Film and Religion

This site contains studies and comments by professors Robert Torry and Paul Flesher about the portrayal and use of religion in film. See their new book, Film and Religion: An Introduction (Abingdon, 2007) for a textbook on this topic.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Prophet in Saved!

It is odd that no one in the film Saved! ever converts, despite its setting in a Pentecostal high school, where everyone apparently wants to save others for Jesus. This is especially true for Cassandra Edelstein, the high school’s smoking, drinking, foul-mouthed bad girl. Even though Cassandra is the constant recipient of “witnessing” by Hilary Faye—the school’s super-Christian—and undergoes two fake conversions during the film, Cassandra remains unrepentant and unconverted. Instead, Saved! presents Hilary Faye’s Christian message as hollow and corrupt, while Cassandra, who at first seems to act with self-destructive abandon, embodies a prophetic role.

Cassandra’s role as a prophet stands out in two ways. First, her name, Cassandra, comes from Greek mythology. Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam of Troy. The god Apollo fell in love with her and gave her the gift of prophesying truthfully. When she rejected Apollo’s love, he cursed her by causing her never to be believed. In Saved!, the actions and words by which Cassandra rebels against the high school, its students, and its staff are never taken seriously, but are viewed as unstable and perhaps drunken rantings.

Second, Cassandra’s last name is Edelstein, which means “precious stone” or “jewel”; she is Jewish. As such she represents the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament, not the Greek. While modern, popular Christianity often sees prophets merely as predictors of the future, a more accurate characterization of the Jewish prophets would be those who to speak truth to power (the king) and to the populace (the people as a whole). They were often ignored and so took measures to garner attention. Isaiah, for example, prophesied naked for three years (Isaiah 20).

But Hosea provides the best example of the functioning of prophecy. Hosea 1:2 reads, “The Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry, for the land commits great harlotry by forsaking the Lord.’” God tells Hosea to commit harlotry by marrying a whore. Hosea must go against all the rules of proper social behavior. Even though God uses Hosea to bring his message to the Israelites, he causes Hosea to receive social ostracization by having him violate Israelite social mores. Why? Because the Israelites themselves (“the land”) have violated their allegiance to God by turning their backs on Him and His expectations and following other gods. So Hosea’s actions symbolize the Israelites’ character. Hosea violates social norms because the society has forsaken God’s religious norms.

As the prophetic figure in Saved!, Cassandra’s message comes not through the meaning of her words, but, like Hosea, through her actions. Cassandra’s actions reveal the true nature of the high school community’s spiritual state, especially as seen in its leaders. Hilary Faye, the student leader, uses Christianity to magnify herself, to glory in self-love rather than spread Christian love to others. Pastor Skip, despite his fancy talk, no longer practices the love of Jesus but instead sees Christianity as a set of rules and restrictions (no gays, no divorce) even as he violates the rules by committing adultery. So when Cassandra rebels by smoking, drinking, or saying shocking things, she prophetically symbolizes the corruptness lying hidden under the surface of the Christians around her. Every time she acts out, she reveals the true nature of the high school community. This is particularly evident when she fakes the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaks in tongues during the opening assembly. That she can convincingly fake this most intimate of moments between God and an individual, as Pastor Skip’s reaction indicates, emphasizes that the commitment of the Christians around her can also be merely surface acting—as the remainder of the film shows.

In the end, Cassandra’s prophetic message fails to change the society around her. Although the hypocrisy of both Hilary Faye and Pastor Skip is revealed, they do not change and the high school which they represent remains the same. This stands in contrast to Jim Carey’s portrayal of the prophetic Grinch, which we discuss in our forthcoming book, Film and Religion: An Introduction (2007). In the 2000 film, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the society of the Whos have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas. The Grinch “acts out” in a number of ways through the film to bring them back, climaxing in the theft of Christmas. This monumental deed finally brings the Whos to the realization that Christmas is not about presents but about family. This enables the entire community to re-embrace the true meaning of Christmas, that is, to change in reaction to the prophet’s message. This enables the Grinch also to change—to convert—and to become a believer in Christmas. In Saved!, by contrast, the Christians remain untrue to their values, so Cassandra remains outside the community. Instead, she creates her own community where Christian ideals run true.

In Saved!, the only member of the high school community who changes is Mary. As her inner physical transformation takes place during her pregnancy, she also undergoes an inner spiritual transformation. She moves from the superficially pure yet internally corrupt Christians, to the superficially non-Christians (Cassandra and Roland) who actually have internalized the Christian values of love and acceptance (rather than rules and demands for conversion).