Thursday, April 19, 2012

Filling The Hole You Didn't Know You Had

Most tracts have a common theme, that of the need for Salvation to avoid the eternal burning flames of Hell. A few go even further, and share a more specific thread. Such is the case with the following three tracts; they try to convince their readers there is an emptiness within them that can only be filled by Jesus Christ. I'll review all three, with an eye toward their presentation of this notion.

What Fills The Void is, at first glance, a rather attractive tract. Half text and half cartoon, this tract insists that "all of us have an empty space inside that needs to be filled." According to author Stephen M. Crane, human beings "are governed by both natural and spiritual laws," that make us "grope for something to satisfy their inner hunger." Artist John Fretz illustrates some of the many things we are apparently groping: money, booze, dope, sex, recreation, sports, religion, knowledge and philosophy.
None of those things "removes the root of the problem," however, because only God "can provide spiritual contentment."

In spite of the convincing nature of John's images(the couple in the Sex picture look particularly unfulfilled), this effort from Gospel Tract Distributors fails to provide evidence for its central premise. That all of us have a void in need of stuffing is treated as a fait accompli. No effort is made to reach the reader who doesn't feel especially empty as the tract supposes.
Is Something Missing In Your Life, from the Fellowship Tract League, is even worse. The cover image of the missing jigsaw piece is clever enough, and the opening question("My friend, are you dead or alive?") is nice and weird, but the rest of the tract is just more of the same with a liberal dose of hyperbole. Lines of scripture are offered up, warning of "eternal separation from God in hell fire" unless you let Jesus "breathe life into you" and fill the "empty void and longing, deep within the depths of your soul, crying out to be filled."

I'd like to pause here to point out the enormous restraint I'm demonstrating in not using the previous sentence, or the one about groping to satisfy an inner hunger, for an obvious sex joke. You're welcome.

Do You Know My Friend, written by Modena Gelien for Evangelical Tract Distributors, isn't much better. "Hello, lonely one!" it begins. "Are you looking for a friend?" The presumption here is staggeringly insulting; not only does Modena assume we are lonely, she also implies that we have no friends! And we're only two sentences in.

"Once I was lonely," Modena goes on. "Then I met Jesus!" A young lady "introduced me to Him" by giving her a tract, and Modena "wondered if He could be my Friend, too?"

I can't help but be creeped out by the needy, clingy tone of her writing, but at least she takes a slightly different approach by presenting Jesus as everyone's Buddy. Sadly, she ruins that goodwill by saying "you are yet a sinner" midway down the second page. And she just drops it in there, too. The font size for this tract is larger than most; perhaps she had to cut all the biblical stuff about why she thinks we are sinners in order to save space.

Then there's the issue of what Jesus' Friendship entails. Modena describes her other friends as "fleeting acquaintances" who were only there "as long as I had something to give." But in order to be friends with Jesus, one must "admit you are a sinner," then "acknowledge that Jesus died for your sins," and then you "ask him to come into your heart and take control of your life." Anything else? "After that, acclaim him to the world." Seems Jesus requires an awful lot in exchange for his Friendship, doesn't it?

"If you want to know my Friend Jesus," Modena Gelien concludes, "please make that first move now." Well, my definition of a friend is someone who sees me as an equal, and I don't think her Jesus is offering that. The only move I'm making is in the opposite direction, and fast.

All three of these tracts assume there is "a vital part of your existence that isn't there." Some non-believers might feel that way, but not all of them. With no proof other than scripture, these tracts come off as judgmental and insulting at best. Void is good for a chuckle or two, and Do is entertainingly creepy. Otherwise, there's a void in my recycling box that needs filling, and these tracts will do just fine.

What Fills The Void?
Likely to Convert - 2
Artwork - 7
Ability to Hold Interest - 6
Unintentional Hilarity - 6
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 1

Is Something Missing in Your Life?
Likely to Convert - 1
Artwork - 6
Ability to Hold Interest - 3
Unintentional Hilarity - 2
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 1

Do You Know My Friend
Likely to Convert - 2
Artwork - 3
Ability to Hold Interest - 3
Unintentional Hilarity - 5
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 6

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sunday School Musical

I suppose, given the popularity of the High School Musical movies, this movie was inevitable. There's already an audience for that sort of thing, and they don't require a huge production budget. Good thing, too, because this movie was made by Faith Films(2012 Doomsday).

Directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg, written by Rachel Lee Goldenberg and Ashley Holloway and starring a bunch of unknowns, Sunday School Musical tells the story of two choirs competing for a chance to win a big cash prize so they can save the local church. It's a story you've seen or read a thousand times before, a plot so old it pre-dates the Creation. This film makes the idea of computer-generated scripts only too plausible.

The doomed church in question is Hawthorne, home to a choir of urban hip-hop teens. Their competition in the regional choir-off is the Crossroads Christian Choir, made up of squeaky-clean but woefully untalented high schoolers from the suburbs. When the third group of competitors become disqualified due to a random egg salad incident (don't ask), both Hawthorne and Crossroads find themselves on their way to the upcoming States Championship - with a grand prize of $10,000 (or, ten times this movie's budget).

Zach, the best singer on Hawthorne's choir(and the main character, played by the amiable Chris Chatman), runs into some Issues: his dad is away in the army, his mom just lost her job, and his family has to move across town to live with Aunt Janet. This means that Zach must now attend a new school, and leave the Hawthorne choir behind. The scene where Zach's mom drops this bombshell on him is one of many where bad writing, bad directing and bad acting collide, and inadvertently sets the tone for the film: this is as good as it's going to get.

Zach heads to the rooftops for a musical number with Andrea, the only other Hawthorne Choir member given any characterization. Too bad, because actress Krystle Connor can't act her way out of a torn paper bag. Andrea scolds Zach for abandoning the choir in their time of need, as if it was all his fault. This is her character in a nutshell; no matter what's happening, it's all about her. This trait makes Andrea - and by extension, Hawthorne - very hard to root for. Zach starts at his new school, just in time for a really big coincidence - his new institution of learning is none other than Crossroads, home to the rival choir! They only seem to have two classes at Crossroads - Home Ec and Scripture Studies - both of which introduce Zach to key members of the choir. In Home Ec, Zach gets paired up with Savannah(Candise Lakota) for a baking project. The scene is supposed to highlight their rivalry while suggesting a budding attraction, but the attempts at both tension and humour fall flatter than the pancakes they're making. In Scripture class Zach meets the Nerd. The character's name is Miles(Robert Acinapura), but I'm going to go with his stereotype. Nerd manages to up the tension ante from boring to annoying, then drives it all the way to stupid by accusing Zach of being a spy for the other choir. A spy? Seriously? Well, this is a character who actually uses the words "willy-nilly" with a straight face. He's this movie's Jar Jar Binks, which is quite a feat in a movie full of Ewoks.

Incidentally, the Scripture studies teacher Mrs. Stewart(Debra Lynn Hull) looks like a live action Miss Henn from the tracts of Jack Chick.

Meanwhile, back at the plot, Hawthorne Church's minister informs Andrea and her choir that the church will close unless they can raise $10,000 - the exact amount of the prize for the State's Championship! Andrea wastes no time making the situation all about her. It's understandable; she isn't having much luck in getting the choir into shape without Zach. And her character only has the one note. Savannah recruits a reluctant Zach to the Crossroads Choir, where he teaches them to do their own thang. "Music isn't something you learn, it's something you feel," he tells them, launching into a musical number so rockin' that nobody notices how badly he's lip-synching.

The rest of the film unfolds exactly the way it's expected to. Hawthorne Church is saved, Zach and Savannah kiss, and all is right with the world. What I didn't expect was the complete and utter lack of preaching. This movie does not once mention Hell or the need to get Saved. There is no dramatic conversion scene, and no unconvincing 'UnSaved' stereotypes. The characters do not go around quoting scripture as if it were a second language, either. If not for a couple of scenes involving prayer, one might just forget this is a Christian movie(even though it's about choirs!). Christianity is simply the backdrop all the characters live in. Also conspicuously absent are the much-touted Christian values. When characters act out of selfishness or pride(or just plain act like jerks), nobody holds them accountable. Neither do they learn a valuable lesson that causes them to repent. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to show that Christians are just as fallible and human as everyone else. Perhaps, but I don't credit them with the skill to apply that kind of subtlety.

As a piece of entertainment, Sunday School Musical barely rates a D-. Most of the film's flaws become understandable when you watch the DVD extras; they had only 13 days to shoot, zero rehearsal time, and it was director Lee Goldenberg's first feature film. Given that, it's amazing they accomplished what they did. Cheryl Baxter, the choreographer, is the real hero. Most of the dance numbers are good, and the finale at the State's Competition is amazing. Say what you will about the acting, but these kids can sing and dance like nobody's business.

And the acting really is terrible. Chris Chatman has the entire movie on his shoulders as Zach, and to be fair he's a likable, laid back kind of guy. Whenever the script calls for anything more than that, he and all the others display the emotional range of a baked potato. This is a different sort of Christian movie, with few of my usual objections. It still sucks, but it doesn't suck as much as Apocalypse, Left Behind, or 2012 Doomsday. Faint praise, sure, but praise happily given. Like this movie, it was cheap.

Likely To Convert - 0
Production Values - 2
Acting/Direction - 1
Likely To Be Sat Through - 4
Unintentional Hilarity - 3
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 0