May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 9, 2014
I don’t think I have ever bumped into a principle of sociology stated this way anywhere, but a subculture may be defined by its ability to mock itself. The defining characteristics of contemporary Evangelicalism are not dogmatic. This is surprising, given that Evangelicalism as a movement began as a set of theological distinctives packaged with a certain pose toward “cultural engagement” that inspired participation in American politics, legislation, and the culture wars.
The Evangelicals of this generation inherited this movement as a well-developed and funded establishment. And with establishment comes satire, which is a defining characteristic of contemporary Evangelicalism. One can only really laugh at oneself when they have gained the confidence and power to do so, which is a feature of the movement regardless of recent conversations about its persecution complex.
Our constant stream of Evangelical self-satire that populates social media channels is a reminder that Evangelicalism is in a new, odd cultural moment – one poised at a Hegelian precipice between its classic dogmatic theses and growing parodic antitheses. The synthesis of these elements yet eludes us.
A film like Believe Me is utterly unique from this perspective. In fact, I have never seen a movie like this and don’t anticipate seeing anything like it in the near future, unless director Will Bakke is on to something and can find the producers to back him.
Believe Me is about four college buddies that chance upon a really good way to scam Christian audiences out of cash for a African well-building non-profit. Though their intention is to keep the con pretty small, an entrepreneurial Christian events agency takes their idea and turns it into a nationwide tour. They find themselves with a full compliment of A/V guys, a worship band, and the adoration of young evangelicals across the country. Along the way, they have to learn how to fit into this unfamiliar subculture. The funniest parts of Believe Me are sets of observations about typical evangelical worship practice and all the poses and vocabularies used to ensure that one is behaving spiritually enough.
Their first exchange with the tour’s worship leader goes like this:
“I wouldn’t call myself that [worship leader]. My life is worship and I am a bit of a leader… I see how the label would fit, but no [long pause]… I’m just an artist.”
When Believe Me pokes fun at this kind of posing in Evangelical practice, it is deadly accurate. But it is not cruel or vindictive. It lacks the traces of bitterness that often attend satire in this context. This, I submit, is what make the film so refreshing and unique. It has been interesting to watch reviewers in other outlets attempt to describe the film, as it is a “Christian film,” but yet so markedly better in terms of production and artistry than the label suggests that it defies easy description. The way it couches its requisite come to Jesus moment in another film being watched within the film further complicates the issue. And the ending raises a few really interesting questions about the way we depict Evangelical moments of redemption in cinema. It is messy. A good messy.
So is its lampooning of celebrity pastor culture, in that the comedy of the film is built of out a willingness of its Christian audiences to equate leadership with a sleek vibe of young authenticity.
If Believe Me is an indication of what cinema about American Christianity could look like, then it bodes well. It is incisive, satirical, a little ambiguous, and technically adept all at the same time.