This past Monday my wife and I enjoyed a little down time with our six children. After a delicious Japanese style stir-fry with homemade “yum yum sauce,” we all ventured downstairs to the entertainment room for a movie. The movie was Woodlawn. An inspired true story of a Birmingham, Alabama High school football team whose faith helped bring their community and the community of a rival school together.
To be honest, my first thoughts, and the reason why it has taken so long to watch the film—the movie has been on video for a while now— was “Oh no! Another football movie.” Don’t get me wrong, football was at one time the love of my life. From the ages of 14 till about 28 there was not a weekend that did not go by that I did not watch a game. If football was on TV, then my butt was on the couch.
When I was younger, after watching a game on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon my buddies and I would get a pick-up game going in a nearby field. When I was a senior in High school (Van, West Virginia) I’d even have the upcoming weekend game scheduled. Making sure all that were interested knew when and where we were playing. Of course, this was after the regular season, because our coaches did not want us playing backyard football during the season due to the risk of injury.
For a long time, football was an intricate part of my life. Soon after accepting the call into the ministry, though, that changed. I slowly lost the desire to watch games on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. No longer did I keep up with my favorite player’s stats, and the days of watching NFL matchup on ESPN were over. Evidently, my love of football was an idol that need to be torn down in my life, and God over time replaced that pastime with more constructive means of spending my days. Oh, I still watch it from time-to-time. My oldest son plays junior high ball and when I watch those games I still feel a stirring to get out there play, but the game is no longer a dominant force in my life.
So, when it came to another football movie inspired by true events, I had my reservations. One of the things that did peak my interest was the Christian element within the film. In the past, movies like Fireproof, Courageous, Facing the Giants, and God’s Not Dead turned out to be fairly decent in regards to their Christian message.[i] I’m glad we picked this movie up from the local library, because the time watching it was not wasted.
Woodlawn, as was mentioned earlier, was a film based on events surrounding a High school in Birmingham, Alabama. The years that were focused in the film were 1973-74. This period in history was not too far separated from the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. The United States was still suffering from her past sins of slavery. Though the Civil War eventually gained emancipation for Blacks in the south, the cultural dogma of Segregation was still practiced and held to with great conviction. Violence broke out in certain quadrants of this country, and evidently Birmingham, Alabama was one of the worst places for hatred based on skin pigmentation,[ii] or ethnicities. Woodlawn High school was evidently a social experiment. The walls of segregation had been torn down, and the integration of blacks and whites had begun. People, because of their deep-seated convictions, reacted in anger towards one another. The populace did not like the changes being enforced upon them, but those changes were nonetheless necessary and good.
From the outset, it appeared as if this newly forced way of life was destined to fail. The administrative head of the school threatened to close the school if things did not settle down both inside and outside of the school. A fear of media backlash, and being put back in the national spotlight drove such considerations to the forefront. The assistant/vice principal, who also happened to be the head coach of the football team was growing ever more frustrated with the dilemma before him. He loved the school, he loved the kids, and did not want to see things shut-down, for the experiment to fail, but he failed to see a solution in sight.
In walks a chaplain played by Sean Austin (Lord of the Rings; the Goonies), who asks the coach for permission to speak to his team about Jesus. He tells of his own conversion experience during a Billy Graham Crusade, shows the coach a time magazine cover speaking a Jesus Revolution, and asks for just five minutes with his team. At first the coach declines, but due the persistence of Austin’s character and the loaming preaching of collapse, the coach relents. The team is gathered in the school’s gymnasium and a five-minute talk turns into an hour message of the gospel. All but three students are seen coming forward to repent of their sins, putting their trust in Jesus, who Austin’s character said is “the way, the truth, and the life” in reference to the first half of John 14:6.
Before long, it is not only the team that is converted, but the entire coaching staff, and in the fall of 1974 a large portion of the school is seen praying together in the same gymnasium. At some point in the summer of 1974 the coach of the rival school is seen confessing to being a believer, along with his team. The communities that were just a year ago fighting of a former way of life that was steeped in hate, is now seen unified under the banner of Jesus. A name, we are told in the film, that was given under heaven and on earth through which men might be saved; a clear reference to Acts 4:12.
As a whole the movie is filled with a lot of emotionally charged subject matter. Many passages of the Bible are either spoken or clearly alluded to. As far as a Christian film goes, this was one of the best in recent years. Were there parts that one might find fault with theologically? No doubt. Were there areas where the overall gospel was somewhat watered down? Yes. However, generally speaking this film was several notches above “God’s Not Dead.”
The one area that I found most interesting was the underlying message of the whole film. Most Christians when they think of God-honoring, God-glorifying service today a comparison is made between what is deemed spiritual versus secular. A false dichotomy is presented. Someone serving as a janitor has a less holy position (less important), than the individual who is a missionary. However, such thinking is unbiblical.
When people were getting baptized by John the Baptist during his ministry the question was asked, “Now that I am right with God, what do I do?” To the soldier he did not say quit serving in the military, but rather “Take money from no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your pay” (Luke 3.14).[iii] To the tax collector he said, “Collect no more than you are required to” (Luke 3.13). To understand the dynamic here you need to understand the cultural context. Tax collectors worked for the Roman Empire, who had enslaved Israel. Normally, the tax collector would take a little extra for himself and the government would look the other way, as long as they got their money. The Jews despised these individuals and thought they were the worst sort of sinners. The soldiers on the other hand were either employed by Rome or by Herod and his brother Philip, who in turn worked for Rome. Again, the Jews did not like these individuals either as they were or worked for those who enslaved them. Yet, the point John is making to them, is that they bear fruit of repentance by doing what is right in God’s eyes. They adhere to biblical revelation, the Law of God, and treat their neighbor with the same sort of love that they expect to be treated with. In short, they were to honor and glorify God through the occupations they have, not go find another one to please him.
In Woodlawn, the message is clear and is often repeated. The young black football star “Touchdown” Tony, who went on to play for Alabama and several years in the NFL was given his gifts to do good for God through football. His High school coach had likewise, found his God-given purpose by coaching these kids, being a leader for them. A person to look up to and model after. The point is this. Wherever you are at, whatever you do in this life God has put you there for reason. Not to glorify and honor yourself, but glorify and honor Him.
As I watched the film, I was continually bothered by the question: “Where have all the Christians gone?” The general idea in the church today seems to be that we invite people to church and let the pastor or the Sunday school teacher witness to them. We bring them to the building and then we let someone else get them saved. Unfortunately, that is not the lesson that the parable of the Sower teaches (cf. Matt 13.3). The sower is the one who sows the seed in the field. The field is the world—people. The seed is God’s Word—Holy Scripture. The sower is you—wherever you are at.
Christians have grown silent. They have compartmentalized aspects of their life into the “holy,” and the “secular.” The truth, however, is that this is my Father’s world. He is the Creator, and if Christ is my redeemer, then I am charged to spread the gospel wherever I am found. A few years back I read a book entitled, “The Vanishing Ministry in the 21st Century.” When I first read the book I made the false assumption that people were neglecting the call into ministry, as in not becoming pastors, evangelists, missionaries, chaplain’s, etc. However, the truth is people are neglecting the call into ministry wherever they are at.
You see, if you are a janitor at a school, then you do that job to the best of your ability and you give God all the credit for it. If you are a nurse, or a radiologist, or a dental hygienist, or a school teacher, you are called to do the same. Christians in this nation have grown silent. We have been bullied into thinking that our faith is personal and not made for the workplace. We have allowed the world to push us in a corner believing that we may invite them to church, but we dare not speak of our faith in a bold and courageous way where we work, where we do the things that we do.
The vanishing ministry in the 21st century is not a dwindling clergy, but a dwindling testimony of salt and light in the areas of life that God has gifted us in and placed us in. The underlying message in the movie is that we need to speak of the way, the truth, and the life so that the world will hear it. Not the globe, but the world around you in your everyday life. If we stop hiding the light within us, and allow the world to see that light, then not just individuals would be saved, but whole communities.
The world is not silent pushing their worldviews on us, why should we?
[i] The film, God’s Not Dead, however, was more in line with popular evangelical culture than a true orthodox Christian message. The idea of putting God on trial allowing people to judge whether or not He is in fact foreign to the biblical concept of God. In the Bible, God the Triune Creator is presupposed from the very first verse: “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth” (Gen 1.1). Never throughout Scripture do we find God on trial, but rather mankind. The question of God’s existence is of atheistic origin, for it is the “fool who says in his heart there is no God” (Psalm 14.3). Not to mention the fact that the film does not make mention of the need to turn from (repent) sins. In fact, I do not recall the word “sin” being mentioned in the whole film. And the idea that the “red letter” portions of the Gospel carry greater weight than the rest of what the Bible says, is to pit Jesus’ words against the prophets/apostles who wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2Pet 1.19-21). The same Holy Spirit that Jesus said would speak the Father and the Son’s words (cf. John 14.26; 16.13-15).
[ii] I did not have the time to do research on this period of history. Much of the discussion here will focus on the films premise. The assumption is being made that the writers and director of this film did their own homework. If I were writing a research paper on this topic more effort would have been made on my part; however, this is a blog not a scholarly work. Please bear this in mind. Also, the reason “skin pigmentation” is used is because the term “race” is inaccurate. All human beings are members of the same race—the human race. To argue in any other manner makes a distinction of classes between the species, which is why segregation was argued against in the first place. Why the Civil Right movement was fought and won. We are all of one race, from one blood. We are all equal and have the same inherent dignity. The color of our skin, the shape of our eyes, the coarseness or softness of our hair, etc. shows variation within the same kind of people; it does not offer a distinction between different types or classes of individuals.
[iii] All Scripture unless otherwise noted will be from the New English Translation (NET). Scripture quoted by permission. Quotations designated (NET) are from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://www.bible.org All rights reserved.Used by Permission. All rights reserved