MOVIE REVIEW : GODS AND GENERALS
By J.Parnell McCarter
American evangelical Christians have praised the movie Gods and Generals, much like they did Chariots of Fire. As Doug Philips representatively testifies:
“In every generation, one film emerges from the dust heap which is Hollywood and reminds even the most hardened of us skeptics that God can turn ashes into beauty, that He often works outside our tidy little mental boxes, and that there yet remains a witness for Jesus Christ in our culture -- though that witness may take the form of a hero speaking from the grave. When I was a young man en route to college, that film was Chariots of Fire, the epic tale of Christian Olympian Eric Liddell. For our children's generation, that film is Gods and Generals, the stunning prequel to the Civil War masterpiece Gettysburg.” (see http://visionforum.com/corner/newsletter/2003_02_20/ )
And minister Brian Abshire writes:
“Despite what the pagan critics will say, many Christians, including me, will love this film and even idolize it because we identify more with our nineteenth century brothers than we do with modern America.” (http://www.visionforum.com/sp/sc/godsandgenerals/brianabshirereview.asp )
In fact, realizing its American evangelical appeal, Warner Brothers produced a "Workbook" for churches where the President of the Fuller Theological Seminar, Robert J. Mouw, encourages congregations and their leaders, in his open letter at the front of the book, to support the film and take large groups to the film as part of their study and worship. "Take time to plan a congregation- wide screening of 'Gods and General," he advocates in this letter.
I should make one admission up front: I have not watched nor do I intend to watch Gods and Generals, so my information about its contents comes from reviews I have read about the film. I do not watch such stage-plays because the word of God treats stage acting as immoral, just as it treats harlotry as immoral. The very term rendered in our English Bibles as “hypocrite” in the Greek is the word “stage actor”. Stage acting is pejoratively treated in scripture because it necessarily involves immoral conduct. In order to be realistic, stage acting must include imitating the sins of others. But it is wrong to imitate the sins of others. Let me give a few examples of how sin must be imitated by the stage actors. Brian Abshire affirms in his positive movie review of Gods and Generals : “We recognize that the greatest war criminal in American history was Abraham Lincoln who prosecuted a vicious war of aggression against his fellow Americans while forever changing the nature of our once constitutional civil government” (see http://visionforum.com/sp/sc/godsandgenerals/brianabshirereview.asp ) Now whether we agree or disagree with Mr. Abshire’s assessment of Lincoln, it is certainly the case that President Lincoln rejected reformed Christianity, and hence was a wicked man. But some stage actor had to imitate Lincoln in the movie. So someone had to imitate the very man who Mr. Abshire considers the “greatest war criminal in American history”. That is as wrong as allowing our children to play “cops and robbers”, wherein some children must necessarily play the robbers. It is not wholesome or good to play the wicked. But even if all the characters in a movie were Christian, to be realistic it would involve the actors in imitating sin. Thus, if an actor were to portray King David, he would have to re-enact adultery with some actress in order realistically to convey what happened in the life of David. But this would certainly be wrong. So unless a movie or stage-play is untruthful (which would also be wrong), it necessarily entails actors imitating the sinful deeds of others. And even acts which are not sinful in real life, as a husband kissing his wife, are wrong when done by two actors who are not married. (Gods and Generals has such scenes, according to the reviews.) So we should reject stage-plays, for if stage acting is wrong, then we should not allow ourselves to be entertained by it either. As Romans 1:32 affirms, we should not enjoy or be entertained by an evil act, just as we should not commit evil acts.
I am by no means alone in my condemnation of stage acting and the theater. As the noted Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller testified two centuries ago: “In the primitive Church, both the players, and those who attend the theatre, were debarred from the Christian sacraments. All the Fathers, who speak on the subject, with one voice attest that this was the case. A number of the early Synods or Councils, passed formal canons, condemning the theatre, and excluding actors, and those who intermarried with them, or openly encouraged them, from the privileges of the Church... Almost all the reformed Churches have, at different times, spoken the same language, and enacted regulations of a similar kind. The Churches of France, Holland, and Scotland, have declared it to be ‘unlawful to go to comedies, tragedies, interludes, farces, or other stage plays, acted in public or private; because, in all ages, these have been forbidden among Christians, as bringing in a corruption of good manners.’" For those who would like to peruse more reformed commentary on the subject, I would commend the website http://www.covenanter.org/Practical/Theatre/theatre.htm .
Non-Christians are often more honest about the anti-Christian content of theatrical productions than Christians. For instance, one non-Christian movie critic comments as follows about Gods and Generals:
“Jackson was an earnestly devout man, but his call for wife Anna (Kali Rocha, "White Oleander") to join him in a reading of Corinthians to mark his departure is risible, partly due to Rocha's heaving bosom.” (http://www.reelingreviews.com/godsandgenerals.htm )
This non-Christian movie critic recognized that immodesty of dress in the actress in a so called “Christian-friendly” movie as Gods and Generals is a denial of the very Christianity it purports to defend. When Christians are entertained by a movie that contains immodestly dressed women (which is the common fare of Hollywood movies), they are violating that precept testified by the godly Job: “I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?” This is hardly the wholesome form of recreation God permits or advises.
Another unacceptable aspect of Gods and Generals is its treatment of history. Jeff Shaara, the author of the book Gods and Generals upon which the movie is based, acknowledged the following:
"I've been criticized by some historians for putting words in the mouths of these characters, with creating the dialogue," he said. "Hey, my books are novels. The dialogue is fiction, but every word in every one of my books could have been spoken by these characters in this setting at this point in time, given what I've learned about the characters." (http://www.uumm.org/paying_the_price_for_freedom.htm )
Bill Potter – though he praises the movie in his review – correctly describes it as follows: “Does the film perfectly portray the men and events of the 1860s? Of course not, it's a movie! In fact, it is a cinematic interpretation of a novel!”
Sadly, Americans in general are learning most of their history from just such “historical” novels and movies, which are admittedly full of fiction. But my comments about the G.A. Henty series of historical novels at http://www.puritans.net/homeschoolcurricula.htm are apropos here too:
“Scripture provides a model of how history books are to be written, and it in no wise teaches history by means of historical fiction like employed in the Henty Collection. The Henty Collection sacrifices truth for the sake of entertainment. In its own words “the reader is greatly entertained by a fast-moving adventure story and more easily remembers the history associated with it”. But true Biblical scholarship should rather discipline students to seek truth always, even when the effort is uncomfortable to the flesh.”
Americans have great misconceptions about history in no small measure because they seek to learn about history through a means which is easy and entertaining, at the expense of truth. Furthermore, as students of history, we have a responsibility – where it is feasible- to seek out those resources which analyze history from a Biblical perspective, and which is true to the greatest extent possible. I would submit that Jeff Shaara does not analyze history from such a Biblical perspective, just as he admittedly incorporates fictional data in much of his book. This is no way to learn history, and entertainment should never be a primary criterion for a historical resource.
In addition, Jeff Shaara transforms an event that in truth is a signal judgment of God upon American wickedness, into an heroic contest among “gods”. This is analogous to transforming the death of a sodomite from AIDS into an account of an heroic martyr. And it is analogous to glorifying the Jews and Babylonian forces in their war leading to the destruction of Jerusalem. I realize my view of American wickedness will not sell theater tickets here, but it is the honest truth. In the eighteenth century America rebelled against its reformed and puritan past, with its established reformed Protestantism, choosing instead to create a secular humanist nation called the United States of America. The United States was born in sedition and revolution, and it has continued in this state of rebellion ever since. She has allowed heresy, idolatry, Sabbath desecration, etc. to proliferate. Nor was the Confederacy markedly different. Indeed, when Thornwell even proposed its identification with Christianity (not even Protestant Christianity), that modest proposal was rejected by the Confederacy. Even devout Presbyterian Christians like Dabney and Jackson were deceived by the American model of civil government. So instead of peaceably resolving the slavery issue like the United Kingdom, God in judgment gave the USA over to a brutal Civil War in the nineteenth century for her sins and errors. (For more information on this topic, please refer to my article at http://www.puritans.net/news/jeremiah070103.htm ) Nor has the divine judgment ceased to our own day, as the widespread murderous abortion, covenant-breaking divorce, and sodomy attests. The United States has been living proof of Romans 1:18-32.
Finally, the movie itself, and its title, borders upon the blasphemous, by identifying the generals in the Civil War- and even Americans in general - with ‘gods’. This really gets to the heart of what makes Americans so wicked in the sight of God: we have put ourselves in the place of God, effectively acting like “gods”. We have eaten the forbidden fruit, which holds out the promise that we “shall be as gods”. Such human deification is common in pagan and pseudo-Christian societies. Thus, Roman Catholicism treats a godly Christian woman like Mary as if she were a ‘god’. And the painting on the dome of our US Capitol- entitled ‘the apotheosis of Washington’ – essentially deifies George Washington in picture form. One way this deification of humans manifests itself in America is our incorrect notion of freedom. We act as if we have the “freedom” to disobey the Ten Commandments with impunity and to erect our own standards in their place. We have adopted a form of freedom which is licentious, and quite foreign to true Biblical freedom. Here is how American “freedom” is described by the author of Gods and Generals:
WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 2003 -- President Bush has said the war on terror is a war for freedom. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said the attacks on New York and the Pentagon were aimed at the values Americans hold dear. Best-selling author Jeff Shaara says the "idea" of the United States of America is something worth fighting for, and if need be, dying for. Shaara wants to ensure that Abraham Lincoln's "mystic chords of memory" reach from every patriot grave unto the 21st century generation... "Freedom" is used so often that it becomes a cliche, he said. What it means in the United States is the ability to live and strive and take advantage of opportunities. It is the chance to better yourself or your family. It is the ability to walk down a street and attend the church you want, or go to the school of your choice, or buy the book you wish.” (http://www.uumm.org/paying_the_price_for_freedom.htm )
But American “freedom” is not true Biblical freedom, nor is the so called “freedom” we have given to Iraq true freedom. Jesus Christ condemned the notion of “freedom” that Americans hold so dear, and He taught what true freedom is. Here is what He taught:
“They answered him, We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free? Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin…If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”
That people is only truly free who Jesus Christ has saved from a life of rebellious sin, to live in obedience to Christ’s Ten Commandments. It is a people that upholds Christ’s commandments, and a nation that enforces these commandments. But Americans – like the Iraqis they have made “free” – know very little about that freedom, because Americans have chosen a secular humanist society instead of a reformed Christian society. We Americans may act like ‘gods’, but in reality we are little more than slaves to sin in need of repentance and reformation as a people. This was true in the United States of the nineteenth century, and it is true in the United States of today. The extent of the slavery to sin has only increased. But movies like Gods and Generals subtly suggest, like the serpent of old, that “ye shall be as gods.”