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140824gamestandstallThere are two ways to make a “Christian” or “faith” film: The first is to start with message or sermon, then try to build a movie around it; the other is to tell a great story, and let faith infuse it.

The first approach has led to countless bad Christian movies. Or at very least, they’re movies that preach more to the choir than they do to any wider audience they might hope to reach.

The second approach is more of a risk, because church audiences (and their millions in box office dollars) are typically so jaded against Hollywood that many avoid films that don’t blatantly scream churchiness or don’t conform to prepackaged theological niceties. Even if the film is made by Christians, rife with Christian worldview and deeply relevant to the unevangelized, if there’s no Sunday school message, the Sunday crowd too often stays away. And that, frankly, is a travesty, as the church shoots itself in the foot.

The first kind of film usually does well at the box office (see “God’s Not Dead”), but rarely penetrates the wider culture. There’s a noble place for such efforts, and bravo to those films that build up the Body of Christ, but I’m left wondering: Couldn’t the church make better use of film, the single, most widely reaching communication medium in American society?

The new movie in theaters, “When the Game Stands Tall,” is a better example of the second kind of movie and an example of how faith can still hold conversation with the wider culture when it’s engaging instead of merely preaching.

“When the Game Stands Tall” is inspired by the true story and book of the same name about high school football coach Bob Ladouceur of the Catholic De La Salle High School in Concord, California.

In the film, Coach Ladouceur teaches his players to embrace commitment and brotherhood, virtues that transcend selfish gain and demand self-sacrifice. In real life, Ladouceur coached his Spartans to a record 151 consecutive wins, but the film picks up just as the famous winning streak comes to an end.

A sudden deluge of adversity in the players’ lives brings uncertainty, family strife and tragic pain compounded by the devastating loss of “the streak.” The film follows Ladouceur as he tries to help his players, and his own family, pick up the pieces.

Part of that reconstruction effort is a commitment to godly principles and even the Scriptures. Characters in the movie wrestle with what it means to live out Luke 6:38 and Matthew 23:12, which are quoted in the film. Players pray together, learn what it means to love your brothers and how to become men who stand up against the tide to live out their faith and values.

A resounding lesson in the movie is the quote, “Don’t let a game define who you are. Let the way you live your lives do that.”

This is not to say the film is preachy – not even a little bit. It’s just about characters who have faith and wrestle with that faith as they wrestle with life.

On both a positive and negative point, the movie is about real lives, lives that get messy, and the characters’ struggle to live in truth. That means sometimes Christian teachings get questioned, and the answer isn’t always wrapped up neatly.

Some Christian audience members may even be uncomfortable with how Luke 6:38 is portrayed (“Give and it shall be given to you …”), as the characters just can’t reconcile their application of the verse – that God works like so much karma – with their lives. It’s not the only time in the movie I questioned the characters’ theology. But then, this isn’t a sermon illustration; it’s based on a true story. This isn’t a Sunday school lesson; it’s a conversation starter.

For the most part, this is a film that inspires and elevates positive, biblical virtues. Parents and football fans will appreciate the movie.

On the other hand, Jim Caviezel (known for playing Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ”) delivers a quiet, understated performance that strikes the right tone, but is occasionally slow in a movie that just doesn’t pack the entertainment punch of some similar films. Frankly, “Remember the Titans” is a much better and more enjoyable movie.

Nonetheless, this is a movie that comes at just the right time, when the Christian film industry is still figuring out its identity, when moviemakers will have to decide if they want to preach to the choir or converse with the culture. “When the Game Stands Tall” takes a stand for the latter, which I contend, is a step in the right direction.

Content advisory:

  • “When the Game Stands Tall,” rated PG, contains roughly five or six mild profanities and obscenities.
  • The film contains a brief scene of lewd, boyish comments, some mild teenage kissing and several shots of shirtless, sweaty guys working out in the weight room, but no significant sexuality or romantic storylines. There are a couple of quick shots of cheerleaders doing high kicks in short skirts.
  • The film contains several scenes of bruising blows on the football field and some minor scuffling. A character is shot and killed in street violence, but the kill shot is not actually seen on screen. There are a couple of disturbing scenes of a father roughing up his teenage son in an abusive manner.
  • The film contains several explicitly Christian elements, including two instances of the team praying the Lord’s Prayer, a church funeral, a eulogy with Christian themes, gospel singing, discussion of a pair of biblical passages and other faith references evident in the characters and Catholic school where the movie takes place.

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