Can an atheist such as myself give an unbiased review of a movie with a distinctly Christian bent?
For reals: I don’t think I can. And I’m doing everything I can to be fair here, trying to look beyond the bible-thumping to find something else to focus on, and maybe even, to enjoy.
Okay, let’s talk about Jennifer Garner. It took me a long time to come around to her. Back in her Alias days, I kind of disliked her, for not big reason that I can relate. She married Ben Affleck in 2005 and that softened her for me. And now that they’re divorced, I like her even more, for being stoic and strong and not running her mouth. For putting her family first. For helping him get sober even as he runs around with a new girlfriend. For being a good person, too good for stupid Ben Affleck. I suppose her loving a man who didn’t deserve her makes her pretty damn relatable. And now that she’s “free” she’s a little more present on social media – and she’s funny, and dorky, and unselfconscious. She’s also very hands-on with her 3 kids, taking them to school, to get ice cream, to church.
So I suppose this movie kind of makes sense for her – it’s family-friendly, and it’s churchy, as evidenced by her rather large, Texan hair and the lively church services she attends, the kind with the “funny” pastor and the earnest rock band praising jebus. She plays a real-life mother of 3 named Christy Beam who goes through one of the very worst things a mother can experience: a sick kid. A very sick kid. Her middle daughter, Anna, comes down with one of those mystery illnesses that doctors can’t diagnose so they ignore, while a little girl writhes in pain and wastes away. And only because her mother is persistent does she eventually get a prognosis that isn’t very helpful: she has a severe and incurable disease where she basically doesn’t process food, and she will die from it.
So that’s terrible to watch. If you have kids, or, scratch that, any loved one at all, you know how hard it is to watch them be so sick when you are powerless to help. Even 24 hours of vomiting can undo a family – imagine if that became your life. [And side note: does everyone have a “sick bowl” – that special bucket that Moms seem to keep on hand specifically for those times you can’t quite make it to the toilet? Is that a thing in other families?]
So Christy’s faith is tested, because why would a loving god allow her innocent child to be sick? And her faith is further tested when other “Christians” accuse her of deserving it – whether through her own sins, her husband’s, or potentially even Anna’s. It’s the kind of thing that makes even a hardened atheist such as myself roll her eyes and whisper “Oh lord.” Even poor little Anna is starting to wonder why god hasn’t healed her. Is it possible he doesn’t care (or, um, exist?).
But no. This is a Christian movie, destined to be screened by church groups and almost no one else. So of course, a miracle must occur, and if possible, perhaps even the voice of god himself could make itself known. And if that doesn’t stun you into prayerful submission, someone will offer that miracles are god’s way of letting us know he’s here (don’t ask yourself what god is telling us when he lets other little kids die left and right).
So as much as I might praise Garner for her performance, I can’t really look past the message of this film, which is preaching to the choir at best, and downright insulting at worst. They wring this story for all it’s worth, and while I was sorry for the real Anna’s pain, and happy that she survived (make no mistake: there is no doubt that she will survive – the only question is how long they’ll string us along for first), I find it dangerous to label something a “miracle from heaven” when it really seems like a “coincidence on earth” and “an accident in an old tree”. Because otherwise we’d have to ask ourselves what makes one child more worthy of a miracle than any other, and I really, really, really hate where that takes us. That kind of fear and competitiveness makes nice, casserole-toting, big-haired church ladies into real bitches – so where would that leave the rest of us?