I’ve been trying to ignore this, but Movieguide’s Ted Baehr just keeps bashing away at Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood for being “anti-Christian,” and for including “one of the worst, most superficial stereotype of Christian preachers ever put on film.”
(Similarly, Barbara Nicolosi slammed the movie in a post called “There Will Be Bigotry”, which you can find in her archive here… but you have to scroll down a bit. The 105-comment discussion connected to it became rather lively too.)
Meanwhile, the film took second place in Christianity Today Movies’ Critics’ Choice awards, it tied for 10th place for 2007 among Christianity Today Movies’ readers, and soon we’ll learn how it fared in the Faith and Film Critics Circle awards. Quite a stark disagreement among these Christian moviegoers!
Would I like to see more portrayals of preachers who are men of integrity? Sure.
But there’s nothing wrong with telling stories about sinful preachers. Heck, even the Bible includes depictions of wicked men clad in clerical garments. There are a lot of sinful preachers and religious hypocrites in the world, and some of them are rather spectacular in their tactics and sinister secrets. Such traitors and crooks have had a prominent place in storytelling for centuries.
In his reviews and press releases, Baehr’s missing the fact that the character of Eli Sunday, pastor of the “church” in Little Boston, isn’t really a Christian preacher at all. The movie makes this pretty clear. Eli Sunday uses some of the language of the gospel as a blunt instrument in order to manipulate and bully unbelievers, and to dazzle the townspeople. But his presentation is not the gospel. It’s something else. He’s as false as false prophets come. (Remember Christ’s words about how “Many will come in my name, and deceive many…) Sunday proclaims a new revelation… a “Third revelation.” And he proceeds to set up something like a cult in his troubled community, involving a spirit that apparently inhabits his stomach, which is an interesting detail in a movie about building pumps and pipelines.
There are clear signs of Sunday’s false religion throughout the movie, from his belief that “God does not save stupid men” to his argument that his “spirit” has a “gentle whisper” when in fact he shrieks like a banshee or a demon. So it’s no surprise that the source material, Upton Sinclair’s¬†novel Oil!, made an even bigger deal about The Church of the Third Revelation being the emergence of a twisted, perverse mutation of the true Gospel.
It’s not hard to find similar strains of twisted, cult-like distortions of the Christian church in American history. So what’s the big problem here? Why is it wrong for Anderson to dramatize this in a movie?
It isn’t wrong. In fact, it contributes to this story powerfully, making the film a nightmarish vision of what can happen with faith is corrupted by greed, and when the wolf of greed-driven capitalism is disguised in the sheep’s clothing of the Christian church.
In the end, the movie ends up vividly portraying the wages of sin, the consequences of arrogance and selfishness, the damage done by neglectful fathers (and father figures), the corrosive effect of a competitve spirit between brothers and businessmen, and the emptiness of ill-gotten gains.
Furthermore, one of the film’s central characters is rescued from a hellish existence by a seemingly Christian woman, who appears to have abandoned the Church of the Third Revelation for a more traditional Christian church. And the church wedding at the close of the film appears to represent one character’s hopeful future, and a flourish of grace.
Thus, Baehr’s put-downs sound like the protests of someone who didn’t see the whole movie. Moreover, his rants make him sound suspiciously like, well, one of those judgmental hellfire-and-brimstone preachers that appear so often in movies.
At Crosswalk, radio host Paul Edwards offers a different perspective on There Will Be Blood. Edwards’ willingness to think through the movie is much more insightful than Baehr’s rash write-off:
Based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood chronicles the degeneration of the fictional 19th century oil man Daniel Plainview who (as my own 15-year-old son has accurately described) becomes “less and less human and more and more reclusive‚” as his story unfolds. Because the movie vividly depicts the violence, lust and greed which accompany Plainview’s descent, many Christians see in it no socially or spiritually redeeming value. I disagree.
To see you just how much Baehr enjoys bashing movies, check out Baehr’s long list of put-downs. The list reveals more about the reviewer than it does about the films he’s addressing. For example, Baehr gives “The Uncle Joe Stalin Award The Wind that Shakes the Barley … Worst Communist Propaganda” (Does that mean it’s bad Communist propaganda? Would Baehr prefer good Communist propaganda?)
I encourage you to watch The Wind that Shakes the Barley for yourself, Ken Loach’s moving, powerful depiction of the origins of the IRA. No, it may not be 100% accurate according to history. But it’s a challenging exploration of the ethics of revolt.
Check out Tony Watkins’ article about Barley here.You can join the thoughtful discussion of the film here, at ArtsandFaith.com. Barley is one of the best movies I saw in ’07, and a riveting, thoughtful portrayal about the challenges that face anyone group that wants to rise up in protests, both non-violent and violent, and the compromises that must sometimes be accepted for the sake of change. And it’s not propaganda… at least, not compared to the mediocre, severely biased documentaries that Baehr celebrates on his own site.