When War Room, the latest movie by the Kendrick brothers (who also made Facing the Giants), scored the #1 spot at the box office — on a very weak moviegoing weekend, with little in the way of competition — the film’s media campaign became celebratory, as if this was some kind of major victory for Jesus.

“This might be the biggest upset since David grabbed his slingshot!” proclaimed a poster on social media.

WarRoom_MoviePosterAnd then, making a bad thing worse…

“Are you ready to battle the right way? Grab your friends and family and see War Room today!”

That pretty much resolved things for me: I have no desire to see anything that uses such tactics to get attention.

I really don’t understand this ad. In this scenario, who is Goliath? Who is the Enemy of God in their fantasy?

And in what way are they like the One Chosen to Lead the People of God?

(I like Dean Batali’s response on Facebook: “Does this mean War Room is going to grow up and have an affair with Bathsheba?”)

When we recast the Gospel as “us” versus “them,” we unplug the power of the Gospel. What is the Gospel’s claim, after all? That Jesus’s love was victorious in a “battle” was between God’s love and the Devil’s chief weapon: death.

And that battle is over. Once and for all.

The battle is not between Christians and society. As a matter of fact, the “full armor of God” that believers are called to put on is made of love, truth, and righteousness — subverting any concept that we are to seek victory in material terms (the box office least of all). 

All of that to say — I won’t see the Kendricks’ film because I want I try to focus on films that offer beauty and truth. And it would be painful to see a false gospel proclaimed.

And this really sounds like a false gospel. Some respectable and insightful Christian voices are going a long way to convince me of that.

Here’s John Mark Reynolds at his blog Eidos on War Room. And before any fans of the movie write him off as a ranting anti-Christian, you might want to see who he is first.

He writes:

War Room isn’t a good movie. I hate to say that War Room is not a good movie because I want to encourage Christians to make movies. The movie isn’t very well made, the acting is marginal, and the writing is wretched. Nobody talks like the characters in the film and the plot holes are very great. Trust me. If you steal drugs and money for your stash, you will go to jail.

War Room is a film that allows African-Americans a voice. That is a good thing, but a bad thing is that [the] voice given to these characters is so sanitized and homogenized. This movie plays it so safe with the audience it hopes to lure that it betrays any authenticity.

If you enjoyed the film, I am not saying you are wrong to enjoy it. Enjoy. Yet know this: the fact that so many Christian films are wretched, overly written, and full of religious jargon is harming this generation. Do you want to know one reason for people leaving the church?

My friend Allison Smythe made this comment on Facebook, but I think it’s worth sharing as a post of its own. (I’m breaking it into paragraphs for easier reading.) Allison’s talking about the storyline of War Room, in which a woman solves the problem of her abusive husband by “submitting” and praying a lot. Allison says:

Women in these circumstances typically resort, consciously and unconsciously, to unhealthy survival techniques to negotiate/survive the crippling societal and church sanctioned imbalance of power which include denial, rationalization, appeasement, minimizing harmful behavior, and manipulation. The movie presents Jesus as a sanitized and efficacious version of those techniques.

What the woman might come to realize in that prayer closet once she’s willing to surrender these destructive techniques, become honest about her own broken and harmful behaviors and accept her equal worth as a child of God is that she must take responsibility for the state of her life and of her children. She is not responsible for her husband’s behavior but she is responsible for her own. The movie attempts to show a woman empowering herself through forming a relationship with God but then makes a vast presumption about what that surrender to God should look like — the same exact submission to husband minus the attitude.

Had the ‘genie prayer’ not worked for another decade, what further amount of damage should she and her child have endured? “It was for freedom that Christ set us free,” not another sanctioned version of bondage.

If this movie sparks this desperately needed dialogue in the church it’s at least good for that. Christians can be so terrified of hard conversations and of being shown up. Offended by language? Offended by writing technique? What great excuses to evade the heart of the matter. Get your outrage in perspective. Then those outside the church might one day find you honest enough to give you a listen.

Joel Mayward published a post called “The ‘Faith’ of Faith-Based Films: On Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in Christian Movies.” Referring to the film’s enthusiastic Christian fans, he says

when this faulty theology is confronted or when Christian film critics and pastors offer a thoughtful critique of the film, the response often seems to be, “Well, you’re wrong. The movie made me feel great, and

I feel encouraged, even convicted to pray more. And who are you to speak judgmentally and negatively about other Christians and what God is trying to do through their work? God inspired me and changed my life through this movie. How dare you question that?”

Well, I dare question it. I think it’s dangerous when we stop the questioning regarding our faith and our art. (It’s equally dangerous when we only question and never come to any solid conclusions or ground our feet in good theology and relationship with the Creator). More importantly, it raises a larger question, one about the relationship between personal experience and sound theology:

If someone believes an experience to be good, and it inspires them to genuinely follow God more, does that make it true?

If I come to a personal conclusion that is ultimately good–at least in my eyes–does it really matter how I got there? Why criticize the process if the end result is beneficial? Perhaps the ends justify the means.

The response of “I liked it, so stop critiquing it” may be an indicator that our faith is placed in something less than the death-and-resurrection power found in Jesus and the reign of his kingdom values in our world.

I’m not familiar with Jon Ellis, but his passionate critique of the Kendrick brothers’ oeuvre sums up much of what has troubled many of my fellow Christians about the Kendricks’ work:

Incredibly bad aesthetics aside, the movies of the Kendrick brothers (and many other “Christian” filmmakers, for that matter) are dragging people into the pits of hell with their heretical “name it, claim it” depiction of Christianity. For example, their second movie, Facing the Giants, taught that the “good” of Romans 8:28 is defined by the standards of a wealthy, individualistic, and hedonistic West. Years ago, my wife and I watched it together, and during the locker room scene, the “What are you living for?” speech, I turned to her, shook my head sadly, and sighed, “the only way that this movie can come even close to redeeming itself is if the team goes out and loses.” Of course, the team won – with a kicker named David kicking the winning field goal to beat a team named the Giants. Come on.

Then, responding to urges from his readers to go see War Room and comment on it, he sees the movie and is overwhelmed by how much he has to say about its failures as a movie:

The storytelling, filmmaking, and “form” flaws of War Room are so numerous as to create a veritable piñata for critics; and, as a bonus, we critics don’t have to cover our eyes when we swing our rhetorical bats at it. To be honest, as I look over the notes I took while watching War Room, that rhetorical bat is starting to feel heavy and I’m starting to wonder if I’ve taken more than my fair share of swings at the War Room piñata. With that in mind, and with several pages of notes about the ubiquitous film score, bad acting, and a long and sundry list of storytelling faux pas remaining unpacked, it’s obvious that the Kendrick brothers blatantly violate the standards of storytelling and filmmaking. Failing in its form, War Room tells the audience that God doesn’t care about art that strives to honor Him through excellence in form.

Sadly, many Christians are ok with that. They, too, have bought into the lie that function in art washes away the sin of bad form.

Okay, now let’s move on to what the movie looks like to people who have devoted themselves to discerning what is excellent, mediocre, and lamentable in the art of cinema.

Here’s Scott Renshaw in Salt Lake’s City Weekly, whose reviews I’ve often appreciated:

The faith-based drama War Room wallows an an infantile concept of prayer that turns God into a genie.

Then he elaborates at Letterboxd:

… [S]tructurally, the movie is a mess, building to so many different endings it really should’ve been called The Return of the King of Kings. And even more troubling is the mix of victim-blaming in an emotionally-abusive relationship and an infantile depiction of prayer that turns God into a genie who gives your husband food poisoning before he can cheat on you. All the Satan-rebuking speeches in the world can’t make a story uplifting when it subtly suggests that you can tell a real Christian by the way everything always works out exactly the way they pray for it.

And lo — the great Richard Brody in The New Yorker:

The societal divisions and exclusions that the movie perpetuates are, rather, those of class, of money. There are no poor people in “War Room,” with the exception of the off-screen character of Elizabeth’s sister and unemployed brother-in-law, who are seeking to borrow money for rent and a car payment (though even their poverty is presented as temporary and readily reparable). The entire movie takes place between comfort and luxury; economic success comes off as the great unifier.

Kendrick doesn’t preach the gospel of wealth; he also doesn’t suggest the trials of faith arising from the wearying struggles of unrelenting poverty. The religion of “War Room” is a religion without sacrifices—except for attitude.