Where do I even begin on this movie? I have so much that I want to say and so much to break down that I’m not sure I can do it all in a single blog post. But let’s get started. This is not a true movie. This is a visual sermon that is intended to be broken down into scenes that can be presented in Bible studies and Sunday School rooms to demonstrate points.
I am a Christian, and I do believe that prayer is powerful and effective. I also grew up in the Bible Belt and am familiar with Christian culture, including Beth Moore and typical Christian movies. This movie has me exceptionally torn because I want to like it and feel expected to like it because I am a Christian and this is a Christian movie. That struggle has sometimes caused me to be quiet in the past because I didn’t want to make others stumble. Right now, I plan to wrestle with it.
A Word of Caution
This movie is a movie for Christians by Christians. Some advertisements as well as several people have told me that this movie is called War Room so that it doesn’t scare non Christians from coming. Others have suggested that it is to lure non Christians into filling the seats. But no, please, whatever you do, do not pretend this isn’t Christian. This is not a movie for non Christians. Not at all. (And there’s nothing wrong with a movie being focused on a Christian audience.)
In fact, this would be a bad movie to show non Christians because it does not define a lot of key concepts. It uses shorthand. There’s no explanation of what prayer is nor is there a development of why prayer matters, particularly in light of God having a plan. Other concepts such as submission are thrown in without any development or explanation or nuance. But more on that later.
Basic Premise of the Movie
The basic premise of the War Room is that Elizabeth, a married career woman, learns the power of prayer to change her husband, Tony, and make him a good man. She is mentored by an older Christian woman. It is targeted at a particular audience: the Christian middle to middle upperclass within the Bible belt. The houses, the style, and everything else all corresponds to this target audience.
There really aren’t any surprises in this movie, so I’m not going to worry about avoiding spoilers. I’d rather analyze the movie as a whole and the various components rather than trying to shield these.
Let’s Start Off With the Good
One of the first things I do want to note is that Christian films are improving. The acting quality in this as compared to Courageous and Fireproof is markedly better.
Also kudos to the Kendrick brothers for finding a little known competitive sport: double dutch jump roping competitions. It’s pretty intriguing, and you can see some of the information on the national site here.
The movie also has a fairly color blind story. Racism is not an issue at all. In fact, areas where it might have been an issue are ignored. Whether this is good or bad, depends on your perspective, but what I do appreciate is that the story has more diversity.
Let’s Hit the Technicals
I’ll be fairly brief on this as there are other more important things. The technical side of this movie is lacking. Certain transitions, such as those between Tony’s contemplation and dreaming, are exceptionally jarring and abrupt. It almost feels as if a section is missing or they got in a hurry. This isn’t always a problem, but when it crops up, it is disruptive.
The pacing is quite poor, and the story line needs focusing. It isn’t entirely clear whose story it is. And after the adultery theme is resolved, the movie then moves into a theft and embezzlement situation and jump rope competition that feels like another movie. The overall structure and pacing was such that 2/3 into the movie, it seemed like it should be over. But it kept going.
The characters themselves are quite bland. They are nothing more than stereotypes of various tropes. They do not have histories or pasts (Elizabeth and Tony never reminisce about what they used to be like or what they used to do; pictures do not show any scenes that reveal hints about hobbies, passions, or even personality). The sum total of their characters is as follows: Tony is the driven career minded man with a wandering eye who can never have enough, Danielle is the innocent child who adores jump rope and competes, Elizabeth is the career woman, wife, and mother with a bad case of smelly feet, Ms. Clara is the wise black prayer warrior, and Tony’s best friend is the cool religious one line spitting buddy who only shows up when his one liners will move the plot forward.
The passage of time is difficult to follow. Montages are used at various points to indicate the passage of time, but it’s not clear how long has passed. The movie feels as if it’s taking place within a span of days, but I think it’s supposed to take place within a few weeks, maybe a couple months.
The Message Itself
This movie seems to be about inspiring people to pray more, particularly given the montage at the end with the flag and the Christians gathering. And even as a sermon, I have a problem with this movie. Prayer is shown as being the easy solution. Despite Ms. Clara saying that prayer is challenging and it is hard to learn to fight the right way, we never see Elizabeth struggling to pray (unless you count the montage where she’s trying to create her space). Prayer is answered with a resounding yes, and everything is resolved within a matter of weeks.
Ms. Clara actually doesn’t do much mentoring that’s specific to Elizabeth’s situation except to chastise Elizabeth for whining about what her husband has done (after less than an hour of conversation), point out that Elizabeth is the recipient of grace and should extend that to her husband, and instruct Elizabeth that she should surrender to God and create a special place for prayer. Prayers are written out. The little girl, Danielle, even makes a checklist. Mercifully, we don’t see her check off every single one, but by the end of the movie, all of the things that Elizabeth and Danielle have asked God for have been given and things are better than ever. However, if you do want more technical specifics on how to pray, the Kendricks are more than willing to sell you all kinds of merchandise from the prayer journals you see featured to prayer cards to a prayer battle strategy.
Now, on the one hand, the movie presents a delightful message! We petition God, and He gives us what we request. This movie fails to address the nuance and the long suffering required in prayer as well as the fact that some prayers appear to go unanswered. The answer to prayer isn’t always a resounding yes. Sometimes it’s a “no” or a “wait.” Sometimes we are to praise in the midst of trials and suffering. Yes, praising God is part of prayer as is thanksgiving. Not that that receives much attention here. It might get a line or two, and, after God does what the main characters want, there are periods of praise. But praising God and thanking Him when things aren’t going well, not so much.
In fact, prayer is shown as having swift results. In one scene, Elizabeth drops to the floor of her closet and prays against her husband having an affair. It’s juxtaposed with scenes of Tony with Ms. Drake, a sexy assistant with pouty pink lips. Thankfully, just as Elizabeth is finishing the prayer, Tony gets a stomachache and can’t go through with the affair.
If I were to take my cues for what prayer is supposed to look like in this, then I would presume that if I write out a prayer strategy and tell God what I want, then in a short time I will get it. In fact, Tony’s total transformation is so perfect, it’s hard to believe that this got past the drafting board. Prayer is powerful, and there are miracles. But often such growth takes time, and there are setbacks and failures. There’s no real variety to the prayers demonstrated here nor to the answers given.
The perspective on prayer presented here is quite appealing. Nothing is hard. But it’s a far, far, far cry from reality. It does a huge disservice even to the Christian audience because it pretends to be realistic and offer solutions. I truly wish this was how prayer worked! Can you imagine if Elizabeth had just prayed that wars would end, the starving be fed, and even that her sister’s husband gets a job? Everything she asks for, she gets. But her prayers are exceptionally self focused, revolving only around her needs.This is a false picture of prayer because, while it had multiple opportunities to do so, the movie only shows one type of prayer: swift answered prayer. So while this does exist, there is far more to it than that, and that should have been addressed.
Where is the Sacrifice?
One of the bigger issues that I have with this movie as a whole is that faith and prayer are presented as easy. No one has to give up anything really. Everything is easily resolved with minimal problems.
For instance, Tony steals drugs and later returns them to his employer. But he has been found out and fired before he returns the drugs. He doesn’t risk losing his job when he takes the drugs back. And true, he says that he’s doing this just to make things right (and thankfully he doesn’t get this job back). All he is risking is jail time at this point, but even that gets wiped away. And his agitation and fear is really quite downplayed. It’s more the level you would expect if he had to give a presentation to a hostile clients.
Similarly, the CEO ultimately decides that he will not file charges against Tony. But here’s the problem. If this is intended as an example of grace (and they tell us that it is more than once), then it did not go far enough. It’s stated that stealing these drugs is a federal offense, and that means that the company is required to submit this information to the government. Failure to do so keeps them on the hook for liability. (Perhaps the confession he signs keeps him on the hook? I’m not sure.) But if the CEO chooses to absolve that and let Tony off the hook, then the CEO is the one who has to pay the price if something goes wrong. That’s the other component of grace. Grace isn’t just one person not having to pay what is deserved or necessarily be punished. It’s someone else stepping in and taking on that punishment. God didn’t just tell us that it’s all right and we’re forgiven. Jesus stepped in to pay the price. Here it seems to just be absolved through sheer desire and a willingness to accept responsibility.
Prayer takes time out of the day. But Elizabeth has an abundance of this. She doesn’t struggle to balance her responsibilities while meeting Ms. Clara nor does she struggle to find time to pray. Most mothers I know, whether career women or stay at home caregivers, must fight to get time to pray. We see one scene where Elizabeth has apparently fallen asleep in the closet, and it’s played up for all the humor they can wring from it. But we don’t see Elizabeth giving up sleep to pray or giving up time with friends. In fact, all the characters’ lives are really quite empty. Everything serves the plot so schedules don’t compete. Everyone understands as needed. It isn’t even a sacrifice for her to give up her closet to prepare a war room because she has another closets with enough room. We don’t even see her struggling to adjust to this or losing things. Maybe I’m strange, but if I gave up a closet, I would have to do some serious reworking.
More problematically though, Elizabeth talks about how she would rather not have as much money and have a husband who chases Jesus, but we don’t see that reality. The money never actually becomes an impacting issues. It’s only discussed and argued about. Tony does lose his job. But this only worries and stresses him a little (unemployment isn’t a big deal here; there’s no lifestyle cutbacks or losses of any kind). Elizabeth is able to immediately step into the gap and pick up more houses to sell. She doesn’t worry at all because she’s trusting God. Later on Tony gets another job offer at the community center. He’ll only make half of what he made before (but doing math from earlier in the movie, that’s still twice as much as Elizabeth is making). They say that they’ll have to cut back. But we never see this. Nor any steps that must be taken to achieve this.
Does This Movie Promote Submission in the Face of Abuse?
This is a really touchy point in the film where a lot can be misunderstood or misapplied. Ms. Clara never asks Elizabeth whether her husband is abusing her or her daughter. Nor does she suggest that Elizabeth set any boundaries or stand up for herself (this could have been a fantastic way to demonstrate how one can stand up for oneself and still rely on God!). Tony does not physically abuse her. But it could be argued that he psychologically or emotionally abuses her. He tells her in no uncertain terms at the beginning that the money is his and not hers, and he is loud and aggressive. At one point, Elizabeth speaks with her friends about this and says how hard it is to submit to her husband. Beth Moore’s character says something along the line of “sometimes submitting to your husband is ducking out of the way so God can deal with him.” It’s Christian humor, but it could be easily misinterpreted.
Even more troubling is at one point, Elizabeth asks whether she is just supposed to let Tony walk all over her. Ms. Clara says she is supposed to pray and fight this battle through God. So…in essence, yes…Elizabeth is to stop fighting Tony. She does not set up boundaries or communicate her feelings with Tony until he asks her what she wants (and then she rambles about hot fudge sundaes and foot rubs). She becomes consistently calm and soft spoken, never raising her voice or asserting any of her own desires.
I don’t think it was the Kendricks’ intention to say that prayer is the only thing one should do or that one should remain in an abusive relationship. (At least I hope not.) However, I completely understand why some people would take it this way. There is no nuance in the discussion. Ms. Clara doesn’t even listen to Elizabeth’s struggles for an hour before she’s telling her to pray. And when she has Elizabeth write down everything that Tony has done to wrong her, Ms. Clara then points out that Elizabeth needs grace too and has done wrong things. Therefore, what Tony has done doesn’t matter. She just needs to let it go.
Okay, okay, okay. I have to cut myself short here. On a very basic level, this is somewhat true. No one is perfect. Everyone has messed up at one time or another. Sin is sin. But this does not mean that everyone is mutually guilty in all situations. That’s a lazy method of thinking. If someone comes to you and says, “I’m struggling with so much pain and heartache because of what this person said to me,” it’s easy to say “hey, you can’t change what that person did. So you need to forgive that person and then move on.” But sometimes it takes a lot more. For instance, those words can sometimes settle in and create false perceptions. Forgiveness is not a reason to bury something and fail to deal with it. It sometimes takes time and must be acknowledged. This movie seems to presume that forgiveness is easy. It just takes a choice. Forgiveness does start with a choice. But to pretend that it’s as simple as just waving the magic words of prayer over one’s wounded heart does a tremendous disservice. The damage done through someone else’s cruelty and even neglect takes time to heal. But I can’t get into that as much as I would like to. Perhaps later.
This movie is supposed to be realistic. Supposedly. Yet Ms. Clara takes no time to investigate. She simply assumes and gives her prescription. It could have actually been a great point for character development. But Ms. Clara’s failure to inquire as to whether Elizabeth is being harmed or whether she and Danielle are in danger is also what contributes to the perception that this film promotes submission in the face of abuse. As a side note, if you are talking to someone or mentoring someone, please take the time to investigate. Be responsible. Don’t assume you have the magic bullet just because you know how to pray.
Would It Make a Difference If This Was Presented as a Sermon?
Yes and no. On the one hand, presenting this as a sermon would be much better because it would better encapsulate what this movie is attempting to do. Just as we do not expect fairy tales to go as in depth in development and allow them to portray shallower characters, we allow the same in sermons and parables.
However, I think that certain areas still should have been addressed. Most importantly, 1) why does prayer matter if God is in control [this is a huge question even for some dedicated Christians] 2) how do you make time for prayer in a busy schedule 3) what does prayer cost? And so on. The abuse/submission situation should also have been discussed. The movie needed more focus, but converting this into a true sermon, even a visual sermon, would have solved much of this.
The perspective on prayer here is inspiring insomuch as it promises to get us what we want. Or at least that’s how it appears. This could have been resolved by having some prayers go unanswered or things actually get harder and difficult for Elizabeth after she starts seriously praying.
I still have a lot more that I’d like to say, specifically on whether it’s all right for Christians to critique Christian films, whether the point or intentions make up for bad writing and storytelling, and whether people hate Christian movies just because they’re Christian movies. There were also a lot more missed opportunities in this movie, but I don’t have time to get into those.
However, I’m going to wrap this up right now with this: War Room is a Christian film for Christians that does not dig into the nuance of prayer or do much more than tell Christians what they want to hear. Prayer is at once simpler and more complicated than it is presented here, and while it is essential, it doesn’t always get us everything we want. For Christians who would like a night out and an inoffensive film, this probably fits the bill just fine.