Loving the Loathsome

It’s become customary among Christians to blame Hollywood for the coarsening of American culture. And if you’re familiar with movies like Showgirls and Natural Born Killers it’s easy to understand why. These films personify Hollywood’s infatuation with gratuitous gore and sex. It may surprise you, then, to learn that some of Hollywood’s hottest new films have been cited for producing "a great increase either in man’s love of God or man’s understanding of God." That’s the criterion used to select the nominees for the first Templeton Prize for Inspiring Movies. AnD get this the winning entry, the Academy Award-winning Dead Man Walking, was made by two of Hollywood’s most notorious liberals: Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. In fact, critics have called Dead Man Walking the most profoundly Christian motion picture Hollywood’s given us in many years, and I think they’ve got a point. Dead Man Walking is based on the true story of Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun played by Sarandon. Sister Helen counsels death row inmates in Louisiana’s Angola Penitentiary. Matthew Poncelet, a prisoner portrayed by Sean Penn, asks Sister Helen to visit him. But Sister Helen discovers that it’s not easy to minister to a man condemned to death for the rape and murder of two teenagers. At their first meeting, Poncelet speculates aloud about Sister Helen’s sex life. His conversations with the nun reveal a man filled with hate and resentment, one who’s completely unrepentant for his crimes. Poncelet isn’t Sister Helen’s only problem. The grieving parents of Poncelet’s victims force Sister Helen to relive the last day of their children’s lives. In a flashback sequence, we see Poncelet smiling as he brutally murders the teenagers. In one of film history’s greatest understatements, Sister Helen tells a priest, "I don’t know if I like him." But it’s through Sister Helen’s eyes that we’re finally able to perceive Poncelet as something other than a monster, and that’s what makes Dead Man Walking a profoundly Christian movie. Sister Helen insists on loving the loathsome Poncelet out of her love for Christ. And it’s Sister Helen’s conviction of Poncelet’s eternal worth that makes her insist that Poncelet repent and take responsibility for his actions. Dead Man Walking accurately teaches two truths about Christianity at a time when Christians are more typically portrayed as bigots and extremists. First, the film teaches that Christians are called to love the unlovable. Second, Dead Man Walking teaches that only a strong faith in Christ can empower us to fulfill this biblical command. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will tell you this much: I’ve never seen repentance more powerfully portrayed on the screen. In fact, the entire movie will ring true to anyone involved in prison ministry as we are. So I say three cheers for Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon for creating this remarkable film. Dead Man Walking is rated R for some rough language and for the depictions of rape and murder. So don’t go see it if you’re sensitive to that, and don’t take children. But two artists whom Christians might caricature as "godless Hollywood liberals" have produced a tremendous movie. One that serves as a witness to the power of Christ.  


Chuck Colson


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