I was 13 years old when my mother took me, in 1970, to see The Cross and the Switchblade, an unabashedly evangelical film about New York gang leader Nicky Cruz, who converted to Christianity through the influence of Pastor David Wilkerson (played by Pat Boone). As the film’s credits rolled by, several young men walked to the front of the theater to invite viewers to talk with them about Christ.
What a long way Christian films have traveled in the four decades since. As I walked out of a pre-release screening of Machine Gun Preacher, I couldn’t help thinking that my Baptist mother would never have allowed me to see this R-rated film, because it contained all the things she abhorred: Lots of profanity, graphic violence, and sexual situations.
Machine Gun Preacher is based on Another Man’s War, an autobiography by former hard-drinking biker and drug dealer Sam Childers (played by Gerard Butler) who undergoes a spiritual transformation and finds a new calling as a protector of Sudanese children. The film opens on a nighttime scene of a peaceful, sleeping village in southern Sudan in 2003. Suddenly, soldiers from northern Sudan, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), attack the village, killing adults and kidnapping children — and forcing one small boy to kill his own mother.
The horror fades into a scene in Pennsylvania, a few years earlier. An angry, cursing Sam Childers is being released from jail into the custody of his stripper wife, Lynn. On the way home, they pull the car over for a quickie before arriving at their trailer, where their daughter Paige and Sam’s mother are waiting.
Their lives change when Lynn becomes a Christian and gives up her stripper job in favor of work at a mushroom-packing factory. Sam eventually accepts Christ as well and is baptized at a local church, where he learns of the great need for people to travel to East Africa to help with rebuilding the villages destroyed in the civil war. Sam, a construction worker, flies to Uganda and begins working with the mission. One day he convinces local freedom fighters to take him on a bus to Sudan to see for himself what’s going on there. He is horrified at what he finds: women and children who have been butchered by LRA soldiers; others have had body parts chopped off. On a subsequent trip, Sam encounters a group of terrified children hiding from the soldiers and loads as many of them as he can onto his truck, promising the rest they’ll be picked up later. When he returns, he finds to his horror that the children have been burned to death.
Earlier in his life, Sam fought because he loved fighting. Now, he is fighting for a purpose: to save the children of Sudan from starvation, rape, murder, or being forced into becoming soldiers. He becomes a literal soldier for Christ: Enraged at the way the enemy is picking off the children at the orphanage he’s built, he gathers a truckload of freedom fighters and AK-47s and actively seeks out members of the LRA. We see a number of violent battle scenes as the two sides repeatedly clash. A young woman who works for an NGO tells Sam — who has become known as a local Rambo — that his approach is wrong and dangerous. Sam’s response: You fight the war your way, and I’ll fight it my way. Later, Sam is forced to rescue the woman when her naive approach to evil nearly gets her killed.
On his visits back home, Sam’s anger spirals out of control when he realizes how unwilling his neighbors are to donate the necessary funds to keep the orphanage running, and he explodes at his daughter — whom he has neglected in favor of helping African children — when she asks if she and her friends can hire a limo for her senior prom. It’s evident that Sam has made his passion for the children of Africa his idol; he is so consumed by their needs that he almost destroys his family.
Viewers will have some juicy moral dilemmas to discuss over their pizza afterward: What does justice look like? Does God really support what Sam does? And is it ever right for civilians to kill in order to save innocents — even in a lawless country where no government will intervene to stop the attacks? The real Sam Childers appears as the credits rolls by to answer that question: “If someone took your son or daughter, and you asked me to find them, would you question the way I would do it?” he asks.
Clearly, Machine Gun Preacher is not my mother’s Christian film. It’s not a conversion “message” film, as are the films Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures has been making since 1953 — films which few people outside of evangelical churches have even heard of. The new kind of Christian film is partly about a growing sophistication among Christians carving out film careers after half a century of the Church rejecting everything Hollywood stands for. But it’s also about a shift within American Christiandom, says Erik Lokkesmoe, co-founder of Different Drummer, a film-marketing company that mobilizes fans and audiences. Younger people are more likely than oldsters to watch films, and they want something different: Not conversion stories, but conversation. They want films that help them recognize the world’s darkness and the brokenness of humanity. They want hints of grace, not alter calls.
“This audience is looking for honesty and storytelling, and they’re looking for characters they can identify with,” he notes. “They’re looking for films that end with no nicely wrapped-up solutions; they want ambiguity — the type of films they can have a conversation about with their friends.”
This is why, in the first 15 minutes of Machine Gun Preacher, it’s important to show the reality of Sam Childer’s pre-conversation life in all its gritty rawness. Films like this tap into stories that reflect common grace, so that when people leave the theater, “they’re haunted by something bigger than themselves,” Lokkesmoe says.
From the advent of film making, Hollywood has entertained with stories from Bible — sometimes in ways that offended real-life Christians, as in “The Sign of the Cross,” in which Claudette Colbert‘s nipples were on decadent display as she bathed in a tub of asses’ milk. While many of these films are viewed as some of the greatest ever made — think Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments – Christians are eager to tell their own stories in their own way. From Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to Veggie Tales to Machine Gun Preacher, Christian film-makers are finding new ways to get the glorious old message out.
— Anne Morse is co-author of the upcoming book Prisoner of Conscience: One Man’s Crusade for Global Human and Religious Rights.