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

Faith at the movies. The Song and Believe Me are two faith-themed movies that couldn’t be more different in terms of tone — suggesting a diversity and maturing of the overall genre that is healthy. But, IMHO, one worked and one didn’t

Believe Me Synopsis (from the press release): Sam Atwell (Alex Russell) stands on stage as thousands of fans go wild. Smart, charismatic, handsome, he moves them with his message, and when he calls for donations to his charity, the money pours in.  Only thing, Sam doesn’t believe a word he’s saying.

Months earlier, Sam was a typical college senior focused on keg stands, hookups and graduation. But when a surprise tuition bill threatens his dream of law school and leaves him thousands of dollars in the hole, he’s forced to think outside the box. Convincing his three roommates they can make a killing exploiting the gullible church crowd, the guys start a sham charity and begin campaigning across the country, raising funds for a cause as fake as their message.

For Sam, embezzling money is easy compared to getting attention from the person he cares about the most. When Callie (Johanna Braddy), the tour manager and Sam’s love interest, finally uncovers the guys’ ruse, it’s Sam’s moment of truth. On the final night of the tour, before a packed auditorium but alone in the spotlight, it’s time for Sam Atwell to decide what he really believes.

Believe Me stars Alex Russell (Carrie), Zachary Knighton (Happy Endings), Johanna Braddy (Video Game High School), Max Adler (Glee), Sinqua Walls (Teen Wolf), Miles Fisher (Superhero Movie), Christopher McDonald (Boardwalk Empire) and Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation). The film is directed by Will Bakke (Beware of Christians) and co-written by Bakke and Michael B. Allen (also of Beware of Christians).

Believe Me is out is out simultaneously in theaters and on DVD/Blu-ray.

Review: I must admit I was prepared to hate this movie since I was really turned off by Bakke and Allen’s previous collaboration Beware of Christians, which in my review at the time, I found to be “smug, judgmental, a bit self-aggrandizing and all-around annoying.”  But with Believe Me, they have come up with a film that is not only both funny and dramatic (in all the right places) but also rings true and is actually important for Christians to see.  You could say it preaches to the choir — but with a message that challenges the choir and which it actually needs to hear.

Believe Me is, basically, about how vulnerable people who are searching and want to believe are to charlatans who will exploit that longing for their own purposes. It speaks to the responsibility to those who see themselves as spreaders of the Gospel to actually keep God and the good of His people at the center of all they do. It also warns the faithful that it is wise to skeptical of those who cloak themselves in the Bible (or government or anything else for that matter). Which, BTW, isn’t a call to cynicism. It’s realizing that our faith is in God and not His messengers. And that when it comes to people, while most are trying and mean well (most often while not holding themselves up as paragons of faith) people will fail us — and we’ll fail people. And, while most of those failings are simply a matter of all of us falling short of perfection (no matter how hard we might try) there are, unfortunately, people out there who intentionally prey on the vulnerability of others.

I’ve always liked this line from Desiderata:

Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Finding that balance between skepticism and trust is hard and something I personally pray about and struggle with. Believe Me is that increasingly rare film that challenges the faithful without attacking the faith.

And, while it has a profound message for the choir, it also may have appeal outside the choir with an intelligent, well-written, well-directed, well-acted story that shows sincere faith, particularly as displayed by Johanna Braddy’s character of Callie, the young Christian woman the con man Sam (Alex Russell) finds himself attracted to.  My guess is that non-Christians may see this film and actually come out respecting the beliefs of sincere Christians more than they would after viewing, say, God’s Not Dead — which preaches to the choir in a far more simplistic and heavy-handed way.

While I didn’t find the ending of Believe Me to be completely satisfying, overall it is an extremely well-done film that raises legitimate issues while balancing its biting wit with genuine heart. Believe Me is Highly Recommended.

The Song Synopsis (from the film’s website): Aspiring singer—‐songwriter Jed King is struggling to catch a break and escape the long shadow of his famous father when he reluctantly agrees to a gig at a local vineyard harvest festival.  Jed meets the vineyard owner’s daughter, Rose, and a romance quickly blooms. Soon after their wedding, Jed writes Rose “The Song,” which becomes a breakout hit. Suddenly thrust into a life of stardom and a world of temptation, his life and marriage begin to fall apart.

The Song stars Anthem Lights lead singer Alan Powell, Ali Faulkner (Twilight: Breaking Dawn) and Caitlin Nicol-Thomas.

Writer/Director Richard Ramsey told me the film says City on the Hill, the production company behind the film, approached him about doing a film based on the biblical Song of Solomon that would, in a modern setting, address the same themes of romance and marriage. He says he was blown away by how contemporary the ancient narrative of a man of means trying to find meaning in all the wrong places. He says he hopes his film puts forth the same message found in the original Song of Solomon — that it is, in fact, important and good to stay faithful to your wife or husband — and to always stay faithful to God.

Mini-Review: I fully support the basic message of the film and thought the performances and production values were all first rate and Richard Ramsey is certainly a talented a talented storyteller (both as a director and writer).

Yet, this film was strangely depressing to me. What should have been a celebration of romantic faithfulness and married love ends up wallowing in an adulterous affair that plays out more like a finger-wagging guilt trip. It’s likely to confirm to many movie goers the belief that Christians simply have a problem with sex. Don’t get me wrong. Adultery is wrong but it’s already been the subject of countless movies. I think this movie actually aspired to be more than just another — except with an added dose of Sunday school. And, honestly, the frequent direct quoting from the Bible did start to take on a thumping tone. I believe that films are a great way to reach beyond the choir with positive parables of faith and love.  Bible thumping, IMHO, is not the most effective way to invite people inside the tent.

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

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