Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Evangelicals Spear themselves, again

Short recap: in 1956 a group of 5 missionaries went to Ecuador to evangelize the Waodani tribe. The tribe was in the process of killing themselves off in self-directed brutal violence when the group of missionaries flew in and tried to make contact. Shortly after they started reaching out to the Waodani, the missionaries were speared to death by the very natives they sought to reach for Christ.

The amazing part of the story is that the families of the missionaries (notably Elizabeth Elliot, widow of missionary Jim Elliot) return to the Waodani, eventually befriend them, and complete the mission. Further amazement comes when the son of one of the victims, Steve Saint, befriends Mincaye, the native who led the massacre, who becomes adopted grandfather to the children whose grandfather he murdered.

A beautiful documentary of this story was made several years ago titled Beyond The Gates of Splendor. Another version of the story, End of the Spear, has recently been released, and has come into just the kind of stinkstorm of controversy that evangelical Christianity in the US is becoming known for.

The cause of this stinkstorm, you may ask? Is it because of the liberties taken with the story? The amount of money spent on remaking an already-good documentary?

Of course not. It's the fact that the central character of the story is played by... a homosexual. [Horrors!] And worse yet, a gay activist. [Gasp!]

After all, the evangelical logic says, how can we support a movie - even a movie with as powerful a message as this one has - if it has one of them in it?

I have a message for the folks who say that casting gay actor Chad Allen invalidates the value of the movie: baloney.

When I watch Ben-Hur, I never think of Charleton Heston as the president of the NRA. When I watch a Star Trek movie, I don't think of Leonard Nimoy's semi-fringe activities, nor do I think of Bill Shatner's sad presence on Priceline.com. Now having said that, I'm sure there are exceptions. For instance, I'd probably find it hard to see a performance of Oliver!with Pee-Wee Herman in the role of Fagin. (Or any other role, for that matter.)

But the simple fact is this: for me, the politics - or marital status, or sexuality, or whatever - of an actor has so little to do with the process of telling the story of his or her character. Period. Whether the movie is good or bad has nothing to do with whom Chad Allen has sex with - it should live or die by its merits. Unfortunately, the criticism of the messenger has only helped to destroy the message.

It's interesting that the missionary's son, Steve Saint, has nothing but praise for Chad Allen's portrayl of his father, and himself. I don't know that he has any praise for gays - I haven't heard him say one way or the other. But the man who is central to the story doesn't have a problem with being portrayed by a gay actor. So get over it, people.

By making a stink about this, the religious right has done nothing but show themselves for what they are - fractious, in-fighting, and ultimately failing at the central command of their Savior: love God, and love one's neighbor as oneself.

Nice work, folks.


Tom Scharbach said...

Okay, I'll bite ...

Who is Pee Wee Herman and why would you have trouble watching a movie with him in it?

Michael said...

I was told that some Catholics were offended by Song of Bernadette when it appeared in 1943 because the unbilled but controversial actress who portrayed the Virgin Mary, Linda Darnell, was -- shall we say -- notorious, as well as pregnant. So there were actually those who wanted to boycott the movie.

It reminds me of the Basilica of the Little Flower in San Antonio. The two enormous holy water fonts at the entrance to the church were donated by Barbara Stanwyck and her first husband, actor Frank Fay. When they got divorced in 1936, the archbishop demanded that the friars who ran the shrine turn the fonts so that the names engraved on them faced the wall, lest people be scandalized by seeing the names of a divorced couple as they reached for water to bless themselves. In recent decades, the fonts have been quietly turned back around.

Poor Mad Peter said...

And now we know that Mr Sulu was gay all this time. Arm Phaser banks, Mr Sulu...

Sanford said...

Insightful post, Brother Steve. He who has all power can use even those who are mired in sin to show his Glory.

The Lord may bring Chad Allen to Him through the work of Jim Elliot. Pray that Chad Allen may find Christ and leave the homosexual lifestyle.

Michael said...

For what it is worth, I understand that Mr. Allen attends a Christian church in Pasadena. One assumes the people there know he is gay, since he makes no secret of it, and that, in the name of Jesus and as members of his body, they welcome him.

Ray said...

I've heard all sorts of praise for this movie, inside my evangelical church and elsewhere. This is the first I have heard of a gay actor being in the movie or that there has been any controversy about it. Steve, where have you seen this hostility against Mr. Allen's portrayal exhibited?

Ray said...

Just a follow up: Focus on the Family endorsed the film knowing full well that Chad Allen was gay. The same is true for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The only protest I could find originated with some guy named Jason Janz, who I've never heard of.

Tom Scharbach said...

Leaving aside the question of whether a man living the "homosexual lifestyle" can be a Christian -- I leave intermural Christian squabbles over that to Christians who care about such matters -- Chad Allen's portrayal of Nate Saint has been an issue from the beginning.

Christianity Today ran an article on the issue at http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/news/chadallen.html and the article makes clear that both sides had issues with the casting.

On the producer's side:

The filmmakers also say they didn't know about Allen's lifestyle until after they offered him a contract, but they felt obliged to honor it even though it had not yet been signed.

"We found out Chad was gay after we offered him the parts," said executive producer Mart Green of Every Tribe Entertainment, the production company behind the movie. "We felt like when we offered him the contract, we were obligated to honor it."

Green said that learning of Allen's homosexuality presented the Every Tribe team with "an obvious dilemma," but that after discussing it with director Jim Hanon, writer/producer Bill Ewing, and Steve Saint, who served as a consultant for the film that tells his father's story, all agreed they should keep their word and honor the contract that had been offered.

In an e-mail to Christianity Today Movies, Saint said, "I could not imagine how something like this could slip through a professional screening process." He continued, "After I got over the emotional shock of realizing that a man who has chosen to live a lifestyle in stark contrast to my dad's would actually be playing his role in End of the Spear, I realized I would likely be held responsible for that decision. I wanted the issue to go away. Finally, I realized I was going to have to face what was happening, and there was little chance of coming out unscathed."


"To be honest," Green said, "I would not have hired Chad had I known everything about him. But God had to work around me to get Chad on this project. He wanted Chad on this project. I wish I were able to articulate all the things that led me to understand that. It is very hard to share the ways the Lord leads, especially when you can't fully grasp why he is doing things that don't make sense to the natural man.

And on Allen's side:

"I wanted to know that the money from this movie wasn't going to wind up being used to hurt people," Allen said. "Having been on the other end of some attacks from Christians, I wanted to make sure people like me weren't going to get hurt." Green said Every Tribe assured Allen that they had no such intentions, so both parties moved forward with the agreement—which pleased Allen, because it was a role he very much wanted.

The primary issue, it seems, on both sides, was whether the Christians were buying into Chad Allen's activism by casting him, and whether Chad Allen was buying into a homophobic agenda by cooperating. The secondary issue seems to have been the potential for a firestorm from homophobic Christians.

I'm glad to hear that FOCFam and the USCCB reviewed the movie without raising objection. That, as Steve points out, is as it should be -- an artistic work should stand on its own merits. A good actor can put himself into a role and play it well, and that is what counts.

Musicguy said...

i'm so happy that this is the only thing people have ot complain about. The world really is a good place!

Also, I have a huge issue with the term "homosexual lifestyle." Using the word lifestlye implies that a choice is present, similar to healthy lifestyle, or adventerous lifestyle. You're not in my head, so don't pretend to know what's really going on.

Steve F. said...

Musicguy, I couldn't agree with you more.

I know - beyond a shadow of a doubt - that there's no choice involved whatsoever. Several of my friends have jokingly said they are waiting for their "lifestyle starter kits" to arrive by UPS. It's hard not to fall into the language of the dominant (if incorrect) culture. Thanks for speaking truth.