The First Days of Jesus by Andreas Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, Free for CAPC Members
Readers are able to experience the supposedly familiar early chapters of Matthew, Luke, and John with new eyes.
I remember when I first became aware that such a thing as “American evangelical culture” existed. Ironically, it occurred at a small house church overseas. Not knowing the language, I spent the worship service observing the intricacies of the people around me. Between reading social cues and dodging the elbow of my pastor when I ironically laughed along with the crowd, a thought struck me: My westernized, particularly American, idea of faith was simply that, a westernized, American idea of faith.
You see, whether we like it or not, the Church — and especially the western Church — sometimes has a difficult time separating its culture from its Christ.
If you’ve ever questioned the forces behind the machine of Christian culture, you’ll likely find Believe Me deftly funny.This struggle between Americanized practical theology and authentic biblical faith forms the foundation of Believe Me, a new feature film from the team behind Beware of Christians and One Nation Under God. Essentially, Believe Me asks, “What if someone outside the faith not only immersed themselves in American Christian culture, but also attempted to both infiltrate and imitate it?” What would they see? What would they learn? Wrapped in satire, Believe Me‘s intriguing premise forces its audience to take a good hard look at belief. Or, what they’ve come to believe about belief.
At the beginning of the film, we’re introduced to Sam (Alex Russell), a popular college student who discovers he owes his university thousands of dollars before graduation. Running out of ideas, Sam devises a plan to use evangelicals’ interest in overseas missions to his advantage. Together, with three frat buddies, Sam creates a fake Christian charity called “Get Wells Soon,” an organization promising to provide fresh water in Africa. They pocket the money and their donors feel good about making a difference in the world. It’s a win-win.
When the group catches the attention of a traveling ministry leader (Christopher McDonald), they’re asked to take the cause on the road. With dollar signs in their eyes, the guys set off on a cross-country tour and delve deep into Christian culture by learning the unspoken nuances of evangelical style, vocabulary, and behavior.
As a whole, Believe Me is a combination of both satire and drama with a hint of Jon Acuff’s Stuff Christians Like thrown in for good measure. To strip it down, the story is less a strict documentary of the Church than a satirical caricature of individuals you’ve probably met in Sunday school or at youth camp. If you’ve ever questioned the forces behind the machine of Christian culture, you’ll likely find Believe Me deftly funny. I caught a screening with a group of pastors and had trouble counting how many times I heard “That’s so true” coming from the seats.
Believe Me is also unique in that it swivels the camera back on the American Church and views Christian culture from an outsider’s perspective. The narrative offers a unique picture of the challenges that come with understanding and assimilating into a subculture filled with unspoken mores, insider language, and unique relational taboos. Though our primary characters — Sam and his friends — are anything but perfect individuals, Believe Me seems to understand that total depravity goes both ways.
Yet, as quick as the film pokes at the ribs of Christian culture, it works — though not always gracefully at times — to make a distinction between portions of the American Church and the ekklesia described in the New Testament. Believe Me’s director, Will Bakke, described his approach to this delicate balance:
We feel like this movie does a great job of separating the Christian culture from the Christian gospel. We were very particular about that — that the jokes weren’t aimed at Christ or the Christian message, but rather the culture.
Given the target audience, this line is never an easy nor safe one to walk. My guess is Believe Me will alienate individuals on both ends of the spectrum. There will be some uncomfortable with the way Christian culture is portrayed and the PG-13 content will likely get the movie banned at youth group lock-ins. Then, there are those at the opposite end of belief who will be disappointed that the Christian faith isn’t altogether dismissed. Yet, more than a majority of films made by Christians for Christians, Believe Me has an air of authenticity to it. It’s an interesting story that manages to make audiences both laugh and think.
This isn’t to say Believe Me is always clear in the way it slices its narrative. The film stumbles as it approaches more dramatic material in its second half. And overall, the narrative relies too much on the tropes of its genre and fails to create a mind of its own, despite the creative setup.
With perfection out of the equation, Believe Me doesn’t have anyone worth emulating.As much as all of this takes away from Believe Me’s structure, the film’s biggest weakness is its lack of a genuine, authentic Christian character. All of the believers in the film are either disingenuous, corrupt, or clueless. The one individual who fights to be the diamond in the rough, a tour manager named Callie (Johanna Braddy), ends up being weak and gullible. With perfection out of the equation, Believe Me doesn’t have anyone worth emulating. For a film that works to get to the core of pure, reasoned belief, Believe Me would have likely benefited from showing even the possibility of gospel authenticity. However, there are some who will find the film’s approach refreshing, given how the idea of moral perfectionism is so often displayed in evangelical circles.
Despite its missteps, Believe Me is an important movie for Christians. Not only is it a “faith-based” film that’s actually funny, its underlying message is perhaps more powerful than many of the more preachy narratives we’ve seen this year. Believe Me quietly pushes its audience to assess at what point one can become so attached to Christian culture that it keeps them from Christ. It helps us to realize that as much as followers of Jesus are called to be heroes, the enticements of selfishness, fame, and success can easily push one to become a villain.
My hope for Believe Me is that it gets Christians to take a good hard look at what faith means to them. Of course, there are times when Christians will look foolish to the outside world — believers have been the source of satirical criticism since at least the second century (see Lucian’s satirical The Passing of Peregrinus). We must come to distinguish, however, between inevitable criticism (2 Timothy 3:12) and critique based on the errors of our personal motivations.
Believe Me attempts to do this. It’s a film that understands that sometimes, the greatest enemy of the faith isn’t always those on the outside, but the individuals who claim to be on the inside.
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