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?”
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.”
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.