Review by Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette
God created satire. At the end of Job—the oldest book of the Bible—God answers Job’s bitter questions with a set of his own humorous, unanswerable queries. In Isaiah and Jeremiah, God mocks idolaters by describing how useless it is to expect anything from a god made with your own hands. Humor ideally brings out the stupidity of humankind. It mocks evil to promote good.
Maybe that’s why Believe Me proves a refreshing break from your average independent Christian comedy. While the final result is neither high comedy nor brilliant art, Believe Me charms viewers with a clever script and provokes consideration with its jabs at modern American evangelicalism.
The plot evokes a comedic Elmer Gantry for millennials, or a Christian Wolf of Wall Street, if you will. Broke college student Sam, along with a few friends, plots to raise tuition money by inventing his own evangelical charity. One problem: The carousing, worldly Sam isn’t exactly preacher material. Cue a rollicking fish-out-of-water yarn as Sam and his friends learn how to manipulate Christians with religious speech and glitzy presentations.
Believe Me intrigues not so much because of what it is, but what it is not. In one sense, the film is a mundane comedy with stock characters—except for the hilarious Nick Offerman, who steals his cameo as a drunk academic advisor. However, the film is not a raunchy comedy geared toward teenage boys. Neither does it ram a “Christian” message down viewers’ throats. It is not a Christian comedy—instead, it succeeds as a satiric mockery of human foibles.
Some of the jokes echo typical church-speak. When Sam describes the different ways Christians raise their hands, his dialog sounded strikingly similar to a sermon I once heard. Others, such as the racist Powerpoint slide of a Photoshopped African baby in front of a cheetah, try too hard to be “I-can’t-believe-they-just-went-there” moments. The obvious humor comes off as contrived.
However, the film shines when it sticks to satire. A shady charity like Sam’s should never last past its first conference, much less gain national acclaim. However, Sam’s rocketing success is all too similar to real-life Christian charities and individuals who have risen to fame, riches, and power without oversight or background checks.
The film does not withhold any criticism of other evangelical traditions, either: The students’ conferences mock “revivals” that use emotional hype to evoke a response. Slick worship songs raise a spiritual frenzy as congregants mindlessly sing, “Jesus.” Sam ends his sermon with a call to donate cash rather than a call to turn to God: “Give in a way that reflects the faith that you claim,” he intones with a smile.
Some of the film’s best satire is the most fleeting. We briefly see Sam signing a Bible like he’s the author. The main characters evade a personal question by saying it was all “the Lord’s work.” After one meeting, a posh party evokes a post-Oscar event without the alcohol. Sam acts little different from some of the Christians—whitewashed tombs with no regrets.
The beauty of Believe Me’s satire is how close it can hit home. As American Christians have dealt with a recent stream of ministry scandals, the success of Sam’s “God Squad” provides a sly insight. Evangelicals sometimes accept charming individuals who can act the act without investigating their theology or their back-door practices. They don’t want to accuse a brother of sin, so those without moral qualms can easily take advantage of good faith. If a few Christians had asked Sam head-on questions and made him drop the church talk, his “charity” would not have lasted more than a week. Evangelicals say they are nothing like the Pharisees of old, but they have their empty religious practices and hypocrisies, just like any other human group.
Toward the end of the film, Believe Me provides a commentary on another staple of evangelical culture—the “Christian” film. Sam’s main love interest, a naïve Christian girl, looks guiltily bored by the religious dialog (spoken by LeCrae, in a cameo appearance). While Believe Me itself verges on a predictable plot, its capable actors and uncomfortable satire make it a sharp comedy. The filmmakers themselves, as I discovered in my recent interview (link here), were trying to tell a good story rather than push a particular message. Their effort, overall, succeeds quite well.
Believe Me is not a Christian movie, if you define a Christian movie as a story that promotes a religious message. It is, however, a story that keenly satirizes American evangelical culture—making us squirm and laugh at the same time.
Editor's Note: An interview with Believe Me co-writer Michael B. Allen can be found here.
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