As a resolution comes before the Southern Baptist Convention mid-June calling for parents to pull children from public schools, the topic of Christian education slips again into public dialogues.
Religion in school, however, is getting more than just a Southern Baptist makeover. It’s getting the silver screen treatment in a new movie called “Saved!,” a fresh teen comedy set at a Christian high school.
The film, which follows a group of teens struggling with faith, identity and acceptance, was written by Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban. It has sparked outrage from some groups and individuals who feel that it mocks the Christian faith, while others say it pokes fun at hypocrisy, not faith.
Michael Urban—born in Oklahoma, raised in Florida, and holder of a bachelor’s in art history and German language and a master’s in screenwriting from the American Film Institute—recently spoke with EthicsDaily.com from his office in Los Angeles.
Urban met Dannelly—co-writer and director of “Saved!”—at the AFI. They had a script assignment together, and they began talking about ideas.
“We realized pretty quickly that we had the same sensibilities and a similar sense of humor,” Urban said.
Dannelly had attended a Baptist high school, and Urban’s family was Southern Baptist. Their backgrounds led them in the direction of what became “Saved!” The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opened May 28 on roughly 20 screens across the country, with a wider release expected.
“It was something that we both knew firsthand,” said Urban of Christian culture. “We were particularly interested in the world that we set it in because it was something that we had never seen portrayed in film.”
The movie takes place at fictitious American Eagle Christian High School, where school-year calendar events—like opening assembly and prom—help lend dramatic action to the story.
Speaking of Christian schools, Urban said, “It was much more of a homegrown movement when we were teenagers, and in the interim it had become much more organized. It was interesting to us, too, that it had changed in that way.”
The high school in the film is run by Pastor Skip, played by Martin Donovan, who enjoys talking hip-hop as he tries to relate to his student body.
“Who’s down with G-O-D?” he asks at assembly. “Let’s get our Christ on!” he exhorts.
It’s a teen movie hallmark, in fact, to show generational differences and conflict. Some of the best of these films have been written by John Hughes (“Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club”), whose work had an impact on Urban and Dannelly.
“I grew up watching those films,” Urban said. “They were really influential. They were the first teen films I had seen that didn’t assume teenagers were idiots. They spoke in an honest and straightforward way.”
Mary, the film’s main character played by Jena Malone, experiences a crisis of faith early in the movie. Her boyfriend tells her he’s gay, and Mary, thinking she’s doing what Jesus wants her to do, has sex with Dean in order to keep him on the straight and narrow.
Significantly, Jesus—in the underwater “vision” Mary has of him—does not tell Mary to sleep with Dean (though some critics have suggested that he did).
“What he says in the swimming pool is, ‘Dean needs you now. You must do all you can to help him,'” said Urban, recollecting the dialogue. “We left it open-ended because it’s a message about being compassionate.”
“She understood it in a completely different way,” Urban continued. “It definitely is about how people hear the message of Christ and interpret it based on their position in life—and sometimes what they want it to mean.”
The decisions that Mary makes in the film have been a lightning rod for criticism from both sides of the spectrum.
Folks on the right are upset that Mary sleeps with Dean, and folks on the left are upset that Mary never questions the decision to keep the resulting baby.
Owen Glieberman, movie critic for Entertainment Weekly, wrote that Mary resolves her pregnancy “with a starry-eyed naivetÃ© that borders on the irresponsible. I wish that Saved! weren’t a facile pro-life movie.”
“We get that comment sometimes,” Urban said. “Why wasn’t abortion even discussed?”
“For that character, there’s no way—even though she’s going through a crisis,” he continued. “She didn’t completely abandon her faith. In her mind, there’s no way she should have an abortion.”
Faith and Religion
Urban said he thinks most people experience a crisis of faith at some point in their lives.
“I don’t know if everyone has to have one, but I think most people do,” he said. “And what we were trying to say with this film is that it’s OK to have a crisis of faith.”
“From my own experience, it was one of the bleakest and most lonely experiences of my life,” he continued. “And I definitely came out stronger for the experience.”
Urban also said his experience with organized religion has generally been positive.
“Nothing really terrible happened to me within any organized religion,” he said. “I think that people who have faith and live by the courage of their convictions are to be applauded. It’s a difficult thing.”
In the film, two characters who live by their convictions are Pastor Skip and his son, Patrick, played by Patrick Fugit.
“In my mind, they’re both good people, and they’re both strong in their faith,” Urban said. “But Pastor Skip just can’t make that leap [to accept gays]. He sees acceptance as condoning, and Patrick does not.”
“I know people have all different kinds of feelings about that, and people are entitled to believe what they want to believe,” Urban continued. “But what we show in the story is that it’s definitely a choice that isolates people.”
Urban said the process of getting “Saved!” from script to screen has been “a great experience,” despite the criticism the film has generated.
“We get criticized for bashing Christianity,” said Urban, “and we get criticized for not bashing it enough. I anticipated a lot of the stuff about acceptance being equated with condoning. And I anticipated some of the criticism that we were unfairly poking fun at people.”
He didn’t expect allegations that the film was part of a “Jewish conspiracy,” however. One of the film’s producers is Jewish, and Urban said there had been some extremist Internet activity about this issue.
Really, Urban said, “the problem that the extremists have with the film is its message of love and tolerance. Those things seem to be outside the grasp of extremists quite often.”
And even though the Internet has given way to hate-filled responses, it has also evidenced thoughtful reflection.
“I personally have been really thrilled to see the level of debate going on in discussion boards,” Urban said. “The level of dialogue that this move opened up really surpassed my expectations.”
After all, “The abuses of any organized religion are not about that specific religion,” he said. “They’re about humans, and we’re deeply flawed. I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie’s official Web site is here.