The Gospel According to Southern Evangelicalism: Jesus will help you win football games
Positive cultural elements
As a baptist from the Empire State of the South there's a lot to like about FtG. I didn't realize how much I missed my home state until I saw this movie. It was great to hear real Southern accents (rather than the typically grating aberrations produced by Hollywood actors when they are in films set in the South) coming from the characters on the screen. I enjoyed seeing scenes from Georgia in which there were actually pine trees and pecan trees in the landscape- in contrast to typical Hollywood movies and shows, which are apparently filmed by people who think Georgia looks exactly like west Texas (I recall one show of Matlock in which a character drove out to "rural Georgia" and was surrounded by mesquite trees and mesas). I'd wager that FtG offers a more accurate portrayal of middle-class Southern life than any movie you can find. Though the acting and dialogue of FtG are somewhat shallow or stilted at times, the overall story had a strong emotional pull for my wife and me as we have known individuals who have gone through the very same difficulties as the characters in this movie.
Positive spiritual elements
And there are certainly some positive spiritual aspects to this movie as well, 3 of which are:
1. The Lordship of Jesus is central to the Gospel: In contradiction to the all-too-common heresy that teaches "you can accept Jesus as Savior now and make Him Lord of Your life later"- the idea that becoming a Christian does not necessarily produce submission to Christ- FtG presents a view of Christianity that just assumes (as it should) that people who accept the message of the Bible will be radically changed by Jesus. This is seen in a number of ways- one of the most memorable being when one student in the movie is expressing his skepticism toward religion and the coach assures him that if he becomes a Christian then Jesus will change his life and- conversely- it is implied that if he remains unwilling to submit to the fifth commandment then he cannot be a Christian.
2. The Bible is the source of authority: When the main character is at the end of his rope, where does he turn to? The Bible. He does not enroll in a counseling program, he does not turn to self-help books, and he does not need any religious hierarchy to tell him what the Word of God is- instead he spends all night in prayerful reading of the Scripture. And this is a good and much needed example for the Church to see today.
3. Scripture is to be applied to all areas of life: An interesting thing about FtG is that the action of the entire movie seems to take place on school-days. As a result, the characters of this movie are never seen going to Church. Though the absence of the Church is somewhat troubling (as the Church is so central to Christian life and as Church congregations should certainly provide support for members going through hardships like those portrayed in the movie), the creators of this movie seem to have had a specific purpose in leaving it out. In particular, the idea of Christianity as only determining the activities for its followers for a few hours on Sunday is completely destroyed, and instead worship of God is seen as vital to every day (and, indeed, every sub-portion of every day) of life. The characters of the movie are depicted as seeking to apply Scriptural principles to family life, to their work at school, and to how they play football on the field. The demands of Scripture are seen to impact attitudes of the heart as well as actions. Again, this is a good and much needed example for the Church to see today.
Besides those listed above, I am sure I could think of more positive spiritual elements as well if I had the time. Though it's (of course) impossible to know the heart of the individuals who made this movie, it seems- from what's depicted on screen- that FtG was made by a group of people who have a sincere love and respect for Jesus Christ and who want others to love Him as well.
Negative spiritual elements
There are, however, some serious concerns I have about this movie. The 2 most important defects of this movie are:
1. The way in which Scripture is used:
(a) In a crucial turning point of the film, a man approaches the main character, a high school football coach, and quotes Revelation 3:8- I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name (NIV). In its Scriptural context this verse is about the perseverance of the faithful Philadephian church over the heretical factions due to the aid of Christ. By direct application, this verse gives hope and encouragement to any church congregation to stand firm against false teaching and persecution. In the movie this verse is taken to mean that the coach does not need to quit his job.
(b) When coaching the kicker on how to get a field goal, an assistant coach refers to Matthew 7:13-14- Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (NIV). In its Scriptural context this verse records the call Jesus gave of how those who heard His teaching were to respond. By direct application, this verse indicates the exclusivity of the teaching of Christ as providing the only way to enter into eternal life. In the movie this verse is taken to mean that the kicker needs to get the ball in between the uprights. (This interpretation of the verse may be seen as humorous even in the movie, but no corrective interpretation is given on-screen.)
(c) The theme verse in this movie is Matthew 19:26b- With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (NIV). In its Scriptural context, this verse is a response by Jesus given to his apostles after they are shocked by his teaching on how hard it is for rich people to enter into the kingdom of heaven. By direct application this verse speaks of the power of God to bring even the most hardened sinner to repentance and eternal life. In the movie this verse is taken to mean that God helps Christians win football games and have chlidren.
- Now I hope that in examining the points above the reader is struck by the radical disjuncture between the meaning of the verses and the way they are used in the movie. It is especially alarming that in their proper context, these verses each point to the Gospel- the Good News of eternal life in Christ- in specific ways, and yet the way they are used in the movie strips them of Gospel meaning. The Gospel should definitely impact our family life, our job choices, and even the way we play games, but the significance of all these areas of life must spring from a specific reference to the person and work of Jesus Christ and must return to meditation upon Him. It is my concern that this movie reflects the trend of many Christians who approach the Bible with an idea of what they want to say, and then they search the Scripture until they find an inspiring quote that is along the lines of their own ideas. Inevitably this abuse of Bible study downplays the centrality of the Gospel message.
2. The Gospel presentation:
(a) The objective facts of the Gospel are absent from this movie. The Gospel is first of all the account of who Jesus is and what He has done. The Gospel account of the work of Jesus is summarized by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15:2-4- "By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures," (NIV). This biblical history of Jesus is never mentioned.
(b) The central importance of the facts of the Gospel is absent from this move. Why should we care about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, mentioned above? The Apostle Paul informs us in Romans 4:25- "He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification" (NIV). Each one of us have sinned against God, who is supremely holy and just, breaking His Law, as stated in Romans 3:23- "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (HCSB). Because of this, we have earned His just condemnation, the sentence of death, as declared in Romans 6:23a- "For the wages of sin is death," (HCSB). Romans 4:25, quoted above, is the Good News that Jesus died as a payment of our death sentence before God, and He was raised from the dead that we might be justified- made completely righteous in God's sight.
-The Gospel in FtG is summarized in the quote, "Jesus died for us so that we could live for God." While there is some truth in this quote, a crucial feature of the Gospel- the whole point really- is missed. Sinners are facing the wrath of God- it's not a question of us needing a better life, as much as the fact that we need forgiveness and a new heart so that we might stop offending the Creator and Judge of the universe.
It is my hope that this review is helpful to anyone thinking not only of the movie Facing the Giants, but of the way the Christian life is presented in our own churches as well. It is truly tragic when we focus on the blessings of the Christian life, but lose focus on the main message of the Christian life- the Good News of reconciliation to God through the person and work of Jesus Christ our Lord.