Monday, February 06, 2006

End of the Spear

Steve and I saw End of the Spear on Saturday. Powerful movie. I've long been fascinated by this story--from reading Through Gates of Splendor a few years ago, to seeing Steve Saint and Mincaye at a Steven Curtis Chapman concert, to interviewing Steve Saint for a newspaper article before he came and spoke at IWU.

The summary, for any who might be unfamiliar: Five young men, compelled by their love for Christ, seek to take the Gospel to a remote Ecuadorian tribe. The tribe is rapidly killing itself off through an endless cycle of murder and revenge. And their reputation for violence is well known; they have killed all foreigners who have tried to reach them. In January of 1956, all five are speared by men of the tribe. But the widow of one martyr and the sister of another end up going to live with the tribe, and the Waodani people find salvation through the glorious gospel of Christ. And it comes full circle: Mincaye, the man who murdered Nate Saint, is now known as "Grandfather" by Nate's grandchildren. Amazing story.

Anyway, I read a lot about, and became very frustrated with, all the recent controversy surrounding the film. After reading this article (lengthy, but well worth your time if you know what I'm talking about and are concerned about the film's casting) and this review, I was convinced I wanted to see the movie. (Note: if you have no idea what I'm talking about, you might enjoy the movie more if you go see it before immersing yourself in all the arguments.)

The film moved me to tears several times--it's truly an incredible story. (It also renewed my desire to see the documentary version, which came out on DVD a few months ago, Beyond the Gates of Splendor.) I had heard several people express disappointment that the Gospel was not clearly presented in the film, and after seeing it, I have mixed feelings about that. I understand and respect the filmmakers' desire to make a film that nonbelievers would go see--a film in which the characters' actions speak louder than their words, a film that is not preachy and does not insert a hokey "here's a three-step plan of salvation." Clearly the redemption story is there, if not explicit. And I think reviewer John Ferguson makes an excellent point:
Others will claim that the gospel message is not presented as clearly as it should have been. Christ is not explicitly mentioned and the tribe’s need for him is not particularly clear other than to prevent further murders. ...

These points are well taken but should not cause us to debunk the entire project. One senses a strong hope in recent times within evangelical Christianity for a movie that we can walk into with a pagan and walk out of with a convert. Perhaps, as much as anything, we desire it in order to cover up our own inadequacies. But we should be wary of any such hope, for the wisdom that brings salvation is to be found—not in movie theaters— but in the Scriptures. Any claim that a movie can substitute for God’s Word is not only erroneous but will prove itself futile.
I tend to agree. I think Christians are too often hoping to be able to take unsaved friends to an event--a church service, a movie, whatever--and have someone else lead them to Christ. In other words--we don't want the responsibility of proclaiming His name to our unsaved friends, of building relationships and sharing the Gospel ourselves. This movie, like other events, could be a valuable tool for stimulating questions and discussions--but we should not place unrealistic hope on a film to do what only the Holy Spirit and the Word of God can do.

That said, I do wish the film would have more clearly shown what drove the missionary martyrs, and what ultimately set the Waodani people free from their bondage to violence and fear. For instance, there's one moment in particular where Mincayani voices his fears of the missionaries' message and sheds light on the beliefs and superstitions of his people. It would have been a perfect opportunity to flesh out the Gospel a little more clearly--and I think it definitely could have been done without being preachy--but that didn't happen.

As I'm learning more and more, it's foolish (if not downright dangerous) to assume the Gospel and move it to the periphery. I know all of the back story, so I can see the Gospel--but will others who come to the story for the first time? However, while the absence of the Gospel is disappointing, I'm with Ferguson in that I don't think we should completely reject the film because of it.

"Another criticism," Ferguson notes, "is that the Christian character of the missionaries is somewhat diluted. In contrast, when reading Elisabeth Elliot, one is struck by the fact that the characters of these men and women were permeated with Scripture." I have to agree here--in fact, I felt a little disappointed with/confused by the way the missionaries were presented. Their attitudes and actions at times seemed too flippant and lighthearted--not at all in keeping with the portrait of their deep commitment to Christ and their willingness to die for the salvation of the Waodani that Elisabeth Elliot portrays in her book. That said, it's still a good movie.

I pulled out my copy of Through Gates of Splendor when we got home and began rereading. So powerful and inspiring. I'll leave you with these words, written by Pete Fleming:
[note: the Waodani people were known as Aucas by neighboring tribes--the word means "savages," so they are now known by the name they call themselves, Waodani]
"I am longing now to reach the Aucas if God gives me the honor of proclaiming the Name among them. ...I would gladly give my life for that tribe if only to see an assembly of those proud, clever, smart people gathering around a table to honor the Son--gladly, gladly, gladly! What more could be given to a life?"
Those words send chills down my spine as I read them fifty years later. To know that Pete Fleming and his friends did indeed give their lives for that tribe--and their blood was the seed God used to plant His Word in the hearts of the Waodani...To know that Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian and Nate Saint will one day worship the King of Kings alongside the very men who speared them...What a mighty God we serve!

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