Director Dannelly’s film ridicules the Christian audience he now hopes will save “Saved!”

Brian Dannelly walked out of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. It was, for him, all too silly. 

He now says Saved!, his directorial debut, is a cross between “Mean Girls” and “The Passion of the Christ”. Well, at least the part of Passion he saw before he skedaddled. Why would he say this if Gibson’s film is silly? 

Because of the success of Passion. Dannelly believes that Saved! will appeal to the same audience. 

His theory is being tested this week in 20 theatres. A massive publicity effort has made the filmmakers and actors available for both print and media interviews. Macaulay Culkin (who plays Roland, the wheelchair bound likeable smart-mouthed Roland) was recently on Larry King Live confessing he would have worked on the film for no money. It was so smart and perceptive he couldn’t say no. 

Referencing the growing controversy surrounding Saved!, Mandy Moore (who plays the Bible-thumping, hate-spewing Hillary Faye) told Diane Sawyer on Good Morning Americathat she thinks most of the criticism comes from people who have not seen the film. She thinks those who see the film will conclude that it is “really very sweet”.

So I went out and saw the film. 

Dannelly and Culkin and Moore could not be more wrong. Saved! is a vicious attack on traditional Christianity that is anything but “sweet”.

Several Christians working on the film quit in production. A Christian rock band that was to perform during prom scenes pulled out. So did a church that was to be used for some shots. Funding for Saved! was cut three times during production.

Saved! is a subversive teen comedy set at American Eagle Christian High School. As the opening titles roll a bold line crosses the exclamation point at the end of Saved! turning even punctuation into commentary. Dannelly doesn’t let any opportunity to skewer triumphalistic Christians slip by. 

The film’s protagonist is Mary. Gee, I wonder why Dannelly picked that name? She opens the film telling secrets underwater with her ice-skating boyfriend, Dean. When he bubbles out that he is gay, she comes up for air only to hit her head. The pool boy rescues her. Mary, half unconscious, thinks he is Jesus telling her that Dean needs her now and she must do all she can to help him.

She decides she will save Dean from his “spiritually toxic affliction” by having sex with him. After all, “what would Jesus do?”

Soon Dean’s parents discover his not so secret secret and send him to Mercy House, a treatment facility for alcoholism, unwed mothers, drug addicts, and “de-gayification”.

At a spiritual pep rally we are introduced to Pastor Skip who opens his talk with “Let’s kick it Christian style!”, “Let’s get our Christ on!” and “Who’s down with the G! O! D!”

As Pastor Skip does an altar call we see close ups of several students and hear their personal prayers, each one silly and selfish.

We also meet Cassandra (Eva Amurri; daughter of Susan Sarandon). She is the only Jew in the school. She goes to American Eagle because, “After I got expelled from the last school it was either here or home schooling. I figured I could deal with these freaks better than my parents.” 

During the rally she feigns speaking in tongues as she rips at her blouse. The boys get excited because they think she is going to tear it off. Finally Hillary tells everyone what Cassandra is saying in pig Latin. It is not the only time the film mixes explicitly sexual content with sacred material. 

Dannelly told a Christian web site that he loves “the whole ‘Jesus Rocks’ movement. I found the experience of people of all ages and from all walks of life coming together to celebrate their beliefs deeply moving and inspiring.”

Either Dannelly or his movie is lying. 

Hillary decides to save Cassandra. This gives Dannelly the opportunity to make his case that orthodox Christianity is anti-Semitic.

From here on out Hillary is the “good” girl with the evil heart. Cassandra, her nemesis, is the exact opposite. In fact, throughout the film there is an absolute corollary between being a Christian and being cruel. Each time someone declares that they’re no longer a Christian or are very angry with God then they become human and acceptable. They are welcomed into the real-people club.

Each character’s transformational arc is the same, making the director’s message unquestionable. Religious belief gets in the way of you becoming who you are. It makes you rude, spiritually arrogant, judgmental, hypocritical and stupid. We all know each one of us is capable of any one of these traits. In Saved!, ALL the Christians have ALL of them ALL of the time. Christianity gets in the way of how you relate with others. And it stays a problem until you jettison it.

Mary finds out she is pregnant. She defiantly swears under a cross to show her disgust at God for telling her to sleep with Dean.

Hillary holds a prayer meeting to pray for Dean, whom she calls “the pervert”.

After all, “Prayer works, it’s been medically proven!” Half of the audience laughs. There are no benefits to traditional Christianity whatsoever. Vague faith- maybe. Orthodox belief- no.

Mary tells Hillary at the prayer meeting that she hopes she knows this is all a waste of time. Mary recites what Dannelly now reports in interviews to be the film’s primary message, “I am trying to find a new religion or a new God. They can’t all be right but they can’t all be wrong.”

That’s obviously what our culture needs! More mutilated Rousseauian ideology of the self.

Hillary does an intervention on Mary. She and her friends kidnap Mary and take her into the woods where they attempt an exorcism to get rid of the evil in her. Hillary screams, “You have become a maggot for sin. You’re backsliding into hell. Mary, turn away from Satan.”

When Mary turns to walk away the Bible-thumping, Bible-bashing Hillary actually throws her Bible at her as she yells, “I am filled with Christ’s love and you’re jealous of my success in the Lord!”

At this point I had to remind myself that I know hundreds, even thousands of Christians. Not one of them is like this; not on the Christian right or the Christian left. In fact, with the exception of Patrick (Pastor Skip’s son who has a crush on Mary) and Roland, every person in this film is a thoughtless stereotype. 

Patrick starts to despise his father, Pastor Skip. He knows that his parent’s marriage is a farce. When his dad tells him that divorce is not part of God’s plan, Patrick tells him he needs a new plan.

The message is persistent and clear.

Pastor Skip has dinner out in public with Mary’s mom. She tells him that she doesn’t care if what they are doing is wrong. “Skip, I feel good when I’m with you and I think you feel good when I’m with you. Why would God give us these feelings of happiness if it is wrong?”

We cut to the most sacrilegious moment in the film. Patrick plays Jesus nailed on the cross during the last scene of the school’s rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar. As Patrick moans and writhes in pain, Cassandra and Mary translate it into sexual ecstasy. Cassandra tells Mary, “that’s what I call hung on a cross!”

Dannelly reports it was never his intent to offend. Oh really.

This film reminds us that there are many exclusive secularists in our culture who reject traditional Christian belief as not only a huge waste of time, but a force for evil. Whatever it takes it must be stopped. Their brief history of Christianity goes something like this:

(1) Jesus was a good moral leader. But it was Paul who Hellenized his teachings, making Jesus not just the Son of Man, but the Son of God. Paul’s universalization of the faith to the gentiles set Christianity up as a real alternative to Roman paganism, but his high stakes religious gamble paid off only after he and the other Gospel authors turned their back on their Judaism, setting up centuries of anti-Semitic persecution in exchange for the possible control of the Roman world. 

(2) Constantine and Charlemagne further radicalized Paul’s Christianity by using it to subdue warring pagan cultures into the unified military hegemony known today as the Holy Roman Empire, which for centuries oppressed nearly all human life visa vie the Crusades, the Inquisition, and world-wide colonialization, outweighing all positive benefits of the faith. 

(3) Today this tradition remains alive in American evangelicalism and fundamentalism. The most extremist arm is the Southern Baptist Convention. Traditional Catholics who dare to adhere to the doctrines of their church run a close second.

(4) Christian orthodoxy is still used by a powerful few to manipulate the ignorant many. A radical rebirth is needed to free us from this belief system that remains a hideous cancer on our culture and on our personal lives.

Saved! promotes this myopic reading of history. Dannelly wants Christians to see Saved! so he can sell them tickets AND his world view. 

When vandals spray anti-Christian vulgarity all over the campus Pastor Skip expels Cassandra. But it is Hillary who is exposed as the graffiti vandal after publicly swearing to God at the prom that she didn’t do it. Now even Hillary is shamed by the untenable moral code she so stridently defended. She runs from the gymnasium just as a busload of Mercy Home kids show up to crash the prom. When Pastor Skip tells Dean and his boyfriend they can’t go in because this is an issue of right vs. wrong, Dean shouts back, “It’s ALL a gray area!”

Mary agrees. “So everything that doesn’t fit into some stupid idea of what God wants you try to get rid off. No one fits in 100% of the time. Not even you.”

Mary knows he has been having an affair with her mom. She asks Pastor Skip, “Why would God make us all so different if He wants us all to be the same?”

Just then Hillary Faye, spewing hate at Jesus for not giving her the prom of her dreams even though she has been a true follower, drives her van into the massive sneaker glad statue of Jesus at the end of the parking lot, decapitating it. Cassandra is first to her. “That was so awesome, Hillary Faye!”

Now Hillary has joined the human race, free of the dehumanizing worldview known as Christianity. She is finally free of her hate and her intolerance.

At the end Mary, in the joy of childbirth, concludes that “life is too amazing to be pure chance. There has to be a god, or something out there. Perhaps something inside. You just have to feel it. What would Jesus do? I don’t know. But in the meantime we will try to figure it out together.”

I found myself speaking out loud in the theatre, “It’s called theology and millions of Christians have been doing it for a couple thousand years. Welcome to the discourse!”

What infuriates Dannelly is that they have not all come up with his conclusions.

Pluralism, what Dannelly believes he is promoting with Saved!, is actually dealt a blow by his film. Most of the world’s people believe that their faith is based on sacred texts which place limits not only on their behavior but also on what to have faith in. Saved! is an attack on the concept of orthodox belief. 

The world over, firmly held beliefs make us more, not less human.

Tolerance, an inadequate notion at best, requires true difference of opinion based not only on feelings but thought. Love, always preferable to tolerance, requires a positive stance toward others apart from the beliefs they hold. 

Jesus commands us to love one another but to believe certain things. Dannelly’s message in Saved! is that we can only love one another when we no longer believe anything.