here as you have already done an excellent job of enumerating its faults – Sunday School Musical is a product that prominently depicts and promotes worshiping Jesus Christ, studying the Bible, fellowshipping with other Christians, and turning to God and following Biblical principles in times of trouble and conflict.

    If you think that things like this should be done better, why not get involved in it yourself? Take a couple of screenwriting courses and produce a script. Learn Adobe flash animation (or cinematography with digital cameras) and also how to do sound and editing. Many community colleges, vocational/trade schools, and online courses offer these, and you would know all you need to know in order to get your own project off the ground in 18 months; more than Phil Vischer did when he started VeggieTales, and not much less than the Kendrick brothers did when they produced “Flywheel” (the predecessor to “Facing the Giants” and “Fireproof.”) After that, seek funding and workers for your project from church groups, local small time theater and film school types, and arts councils (the Arts Alliance America assisted with Sunday School Musical) and then either seek a distribution channel, or distribute it yourself over the Internet (which is what Phil Vischer, having lost his Big Idea company and not seeing a future in the declining Christian direct video market, is now doing).

    But hey, who wants to spend the next 2-4 years of their lives putting in all that hard work and taking that great financial risk (as even if you succeed in getting your project into Christian bookstores and carried by Christian catalogs, there is a great chance that it will wind up ignored, first in the 99 cent clearance bin and then shipped back to the manufacturer, which is what happens to the vast majority of such endeavors)? Nah, it is much easier to spend 30 minutes criticizing people who actually have put in the work, learned the skills, and taken the personal risks required to put out something that may actually help – or at least won’t harm – kids and young adults.

    Seriously, the average Christian only needs a personal computer, a little inexpensive software and hardware, and a few hours of “free online tutorial” type of self – training in order to be able to create little 10 minute videos that can teach kids – and those slightly older than kids – about Jesus Christ for their Youtube channel in their spare time. Yet virtually none of us are doing it. The world is more motivated to put in the time and effort to do evil than Christians are to produce good. That is the real problem, not the existence of “Sunday School Musical.”

    Jobs last blog post..Christians Please Pray And Intercede For Children

  • Alan Noble

    Job,

    Let me address the two primary responses you offered to Carissa’s post: 1. “Sunday School Musical,” while flawed, is still better than secular TV shows and “prominently depicts and promotes” godly values. 2. Instead of criticizing the film, Carissa should make her own.

    In response to your first point, the quality of a work should not be measured by its comparative value. In other words, just because other shows are worse does not necessarily make “Sunday School Musical” worthwhile. It merely means that it is better than other works.

    Secondly, the fact that a film contains or promotes godly values also does not mean that it is good or worthwhile. Those values could be distorted, undermined, or trivialized by the way they are presented and the quality of their presentation.

    In other words, the quality and worth of a work is not determined by how well its content reflects some basic Christian values, although that can be one criteria.

    In response to your second challenge, that Carissa, “get involved” herself, I would say that she is. You seem to have constructed a false dichotomy between criticism and contributing to the production of good works. This false dichotomy is extremely dangerous and counterproductive.

    It reflects a modern conception of criticism that is prominent in the Church which views all criticism as inherently destructive and useless. As long as a work does not cross certain doctrinal lines and it promotes Christian values, than no Christian has the right to criticize it, according to this ideology. This view has lead, in part at least, to decades of mediocre-to-awful work being produced by the Church. We are called to sharpen each other and speak the Truth in love. This film, “Sunday School Musical” has serious flaws which, in light of a desire to edify the Body, must be addressed. If we choose not to address them, because it does have some Christian values, then we are not loving our neighbor or the artist.

    Secondly, this view assumes that we are all gifted in ways that allow us to honor God by creating art. If God has given us talents that allow us to understand and criticize the culture around us (which includes our own, Christian culture), why should we note use that talent?

    Thirdly, the view of criticism you present is problematic at best. By your logic, we should never praise good works. For what is praise but positive criticism? And, as you so forcefully point out, criticism is a waste of time. We should be making good art instead of critiquing (even praising) what is made. Also by your logic you should not have commented on this post, since your comment was a critique of the article. Instead, you should have just written your own post on about “Sunday School Musical.”

    So, Job, why did you post this comment? Might I suggest that you posted this comment for the very same reason Carissa wrote her article, to edify the Body? Because you both recognize that in the act of critiquing we are contributing to the production of good works.

    I hope that you see that our goal here is not to wag our finger at bad Christian art or cultural works, but rather to help believers think critically and biblically (they are not separate although I have listed them separately for emphasis) about popular culture and to encourage them to support and praise what is good.

    If you have any more comments on this, I would ask that you read our FAQ which addresses some of your concerns.

    -Alan

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  • Evil Eloc

    Sigh… This is sad. It really, really is. And people wonder why Christians are thought of poorly… Stuff like this does NOT help. It’s a bad sign when a CHRISTIAN says a christian movie is bad. I’m all for the idea of a good christian movie, but this is just silly. No christian really acts like this.

    … Ok, maybe a few, but the majority do not.

    Fail.

  • http://newbreedofadvertisers.blogspot.com/ Sam Van Eman

    Carissa,
    Thanks for the reflection. I just learned of SSM a week ago and in my research found your post (and good comments along with it).

    At New Breed of Advertisers, I posted a brief note of complaint to Christian Book Distributor for carrying the movie. You can read my rant and reflection at Sunday School Musical: A rebuttal.

    More info about The Asylum on Wikipedia.

    Sam Van Emans last blog post..Sunday School Musical: A rebuttal

  • Chelsea

    The movie is a nice alternative to the HSM garbage.

    Anyway, is there a SOUNDTRACK to this movie? If not, please look into publishing a soundtrack- the music is amazing and I’ve spent the last hour trying to find it online.

  • Patrick

    I just finished watching the movie and decided to search for related postings about it online. I’m shocked at all the negativity that is posted here.

    Even with the film being low budget they most definately got their main objective out which i believe was to keep positive and keep reaching for your dreams, doing so in a good wholesome way while keeping your christian values at the forefront.

    I for one enjoyed it and will share the movie with others to also enjoy.

  • one Fan

    hey man love this film! is an awesome movie with feel good lyrics. and this is in australia. wish it had a website though…:( anywho! where can we find the albums? the songs are great! good christian values in here!!

    awesome work guys! keep it up!

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  • Clay

    Carissa, Is the real problem that you want everyone to recognize your desperate attempt for attention by exposing “a Christ-like” rendition of a “Christ-less” performance, or do you have something real to offer. Isn’t it enough for you that plain ordinary christians just love jesus and might want to watch a movie once and awhile that actually talk about jesus? You know “Walking in the light” isn’t exposing everyone elses shortcomings, It’s recognizing and dealing with your own shortcomings. May God’s Peace guide you into all truth.

  • Alan Noble

    Clay,

    Please see my comment above addressed to “Job.”

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Wow, Clay. That comment was just yucky with bile ^_^

  • Rapping Chad

    God has given me a new calling that has to do with exactly this. My mission is to destroy cheesiness in the christian fine arts and bring reality back to the screen. I mean the reason why the passion did so well is because it was original. I shall rise to my calling.

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  • suvonoge

    The irony is that the movie isn’t meant to convey a Christian message but was meant to dupe unsuspecting Christians into buying it. It apparently has served its purpose pretty well. Most of the people who commented here don’t seem to realize they’ve bought a secular product. Thankfully, I saw a few comments from people who took the time to do a little research…comments which seem to have been ignored for the most part.

    It was produced by Faith Films, a thinly disguised offshoot of The Asylum. They are not a Christian company. Asylum primarily produces “mockbusters” (cheesy B-films that capitalize on the release of mainstream blockbuster’s) and horror films but they even have a couple EROTIC films in their catalog. Their films mostly go straight to DVD or are aired on cable networks such as SciFi. Like all B-films they are jam packed with bad dialog, sexual innuendo and rampant cleavage.

    Most Christians would absolutely die if they knew who they were purchasing this product from. The concept was hatched when members of the company attended a seminar about how to design products to capitalize on the Christian market (that’s right, you’re a market…just like everyone else). The seminar gave the example of a “Christian” High School Musical as the “ideal” product. And so the film was born. It was filmed in 14 days by a director who filmed a number of other secular titles for the company.

    Frankly, I find religions that proselytize just as distasteful as smut…pretty sure God does too, but I also value honesty and don’t like seeing a company dupe customers.


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