While The Hunger Games received most of the attention at the box office last weekend, another film also opened that, in its own way, was equally as notable. October Baby, a small-budget Christian film with a pro-life message, earned $1.7 million, which may seem negligible when compared to the $155 million of Hunger Games, but October Baby opened on less than 400 screens (compared to more than 4,000 for Hunger Games), and was produced for a fraction of the cost. The fact that it was ranked number one for limited-release movies demonstrates the continuing demand for quality Christian films. Not that long ago, a film made by overtly Christian filmmakers and released nationwide happened infrequently. Thankfully, that is changing. The quality and quantity of faith-based movies is increasing and so are the topics these films are addressing.
October Baby tackles admittedly provocative questions like: What would you do if you discovered you’re not exactly who you think you are, and that what you assumed about your origins is not true? What if you found out that you almost weren’t born, and furthermore that someone wanted it that way? It’s not easy to approach a subject like abortion, but October Baby does it with grace, class, and love. Rather than beat you over the head, or even tap you on the shoulder, the film wraps its arms around you and simply waits for your reaction to all it has to say.
I recently had the privilege to chat with brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, the co-directors/writers/producers behind the film, both in person and by telephone. Excerpts of our conversations follow, edited for clarity and conciseness.
CHANDRA WHITE-CUMMINGS: Considering that this is your first foray into filmmaking, why did you pick such a provocative and emotionally charged subject matter?
ANDY ERWIN: If you had asked us a few years ago, what would our first feature film be, we would have probably picked something other than this one. Not because it’s not a compelling story, but because it’s such a risky subject, and there’s so much heated emotion attached to both sides of this issue. I think as a filmmaker, sometimes you go out to find a film, but nine times out of ten the story finds you. Jon heard a woman speak named Gianna Jessen. She gave her testimony of surviving a saline abortion and having cerebral palsy as a result. She just has a beautiful spirit, and when we heard her story, Jon was so moved by hearing her speak.
CWC: Jon, what was it about her story that captured your attention and moved you?
THE STORY FOUND THEM: 'October Baby' filmmakers (and brothers) Jon and Andrew Erwin decided to tell a story that is a 'celebration of life.'
JON ERWIN: Andy’s right — sometimes a movie finds you, and when I heard Gianna speak … just the concept of an abortion survivor, those are two words I had no idea fit together. I was jarred, surprised, and shattered by it all at the same time. The more I researched it, the more I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I just felt this was a unique take on the topic, and it made a political issue become very real. When you look at it through that lens, when you put a face on it, you look at the person. You look beyond the politics to the human issue. And the whole thing moved me. People have said, “You’re very brave taking on this issue.” It’s really not that at all. I’m an artist and whatever is going on in my life works its way out in what we do. In this case, God moved in my life, shattered me over the issue, and it worked its way out into a movie. I felt like we’d been given a gift, a tool to shed light on the issue, but the challenge became how to do that. We ruled out a documentary, so we thought maybe we could take a different approach and make an entertaining film about a beautiful young girl.
AE: Yes, we used the context of Gianna’s life and inserted it into a coming-of-age love story in which a 19-year-old girl finds out that she’s a survivor of an abortion, goes on a road trip to find answers, and ultimately finds forgiveness. But our goal going into it wasn’t to do a political film but to do a human film, a human story that looks at the issue of abortion as a human rights issue, not as a political debate. So it was very interesting that through the eyes of the victim the story became much more entertaining and engaging. That’s when we knew this was the story we wanted to tell.
CWC: So the film was really story motivated and story driven, rather than message driven?
AE: Any movie should be. I think the movies that engage me the most as a viewer are not the ones that try and get a message or agenda across. I think that comes across as propaganda. Our goal is to tell a good story. The story that captivated our hearts as filmmakers was hearing Gianna’s testimony of survival. That’s what motivated us to tell this story of Hannah in October Baby. Being story driven allowed us to speak on a lot of topics we’re passionate about in a way that was not forced.
CWC: Let’s talk for a moment about the idea of “messaging” in films, especially those made by Christian filmmakers. I know you weren’t message driven with this film, but if you had to identify a message, what would it be?
AE: The message of October Baby is very much about forgiveness and healing. Those are universal and relatable topics and they allow you to address issues that you normally wouldn’t. This film deals with everything from abortion to adoption, from abstinence to post-abortive realities. There’s a line in the movie that says to be human is to be beautifully flawed. I think the reality that some films miss out on is that as humans, we are broken and we have issues. We use that reality to touch on these topics through the eyes of grace and through the eyes of the gospel in a way that I think a secular world can engage with.
JE: We hope the film doesn’t tell anybody what to think, but the biggest thing we wanted the movie to confront was indifference and inaction. This is one of the crucial issues of our time, and we very rarely stop and think about it. We wanted to address that apathy.
CWC: Do you consider this a pro-life movie? Are you comfortable with that term?
JE: Yes, I do consider it a pro-life movie. Is this a political movie? Absolutely not. The movie is about celebrating the value of life. In my opinion, that should be the definition of pro-life. It’s not an “anti-anything” movie. This film has a broad brush and encompasses not only the abortion/pro-life issue, but also adoption and caring for those who can’t care for themselves. I believe there’s an awakening in our culture, especially among our youth, to the value of life. I think we can all agree that we haven’t valued life enough, which manifests itself in a lot of different ways. So I would even go beyond pro-life and say the film is a celebration of life.
AE: I don’t think people will be offended at the way it’s presented. We don’t vilify or demonize anybody as much as we look at a very harsh reality, the very hard subject of abortion in a fresh way — through the eyes of someone who survived one.
CWC: But given that October Baby speaks to so many universal themes, like forgiveness and healing, do you have any concerns about people pigeonholing it as just a theatrical vehicle for the pro-life movement? Conversely, are you at all concerned about groups intentionally minimizing that aspect of the movie?
AE: My job as a filmmaker is to stir the pot and get people talking. If I can do that, then I’m able to step back from the process and trust that God will allow it to be productive. There are a lot of hurting people from all walks of life that will watch this film and it will stir all sorts of emotions and issues in them, and they will need to deal with those things. This is why our ministry partners are so valuable. For example, a ministry like Surrendering The Secret can step in and minister to post-abortive women. Or Care Net and Heartbeat International can minister to girls that are in a crisis pregnancy and don’t know what to do. I’m very excited about that.
I’m very comfortable with how Jon and I present the message in October Baby. I think we took an honest look at it. So I’m not ashamed at all, because I don’t think there’s anything about the way the story is told that I would apologize for. I think one thing my generation craves is a positive way to engage these issues. We’re tired of the negativity and the hurtful rhetoric. But we do want to stand for life and to raise awareness of the value of human life.
CWC: The value of human life is an important theme in the film. How have you extended that theme beyond the movie-going experience?
AE: Every life deserves a chance. Every life has value, no matter what. Jon and I decided that our film needed to be a catalyst for active involvement on these issues, so we started the Every Life Is Beautiful Fund. We and our distributors agreed that once the movie turns a profit, 10 percent of that profit will be set aside and distributed to frontline organizations that work with crisis pregnancies, post-abortive care, and care for orphans and adoption. We’re still working out all the details on that, but we’re excited to be able to give back with our movie.
CWC: Given the disproportionate incidence of abortion in urban communities, what do you think is an effective way to bridge the gap and use a film like this to penetrate that audience?
A DIFFERENT ROLE: Actress Jasmine Guy's time on screen is brief, but her character is pivotal in 'October Baby.'
JE: Great question. I think one of the biggest ways is to persuade people in all communities to wake up to the value of life and realize that faith without works is dead. Let’s get beyond politics and bring help to girls making this incredibly difficult decision, especially in our urban communities. As Andy stated, that’s one of the reasons we started the Every Life Is Beautiful Fund. We want those funds to go straight through to pregnancy care centers, including those in black and other urban communities.
CWC: One potential draw for the black and urban community is the role of Jasmine Guy. So many of us remember her from her role as Whitley on A Different World. Talk about the significance of her presence in this film.
JE: Without giving away the story line, she plays a character that ends up being the key that unlocks the mystery for Hannah. Hannah understands exactly what happened to her after her encounter with Jasmine. The whole movie hinges on Jasmine’s scene. If we didn’t have her, we wouldn’t have a movie. You can get ostracized for taking a role like this, so I’m just grateful she was bold enough to take it.
October Baby released nationwide March 23, 2012. Check the official film website for a list of cities where it’s showing and for resources related to the issues and themes presented in the film.
“The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a rule requiring that, under state health care exchanges, every enrollee in these insurance plans must pay a $1 surcharge directly into an account for abortions,” Carlson said. This comes after a January HHS directive that would require most religious employers to provide free contraception and other controversial reproductive health services in their insurance plans caused a political and religious fury.
Yale Legal Scholar Says Act Will Survive Supreme Court Scrutiny
But it would be “remarkable” if the Supreme Court struck down the act’s individual mandate to purchase health insurance and “revolutionary” if it struck down the act’s “extension of Medicaid to increase coverage for the poor,” Jack M. Balkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School, said at The Atlantic. Overturning the medicaid expansion would “throw into doubt the way that modern federal government works with states and it would jeopardize many popular social programs,” Balkin said.
Projected Employer Insurance Dump Could Reduce Deficit
The Affordable Care Act will cause a lot of employers to “dump people on government-run exchanges to get them off their neck,” Philip Klein, senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner, said in an interview with CBN News. But a new Congressional Budget Office report “argues that dramatic increases in employer dumping could reduce, not expand, the deficit,” Forbes “Apothecary” blogger Avik Roy said in a post at The Atlantic. In another post, Roy said the idea that the U.S. health-care system is predominantly a free-market one is a myth. “In reality, per-capita state-sponsored health expenditures in the United States are the third-highest in the world, only below Norway and Luxembourg. And this is before our new health law kicks in.”
President’s Standing With Catholics in Jeopardy
Nonetheless, the campaign of religious conservatives against the act “is taking some toll on the president’s standing with Catholics,” The Washington Post reported. The article cited a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that found “the percentage of white Catholics who said the Obama administration is unfriendly toward religion has nearly doubled since 2009, from 17 percent to 31 percent” and, among all Catholics, the percentage rose from 15 percent to 25 percent.
Republicans Have Troubles of Their Own
Republicans have problems with their own alternative to the president’s plan, however. On Thursday, House Republicans “voted to eliminate language in their healthcare reform bill that said the U.S. healthcare industry affects interstate commerce, which Republicans feared could undermine their argument that the Democrats’ 2010 healthcare law abused the Commerce Clause of the Constitution,” The Hill reported.
Prayer Rallies Left and Right
On Friday, pro-life groups held rallies in cities around the country to protest the “unjust violation of our religious liberty by the Obama Administration’s contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs mandate” and, on Sunday, they surrounded the Supreme Court building to pray “that justice may be done in these proceedings” and that “the religious freedom and freedom of conscience will be respected, that there will be no taxpayer subsidizing of abortion, and that the US Constitution will be honored.”
Today religious supporters of the act who want to “help people of faith move beyond cable news interpretations of health care reform” will follow suit by encircling the Supreme Court for prayer during oral arguments. According to The New York Times, their plan originated in the White House earlier this month.
As someone who joined the ranks of the uninsured this year for the first time in my adult life, I’ll be watching debate about the Affordable Care Act closely. I don’t know what the best solution is to the problem of unaffordable health insurance, but like an increasing number of Americans, I need one.
What do you think?
Do you want to see the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act enacted or overturned?
In Part 1, we saw how the problem with GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum started with his characterization of homosexual relationships, and Dan Savage’s … savage response to that characterization. We can see that the meaning embedded in Santorum’s words is what created such a firestorm of controversy, and it’s easy to see how such embedded meaning can be an obstacle in connecting to an audience, especially when the embedded meaning connects to racism.
Meanings make definitions
We’ve got to understand that meanings make definitions, and cultural definitions are the context in which our audiences live. So what this means for Rick Santorum, and for Christians in general, is that we are already at a rhetorical disadvantage for a certain section of the populace when we identify ourselves as Christians, because for them, the word “Christian” has already been defined by overwhelming negativity.
So we must use our words and actions to be strategic about counteracting this cultural definition of Christianity with a new definition. If we prize our faith as highly as we say, then we need to be ready not only to take a stand for our faith, but to do so with sensitivity toward those who don’t believe.
Consider what the apostle Peter told believers:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15b-16, NIV, italics mine).
Santorum’s biggest problem as it relates to the Dan Savages of the world is not just his policies, but meaning created with his words. He needs to be able to maintain his convictions in a way that isn’t quite as alienating to people in blue states (or failing that, he should avoid offending Black people in general). After all, Santorum is not simply running to get the Republican nomination. He is running to be President of the United States, and there are plenty of Americans who don’t share his faith.
What’s ironic is that, of all the significant faith groups in America, the one that seems to do this best is Mitt Romney’s Mormons. The LDS church has been known for decades as being media savvy, from the ’80s into the present day. And it makes sense that they are, because Mormon doctrine, although it uses a lot of the same language, is so fundamentally different from most aspects of mainstream Christianity that it’s widely considered to be a cult. They have to persuade people with emotional imagery in order to draw attention away from the fundamental beliefs that undergird their religious authority structure.
Wanted: Real Christians
This difference, along with the myriad of differences in terminology, doctrine and ideology between other legitimate sects of Christianity (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc.), means there are so many competing definitions of what a Christian really is, that no wonder the unchurched are so confused. It makes you want to ask, “Will the real Christian church please stand up?”
None of this is Rick Santorum’s fault directly. But it means that he’s sure got his work cut out for him. And even if he pulls a Rocky and somehow wins the Republican nomination — no sure thing considering he still has front-running Mitt Romney to deal with — he’s still going to have to find a way to relate to the rest of America.
I believe Rick Santorum has an authentic Christian faith. And even though there are aspects of his political record I find distasteful, I respect him for taking a public stand. His opponents might paint him as a phony, but then again people said the same thing about Dr. King. And as tone deaf as Santorum has been culturally, his immigrant lineage still connects him to the plight of the poor and the working class.
Plus, being a Christian will always put you in someone’s crosshairs. When the apostle Peter talked about others being ashamed of their slander, it reminded me of Dan Savage also attacking another prominent Christan named Rick — Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, someone who is much more image-conscious and well-known for his social justice efforts, which is why he was invited to give the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration.
Which just goes to show that as a Christian, following your convictions means you can’t please everybody.
I just wish more Americans understood what being a Christian really means. That it’s not the same as just “being a good person,” and that it’s more than just moralistic therapeutic deism.
Unfortunately, you’re not gonna get that from Google.
RESPECTING THE OTHER: Author and social activist Lisa Sharon Harper.
Lisa Sharon Harper is director of mobilizing for Sojourners and was the founding executive director of New York Faith & Justice. She holds a master’s degree in Human Rights from Columbia University and an MFA in Playwrighting from the University of Southern California. UrbanFaith talked to Harper about Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, in which she and co-author D.C. Innes discuss sometimes controversial issues from different political and biblical persuasions. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: From reading your book, Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, it seems that you and your co-author D.C. Innes hold fundamentally different views about the role of government. What are the essential differences in your positions and/or your views on the role of government?
LISA SHARON HARPER: We debated on Patheos.com and one of the things that we discovered in the midst of this is that our differences on the role of government and also on the role of business actually stem from our differences in the way that we approach Scripture.
For me, Scripture is not supposed to be used as a formulaic, how-to textbook where you can pick a verse and it tells you exactly what you’re supposed to do, out of context. What we have is lots of stories, histories, poems, poetry, song, prose, and together they tell a meta-narrative. They tell the story of the fall, the reconciliation of all relationships that God created.
So, I think the fundamental difference between us is the way that we view the Scripture and in particular the story of what is the gospel, what is the good news, then I think it really permeates the way that we approach the Scripture for our understanding of those basic questions of the role of government.
UrbanFaith columnist Andrew Wilkes wrote about a panel discussion that you participated in with Innes and others. He noted that you tended to draw from the Old Testament and Innes drew from the New Testament. Was that coincidental?
Yes, I think so. If you look at the book and at discussions that Innes and I have had since then, the foundation of my argument is based in the biblical concept of shalom, which has its foundation in the very beginning, in Genesis 1, but it’s woven through the entirety of Scripture. We find the establishment of the people of Israel and the law and government of Israel in the Old Testament, but then we see Jesus’ priorities on who needs to be protected in our society when he gives his very first speech in Luke 4, where he proclaims that he has come to pronounce freedom for the captives, good news to the poor, and sight for the blind.
The last speech he gives before he faces the cross is Matthew 25. When someone asks me what my political agenda is, I say, “Look at Matthew 25.” You actually see there the things and the people that Jesus was most concerned with. He’s looking at hunger. He’s asking the questions of food distribution. He’s looking at thirst. Who has access to water? I’m not just imposing that on the text. Jesus says, “The righteous will say, ‘When did we do all of this for you Jesus?’” What that word righteous means is “ones of equitable action and character.” It means “the just ones.”
When you start talking about equity, you’re talking about systems, the way things work. And so what Jesus is really saying is the ones of equitable action will say, “When did we do this?” And Jesus will say, “When you did it to the least of these.” Also, we have legislatures that will one day stand before Jesus, and Jesus will ask them, “What did you do for the hungry? What did you do for the thirsty? What did you do for the stranger, for the immigrant in our borders? Did they feel welcomed? What did you do for the sick? Is there an equitable distribution of health in our society? What about the prisoner? Is there equitable distribution of justice in our society? How about the destitute, those who are naked? What did you do for them?”
We are all going to be held to account for the ways that we treated the most vulnerable, and not just on an individual level, but on a societal level, and in the way that we create our systems.
CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.
Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.
The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment
An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.
Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.
The use of Scripture in political arguments
While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.
Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.
At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.
The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.