The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
Over the past few years the success of Christian-themed films has grown, and it’s become fairly common to see movies targeting evangelical audiences in wide release. What’s not so common is for mainstream critics to praise these movies. Yet the drama All Saints, released to theaters by Sony’s faith-friendly Affirm label, currently sits at 90 percent positive on the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.
That’s a staggering collective thumbs-up for a film in this genre. Previous Affirm productions like Soul Surfer and Miracles from Heaven never gained above 50 percent, and indies like God’s Not Dead and the Sherwood Baptist movies typically hover in the 10 to 30 percent range. Even The Passion of the Christ, the highest-grossing faith-based film of all time, received an average score of only 49 percent.
It’s a bit of a mystery why reviewers at outlets like Variety, the Los Angeles Times, and The Hollywood Reporter are responding so positively to this PG-rated true story about a community saving a dying church.
From a production standpoint, All Saints is on par with the later Kendrick Brothers’ films like Courageous and War Room. The script has characters indulging in clichés like always referring to their pastor as “preacher” or “padre,” and the dialogue often feels generic.
The performances are similarly one-dimensional, if appealing. John Corbett (Sex and the City, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) brings his familiar, laid-back surfer-dude persona to the role of Rev. Michael Spurlock, a onetime paper salesman who shifts gears midlife to become an Episcopal priest. The first task his bishop gives him is to move his family to Smyrna, Tenn., to inventory a debt-ridden church and oversee its sale.
It should be an easy task as the congregation is made up of only about 10 people. That is, until Michael crosses paths with some Burmese Christian refugees looking for a church home. Together, he and their unofficial leader Ye Win (Nelson Lee) come up with a plan to save All Saints: They’ll farm the parish land and use the crops both to feed the Burmese and pay the church’s mortgage. Surely this must be God’s plan, Michael tells his wife.
From a cynical standpoint, its possible politics is playing a role in the favorable mainstream reaction. Unlike many other true-story movies of this kind, All Saints centers on Episcopalians rather than the Catholics or evangelicals we typically see, and the American Episcopal church’s rejection of Biblical sexual ethics and emphasis on progressive politics puts it more in line with coastal urban values.
Additionally, some of the reviewers praised the film’s open-armed treatment of immigrants in the age of Trump (though the film makes it clear that Ye Win and the other refugees are in the United States legally).
But I think to dismiss the positive reviews as progressive allegiance is to devalue the complex portrait of Christian love and faith that All Saints, despite some amateurish elements, accomplishes. Audiences (particularly Christian audiences) have grown so accustomed to stories where God saves the day with a happy-ending miracle, it is theology-challenging to encounter a story where the rousing rescue doesn’t come. Or at least not in the way we expect.
Nonbelievers rightly look askance at stories that promise if we only believe, God will fulfill our dreams, because reality too often doesn’t jibe with such promises. All Saints challenges this trope while at the same time gently prompting viewers to consider that God is at work even as the miracle doesn’t come. Our presumptuous notions about what He’s doing may simply be wrong.
Often what God is creating is something deeper and more character-shaping than easy financial salvation, and All Saints’ ongoing need eventually allows other Christians in the community to minister to them. It’s a breath of fresh air when members of the nearby Baptist megachurch, whom we fear the film will demonize, step up to provide equipment and lots of helping hands. As Ye Win states, “we are all one in Jesus Christ.”