We’re going to be reviewing the movie I’m Not Ashamed shortly, so this is our customary pre-review post setting up the movie and outlining some of its major ideas (and problems). And man oh man, are there ever problems here.
The Tragedy That Defined a Generation.
It seems to me that every generation has a tragedy that its members think of as a defining moment for them.
For my own generation, that tragedy might well be the Challenger disaster of 1986. I still choke a little at the thought of the day that my school’s admins rolled a bunch of televisions on carts out into my high school’s commons area so that all the classes could let out early to watch it and the news coverage about it. The image of that doomed shuttle–arcing into the sky like a blazing arrow, then exploding like a blossoming fire-flower over and over and over again in countless replays–was seared into my mind and heart, and also into those of my peers.
Well, the Columbine massacre seems to be the similarly-defining tragedy for Americans who were in high school in 1999. In case you’re not aware of it, here’s basically what happened: a pair of high-school kids shot up their school, murdering 13 teachers and fellow students and injuring dozens more. Then the two killers killed themselves in turn (bringing the toll to 15). It wasn’t the very first such shooting on public-school grounds, but it was one of the worst in recent memory. Almost 20 years later it remains an open, throbbing wound for many young people of that era just as the Challenger disaster remains for many people my age.
Even today, the arguments that began that day about gun control, violence in media and video games, kids getting medicated for emotional issues, how much internet access kids should have, and lots more are still going on and there’s no answer to them in sight.
Worse, the sheer transgressive nature of this attack has created a lot of mythology around the event itself.
Still a better love story &etc. Seriously, wait till the end.
Playing to the Rewards.
When a behavior is assigned rewards, then a certain kind of person will game the system specifically to get those rewards. The rewards vary; they can take the form of money, respect and admiration, interpersonal power, and more. That’s why there even is a Cult of “Before” Stories: a certain kind of Christian sees how much adoration and gain there is to be had in having super-impressive testimonies (that’s Christianese for a Christian’s conversion narrative, a sales pitch that outlines that person’s awful pre-conversion life, their miraculous conversion, and how wonderful their post-conversion life has been) and simply has to get some of those rich rewards while they’re still in the offing.
In Christianity, the rewards for exaggerating or fabricating stories can be massive, with minimal to nonexistent risks. Very few Christians ever fact-check the stories their peers tell or question them in any way, so the sky’s really the limit as far as claims are concerned. Even after getting caught in huge lies, a Christian grifter can get right back into the game almost immediately with next to no limits at all set upon them–and of course begin spinning their tall tales again without any hindrances.
Little wonder, then, that so many Christians are out there telling false stories to eager audiences of fellow Christians that non-Christian audiences would immediately see through–as indeed happened with secular martial artists who got wind of Tony Anthony’s claims of totally being trained from his earliest childhood to be a kung-fu assassin for a shadowy global kung-fu organization. Tony Anthony tended to avoid audiences who’d know his story for the pack of lies that it was/is, preferring instead to pitch his testimony to gullible Christians. Anybody who did even the most perfunctory fact-checking on him would quickly find the numerous issues contained within that testimony, but he knew that Christians rarely bother doing even that little to verify their leaders’ stories.
Even knowing how little restraint many Christians feel in creating and refining these fabricated stories, I’m still routinely shocked and sickened to see just how low they’ll go in the name of almighty Mammon. If there is a buck to be scammed, a conversion to be won, or admiration to be gained, then they’ll say whatever they need to say. They’ll always be able to rationalize away their own sins by pointing to the greater good of growing the Kingdom (that’s Christianese for converting people and increasing the religion’s power and clout), especially if that greater good leads also to the personal enrichment they crave. And their grandiose claims clash against the way-more-pedestrian testimonies of their more-honest peers, as few as those are; you may rest assured that they notice how much less attention they get with their less-dramatic conversion stories.
So knowing as I do that there are Christian urban legends that connect the religion with the Columbine massacre, I immediately tense up at the idea of movies about it because I know that at least some of what I encounter therein will be exaggerated or even completely fabricated. And I know that these sorts of Christians don’t consider anything to be too sacred to lie about.
And the Columbine massacre is just such a deeply-embedded event in our history now–even for adults, and even for kids who weren’t even conceived the day it happened. The other day, I kid you not, I saw a screengrab of a Facebook post by a young woman who claimed to have just discovered that she was the cousin of one of the two killers. It was a surreal post, sorta like seeing those weirdos who swan around claiming that it’s okay for them to wear swastikas because OMG they’re really such a symbol of wonderful paganism and peace and it’s just so sad that the Nazis appropriated them.
People are actually trying to grab some unearned sympathy and social power for themselves from the Columbine massacre. It’s like there’s a Circle of Life for horrific events and we’re finally coming to the final phases in the cycle where people are appropriating the event to boost their own status–and creating mythology around it in the process.
There’s something to be learned from the opportunism and wishful thinking that surround the life and death of the young woman at the heart of I’m Not Ashamed. Her name was Rachel Scott and she was reportedly the first victim of the two killers.
Very quickly after her death, a story got out that one of the killers had asked her if she believed in the Christian god; when she said that she did indeed, he shot her. That story is not 100% substantiated and in fact has been strongly debated; it does not appear in the police report and came to light only later, from a friend who was sitting near her at the time. (The friend adds that he was asked the same question but said he didn’t believe, and so was spared. He survived but was permanently paralyzed.) In this respect the event became mythology in Christians’ minds alongside Ms. Scott’s fellow victim Cassie Bernall–something to be exploited and profited from in the most macabre way.
I know already before going into this, just given the fact that PureFlix is involved, that this movie is going to fit into the testimony narrative that fundagelicals like. The heroine is going to have a basically Christian upbringing, get into some minor kind of trouble and decide that her life is heading in the worst direction possible, then get her Jesus Moment of dedication/conversion (for kids raised Christian, the line between the two is rather poorly-defined) and become a gung-ho TRUE CHRISTIAN™ and Jesus will solve all her problems.
I also predict that this movie is going to try to make some kind of sense out of Ms. Scott’s brutal, pointless death. We’ve been talking a lot lately about the meaning of life and how to find purpose in life, and this is one of the places where Christianity fails the hardest. They can’t bear the idea of someone dying pointlessly. There always has to be some sort of meaning to it. Someone has to learn a lesson from it–somehow, any way possible. And that meaning ideally should lend itself to money-grubbing grift attempts. I’ll be extremely surprised if this movie doesn’t turn this girl’s life and tragic death into some kind of sermon and cash grab.
Meet the Cast.
Unusually for a Christian movie these days, the cast looks completely unfamiliar. There are no Z-grade tryhard celebrities on the list that I can see. Almost all of them have appeared in various other Christian movies; only one that I spotted in the topmost cast list (Ben VanderMey, playing Brian Riggs here) has appeared in any secular productions–in this case bit parts in House of Cards and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. It’s a huge cast list, though, so who knows.
Masey McLain, a fresh-faced young woman in her mid-20s, plays the heroine, Rachel Joy Scott. She’s had a few roles before this one, including a small appearance in Christine right before this movie was released. It looks like she’s got a new shot at fame in Christian cinema, though; she’s got a few more religious movies coming out if you like her work here in I’m Not Ashamed.
I’m used to these movies having some kind of big name to anchor the production, but there just isn’t much here. Ben Davies, the second name billed on IMDB, has been in a dozen or so Christian movies, some of which I’ve actually seen, but I really can’t remember him in any of them. He’s currently filming Order of Rights, a forced-birther movie in which he plays a guy who files a lawsuit against his babymama’s right to obtain an abortion; the movie ends with a courtroom drama revolving around the fetus’ “right to life” and whether or not that right supersedes that fetus’ carrier’s right to consent over each and every use of her body. Gee, don’t you totally wonder what this fundagelical-pandering courtroom drama will find?
I know Ben Davies is just an actor and probably grateful simply to be working (for that matter, likely all the rest of the cast is the same), but the fact that he’s helping a bunch of rabid forced-birthers to make a movie illustrating his tribe’s concerted attempt to roll back women’s rights is not making me see him or this movie any more charitably. The Christians responsible for these movies are the most toxic of all toxic Christians, and I cannot trust them to treat Rachel Scott’s story with responsibility.
The most experienced actor in this dreck appears to be John Newberg, who’s had a very long career in TV and cinema. It looks like he’s been sucked into the career-killing vortex of the Christian cinema industry, though; he’s got another movie coming out soon that stars a shorn John Corbett as a pastor who does something ultra-Jesus-y. (NO, NO! NOT OUR IAN MILLER!). Besides that, he’s got a variety of other fundagelical-aimed movies in the works.
In short, I don’t have particularly high expectations regarding the cast either.
For today’s misadventure we’re going to be enjoying a (few) Mike’s Hard Lemonade(s). I did wine coolers for another movie already so this sounded like the closest other thing I could get to a high-school feel. Choose whatever reminds you most of those years: Bartles & Jaymes, Zima, whatever. I’ll pour mine into a glass of ice because I’m classy that way. I discovered this boxed variety set of Mike’s that includes watermelon flavor and that’s all I needed to hear. And it’s good. Not Watermelon Pucker good, but still good.
I’m hitting the PLAY button at 5pm Pacific, and will be hanging out in comments if you want to join me and add your own thoughts as we go!