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Empathy for Sin, Sympathy for Sinners: Brokeback Mountain and the End of the Spear Controversy
by Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., Brokeback Mountain, from director Ang Lee, is surprising its critics. Some believed that people would not show up to see a "gay cowboy movie." But after sweeping major categories at the Golden Globe awards and positioning itself for Oscar contention, it seems to be expanding its markets every week. Some argue that it could end up bringing in more that $100 million at the box office. The other side of the homosexual controversy this week came from an unexpected quarter. When the news broke that martyred missionary Nate Saint and his son Steve were both being portrayed in End of the Spear by Chad Allen, a man who is a homosexual activist, some Christians went berserk. Others called for a boycott of the film, arguing that attending somehow made one complicit in the "homosexualization of America." I have received more hate mail for championing End of the Spear as a God-honoring film (which it is) than for any other piece I have written in the last three years. Engaging content in controversial films is what I do. I am not a film critic, but a cultural analyst, and I view my role as helping the Church to understand the meaning in films and to learn to use them to further the goals of the Kingdom of God. I write, unashamedly, from an evangelical Christian perspective. From early in my academic career I was taught to lay my presuppositions out on the table so readers would understand my perspective and critics could not accuse me of having a stealth agenda. Let me be clear -- homosexual behavior is a sin. One is always tempted to start that sentence with "I think" or "I believe" but since it is God's revealed truth on the subject, what I happen to think or believe is irrelevant. It is important for Christians to understand why Brokeback Mountain is resonating with many people beyond the homosexual community, why the poisonous response to Chad Allen's portrayal in End of the Spear is not only unwise, but unbiblical, and what the Church should do in either case.
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Brokeback Mountain: Building Empathy for Sin Brokeback Mountain is the story of Jack and Ennis, two sheepherders who begin a homosexual affair one summer, and then continue it, intermittently, for the next 20 years. Their relationship destroys the marriage of one, and the other engages in homosexual promiscuity even though he, too, is married. If the foregoing were the "treatment" for this movie, it never would have been made. But like many other films that attempt to create empathy for characters caught up in sin, Brokeback Mountain is all about the trappings. Making Sexual Sin Palatable It does not matter if the sexual sin is homosexuality, heterosexual fornication, or adultery. Since sexuality is intrinsically tied up with love in the minds of most people, if circumstances can be properly manipulated, a good screenwriter or director can elicit empathy for sin. One standard device is to make the wife so shrewish or cold that "anyone" would understand if he threw her over for someone who "truly" loved him. Another method for evoking empathy is to make the love tragic – make sure that one or both parties to the affair become unfairly afflicted or die. Third, reluctance is effective because making the people appear too eager to sin is repellent, but everyone can "understand" just getting caught up in the moment. Ugliness against Beauty Ang Lee incorporates all of these elements in Brokeback Mountain. Ennis and his wife live in an ugly apartment with two screaming children. Jack is bullied by his father-in-law, and his wife is a disinterested businesswoman with eyes only for the bottom line. Both men have homes and lives that are aesthetically ugly and emotionally barren, but when they rendezvous they leave the smothering "fire and brimstone" culture and escape into idyllic nature. The juxtaposition of ugly civilization and the boundless, playful wild is stark – in fact, ham-fisted. Wyoming is all sweeping vistas and haunting melodies that provide a backdrop for the little-seen, but everywhere-hinted-at, homosexual affair. (The actual "act" is depicted only once – and this is on purpose, because focusing on the sin of homosexual sex would have derailed this project immediately.) Monogamous, heterosexual marriage, by contrast, appears to be constricted and confining. Tragedy All is designed to drive the viewer to the conclusion that the homosexual relationship between the men is superior in every way to their married lives except one: that nasty homophobic culture that keeps them apart. The culture that creates absent or domineering fathers is what drives them together. The culture that alienates, threatens, and beats them is their constant fear. Finally, to cap the angst and create a transcendent edge, one of the men has to die at the hands of this ugly culture. Reluctance In order to make Jack and Ennis truly tragic, the men can carry no blame for the relationship. Brokeback Mountain would lose effectiveness had one of the men been initially identified as a promiscuous homosexual cruising for his next hook-up. Instead the innocence of both characters is painstakingly maintained. They never "intended" it to happen. It is just some "thing" that "grabs hold" of them. They struggle and yell at each other. They punch each other in the face. But it is all too overwhelming. They are the perfect reluctant victims. Change the Setting I wonder if those people who exited the theater feeling "moved" would have had the same response if the two principle actors were unattractive, the setting was a suburban shopping center, they were repeatedly shown engaging in homosexual sex, and in the end no one died, they just broke up? Strip away the music and the coffee-table-book cinematography, and the reaction to the baseline story would be very different. There is a word for what happens during Brokeback Mountain – manipulation. The Chad Allen Controversy If I am so concerned about the manipulation of people's emotions leading to wrong thinking about the sin of homosexuality in Brokeback Mountain, why is it that I disagree with some Christians over the casting of Chad Allen in End of the Spear? Doesn't Allen have the same aims as Brokeback Mountain? Isn't his goal to use his celebrity to advance homosexual advocacy? First of all, I have to concede that casting Allen has been a public relations nightmare for Every Tribe – the production company for the film. I believe them when they say that they did not know that Allen was a homosexual activist until long after production began. It is unthinkable that this group of media professionals would have invited this kind of backlash from the very base they were counting on to deliver patrons for this film, which certainly they could have predicted. My guess is that, by the time they were aware of it, they were already financially pot-bound. But my real concern is not the bottom line for Every Tribe, but whether the boycott of the film, called for by some in the Christian community, is justified. Admonitions and an Example from Paul It is important to note that while Chad Allen claims a vague "spirituality" (as do many in Hollywood), he does not claim to be a Christian. Instead, Allen says that he follows a "God of my understanding." Clearly, Allen does not claim to be a brother in Christ, and so he falls outside the purview of Christian discipline. In fact, Christians are forbidden to judge him – that job belongs to the Holy Spirit (who convicts of sin) and Jesus Christ (who will judge everyone). In 1 Corinthians, Paul explicitly states that Christians will have doings with immoral people, because to avoid it "you would have to go out of the world" (1 Cor. 5:10). Paul continues, explaining "For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges"(1 Cor. 5:12-13). If the Church wants to know how to speak to homosexuals, all it need do is look at the example of Paul. In Acts 17, Paul addresses the men of Athens at the Areopagus. In first century Athens, adultery, concubinage, homosexuality, even pederasty, were common. Paul most assuredly knew this. So look at the tone he strikes when addressing the intellectual leadership of this city: "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects" (Acts 17:22). Paul speaks respectfully, citing their philosophers and poets. Not once does the term "sodomite" emerge from his mouth. His goal was gentle persuasion. Look at the end of the chapter and you will see that it worked. Outsiders Chad Allen is an "outsider." He is an actor -- an employee of Every Tribe hired to do a job for money. Most actors portray characters that are very different from themselves. If they do it convincingly enough, they get paid a lot. I thought that Allen, who plays Nate and Steve Saint, did a credible job. In both of the screenings I have attended, the audience agreed – not a dry eye in the house. His performance has been praised by Steve Saint, who counts him as a friend. Steve has more at stake in this than any other person, so his opinion should count for something. Testimony I find it hard to believe that Chad Allen could have spent all of this time researching Nate's life and filming around Christians without having some seeds planted in his heart. Nate Saint gave his life to reach out to a people who were cold-blooded killers. His family later lived and worked among the very people who slaughtered their loved ones. Are we following their example by vocally shunning a film because its lead role is played by a sinner? Would the same damning intensity be present if Allen's sin was not homosexuality, but instead that he fornicated heterosexually but didn't make a fuss about it? We need to be careful lest we fall into the trap of showing partiality to some sinners over others. God hates sin. God loves sinners, and died for them, including Chad Allen. Ask yourself -- if you met Allen face to face, what would be the better testimony? That you told him you were a Christian and that though you and he disagree about the sinfulness of homosexuality, you thought that he did a great job in the film, or you told him you were a Christian and refused to see a film you otherwise would have seen because he is a filthy sodomite? Which approach do you think would get you a hearing and better your chances to share your faith with Chad Allen? Perhaps some in the Church judge Allen a permanent reprobate and are no longer interested in winning him for the Kingdom? Have we learned anything from Christ's example when He decided to "work with" a tax collector, spoke privately with the woman caught in adultery (He waited till her accusers had left) or gently questioned the adulterous woman at the well? But, some might say, Chad Allen is different – he's already spent all that time around Christians, but he is still a homosexual activist! Scripture introduces us to another activist – his name was Saul. Opportunities abounded for Saul to interact with Christians. The Scriptures say that he accompanied them as they were hauled to Jerusalem in chains. He later accounted himself chief among sinners. How unfortunate it would have been had the Church written Saul off after one or two trips to Jerusalem. Recent history provides another example – Norma McCorvey, the infamous "Roe" of Roe v. Wade. McCorvey was used for years as a shill for the abortion industry. She was an activist. But she was won to Christ, not by people screaming "Murderer!" at her (though some did that), but by two little girls who kept lovingly and politely asking "Miss Norma" to church. Christians Need to Earn Roles Chad Allen was selected because the director said that he was the best audition by far. Seeing End of the Spear does not endorse Allen's political and sexual goals, it simply validates his acting ability. The missionaries' stories were too important to be given to any but the most competent actors available. In many regards, the church has itself to blame for the dearth of Christian actors. For centuries Christians were at the forefront of the arts. But Christians abandoned the arts decades ago. Had we determined that we would compete in the thought world of film as forcefully as we have tried to do in -- for example -- popular music, then this would not have been an issue. Hollywood is filled with sinners (and so is your local grocery store, school, etc.), so should our response be to cut and run while hurling insults from the sidelines? No, we should be making great, God-honoring films and good family entertainment. Mostly we have made mediocre ones that few are willing to pay to see. The phrase "Christian film" is nearly synonymous with "bad movie." We should be the best in film, but we are among the worst. There is hope on the horizon. Mel Gibson's Icon Productions and Walden Media seem committed to making good films. The people responsible for the Angelus Film Awards have screened some great shorts from faith-informed, up-and-coming filmmakers. But if we do not encourage our children when they express an interest in stage or film acting, or directing, or producing, then we should not be surprised when non-Christians get parts. What Should Christians Do? If Brokeback Mountain continues to win awards and box-office share, it will provide Christians with the opportunity to expose what makes the film compelling, and explain God's perspective on sexuality and marriage. Similarly, if people are drawn to Chad Allen's site and read about his homosexual advocacy, the same applies. We can explain what is being done to mainstream homosexual culture and explore God's plan. Our culture is designed to facilitate a clash of ideas. Sometimes our best opportunities arise when our opponents speak. We don't need to deny our opponents a voice, or drown them out – both approaches smack of fear -- to compete in the marketplace of ideas. End of the Spear should not be a victim of the culture war. It is too valuable a tool for the Gospel. End of the Spear, if properly used, can start conversations about the faith. Those who do not know Christ will wonder why anyone would lay down his or her life for enemies. They will be amazed by the willingness of Rachel Saint to care for her brother's killers. The outworking of the Gospel should be the story here – not Chad Allen's advocacy. Yes, Allen's casting was a public relations nightmare for Every Tribe. No, I do not think that any Christian watching End of the Spear is going to consider homosexuality as a result. It is, however, possible, that some homosexuals might attend a screening because of Chad Allen's involvement and witness a kind of Christ-like, self-sacrificial love that they rarely see from Christians in their neighborhoods. Our job as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God is not to judge sinners outside the church, but to give testimony to the Good News that Christ has come to redeem them.

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