Not long ago, we watched the Christian exploitation-fest that was I’m Not Ashamed. And we all had a lot to say about the movie–very little of it positive. Christians loved it, unsurprisingly, largely because it reinforced for them all the worst parts of their religion’s teachings and showed them a world that matched their worst fantasies. One of their very favoritest fantasies involves their unwarrantedly high opinion of themselves, and this movie served that fantasy up with a side of sweet-potato fries alongside a heaping helping of false martyrdom and fearmongering.
A Jesus Juking to End All Jesus Juking.
As we saw last time we met up, a Jesus juke happens when a Christian hijacks a normal conversation to re-center it on their religion somehow.
Well, this whole movie is a Jesus juke.
See, the movie’s protagonist, Rachel Scott, is a perfectly normal girl. Her parents are divorced, her mom is broke and totally lost down the rabbit hole of a weird flippy-dippy prosperity-gospel Christian, her big sister is so so so over all this, and her school is so big that she’s gotten kinda lost in the crowd there. Her friends are caricatures discernible one from the others by outsized primary identifying characteristics (The Oversexualized Blonde Boyfriend-Stealing Frenemy, The Bed-Hopping Moppet With The Pixie Cut Who Secretly Feels Empty, the Deepity-Spewing High School Casanova Who Probably Marinated in Drakkar Noir, etc.), but if that caricaturization got toned down then they’d be normal kids too.
Most of the movie is about Rachel trying to find herself and figure out what she wants to do with herself in the long term. She’s got that unique kind of egotism that is perfectly natural to teenagers, as do her friends. She’s largely oblivious to stuff going on around her, even the really important stuff.
And that’s all totally normal.
If this movie ran exactly the way it currently runs except without the Columbine details, it’d be a tedious-but-wholly-unremarkable Christian coming-of-age movie.
Seriously. Think about it. Put it up against coming-of-age movies like The Fault in Our Stars or The Spectacular Now, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Everybody Wants Some!!. We could even point to the seminal cult classic Better Off Dead.1 This movie has way more Jesus in it, but ultimately it’s not all that different. There’s a certain way we expect these sorts of movies to go. Christians take that expectation and multiply it times ten.
If it weren’t for the movie creators’ misguided urge to shoehorn the Columbine massacre into this story, we’d fully expect I’m Not Ashamed to run how other such movies run. We’d expect to see Rachel getting some inkling of her future destiny as a pastor’s wife, devotional book author, or even YouTube sensation with the Christian teenybopper set. In the lower-quality sort of Christian movie, we might even expect her to meet her One True Jesus-Love in the form of the now-contrite and converted captain of the football team, or else we might see her helping Nathan (the homeless young man she helps in the movie) get into the same college she’s going to–with a hint that the two will be getting married soon. Or heck, maybe she’d be diagnosed with a terrible disease and decide to use her remaining lifetime to be a missionary.
There are really a lot of ways that this could have gone, and all of those other ways would have created a movie that landed anywhere between OMG tedious and kinda sweet but contrived and boring. None of those ways would have involved a national tragedy, however.
When a national tragedy is mined for emotional fodder, intelligent movie-goers and critics alike naturally and intensely resent the attempt.
And unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens in I’m Not Ashamed.
Remember Me, or Not.
And you’d really think that the people responsible for this travesty might have gotten a clue about how poorly that kind of emotional manipulation does with audiences and critics alike. Ironically, one of their biggest lessons should have come from a Robert Pattinson vehicle called Remember Me, released in 2010. (Too bad they forgot about it!)
Remember Me was about a pair of lovers who meet and bond in New York City. Tyler (Robert Pattinson) is still nursing his grief at his parents’ deaths. Ally (Emilie de Ravin) is the
Magic Pixie Dream Girl young woman who pulls him out of his shell with her general joie de vivre (and sex, naturally). The general drama in the movie is all pretty normal and ordinary, until the very last scene, which reveals a serious tie-in with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Seriously. I won’t spoiler it right here. You can head to the footnotes to see it if you really really wanna,2 but otherwise trust me, it’s a really, really close tie-in that more or less renders completely meaningless the entire previous plot. When something that huge happens, it overshadows everything. A plot and characters better be next-level to withstand that sandblasting effect.
Critics were not kind to Remember Me and most of their vitriol centers on that 9/11 tie-in.
Rotten Tomatoes gave it 27%, calling that last plot twist “borderline offensive.” The critics centered in on its “cringe-inducing,” “maudlin,” and “shamelessly exploitative” use of a national tragedy to lend itself more pathos. The screenwriter got lambasted as “lazily opportunist” for not “providing proper context to justify the citation of this devastating chapter in history.” Another critic seemed shocked by the movie’s creators’ sheer arrogance in “forcing a large-scale weight to a story and characters much too flimsy to deserve, much less support it.”
One critic, Tom Seymour, says flatly: “There are over 3000 true stories you could have told, and this film may insult every single one.”
The Last Face, Too.
And, too, we could look at the current front-runner for “Most Offensive and Surreal Movie Ever” for 2017, The Last Face, which sets a standard-issue love story between two doctors (one white, one Hispanic) down into the middle of an active ad hideously violent Liberian war.
Sean Penn didn’t see anything wrong with that idea, but his movie got literally laughed offstage at film festivals–and reviews haven’t been kind; Rotten Tomatoes gives that one a 5%.
Mr. Penn could have chosen any one of thousands of true stories about the various wars and genocides in Africa, but none of those were good enough for him. He created two characters out of thin air and then used a foreign country’s conflicts and bloodshed as a sort of urgency-driven backdrop to make his star-crossed lovers’ situation all the more dire and portentous.
In a way it reminds me of a particularly-misguided ad in American Home (a woman’s magazine) that pompously and surreally declared in 1939, “Hitler Threatens Europe!–But Betty Havens’ Husband’s Boss is Coming to Dinner and That’s What Really Counts.”3
In this case it’d be “Thousands of Africans are getting massacred!–But what’s really important is whether or not Wren and Miguel get together.”
It’s not unreasonable to expect people to show a certain amount of respect and decorum in referring to these huge-scale tragedies. But for some reason, movie-makers seem drawn to them sometimes. Who knows, maybe they’re thinking of Casablanca and totally not getting why its plot totally worked against the backdrop of WWII. Maybe they think they can match or out-do that classic story using modern characters and a modern tragedy.
But they’re usually wrong.
Remember Me, Jesus-Style.
I could level every one of the above criticisms at I’m Not Ashamed. A perfectly normal teen coming-of-age story gets put up against a massacre that ushered in America’s new age of fear, and the two are a total mismatch and an insult to the memory of the people who lost their lives that day.
All through the movie, we see Rachel’s story bumping up against the larger story of the two killers. She sees them getting bullied (this movie totally buys into the bullied-kids-getting-revenge false narrative that emerged very quickly after the massacre itself, along with similar false narratives about the incident’s other martyr, Cassie Bernall), they pop in and out of the movie to talk to her or lurk ominously in backgrounds in their black trenchcoats, and eventually they come to prominence at the end when one of them murders Rachel after asking her that all-important (but likely apocryphal) question about her religious faith.
The unfortunate truth is that the massacre at Columbine did not happen the way that evangelicals have come to think it did. It’s passed into their collective imaginations to take on mythic status. Rachel herself along with Cassie Bernall have taken on the status of martyrs–held up to today’s Christian young people and paraded as an example of what everyone should do when confronted in life-or-death situations about their faith, with an implication that that level of devotion should be visible in all parts of their lives.
Rachel’s life gets whitewashed and worked-over to make it as appealing as possible to toxic Christians, to the point where she’s almost a created character and not one drawn from real-life. She joins the Cult of “Before Stories” in this mythicized state, complete with a perfect conversation narrative that falls along perfect fundagelical lines.
The message that the movie’s irresponsible creators want to send is very clear: Kids will turn out like those shooters if they are taught real science in classrooms instead of religious twaddle, and once they become like that they’re gonna target sweet virginal little Christian girls. Only by kowtowing to fundagelicals’ demands can we possibly avert these tragedies.
It’s goddamned offensive, is what it is. But the movie’s got one more hugely offensive trick up its sleeve, and it’s the most gag-inducing of them all.
The Most Important Girl in the World.
Hm. Strike that. I mean:
The ONLY Girl in the World.
When I first saw this cinematic botch, I was relieved that the movie’s creators chose to end the actual massacre scene with Rachel’s murder.
But it didn’t take me long to realize that they didn’t make that choice out of respect for the dead.
They ended it there because Rachel is their only focus in this entire movie, and once she’s dead there’s no other reason to continue filming. To go further would of necessity involve telling the stories of the other kids and adults who survived and died, and only one of those thousands of stories is presented in this movie as being divinely-touched.
As mentioned above, there was another girl in that school whose murder was supposedly spurred by a similar question to the one that Rachel is asked in the movie. Cassie Bernall’s death immediately became a martyr’s hagiography, even though very quickly investigators realized that no, actually, she hadn’t been asked about religion at all before she was killed. Valeen Schnurr had been asked about her religion, but she’d survived the massacre by the skin of her teeth.
But fundagelicals did not want a living legend.
They rejected Val Schnurr out of hand.
They wanted a dead martyr, and they were willing to lie for Jesus to get one.
They found not one but two conveniently-dead martyrs in Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott.
And so the moviemakers chose one of those two girls and cut the other entirely out of the movie’s world. Sorry, Cassie. Maybe next movie.
I’m Not Ashamed only has room for one martyr, and they’ve chosen Rachel for that role. That means that Cassie Bernall and Val Schnurr don’t exist in its world. And it means that there’s no care whatsoever for the other victims of the two shooters. They might as well not exist either. Only Rachel was really important, and Rachel is dead. So the movie can end there–and yes indeed it does, having planted its spear of extremism right in the hearts of its youngest and most vulnerable viewers.
The New Age of Martyrs.
In the settling dust of the massacre, a chilling new period in fundagelical indoctrination had begun: the age of the martyr fetish. As that Vox link tells us, fundagelical teens began to fantasize about dying for Jesus after the Columbine massacre. The notion went hand-in-hand with their leaders’ development of extremism as a positive character trait. A TRUE CHRISTIAN™ teen was sold out, on fire, radical, even fanatical. In a world where AM Christian radio shock-jocks openly gush about an imaginary future of persecution of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ that includes guillotines and torture, Rachel Scott’s story was magnified and enlarged to the point where she could be sold to Christian kids as a great example of the sold out, on fire, radical, even fanatical ur-Christian.
And boy oh boy, did the creators of that myth succeed beyond their wildest imaginations–even though, even in the movie itself, Rachel’s not a very firm or strong Christian at all by their standards. She’s actually pretty reticent and timid, unwilling to witness in public or to make people uncomfortable with her. She isn’t separated from the world at all; she has to be shoved out of her friends circle to leave it.
There’s a reason for that passivity.
All of those qualities I named above had been praised when I was a Christian too–remember my cringeworthy college group, Prayer Warriors for Jesus?–but not like this. We’d seen ourselves in my day as mighty warriors, not as dying martyrs. We also ached for that total justification of our faith, but we were a lot more focused on the stuff that happened before that moment.
Martyrs, warriors–the outcome didn’t matter to the religion’s leaders, though. What mattered was that the kids stayed Christian to the very end of their lives. Selling the notion of being mighty warriors clearly hadn’t worked, so irresponsible leaders told their young flocks, You will be persecuted horribly for your faith, so you need to be ready to give an accounting.
I can see why they went that route. Martyrdom is pretty passive. A martyr just dies when someone decides to kill him or her. A warrior has to go out and do stuff, and our culture’s gotten more and more afraid of the confrontation that goes into the warrior role. But a martyr? All you have to do to go down in history forever is to remember to declare your belief at the right time and then brace for the worst. And “the worst” keeps getting magnified and escalated further and further to keep kids’ fear at extreme nosebleed levels. Terrified people don’t think very clearly, and young people often don’t have the experience and understanding to process baseless threats and distinguish them from reality. Little wonder, then, that terror is so often used as a sales tactic by fundagelicals on even very young children–and that terror may last for decades, even past deconversion.
Besides the supernatural threats Christians deploy to strong-arm vulnerable people into belief, it is nothing short of emotional abuse to teach impressionable and vulnerable young people that a nation built on standards of tolerance and diversity will one day shoot them dead if they persist in being Christian–that their fellow citizens will one day take up arms and destroy them for jus’ bein’ Christian.4. It is outrageous and cruel. But that is exactly what a great number of opportunistic Christian adults did, and they took advantage of the myths swirling up from the carnage at Columbine High School to peddle their filth. They–along with this movie’s creators–are callously and opportunistically using this young woman’s death and the massacre itself to push their political agenda–and, maybe, hopefully, perhaps seize back some of the control and dominance they have lost in the years between the massacre and now.
Sure, the persecution they’ve promised never actually materialized and seems less likely to do so every single day, and sure, the actual persecution that is happening is being caused by Christians, not dealt to them, but Christians simply make up examples of it to spur their peers and charges to greater and greater depths of faith. The people spreading these lies know that nobody in Christendom fact-checks anything any other Christian says, so they can say anything at all and Christians will believe it. Remember the long list of court cases at the end of God’s Not Dead that the movie’s creators claimed were all instances of ZOMG PERSECUTION that turned out to have nothing to do with any kind of persecution of Christians? That’s exactly the kind of mischaracterization we’re dealing with here. (It’s okay to lie for Jesus if you’re doing it for a good reason!) Christians ache to see themselves as the scrappy lil underdogs in their own stories. They ache for it so much that they’ll lie to get what they want. Lie enough, and you might even see those lies turn into a movie!
Rachel Scott’s supposed martyrdom has been used for years to scare young Christians for absolutely no good reason. We’ll be taking up next time with the biggest way we can tell that no gods were injured in the making of the movie about her life, because damn, I rather think that it’s a doozy. See you then!
1 Better Off Dead is high up on my list of must-see movies.
2 Bounce your eyes–this is your last chance. In the last scene that Tyler has in the movie, he is seen standing on one of the upper floors in one of the Two Towers, staring blankly out the window at one of the terrorist-controlled planes that is clearly about to hit his building. He dies in one of the Two Towers in the 9/11 attack. You may now rage.
3 Fashionable Food, p. 84. See more about the ad here.
4 Jus’ Bein’ Christian is Christianese for being Christian in Public. In Christians’ imaginations, nothing they’re doing is offensive in any way and the reactions they’re getting are totally undeserved. In reality, the pushback Christians face in almost every single case happens directly because they were in fact being extremely offensive in some way and are lying-for-Jesus about what really happened to make themselves look like persecuted innocents being unfairly targeted for their faith by villainous atheists. Jus’ Bein’ Christian is one of the symptoms of a dying religion.