Why ‘Woodlawn’ Wowed Mainstream Critics
Christian Movie Review
“Woodlawn,” the latest faith-based film to hit theaters currently has 91% from the mainstream critics on RottenTomatoes.com, a startling (and rare) feat for a film from the Christian industry. Granted, the number of critics who reviewed the movie is smaller than the average glut that the site tallies, but still, 91% is incredible. Even great mainstream/secular Hollywood A-list films rarely reach that height on Rotten Tomatoes.
So does the film deserve it?
Its production value — the acting, screenwriting, directing, cinematography, set design, costume (an early ’70s blue collar look) — was phenomenal. Its quality of filmmaking was every bit as good as other classic mainstream football movies like “Remember the Titans” or well-crafted TV shows like “Friday Night Lights.” It has well-known actors like Sean Astin (“Lord of the Rings”) and Jon Voight (“Mission Impossible”), and the cinematography is exquisite. Some shots during the football games, if you froze them, had such perfect proportions and angles that they could’ve been paintings from the Classical period. (Well, a Classical period that includes football.)
Another high note of the film is the great acting chemistry between Nic Bishop, who plays the world-weary, cynical coach, and Sean Astin, the earnest sports chaplain with passionate, childlike faith. The tension between the two characters provided a compelling ignition point early in the film that pulled you into the story. And Caleb Castille’s superb performance as high school story football star Tony Nathan filled the story with a powerful blend of grit and heart.
What’s more: it tells a true story of something that actually happened. When revival came to a Southern town during the Jesus Revolution in the early ’70s — a revival that leads an entire football team to accept the message of the Gospel — the town sees something miraculous: the walls of racial divide come crumbling down between the football players, and they become the only team in the area to have successful, peaceful, even joyful racial integration and reconciliation.
And the film is very bold about the cause of this remarkable — even miraculous — transformation in a racially divided group of students. In many scenes, players, coaches, and fans hold up their index finger into the air — the symbol of the Jesus Movement at the time — and proclaim Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the only way, in fact, to achieve this kind of miraculous reconciliation in a deeply hostile, divided community. (I’ll explain more about why Christians make this claim in a moment.)
The film craft of “Woodlawn” was so good that even though it was overtly evangelistic in a few spots the mainstream critics didn’t mind; and many of these same mainstreams critics have ripped other Christian films to pieces.
As a bonus to this review, I am adding another section below the Parental Guidance content. In this bonus section I will present some of the theological reasons that move people like those portrayed in “Woodlawn” to make such bold claims about Jesus. In fact I’ll be sharing three specific points about Christianity that the pastor and scholar Timothy Keller articulated in his sermon called “Exclusivity: How can there be just one true religion?” which he preached on Sept 24, 2006 at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC.
My rating for “Woodlawn”: [usr 8] (See my notes at the bottom of this article about the rating scale.)
[Note: if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy or my podcast Aslan’s Paw. Both seek to crack open the surprising treasures of Christian belief — the things that Western society has forgotten, ignored, or never encountered — with the help of logic, literature, film, music, and one very unsafe Lion.]
Parent Guidance Issues at a Glance for this PG Movie…
Violence/Gore/Scary Content: Disturbing images of racism: a brick is thrown threw a window by white people and almost hits a black child, and then white people burn a black athlete’s football jersey number in the athlete’s front yard. Some pushing and shoving between players who are arguing. Football action/violence.
Sexual Content/Nudity: None. It’s PG.
Language: A black student calls white people “crackers.”
Alcohol/Drugs/Smoking: A character says he’s going to go smoke a cigarette. A parent shows up at a game with a bottle of alcohol in a brown bag.
A Glance at the Christian Theology Behind the Bold Claims of ‘Woodlawn’
Timothy Keller presented some powerful arguments in his sermon “Exclusivity: How can there be just one true religion?” — which you can listen to at his podcast. The notes below come directly from his sermon; I took careful notes on his arguments and placed the key points below. Here’s what Dr. Keller says:
There are three truth claims in Christianity that are totally unique
— claims, in other words, that no other religion makes. The unique features of these three claims are what makes miraculous reconciliation in divided communities — i.e. sudden inexplicable reconciliation like the kind that occurred at Woodlawn High School in the ’70s — possible when a sincere and undiluted faith in Christ’s core Gospel message is applied to the problem.
(To be clear, it will become obvious as you read this that not every Christian who claims to be a follower of Christ applies the actual principles of the Gospel to their lives. Even Jesus saw that this would happen when He predicted that there would be wolves among His sheep. The Western Christian church in America is often as unaware of these principles as “non-believers.” My prayer is that the church experiences a massive Great Awakening, rediscovers these truths of the Gospel, and actually applies them in an effective, non-hypocritical way that is full of integrity and commitment.)
First, I’ll quickly summarize these three unique features of Christianity — as summed up in 1 John 4 — and then explain why they work the way they do when people sincerely believe them and apply them to their lives:
1. The Origin of Salvation. 1 John 4:1-10 states that Jesus came into the world — not just that He was born. It implies that Jesus existed before His birth — that He was God, in other words; that Jesus pre-existed in what a physicist might call an extra-dimensional space independent from time and external to the universe itself. Jesus Himself claimed to be God come into the flesh in John 10 and in many other places in the four Gospels. Orthodox Christianity — i.e. the way it was in its original form — therefore claims that its founder is God who has come into the world as a human being to be with us and bear our weaknesses — “God with us,” as the title Emmanuel means, is one of Jesus’ names. No other religion makes that claim about its founder.
2. The Purpose of Salvation. 1 John 4 says He has come “in the flesh.” Why put it that way? Because that’s another way that Christianity is totally unique. Other religions say that the purpose of salvation is to liberate you — i.e. permanently separate you — from the flesh, from the material world and the body. (For example, many Eastern religions say that the physical world is an illusion, and our goal is to escape the illusion.) But Christianity says something very different. At the birth of Jesus, God, who came into our world as a human, received a body. And when Jesus rose from the dead, He still had a body. He ate food. He let people touch His wounds. He wasn’t a “ghost.”
This tells us something. God isn’t getting rid of this world. He’s redeeming it. Yes, eventually He will permanently remove death, evil, etc. but the material elements that He has made will go on. Christian salvation, in other words, finds hope not in escaping this world but in transforming it and bringing God Himself — and even all of Heaven as we see in Revelation — into this world. It’s why Jesus, in Matthew 5, tells us to pray “let Your kingdom come…on earth as it is in Heaven.” No other religion defines the purpose of salvation that way — that not only has God Himself taken on flesh to dwell among us, but He intends to heal the material world of all imperfections in the future. The fact that God wrote Himself into the story, so to speak, and became one of us, shows how deeply He loves His Creation.
However, a popular Western idea of Heaven is that souls escape their bodies and float eternally in a sort of disembodied ether of light.
But that’s not what the Bible says.
In Revelation we see the New Jerusalem — the New Heaven and the New Earth — coming down into the physical world. We’re not going up to Heaven. Heaven is coming down to us to redeem Creation once and for all.
And for that reason we work to improve the material world around us (without worshiping it as an idol) until the final redemption comes. We don’t dismiss it and say, “Oh, well, it’s all going into the trash anyways when every spirit escapes into the ether of Heaven.”
3. The Method of Salvation. In all other religions, they say if you want to be “saved” you must PERFORM the truth and do enough good works to earn your way into God’s favor and love, and thus also into Heaven. That’s not what the Gospel says at all. Verse 10 in 1 John 4 says that God loved us first before we ever made a decision to love Him.
In other words, Jesus, in His earthly ministry, was not a teacher who came to give us a new to-do list for us to accomplish in order to earn our way to God and Heaven. He wasn’t one philosopher among many giving us a new self-help book that we can use to make ourselves better (i.e. emphasis all on our own efforts to earn our way to salvation). That’s not the Gospel at all. Jesus is the Savior who came to pay, once and for all, our entire moral debt load before God by giving Himself up as the “Lamb of God,” the ultimate sacrificial atonement. As Keller said, Jesus “dies the death we should have died and lives the life we should have lived,” and then He confers all of that perfect righteousness and debt forgiveness on all of us imperfect sinners as a gift of radical grace; and He does it at the outset, at the beginning of our relationship with Him the moment we accept Him. He doesn’t wait until we’ve earned enough points. He dispenses it at the start.
Those are three things that are unique about Biblical Christianity.
Some might suggest that all the doctrine doesn’t matter as long as we stick to verse seven in 1 John 4 and its command to love one another. All we need is love, right? That’s what The Beatles said.
But the love that the Bible is talking about is a radical love — an unstoppable, counterintuitive, supernatural, unconditional, transform-an-entire-school-in-one-day kind of love that loves your enemies and forgives everyone who tries to destroy and insult you. We cannot gain access to such quick, deep, supernatural healing in our hearts — the kind we see at Woodlawn — or love others with this radical kind of love, without understanding and whole-heartedly believing and committing ourselves to these three unique truths.
If you’re saying, “Give me a break, of course you can,” well, here are three more reasons that explain why only these unique truths of Christianity transform us in this way:
A. The Gospel humbles you before those who don’t agree you.
Let’s remember what the definition of “religion” is. Religion, in its purest, most technical definition, simply refers to any process that finds a set of answers to the big questions: why are we here? What is the purpose of my life? What is the most valuable thing that I could be doing with my limited time on earth? The list of big questions goes on.
Works-based religion — where it’s all about keeping score and knowing who’s good and bad and building up a resume of virtues until you have enough credit in your account to earn God’s favor — always leads to a sense of superiority among those who practice it. It has to; that is the only logical conclusion of works-based religion.
However, even secularism leads to the same arrogant superiority as works-based religion. All the little precepts of what makes you “cool” or all the trendy, moral/social justice checklists of secular culture — i.e. what makes you an acceptable, good person in the eyes of secular society — add up to just another works-based religion, but without all the ceremonial trappings of churches and religious terminology.
(And in his sermon Timothy Keller mentions how secular culture in parts of New York City can be extremely harsh and critical in the way they judge and assess each other based on the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the money they make, the career they have, or the causes they promote. It provides a classic example of secular culture being just as stringent in its “m
oral code” as a stuffy, moralistic, works-based religion.)
The Gospel of Christ as presented in the New Testament — i.e. grace-based religion — is the only set of exclusive beliefs (and everyone has a set of exclusive beliefs) that leads the person to expect that others can and will be better than you morally. The whole point of the Gospel is that all of us have “fallen short of the glory of God” on the same fundamental level, so none of us — no matter what external moral behavior we have — can claim any better position than someone else. In fact, we see that God can and often takes those who are total moral failures in the eyes of works-based religious people and transforms them into the mightiest of saints by the supernatural power of His grace.
In other words, a heart and mind that have fully grasped and digested the Gospel will never look down on anybody no matter who they are — whether they’re secular, religious, conservative, liberal, sinner, saint. The Gospel strips away all of our little titles that we cling to and replaces them all with one single title and identity: SAVED BY GRACE.
Every other system of thought — whether works-based religion or the many secular modes of works-based systems — leads you to believe that you’ll be better than the people who don’t believe the things that you believe.
But the Gospel says to us, “I know you’re tempted to look at that other person and think, ‘wow, are they a mess,’ but if not for grace you could have been much worse than them.”
It transforms our identity and self-perception. You begin to see every attribute as grace, not as a mark of superiority.
B. The Resurrection — and the expectation of a New Heaven and New Earth.
The belief in the Resurrection — because of its direct proof that the Creator values the material world and plans to redeem it — compels us to make the world around us better, serve those who disagree with us, and love our enemies. Why? Because that’s exactly what the founder of religion did. We have no other choice if we sincerely want to be a follower of Christ and not just pay Him lip-service. And this leads to the final point.
C. Jesus as God.
ANOTHER OBJECTION FROM SKEPTIC: Someone can easily say to a Christian that their belief that Jesus is God will automatically lead the Christian to a sense superiority. They’ll make the case that a Christian will always say: “Oh, you go to another religion do you? Well, your founder is just a human being, and my founder is God.” Surely that’s going to lead to self-righteousness, right?
It absolutely did not, historically.
In the Greco-Roman world, the pagans were tolerant in a way similar that our postmodern culture is. And then here comes Christianity declaring JESUS ALONE IS GOD. Yet the early church produced the most inclusive, peaceful community in history up until that time. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. The Greeks and Romans didn’t mix rich and poor. The early Christians did. The Jews at that time didn’t mix races. The Christians did.
Here is the real question that we should be asking: why would such an exclusive belief that Jesus is God lead to the most inclusive, peace-loving, humble community that the world had seen up to that point?
Here’s the answer. This is where Timothy Keller really hits the mark: If Jesus isn’t just a great guy, but He is God incarnate, then in Jesus Christ ultimate reality has become visible.
And when ultimate reality becomes visible, you know what He is?
You see a man on the Cross loving people who don’t love Him. For a Christian, ultimate reality is a man on a Cross using His dying breaths to pray for His enemies and forgive those who hated and opposed Him. And when the early Christian took THAT into the core of their being, how could they be cruel or hurtful to anyone?
The Cross — which was ultimate reality in their minds — compelled them to love others with a radical love that the world had never seen before. And if you take the full weight of the Gospel into the heart of your life — if you truly make the Cross your ultimate reality because you sincerely believe that Jesus is God in the flesh — you will love others with a shocking, enduring, radical love that the world around you has never seen before.
Everyone has a set of exclusive beliefs. The right question is not, “Who has exclusive beliefs and who doesn’t?” Although that topic isn’t fully explored here, the idea that tolerant people don’t have exclusive beliefs is a myth. Everyone, even those who claim that there is no absolute truth (a statement, by the way, that must assume the authority of absolute truth to even make its claim) has a set of exclusive beliefs.
The right question to ask is this: which set of exclusive beliefs will transform you into the most loving, reconciling person?
If you take moralistic, works-based religion into the center of your life — and sadly many Christians have in America — then you will feel superior to the secularists and to other Christians who don’t appear to be as “put together” as you do.
If you take secularism into the center of your life then you will feel superior to all religious people.
But if you take the Gospel into the center of your life, you will be humbled before people who don’t believe what you believe, you’ll seek to serve the people who disagree with you, and you’ll know that a man who loves people who didn’t love Him is ultimate reality — what your entire life is built on.
Jesus as ultimate reality is the most logical choice if you want a loving, peace-filled community.
That’s the theological foundation beneath the message of the film “Woodlawn,” and that is the beating heart of the Gospel.
Note about my rating system for the movie’s film craft and entertainment value:
1 star = one of the worst movies ever made (the stuff of bad movie legends), and it usually (not always) has below 10% on Rotten Tomatoes
2-3 stars = a mostly bad movie that has a handful of nice moments; it usually falls between 10-30% on Rotten Tomatoes
4-6 stars = a decent movie with some flaws, overall. Four stars mean its flaws outweigh the good. Five stars mean equal good, equal bad. Six stars mean it’s a fairly good movie, with some great moments even, that outweigh a few flaws. A 4-6 star rating usually means it falls between 30-59% on Rotten Tomatoes (but not always).
7-9 stars = a rare rating reserved only for the best movies of that year; and a film must have a Fresh Tomato rating (60% or higher) on Rotten Tomatoes to be given 7 stars or higher, with a few exceptions (if I strongly disagree with the critics).
10 stars = one of the best films of all time, right up there with the all-time greats (i.e. Casablanca, The African Queen, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars Episode IV, Indiana Jones, etc.).
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