I watched a movie today that was thought-provoking. Reading about it afterward, though, was even moreso.

The Other Side of Heaven is the story of John Groberg (Christopher Gorham), a Mormon missionary in the 1950s. There’s really not much that’s overtly Mormon in the movie — the vast majority of what’s shown and said fits into traditional Christian beliefs.

On a side note, this DVD is a product of Walt Disney Home Entertainment. One has to wonder how many tens of thousands of RPMs Uncle Walt is hitting in his grave that his name is associated with a film that gives any kind of credit to God.

Shortly before graduating from BYU, Groberg declares his love for Jean Sabin (Anne Hathaway) and asks for her to wait for him while he is on his missionary assignment. The movie is peppered with letters between the two of them; the letters don’t drive the plot much, but examine the thought processes that each of them is having during Groberg’s time away.

Groberg is sent to the Tongan islands where he ministers for approximately three years. During a large part of his assignment, he is paired up with a native (Joseph Folau) who acts not only as his interpreter (until Groberg learns the language), but also as a fellow worker in ministry.

Anyone with exposure to missionary work (even if it’s just hearing the guy who showed up at your church with a slideshow) will not find much of what Groberg faces to be surprising. Rather, much of the story lies in the relationships that he builds with the people of the island on which he works. There are events throughout the movie that drive the story forward — it’s not all character-driven, but there’s not much that’s earth-shattering here. Still, the movie (and the trials that Groberg faced) is challenging to any Christian who’s up for an iota of self-examination.

What was surprising was the virulence of the reaction to the film. As is my wont, especially with movies that are based on true stories, I went to teh interwebs and read reviews after viewing the movie. I expected that there would be criticism from many reviewers, some of which might be deserved, but some of which would simply be in adverse over-reaction to a film about faith. But the majority of the criticism that I saw wasn’t so much about the occasional hokeyness or seeming over-simplicity of the movie, but a near-anger about the ideals behind it — a reaction for which a word like “knee-jerk” just doesn’t suffice.

Now granted, some of it was just downright stupid. A couple of writers complained about how Groberg was imposing American/Western values onto the Tongan culture. If you actually pay any attention to the movie, you will recognize what a laughable accusation this is. The only scene in which Groberg confronts (in a negative manner) the culture to which he is ministering is when he tells a couple of men that theft, bribery, and fornication are not the “privilege of the higher class”, despite the fact that their culture dictates otherwise. Further, Groberg’s appeal is to faith, not to some idealism that he brought with him from Idaho.

But some of the other criticism was more thoughtful — though ultimately wrong. One writer that stood out in particular noted that the movie flies in the face of today’s “moral relativism” (his words), clearly implying that the latter was a good thing. His thoughts around that were admittedly well-constructed, but all based on that sad misconception.

The whole thing got me to thinking — from where did these violent reactions come?

Granted, moral relativism is rampant in American culture these days. On my more carnal days, I want to punch someone in the throat if they say “all paths lead to God”, not so much because of the error of the concept as the fact that I’m sick of constantly hearing it. Or we could go with a tired conservative/Christian phrase and note that the “Hollywood elite” (and even its critics) are probably at the vanguard of such a belief system. One could even refer to how the enemy blinds the eyes of the unbeliever and attribute even the stupid reactions to this phenomenon. But all of that just defines the problem.

And, to be sure, there are those who name Christ who have Americanized/Westernized their faith. On top of that, many of them have romanticized earlier times in our country, as though no sin (or anything else bad, for that matter) occurred in America before 1963. And so when other Christians try to shake off this baggage and attempt to not preach “another gospel” (which is what adding to the gospel message is really all about), they are soundly criticized — often to the point of the outright denial of their salvation — by the Hugh Beaumont faction of Christianity. Sadly, such screeching is often very loud and that’s what a lot of unbelievers see Christianity as being. But I think even this is an over-simplistic analysis of the situation.

I can’t shake the feeling that, as Christians, we’re missing something even broader. What that is, though, is beyond me.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, August 15th, 2010 at 10:38 pm and is filed under Church and Society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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3 Comments(+Add)

1   Rick Frueh    http://judahslion.blogspot.com/
August 16th, 2010 at 5:34 am

As the Industrial Revolution took hold, and people moved from an agricultural society to one that leverages their work to prosper and to provide recreation, the church, which had been mostly poor, began to accumulate wealth personally. That shift began a slide in which we now had material things which we desired to keep, protect, and add to.

Democracy was also instrumental in seeing ourselves with political clout in which we could protect our wealth and social standing. In the US we are free to preach the gospel, so most of the complaining and cricticism centers around protecting our wealth and living standard. The “content with food and clothing” principle is ancient history.

And who would have ever imagined that while living in a modern day Babylon, complete with infant genocide, sexual perversion, and unbridled hedonism, the church would love and embrace that nation as a gift from the Father? (The Founding Fathers were no better. George Washington accumulated much of his wealth through hundreds of slaves – he was the richest president – and many were philanderers.) It boggles the mind but is an extreme example of the strength of deception.

Our present condition goes way beyond westernization. We are in captivity and like Samson do not even realize it. The onloy answer is a return to the gospel exclusively in lips and life. Until then we can only serve one master and it is not Christ.

2   Neil    
August 16th, 2010 at 9:34 am

brendt,

i believe the roots of what people react to are found in christendom. christendom was assumed in europe from before charlemagne until it was rebuffed with the enlightenment.

it was assumed in america until 1963… or so.

in it the culture was associated with the faith – and all good christians lived by western values. in his book One Church, Many Tribes, Twist titles one chapter “Five Hundred Years of Bad Hair Cuts” – his point being how english missionaries tried to “civilize” their converts by making them “good engilshmen” as well as christians.

this was a fruit of christendom as well.

so, to some degree the criticizers have a historical point. but then again, hind-sight is 20/20 and our tendency is to think that those who came before us committed no sins or committed no good.

today we see the struggle of many odm’s as they try and cling to the vestiges of christendom. they lament the loss of the privileges the church once had and they equate this loss with laodocianism or the like.

3   Jerry    http://www.jerryhillyer.com
August 16th, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Brendt,

We are missing something. I don’t know if the entire church is missing it or if it is just me personally, but it is missing. I think what it is is this: a community that is large enough to be fruitful and small enough to be familiar. A place where grace and forgiveness are truly practiced, where sin can be openly confessed, and where genuine healing of all that makes us broken people is occurring with particular Jesus regularity.

What’s missing for me is a spirit of genuine genuinous. There must be a church where we can laugh together and weep together and pray together and sing together and it doesn’t feel like I’m just doing my weekly duty and paying my tax. It’s a place where time doesn’t matter and central to the worship is neither the sermon nor the communion nor the baptism nor the songs but Jesus–and his power to heal and forgive. It’s a place where those in Christ are both powerful and vulnerable.

I’m not sure if that is relevant to your post or not. I’m not sure if it makes sense. I’m not sure if you even care. I just wanted to say it. There must be a church somewhere in the world like that.

If I ever get to preach again, I hope it is in a church like that.