by Gary Corwin
This is the best evangelistic and pre-evangelistic film I have ever seen.
Finally, a positive film about missionaries. That’s been a pretty rare commodity since the black and white days when Spencer Tracy (playing Henry M. Stanley) found David Livingstone in the jungles of central Africa. This newest cinematic incarnation about missionaries, however, has other characteristics that add to its uniqueness. It is both dramatically interesting and evangelistically effective. This is, in fact, the best evangelistic and pre-evangelistic film I have ever seen.
But this is not a film that will please evangelicals. It is not a product of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association or Gospel Films. It is a drama about a want-to-be mainstream movement that succeeds evangelistically in unexpected ways. This is the new pinnacle of successful Mormon public relations. In the stream of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing classic Christmas hymns, successful politicians seeking high offices, entrepreneurial geniuses cornering important markets, and more recently, moving ads encouraging parents to love their children and the troubled to read the Bible, this is the new top.
As a viewer with his popcorn awaits the start of the film, there is little to indicate upfront that this is a propaganda piece. And there will be many who watch the film to its end who won’t recognize it. It’s that good.
Written like a documentary with soul, it draws the viewer in and leaves all but the most callused sympathetic and impressed. In less than two hours it humanizes a mission movement that has had more of a space alien quality about it than anything with which most people can identify.
Unlike most media treatments of religion, this one handled its characters as if they were real people, full of doubts and bravado, fears and fearlessness, peace and turmoil. The heroes are not perfect, but they are likable. Enough of the good guys fail or turn aside to make those who persevere that much more heroic.
Probably its most successful technique apologetically is to incorporate some of the greatest challenges to Mormon credibility—historical evidence contrary to its theological and authoritative claims, and its exclusion of blacks from the priesthood until 1978—directly into the film, and to face them head on. The facing, however, comes not with fact and logic, though there are enough allusions to them to at least cast some doubt on the doubters. It comes rather through the testimonies of personal faith moments when individuals were overwhelmed by God’s Spirit and came to know beyond a shadow of doubt that what they believe is true.
The most successful aspects of the film evangelistically speaking are: (1) The abundance of humor to soften the “Men in Black” persona of the white-shirted, black-tied visitors who knock on your door. (2) The elevation of inexplicable, but deeply personal, spiritual experience as the chief apologetic for the faith. There is no way to disprove it. (3) The inclusion of enough skeptics and doubters to make possible the disarming of their challenges on the subtle grounds of likability and prejudice, as well as with the counter of personal experience. (4) A connection to the reliable and loving Fatherhood of God in the face of flawed earthly fathers. (5) The inclusion of reality persuasion. There is a wide spectrum in the degree of sincerity and faith-living on display. This humanizes the movement and explains for viewers those Mormons they know who have led less than stellar lives.
This is an entertaining and highly effective film. I only wish it were possible for evangelicals to do something similar with integrity. But, alas, I do not think that’s possible. While the film works well to reduce cultural prejudice against this group—largely by humanizing it—it makes no truth claims beyond those conveyed through the pluralistic and pragmatic watershed of personal experience. But if the primary thing you are looking for is acceptance as a reasonable religious alternative (as appears to be the case here for the Church of Latter Day Saints) that is enough.
There is, nevertheless, a lesson here for the evangelical missions enterprise in its increasing marginalization in Western society. It is the same lesson that evangelical missions have learned so well in the far flung corners of the earth, but seem so often incapable of applying at home—the lesson of contextual communication. Perhaps our communication is ineffective because we are still trying to cling to our pedestal position in a society that honors very different pedestals today, based on very different criteria. As a result we communicate poorly not only with the culture at large, but even with most of those in the pews of our evangelical churches.
The Mormon missionary movement may have found a major part of the answer—tell a human story, include your warts as well as your triumphs, and respond creatively but not defensively to the criticisms on everybody’s mind. Not a bad model. In the larger culture there will still always be the offense of the cross to get over, but we needn’t worry about that. That’s the Spirit’s work. In our evangelical churches, however, we might just make some serious headway.
Gary Corwin is former editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly and a special representative with SIM in Charlotte, N.C.
EMQ, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 12-13. Copyright © 2001 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.