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Of the many Christian-themed films movie studios send to WORLD, at least half are related to sports. This could be for many reasons, including the fact that athletes tend to be more open in professing their faith than celebrities in other fields. And, of course, there are certain innate parallels between athletic discipline and spiritual discipline, so that Paul repeatedly referred to the Christian life as a race and used athletic competition to inspire New Testament churches to strive for awards that won’t perish. In the pursuit of both physical prowess and personal holiness, daily training is the key to growth.
So I have no complaint about the number of faith-related sports movies out there. I am, however, starting to feel it’s time for Christian filmmakers to dig deeper to find fresh ways to tell these stories.
Greater, a new PG-rated biopic, is your run-of-the-mill uplifting football story for those who like run-of-the-mill uplifting football stories.
It’s clear that director David Hunt wants audiences to feel Rudy-like inspiration from the true story of the late Brandon Burlsworth (Christopher Severio). A chubby teen with seemingly no natural talent, through sheer determination Burlsworth becomes a football All-American at Arkansas and—just before tragedy strikes—an NFL draft pick by the Indianapolis Colts.
Yet Greater doesn’t give viewers a chance to get to know Burlsworth in nearly as meaningful a way as they did Daniel Eugene “Rudy” Ruettiger. Burlsworth’s entire range of characterization can be summed up in two words—cheerful and disciplined. Oh, and we also know he’s a Christian because the movie takes great pains to point out what he doesn’t do because of his salvation—that is, he doesn’t drink, smoke, or chew or hang around with girls who do.
In two very brief scenes Brandon starts a Bible study with his coach, and eventually a few of his fellow Razorbacks join. But we don’t know what Brandon talked about in these Bible studies, or what he thought of the passages they discussed. We don’t know what he said to the coach, the coach’s son, or his teammates to convince them to attend. In short, we don’t know much about how the lordship of Christ influenced an athlete who ostensibly impacted everyone around him with his faith beyond the fact that it prompts him to pick up litter now and then.
Sprinkling bits of pointed biblical phrasing into the dialogue and including a classic hymn in the soundtrack isn’t enough to tell me about how Brandon ran his race for the crown. I assume, in very specific ways, it’s both different from and the same as how I do. I assume the sins he struggled with are different from mine (clearly sloth wasn’t one of his; wish I could say the same). I’d like to know how and if he overcame them.
Instead, along with multiple music montages showing Brandon in training, the movie is cluttered with general churchy fluff, like a mysterious wood-whittler (Justified’s Nick Searcy) who appears at a tragic moment to tempt Brandon’s brother to despair. (I could actually hear Dana Carvey in my head saying, “Could it be, SATAN?” when Searcy shows up).
There’s enough of Brandon Burlsworth in Greater that you can’t help cheering his athletic victories. I wish there’d been enough that I could have cheered his spiritual victories as well.