I’d heard a little bit about Gerard Butler’s Machine Gun Preacher when it came out, the story based on motorcyle-riding, shotgun-toting Sam Childers, who had some serious run-ins with the law and life, before becoming a liberating force for the children of Sudan. But then the noise died out, the movie got panned by critics, and I forgot about it until the DVD showed up in my mailbox. This is a film I won’t ever forget ever again, a more violent version of Three Cups of Tea.
Childers (Butler) is a violent, foul-mouthed ex-con who finds that his ex-stripper wife has found faith in Jesus, money is tight, and his perspective on life and family is slowly changing. Soon, he’s going forward for an altar call, turning his back on drugs and alcohol, and leaving for Africa to work on a building project. He’s reading his Bible for fun, making friends with the Sudan People Liberation Army in the person of Deng (Souléymane Sy Savané of Goodbye Solo), and exploring wartorn Sudan. [Other, more than adequate acting comes from Michael Shannon, Michelle Monaghan, and Madeline Carroll.]
Now, I’m no fan of Christian message movies that seem to water down the darkness until the grace-filled message of Jesus seems superfluous because there aren’t any real problems to encounter. This isn’t one of those movies. Butler’s Childers cusses, fights, and drinks before his conversion, and post-conversion, he brawls with Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. But now, he’s an angel of liberation, saving children who are beaten, killed, or maimed by those soldiers, and this biopic provides both the autobiographical pieces of his story and the evidence of the work he’s done.
Marc Forster, the director of Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner, and Quantum of Solace, has the chops to tell a powerful story, an entertaining story, and an action-packed story. And his depiction of Childers, who sees a problem and works toward a solution is well worth watching. You can catch up with Forster in his discussion of the movie on bluray, as well as Chris Cornell’s “The Keeper” music video, but Forster’s genius continues to grow here, in a story of a man destined to carry a machine gun in one hand and a Bible in the other.
The other story that has caught my attention in the last year or so is The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg’s story about the boxer from Fall River (MA) who overcame family, drug use, and more to become a legend. Both stories are full of graphic life: violence, language, drug use, etc. Both stories talk about overcoming ourselves and the world around us; both talk about converting experiences. I simply can’t understand why, in a world where we recognize the beauty of The Fighter, Machine Gun Preacher would receive little to no respect.
Maybe it’s just because I just finished a group study on Craig Groeschel’s Weird, but I’ve been reflecting on the question: what has God given you a passion for that you can’t ignore? What burns within you? For Childers, the passion was for the children of the Sudan, for the people there turned away from church because they were “too dirty.” Childers heard the call of God on his heart and knew he couldn’t ignore it—even if he was just a Machine Gun Preacher.
It’s not a black & white film: Childers’ violence in the name of God isn’t easily accepted or brushed aside. The choices he makes to liberate, teach, preach to, and save the children aren’t easy. While the opinions fly about Kony 2012, this film about education, freedom, and peace isn’t saccharine, but gritty and chewy. You can’t just swallow it: you have to digest it over time.
The film is the story of a man, his family, and his church, who saw something about the world that needed to change and chose to do something about it. It’s not the same decision you or I might make, but it challenges us to consider what we can change and do something about it, too.