Facing the Giants,

When the Game Stands Tall, 

Woodlawn … 

…Concussion?

I’ve been hopeful about Concussion. It’s a film about a problem that I care about very deeply.

But I certainly didn’t anticipate what I recently read about it in The New Yorker.

Ian Crouch writes:

… [S]urprisingly, the movie’s moral arguments are framed less as matters of medicine than of religious faith. It’s not a sports movie, or a medical thriller, so much as a Christian homily. And its principal question is, in a way, about just how much God cares about football.

So, yeah. That was unexpected.

Crouch continues:

“Concussion” repeatedly presents these conflicts in religious terms. In real life, Omalu is a devout Catholic, and in interviews about the movie, he has talked about the ways in which his faith has directed his work. He has also praised Will Smith, telling the Christian Post, “We met, we shared and we communed the love of God, and he also saw the light. The spirit of God also touched him.” (Smith himself has noted that his grandmother’s Christian faith inspired his performance.) Rather than simply conveying Omalu’s religiosity as an aspect of his character, though, the filmmakers shaped the entire movie as an expression of it.

Hmmm.

Is Crouch the only one picking up on this focus on faith in the movie? Let’s look around.

At Christianity Today, Alicia Cohn writes:

Concussion tries to achieve the depth and stakes of the Biblical story of Esther, without quite enough unchecked power or genocide to support the claim.

All of this is giving me a strange feeling.

I mean, seriously — people talk about so many other faith-related football movies as “Christian movies,” or titles that are part of a “Christian movie industry.” What’s preventing Concussion from being received in the same way? Why aren’t churches jumping on the Concussion bandwagon and campaigning for people to see it because of its Christian hero? Why aren’t they producing evangelical tracts and handing them to moviegoers as they exit the theater?

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s a bad idea altogether to herald some movies as “Christian” and turn them into occasions of aggressive evangelism. That kind of propaganda does more harm than good, and is likely to spoil anybody’s willingness to entertain the questions a work of art might inspire in their minds. But I’m curious as to why Concussion isn’t getting the Facing the Giants or Woodlawn treatment, since it seems to meet the basic criteria of being A) a movie about a Christian hero, and B) a movie that explores the challenge of faith in the context of football.

A troubling answer suggests itself: Perhaps the audience that loves Facing the Giants and Woodlawn feels threatened by a movie about a doctor who uses science to challenge their other favorite Sunday ritual.

Perhaps the only Christian movies that make sense to the Facing the Giants crowd are those in which Christians are heroes achieving a victory with force on the field, victory as defined by culture rather than Christianity. Perhaps they aren’t interested in a story about a God-fearing man who suffers for his belief, seeking to respect human life and health by pushing back against worldly corporations in what will probably be a losing battle.

Is our faith really so juvenile that we only get excited about films that make Christians look like glorious and triumphant champions?

Personally, I think that any film that honors truth — scientific truth, biological truth, medicinal truth — is honoring the God of All Truth. The only definition of “Christian movie” that makes sense to me is one that includes films that invite us into encounters with beauty, truth, and mystery — not those that cut corners on beauty and mystery in order to shove a didactic version of truth down our throats.

I sense the power of God in films that, through imagination and art, allow us to engage, contemplate, discuss, and come to our own conclusions. This reflects the incarnational way in which God speaks to us “through what has been made” — through words made flesh.

But if a work of art starts organizing its information and storytelling to try and persuade the audience of a particular lesson, then its artistry diminishes and it becomes an attempt to exert power and influence over an audience instead of an invitation for them to have a unique experience of their own.

So, what is Concussion? Is it an occasion of artistic tools being employed to try and convert an audience, or is it a work of art?

In CT, Cohn says:

Unfortunately, attempting to make a fictionalized movie both a blockbuster and an educational showpiece means the film suffers in both directions. Smith delivers a fantastic performance as Omalu. He is confused and determined with equal authenticity; he is believable as an immigrant “offended” by the response to his attempt to be a “good American.” But as a story, Concussion is a fairly formulaic tale of David versus Goliath, not Esther versus the King—even though Omalu’s wife delivers an intense “for such a time as this” speech.

And in The New Yorker, Crouch says,

The message is strikingly, and at times rather painfully, clear: Omalu is a kind of prophet, an outsider who can see a truth that those around him, blinded by their own cultural prejudices, cannot, and who is punished and shunned for spreading a gospel that those in power do not want to hear. This makes for a heavy-handed, often treacly movie….

Uh oh. Now it sounds like that other definition of “Christian movie.” The over-zealous, heavy-handed kind.

Wait. Crouch concludes with this…

But as a polemic, this evangelical argument is interesting and novel, suggesting that football’s dangers are not merely physical, but spiritual as well. This might be the movie’s most subversive message: not that the N.F.L. stood in the way of scientific research about the health of its players but that it occupies a false place within the religious and patriotic beliefs of so many of its fans, whose Sabbath routines are timed perfectly so that Sunday service ends just in time for kickoff.

Wow.

So maybe Concussion isn’t a great work of art. (I haven’t seen it yet. Have you?) But as a lesson, it sounds to me like it might cause some viewers to stop and think about what they’re endorsing with their Sunday football rituals. If it encourages this kind of reflection, and if it ultimately helps change a sport that is costing good men their minds for our amusement, then I’m glad to see such a lesson being taught in theaters near you and me.

Now, hold on. There’s more. Cohn ends her CT review saying,

A movie in which the hero’s methods fail to produce any change is not a movie very many of us would pay to see. It is time that accomplishes what Omalu could not. According to the logic of Concussion, not even God could convince the NFL to listen.

So… maybe the film will be better at spreading a sense of helplessness and despair than inspiring people to seek change?

As someone whose love of football has already been shattered by the NFL’s obvious cover-ups, and by its apparent indifference to the suffering that its game and its culture causes in the lives of its players and their families —  to say nothing of how many children suffer severe injuries dreaming of living up to the league’s show-business ideals — I’m rooting for whatever will change the game permanently, or persuade parents to protect their children from it.

But I also think this subject deserves the attention of great artists who will know how to draw us into a more rewarding engagement with the subject.

Thoughts?

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