Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone: A Review

From Walden Media, Vertical Films, and ... the WWE? comes the Christian-themed movie The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, hitting theaters January 20. Because wrestler Shawn Michaels plays a minor role in the movie, apparently that makes it the property of WWE Studios. Which means you'll find it in the library of WWE greats like See No Evil, Leprechaun: Origins, and Queens of the Ring.

Please understand I'm being wildly sarcastic.

The story is set in the present-day fictional town of Masonville, a suburb of Chicago. It involves a washed-up actor and former child-star Gavin Stone (played by Brett Walton of Agents of SHIELD fame), who gets arrested for disorderly conduct and is forced to do community service at, of all places, a church. After not having much success with a mop, he figures out he can join their production of a Jesus play entitled Crown of Thorns and work out his community hours doing what he loves to do the most.

Since Masonville is conveniently Gavin's former hometown, his dad lives nearby, so Gavin has a place to stay and a loose subplot of having to work on his estranged relationship with his father (Neil Flynn of Scrubs fame). The director of the play, Kelly (Anjelah Johnson-Reyes), happens to be the pastor's daughter, and brings a bit of romantic tension into the story (it's just a crush, nothing serious).

The lighthearted moments...

One of the issues with the storytelling is that it's a small-church plot squeezed into a mega-church setting (yes, I'm being ironical). The church is huge. There are literally thousands of people at their disposal and a budget that is in the millions of dollars annually. But they act like they're limited on people and resources, including good actors for their big-budget play.

When we first meet the pastor, he is dressed in work-clothes laboring on a water heater. This is right after we've watched Gavin enter a nice building, walk long hallways, witness staff prayer meetings, stroll past a cafeteria full of children, and peer through big picture windows. It makes no sense when seconds later the pastor is crawling out from under an appliance saying, "At $30 an hour, it's always better to just fix it yourself" and then sits down in his leather chair in his immaculate office. Pastor Alan (played by D.B. Sweeney from The Cutting Edge for those 90s movie buffs) is a complete dud of a minister, but we'll get to that.

Though the first half of the movie has its share of problems, it can still be rather witty. When Gavin was a child-star, he was known for a sitcom character named Cliffy whose catch-phrase was, "Don't look at me!" They work that into the movie where Gavin says, in some manner of words, "Don't look at me, look at Jesus" (but bear with me, that's not as genuine as it sounds).

The movie also makes fun of American Christianity. When Gavin stands up at his audition and gives his testimony, it's Christianese cliches and lyrics from secular songs:
"Hi, everybody! As you probably already know, my name is Gavin Stone. But, what you probably didn't know is that I'm a Christian. I wasn't until a few years ago, when I hit rock-bottom. I just felt something missing. I guess you could call it a God-shaped hole. So I came to a place where I decided to climb that stairway to heaven and let Jesus take the wheel. And ultimately, hey, let go and let God. I'm still a bit new to it, too. So forgive me if I don't always get the details perfect."
And everyone totally buys it with nodding heads and moist eyes. That was hilarious. He had pulled out his smartphone and looked up what a "Christian testimony" was, that's what he came up with, and everyone is totally fooled. There's a massive irony regarding that scene, and you probably already know what it is. But I'll wait until the end of the review to pull back the curtain on it.

Gavin's treatment of Jesus is also rather amusing. The way he delivers Jesus' lines is very, "Look at me, I'm Jesus! Even the wind and the waves obey me!" In the background the disciples are all talking over each other because they can't get their pacing right. I laughed a time or two in those scenes. Kelly has to tell Gavin that Jesus was humble, not an attention-getter.

There's a touching moment I enjoyed where Gavin talks to a young girl who is hearing-impaired using sign-language. He tells Kelly that he played a role in a Hallmark movie where he had to learn how to sign. Kelly tells him that if he can learn sign-language for television, then he can spend at least half that time learning about the role he's playing as Jesus. That was a well-done scene. Unfortunately, that very scene sets up a huge theological problem.

And then it all falls apart...

Gavin's research about Jesus never involves reading the Bible. He Googles some Christian catch-phrases, but never opens up the Scriptures. There's not one sermon. Not even a Bible lesson. He goes to church, but we only hear a popular worship song, never any of the pastor's message. He goes to a small group, but Gavin prays a Braveheart prayer over pizza. We never actually witness them studying the Bible.

Gavin offers to help his dad with his carpentry work because Jesus was a carpenter. He helps out in an auto-garage fixing up cars for single moms because, you know, it's what Jesus would do. Gavin learns about being humble because Jesus was humble. But he never once hears a single passage on who the Bible says Jesus is. In fact, the movie mocks having to know anything about the Scriptures.

There's a scene in the movie where they're working on a part of their play, the story from John 8 where the woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus. When Gavin, in the role of Jesus, is attempting to say, "Neither do I condemn you," he breaks character and says, "I'm sorry, why does he stick up for her like that? Does he know this person?"

At that point, one of the disciples stands up and says, "Hey, I can answer that question." And his explanation, word-for-word, sounds like this: "It's called the doctrine of atonement. What it means is the totality of human iniquity can only be removed by the one who establishes those moral parameters. However..." Then the director interrupts him and says, "Not right now."

Not only is that not the doctrine of atonement, the movie is making fun of learning about theology. The plot literally hands control of understanding Jesus to a character who is an unbeliever. The pastor, who couldn't distinguish between a genuine Christian and a tree stump (Matthew 7:19), says to his daughter, the director of the play, "We need Gavin." Then obviously the church doesn't need you as their pastor!

All a person needs to do is be humble, do nice things for people, learn wood-working with your dad, go to a Jesus play, and hey, you've got Jesus figured out. I'm not crazy about Jesus plays in the first place. I don't think churches should be doing them. But setting my own convictions about that aside, this movie never delivers on what it promises. The "resurrection of Gavin Stone" never happens.

Even the slogan gets it wrong. Church doesn't change anyone. Jesus does.

And then it gets even worse...

Gavin bails on the play to take a role in a show filming in LA. In the midst of dumping everyone who was depending on him, he confesses, "I am not a Christian" (no duh). Then he goes to take his part in a Hollywood production, which he discovers he doesn't like, so he decides to go back to Chicago and fulfill his obligation to the Jesus play -- simply because he didn't like the TV role he was being offered. Oh, and because there's a girl he likes.

The cast, the director, and the pastor let Gavin back in the play to play Jesus -- despite the fact that Gavin has fully and openly confessed to not being a Christian. When welcoming him back to the production, the pastor's daughter says, "Dad reminded me of all that Christian stuff, you know, what our church is about, and how this could really impact you, and what grace looks like, and blah blah blah." Yes, blah blah blah indeed.

Understand me clearly: that is not what grace is. Grace is not letting an unbeliever play Jesus in a church play. When a person is lost, when they are dead in their sins, when they have broken the perfect law of God, when they are under His wrath, when they are headed for hell, grace is showing them their sin and telling them the gospel. It is not a gracious thing to lead them to believe lost sinners can still be part of the body of Christ anyway. That's a lie, which you might recognize as being very ungracious and unloving.

The Bible says it is through the law of God that we come to a knowledge of our sin (Romans 3:20, 7:7). When we preach the gospel, it is imperative to first tell a person that they have broken God's perfect law and what they deserve for that is death. Once they realize they stand condemned before God and under His wrath, they have ears to hear the good news of the gospel, that through His Son Jesus Christ our sins will be forgiven.

There's a place in the movie that would have been perfect for that message. After flying back from LA, Gavin says to Kelly, "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make this right." Kelly could have said, "There's nothing that you can do to make this right, just like there is nothing you can do to make yourself right with God."

She could have showed him his rap-sheet; all of the things he has done as Gavin Stone (which by Hollywood standards is actually rather tame -- I don't think they ever go into him being a sexual deviant, just a heavy drinker and public nuisance). She could have then pointed to the Bible and showed him how fornicators, drunkards, and liars will not enter the kingdom of God. They will be cast into hell (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Revelation 21:8).

Being in a Jesus play doesn't make him right before God. Neither does doing nice things for people or making handicapped little girls laugh. Only the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ can make him right. Jesus is the one that makes you humble before God. He's the one that brings you from death to life. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, and whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life! But no genuine love exists in this movie, and no such message of grace is ever told to Gavin Stone.

Furthermore, it's ungracious and unloving -- downright destructive, actually -- to tell the audience that this guy, Gavin Stone, is fit to tell you who Jesus is. I guess I'm referring to two audiences here: there's the audience that is watching this movie, and there's also the fictional audience who paid for tickets to see a production where the lead is being played by a professing unbeliever.

"Look at this poster and receive eternal life!"

It doesn't matter that the church had a sold-out crowd -- shut the production down and refund their money. The guy playing Jesus has a mind that is set on the flesh and is hostile toward God (Romans 8:7). The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh (Galatians 5:17). But the movie sends the message that Jesus plays make people Christians, and if they hadn't let Gavin play Jesus, then he wouldn't have become a Christian and neither would anyone else. (Again, the pastor has virtually zero function in this movie.)

While "hanging on the cross," Gavin's silent prayer of confession to God is this: "Alright, I give in. I surrender. My way didn't work. I missed out on all this. I missed out on you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry for all of it. So here goes." Then in the character of Jesus, he rolls out the line, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." Next, Gavin is walking out of the tomb to audience applause. The resurrection of Gavin Stone. Get it?

But there's been no understanding of sin, and therefore no repentance, and therefore no resurrection of his dead soul. There's no understanding of who God is or who His Son is, therefore Gavin does not know God and cannot worship Him. What Jesus' death on the cross means and what His resurrection means is mocked in the script.

All that Gavin decided was that church is a better deal than Hollywood. The people treat me better here, the girls are still pretty, and hey, I can still be an actor, even playing the biggest roles on the biggest stages. When his girlfriend asks him, "What happened out there?" He tells her, "I believe." But believe what? Nothing has been presented to believe in!

In conclusion...

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone is a light-hearted film that pretends to be a Christian movie but is actually everything wrong with American Christianity. What makes the scene where Gavin shares his mock-testimony ironic is this: That's everything this movie is. It makes you think you're hearing and seeing something genuinely Christian. But it's every bit as fake as fake Christianity can be.