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“Subversive” Saved!?

I’m not one of those Christians without a sense of humor. In fact, I was excited to see Saved! I know some Christians will judge a movie before it’s even been released (The Last Temptation of Christ, for example, which turned out to be offensive to me more in how boring it is than in any of the content of the film–I actually thought a lot of the film had theological value, particularly Satan as an attractive girl “angel” and Christ’s last temptation feeling so real). I thought Saved! would be a good laugh, and it was. I wasn’t offended by the many (many, many, many) puns and ironic jabs at Christian culture.

I am, however, offended by people’s reactions to the film. This MTV interview with Jena Malone (star of the film), uses the word subversive three times. If you do a Google search for “saved subversive” (obviously, the results will change depending on when you read this essay), a good fifteen of the first twenty results have to do with the movie Saved! In fact, the movie’s (official?) description seems to be the following: “In this sweetly subversive comedy, a group of outsiders band together to navigate the treacherous halls of high school and make it to graduation, ultimately learning more about themselves, finding faith in unexpected places, and realizing what it truly means to be saved!” The other words that get thrown around in discussions of Saved! are irreverent and satire. The movie is certainly irreverent. Irreverence is where 99% of its humor derives from. It is also satirical in the strictest sense of the word; though, satire generally pokes fun at universally recognized human folly, as opposed to unfamiliar, “straw man” human folly. Does the church have hypocrisy, intolerance, judgmentalism, and scary cult-like features to it? Yes, of course.

The movie doesn’t seem to get at the heart of the real manifestations of church problems, though. There are few Christians like Hilary Faye, who will do almost anything (even deface their own school) to get someone expelled from school. There are few kidnappings of friends to perform exorcisms. Yes, yes, yes, I know. The movie is supposed to be campy and exaggerated. It’s not meant to be taken literally, but just what is it supposed to be exaggerating? What comes even close to kidnapping your best friend in order to exorcise demons from her just because she hasn’t been spending as much time with you recently? The truth is the movie reaffirms the prejudices and misunderstandings of the Christian community that the secular communities in the United States already have, and it ridicules practices and faults that the church doesn’t have.

According to dictionary.com, subversive means, “Intended or serving to subvert, especially intended to overthrow or undermine an established government: ‘Sex and creativity are often seen by dictators as subversive activities’ (Erica Jong).” A movie that reaffirms prejudices against a not-too-well-understood outsider group is not subversive. It is not undermining anything. It is reinforcing barriers that already exist. It is further polarizing the non-Christian and Christian camps in America. Just look at the Yahoo! movies user reviews section for the film. Most people aren’t able to judge the film objectively. People who want to ridicule Christianity love it (lots of A’s and A+’s), and people who view the film as anti-Christian hate it (lots of D’s and F’s). The truth of the matter is the film is in the B or C range–it’s mediocre; funny but formulaic, flat, and (ironically) preachy.

The effect of a work of art is what matters most, not the intent of its creator. I’ve tried to tell my English students this over and over again. The running (and erroneous) joke being, of course, that English teachers read too much into literature, that such-and-such an object is a symbol that is the secret to unraveling the meaning of a book. The author later comments that the object was incidental. Last laugh on the English teachers, right? No. The author doesn’t have the last say. The author’s intentions aren’t the last say; the author’s work is. Works of art, particularly cinema and literature, are forms of communication. If the audience or critics misunderstand your intention, it’s not because they are defective or unable to appreciate the genius of your craft—it’s because your craft needs reworking.

Many members of the cast and crew have been quite defensive about the movie, writer/director Dannelly himself claiming “[u]ltimately, it affirms faith.” I’d like to know just what about the film affirms faith, and faith in what? It is one thing to say, “Look at those morons who don’t truly understand the beauty of Jesus and the Christian message; they’re so caught up in Christian culture and feeling superior,” but if you don’t have any characters who do appreciate and understand Christianity, how is your movie faith-affirming?

A truly subversive film wouldn’t, as this film does, leave non-Christians thinking, “Ah, those Christian weirdos—they just need to lighten up and get with the times.” Non-Christians already think that. At the same time, a truly subversive film, as many Christians wish this film would do, wouldn’t make Christians feel comfortable, either (“Yes, that’s how we truly are; that’s a fair portrayal of modern Christians”). I’d love to be able to laugh at Christians, and I did while I watched Saved!, but I’d love even more to see a truly subversive film, that undermined conventional wisdom on both sides of the Christian/non-Christian barrier. I’d love to see a film that made non-Christians think, “Wait, maybe Christianity isn’t so bad” but that also made Christians think, “Wait, what the hell are we doing? We need to shape up.” If one film could elicit both of those responses… that film would be truly subversive.

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