There is a new movie coming out this year called Woodlawn. Here’s the preview I saw for it this morning (it’s only two minutes long). In the middle it briefly claims to be a true story, but I missed that on first viewing, so I didn’t immediately realize there was a real-life backstory to this. Without that, my initial reaction was disgust and scorn.
Here we have the old trope, I thought, constantly trotted out, that Jesus Loves Football. Jesus really, really cares about who wins The Football Game. The preview is a nonstop barrage of insults to anyone who dares believe anything differently than the film’s creators, even going so far as to have a woman (of course it’s a woman; how could she know what she really wanted?) say, “I was an atheist last week.” Clearly, the power of God In Football is so momentous that no stupid atheist can possibly withstand it, especially not a girl one.
It was obviously not a movie for me. Indeed, it’s hard to conceive of a movie that could be less for me. I was burning to give the trailer the Saving Christmas treatment, after which I figured I’d forget about it and retire to my Atheist Den to dine on the corpses of the unborn.
But dismissing this movie as God’s Not Dead with football would be a serious mistake. There is a lot more going on here, and it warrants a much closer look.
Woodlawn is indeed based on a true story, about an interracial high school football team in Alabama circa 1973. Tony Nathan, who went on to be a great running back for the Miami Dolphins, is the black player at the center of the story. The state championship that year is practically legendary in Alabama, producing an audience of record size. Cool, I thought. I don’t watch football and I don’t care about sports, but I love games, and I get a kick out of stories like this even when they involve games I don’t play.
MiamiDolphins.com has an article up discussing the film with Nathan, which is definitely worth a look. But interestingly, there’s no mention of Jesus or the Gospel in that Miami Dolphins article. “It was during a time when people weren’t getting along very well,” Nathan says, “but as a football team we came together.”
Well, my heart softened. This didn’t sound like a bible-banging, shove-religion-down-your-throat kind of story. Hell, it was on the cusp of being a story I’d want to hear. I did a little more searching and found the first official trailer for the movie (again, only two minutes, and the contrast with the other one is striking).
That’s when I realized precisely how deep this rabbit hole goes.
This first official trailer makes the religion in the film look more like window dressing. The story is about an integrated football team overcoming racism. “If you only love those who love you back, what kind of love is that?” the reverend at the start of the preview asks, and its a great question, a challenge to a deeper love that all of us could stand to hear. How could you be opposed to that? Of course, they meet the challenge through the power of the Gospel—but the preview practically dares you to take issue with that, tying the Christian Gospel so closely to the message of love that you can’t possibly accept one without the other.
Yes, there are Christians (I used to be one of them) who would say the Gospel is about love. Of course the two messages are inseparable, they’d say; that’s the whole idea. There is nothing sinister here, no reason for an atheist like me to get up in arms. The story is about overcoming racial hatred in the deep south in 1973. Surely that’s a common cause?
And it is, or it should be. But modern Christianity is rarely willing to share. All good things come from its god, and its presentation here drives that point home with a hammer.
“Make a decision to change, to forgive, to be forgiven,” Sean Astin pleads in a stirring sermon that anyone who’s escaped Christian Fundamentalism is painfully familiar with. Great message. I agree with it completely. But in the second preview, the full quote is revealed: not just “to choose” but “to choose Jesus.” The implication? You can’t truly forgive or love your teammates without choosing Jesus.
In fact, it’s not actually about the forgiveness or the love at all. This point is made over and over again by both previews. “This is about the gospel,” one of the trailers states flatly. “We’re not gathered here united tonight because of the names of our teams or of our schools, but because of the name above all names: Jesus,” Sean says at the start of the first trailer. “The Jesus Revolution has a symbol,” he says at 1:46 in the second trailer, holding up a single finger, “because there is one way.” The players later burst through a sign that pounds the point home still further: “One hope, one truth, one way.” Without that one way, of course, you’re not really loving or forgiving.
The trailers do a fantastic job of claiming that Woodlawn is a feel-good story about overcoming hate, and maybe the true story that underlies it actually is. But make no mistake: this movie is first and foremost a propaganda film for Christianity. Non-christians who believe in the power of love are not welcome.
The clues are there, as they always are. The premise is that the whole team comes to Jesus after Sean Astin comes to the school to preach at them, and as a result, they become much more loving and much better at football. But in one of the previews posted on the movie’s website, the coach character lets the truth slip when talking about how his team came to Jesus. “Almost my entire team gave themselves to love,” he says.
One or two kids, then, must not have agreed to join Jesus when Sean came to their public high school to preach. Is that because they were atheists? Maybe their families were secular? In the universe of the film, it’s far more likely that they were cold-blooded racists. Then again, the film is unlikely to draw a distinction between the two. “Atheist” is code for every terrible thing a human being can be, a boogeyman unmatched by any other evil label, so why split hairs?
In any case, anyone who didn’t accept Jesus that day didn’t “give themselves to love.” Love and Jesus are synonymous; rejecting one means rejecting the other. To put it another way: Accept Jesus, or be known as a racist.
Can you imagine this story if the Nathan character was an atheist? God’s Not Dead and its ilk have made it clear what kind of treatment atheists can expect from Christian filmmakers: the entire film would have pilloried him. Far from being a story about love and acceptance, it would have been full of Christian hate at its finest. Because, of course, that “love” and “acceptance” is conditional, no matter how many times they claim it’s not. You don’t get it unless you say the magic prayer. You don’t get to experience the “real love” unless you take a dunk in the pool.
The atheist hate ramps up in the second trailer, when the boogeyman of Big Government comes to try and crush the team’s religious freedom (freedom which, of course, only extends to Sean Astin’s right to come and proselytize at them on public school grounds, and not an inch beyond). An investigator asks a teacher if she’s “leading this.” She responds, “I was an atheist last week. [The kids] are leading me.”
It is difficult to express how insulting that statement is, but I’m going to try.
It is the same old thing Christianity always throws out: a constant deluge of invalidation of all other worldviews except its own. Not just that the other worldviews are wrong, mind you, but that the holders of those views don’t actually hold them at all. That if Sean Astin would just come to their school and force a reckoning, the wool would be pulled from their eyes. No one’s an atheist because they’ve looked rationally at all the options and come to a measured conclusion. Atheism is just a placeholder; it will burn away the second Sean opens his mouth.
Your beliefs, your sexual orientation, your happiness, even your love of your children—none of it is authentic unless it matches identically to what they believe. You might think you love your kids, but if you aren’t a Christian, you don’t know what love is. Remember, there is only one way. The YouTube comments section, in a rare display of utility, cemented this point for me when one commenter said, “Only god’s love in our heart can make us love others.” Take a second to internalize that. The ugly, pernicious underlying message is that non-Christians can’t love. They cannot think, they cannot have their own opinions, and they can know nothing but hate.
This is not a film about coming together despite our differences. Quite the opposite. It is exclusion masquerading as inclusion.
Woodlawn powerfully exemplifies both the good and the bad of Christianity: its power to bring people together with a message of unity, and its power to ostracize those who may seek love in another way. I understand that Birmingham was a religious town in 1973. I understand that this is based on a true story, and that you can’t change the facts. I even understand that the Gospel can be a powerful force for love in the world and will gladly acknowledge that it may have played a pivotal role in the real-life events the movie depicts.
But why all the atheist hate? Why the absolute insistence that no one can experience love without subscribing to this one religion? Why the exaggeration and glorification of private religion in a public school?
Something good happened at Woodlawn high school in 1973, something that transcended racial prejudice. There is a powerful story here, one that America needs to hear, being poisoned and twisted for the ends of a Christian propaganda machine.
“This is what happens when God shows up,” Astin opines at the end of the first trailer.
Yeah. I’ve noticed.