Here are today’s dispatches from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

1. Film Review: The Greatest Miracle (Rated PG)
Opening this Friday at selected theaters, the 3-D animated film tells the story of three Catholics facing personal crises whose paths cross during Mass at a parish church. They include a widowed mother struggling to provide for her son, a bus driver whose son has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and an elderly woman trying to grips with the meaning of her life.   

Review: Unfortunately, I’m afraid this is one faith-themed film that I can’t recommend. To say its presentation of Catholic concepts lack subtlety would be putting it mildly.  But, more than that, I’m concerned that some of the imagery will scare the crap out of some kids (while likely being mocked by others).  One scene that’s particularly concerning depicts temptation by showing a sexy woman walking near a confessional and morphing into a demon.  I don’t think that’s  healthy imagery to be feeding young and impressionable minds. While the movie is Rated PG, it’s a 3-D cartoon which will make it enticing to little kids. Beyond that, the message the image sends isn’t really appropriate for older kids, teens or adults either.

2. DVD Review: Seven Days in Utopia
Synopsis: Promising young golfer Luke Chisholm (Lucas Black) plays a truly humiliating hole, leading to a public meltdown. His attempt to escape public view and contemplate his future leads him to Utopia, Texas and a ranch run by Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall). Crawford, who happens to be a former golfer with a past of his own, utilizes the wisdom he has learned over the years to Chisholm rediscover his game and what’s truly important in life.

Review: I’m truly of two minds about this one. The movie itself was well written, the performances (particularly by Duvall and Black) were strong and it had of positive things to say about the importance of personal conviction and emotional control. What I have some qualms about is it’s ending — which leaves things up in the air and the viewer guessing about the future of Chisholm on the golf circuit. I actually usually prefer real endings as opposed to those that leave viewers guessing — but an open end kind of worked here and would have been a valid creative choice.

My problem isn’t with an open ending but with the fact that the audience is actually lured to a website to find out what happened. There David Cook, the author of Golf’s Sacred Journey, the book on which the film is based, reads the first chapter of the sequel.  Visitors to the site are also led an overtly-Christian page that invites them to engage in an exercise which involves writing down a list of lies that have held them back from achieving a “life of significance” and truths to replace those lies.  They are then urged to email those lists to Utopia (which is a real place) where they will be physically buried.

Now, I’m not saying such an exercise might not help some people psychologically break free from past binds. Of course, people shouldn’t feel guilty if they choose not to partake in the exercise. But I do feel that the movie (which is good) should stand on its own. The whole go-to-the-website-to-find-out-what-happens thing strikes me as gimmicky and a bit manipulative. There’s also, I’d note, a store attached to the site where merchandise is sold and I can’t help but wonder if the viewer’s initial email won’t be followed up with additional attempts to keep the person engaged with Utopia.

If the producers wanted to lead people to the actual Utopia where lies are physically buried they could have included a scroll at the end of the film that would straight-forwardly tell people about it. Then, if they wanted to go to the site to learn more they could have. But viewers shouldn’t be left with a feeling of having been tricked into it.  I don’t think the Christian message needs to resort to such things. Just tell a good story and be honest about where you’re coming from.

The movie itself is Recommended.

3. DVD Review: Beware of Christians
Young documentary director Will Bakke and his three and his three pals Michael B. Owen, Alex Carroll and Matt Owen are three college-age believers in The Bible who tour Europe while waxing philosophic about how the Jesus of Scripture doesn’t quite align with the wealthy lifestyles enjoyed by many modern-day Christians.  Along the way they grapple with issues that include Christian materialism and views on sexuality.

Review: The basic message being put forth here is that Christians can often be their own worst enemy if their goal is to truly spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  That’s, no doubt, often true. And I’m certainly on board with the idea that our culture as a whole tends to promote rampant materialism and too often glamorizes irresponsible sexuality. But there’s something about the way these guys go about making their point that comes off to me as smug, judgmental, a bit self-aggrandizing and all-around annoying.  Of course, while they may seem self-righteous to me, they’re very cool while their spouting their lessons.  They say words like “awesome” and, if memory serves, “man” and “dude” comes up a lot. That must mean they’re cool, right?  Plus, we see them in clips clowning around. One shows the gang playing leapfrog somewhere and looks like it could have come from an old sixties-era episode of The Monkees.  Maybe I’m too rough on these guys. I don’t doubt their sincerity. I just think that they work a bit too hard at appearing relaxed. And, while in the trailer one of them talks about listening, it seemed to me that the movie was mostly about them talking. I’d suggest that their future films focus a bit more on the kindness and wisdom that exists in the world alongside all that materialism. They may find that they’re not the only ones with awesome insights to share.

No blog tomorrow. See you Monday.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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