It’s February 2017 and my friend asks me if I want to go and see Hacksaw Ridge. I’m not sure. The film has been getting some rave reviews amongst my Christian friends – a friend-of-a-friend has claimed it’s one of the best films they’ve ever seen, but I can take a guess as to why.
I suspect a key reason for its popularity is that the protagonist might be a Christian. Which is to say, those who love Hacksaw Ridge are pretty certain he is, but when the topic is raised in a group there are usually others who aren’t so sure. These people are often less enthused about the film.
So I ask Google. Turns out that Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a medic who served in World War II and received the Medal of Honour, despite being a pacifist. His non-violent stance, manifested in a refusal to even carry a firearm, was inspired by his Seventh-day Adventist faith. Ah…
I look up Seventh Day Adventism on Wikipedia. They’re annihilationists. Is this a problem? As Desmond Doss watched the unsaved masses perish on the field of battle, he did not imagine that their souls would endure conscious, eternal torment in hell. Is that a deal breaker? Basically, I’m trying to establish whether Desmond Doss is a ‘real’ Christian. And this is very important. Because if he was, then the film is a triumph, validating the wonderful propensity of God to glorify Himself through the sanctification of His children, allowing them to live in a radically Christ-like manner. For the same reason, this movie should also be earmarked as a crucial tool for witnessing to non-believers. However, if Desmond Doss is not a ‘real’ Christian, this film is the story of a nice man, whose stirring and heroic actions nonetheless represent a futile attempt to buy his own salvation through good works. To elevate it any higher than that would be to suggest that Christ-like actions may genuinely arise from sources other than theologically-sound Christian beliefs, something tantamount to anti-evangelism.
For right or wrong, as Christians we tend to judge on the level of the individual, rather than the action. It’s a little silly to create theoretical scenarios based on the lives and actions of real individuals, but permit me this indulgence – if Desmond Doss was an atheist (or professed another religious belief) would Hacksaw Ridge have garnered the amount of acclaim that it did amongst the Christian circle. Given the significant numbers of American movie-goers who identify themselves as Christians, would it have grossed as much at the box office? And if not, is this justified?
Sometimes it’s tempting to view Christianity like a clubhouse. We love established figures who operate within the clubhouse (Tolkien, Lewis etc.). We also love it when established figures poke their heads into the clubhouse from outside. These are the people like Kanye West, when he asked Jesus to follow him around, or Chance the Rapper and his cheery prosperity gospel. Sure, they may curse occasionally and their theology may be a little ropey, but we’re a welcoming bunch and, more excitingly, we get to lay claim to these people who we previously had no idea were one of ours. That’s why it’s now cool to like Justin Bieber. It’s also the reason a large number of Christians suddenly developed a keen interest in boxing before the 2015 Pacquiao vs Mayweather fight. [Footnote 1]
What we’re less keen on, however, is people bridging the gap between ‘church’ and ‘world’ by poking their head out of the clubhouse. That’s why it’s disquieting to hear Sufjan Stevens [Footnote 2] sing about masturbating, or say the f-word, or to question the degree to which faith really provides any comfort in the wake of bereavement. After all, he should know better. Besides which, Sufjan is one of our hottest properties, and the last thing we need is him leaving the clubhouse to stretch his legs and never coming back.
Anyway, I digress. None of this is answering the question as to whether I should take up my friend’s offer to see Hacksaw Ridge. I return to Google to seek more answers, but am distracted by today’s Google Doodle. It’s in celebration of Abdul Sattar Edhi. I have no idea who he is and I silently chastise myself for my Western-centric knowledge of influential figures. Clicking through to his Wikipedia page, I discover that Edhi was a Pakistani philanthropist whose prolific humanitarian career involved the nationwide establishment of hospitals, homeless shelters and a highly-efficient volunteer ambulance service. ‘Now here’s an inspiring individual’ I think. ‘Given my ignorance, I wouldn’t mind seeing a biopic of this guy’. But my interest is short-lived – I scroll down further and discover that Edhi was ‘often critical of the clergy’ and ‘had never been a religious person’.
Ah well, nevermind. Not one of ours.
Footnote 1: In case you missed the result, God didn’t let the inferior sportsman win just by virtue of being an evangelical Christian.
Footnote 2: For the uninitiated, check out Sufjan’s album Seven Swans. A lovely collection of gospel-infused folk ballards, Seven Swans cemented Sufjan’s place in the tiny slither of the Venn Diagram where ‘traditional Christian beliefs’ and ‘hipster-approved’ overlap. Hipsters much prefer a more poignant, subtle narrative of someone struggling with and eventually losing their religious faith, because faith, although comforting, is ultimately childish and a bit silly.