Friday, January 20, 2006

End of the Spear: Is the Real Message of Jim Elliot and Nate Saint Being Overshadowed?

With Brokeback Mountain garnering major wins at the Golden Globe Awards and likely to be a frontrunner going into the Academy Awards, gay-themed popular entertainment is apparently going mainstream, and some in the Christian blogosphere voice strong concerns, including me in my previous post.

Right on the heels of Brokeback Mountain comes controversy over a new film, End of the Spear, set to open nationwide in theaters today. It tells the story of five young men-- Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Roger Youderin and Peter Fleming-- who went to the jungles of Ecuador in the early 1950's to serve as missionaries among the Quichuas peoples. Befriending the tribes and learning their languages, they reached out to a mysterious tribe known as the Aucas, notorious for their violent ways. Tragically, shortly after making friendly contact with the tribe, the five men were suddenly speared to death in a surprise attack on them by members of this very same Auca (Woadani) tribe. The new movie is based on the book of the same title by Steve Saint, son of slain missionary Nate. briefly summarizes the story behind the movie:

"Steve Saint was five years old when his father, missionary pilot Nate Saint, was speared to death by a primitive Ecuadorian tribe. In adulthood, Steve, having left Ecuador for a successful business career in the United States, never imagined making the jungle his home again. But when that same tribe asks him to help them, Steve, his wife, and their teenage children move back to the jungle. There, Steve learns long-buried secrets about his father's murder, confronts difficult choices, and finds himself caught between two worlds. Now a major motion picture (January 20, 2006), End of the Spear brilliantly chronicles the continuing story that first captured the world's attention in the bestselling book, Through Gates of Splendor."

In 1956, the brutal slayings made national headlines, including a famous LIFE magazine cover feature dedicated to the five missionaries.

But the story of these heroic men did not end there:

"To many people it would seem that Jim Elliot's dream and the aspirations of the other men had ended in failure. But they had done what was expected of them and it was now time for God to continue with His plan. Amongst the [recovered] personal possessions [of the missionaries] was a camera and amongst the pictures taken were some of the Auca Indians who had initially made contact with the missionaries. The people in the photographs were recognized by an exiled Auca woman who had helped the missionaries learn the language. They were relatives that she thought were dead!

She made contact with them and before long [widows of two of the slain men] Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint (Nate's sister) were living amongst the tribe. They established a church and many of the Aucas [including the very men that had murdered the five missionaries] became Christians. Elisabeth returned home to America after several years but Rachel stayed with the Aucas for many years."

You can find additional material on-line about this story in this excellent feature, Mysterious Ways- A Story of Unquestioning Faith, reported by Mary Boone. Of course, Elisabeth Elliot, widow of Jim Elliot, became a well-known author and touched many through her beautifully written account, Through Gates of Splendor, which inspired readers with the tale of this courageous group of young men and women who unflinchingly obeyed God's call on their lives.

The Controversy: A Gay Star and a Missing Gospel
So what is the controversy over the film? Although "End of the Spear" is produced by an ostensibly Christian film company, Every Tribe Entertainment, they chose openly gay actor/activist, Chad Allen, to star in the film (he plays the roles of missionary Ned Saint and also his son, Steve Saint). Allen is an outspoken advocate on behalf of a homosexual agenda. The casting choice calls into question the motives of the independent production company, who say that in order to make the best-quality film, they simply chose the best actor for the role. They did not believe that the actors' homosexuality would impact either his ability to play the role, or the reception of the film by a Christian audience. Many in the on-line Christian community however, are offended by the casting of this outspoken homosexual activist to play this famous missionary. They feel that this casting choice dishonors not only the memory of the man, but also the gospel message these men gave their lives for, a message of the love of Jesus Christ that radically transformed a violent tribe into a peaceful community. Thus controversy over the casting threatens to overshadow the message that these men died for. And some who have screened the film say its screenplay contains almost nothing to convey the gospel message that was the driving force of these missionaries' lives, and which accounts for the remarkable transformation of the Woadani tribe.

Message Co-opted by its Gay Activist Star?

Another unfortunate consequence of casting Allen is that via the platform given him through his starring role in the film, Mr. Allen has been pushing his gay activist views. He said, in an interview with InLA about his participation in the film project, "There were a lot of people on both sides [meaning the gay community and the Christian community] that weren't particularly interested in me doing this movie. I am from a Christian background, but I have a personal spirituality that spans the distance from Buddhism to Hindu philosophy to Native American beliefs. That aside, this movie is about the power of love. I knew it was an opportunity to bridge these two disparate communities that are believed to be enemies- the gay and the Christian communities."

So, for Mr. Allen, the gospel message that Nate Saint preached and died for is subsumed and twisted to become part of the gay platform: one that seeks "tolerance" and acceptance for the homosexual lifestyle.

Jason Janz of does an excellent job explaining the issues in his well-researched article, which not only summarizes the controversy, but also provides suggestions to Christians as to how they can respond.

Another blogger, Timmy, has catalogued quite nicely the Christian blogosphere discussion on this topic, with an article titled In the Shadow of the Spear.

Personal Reaction
Having enjoyed the writing of Elisabeth Elliot, I'm quite curious as to what her thoughts and reactions might be to the film and this situation. At first, I was very interested in seeing the movie, being familiar with the story of Jim Elliot and these missionaries, and wanting to support a Christian film. But now I'm debating whether or not the film is worth seeing/supporting. I'm interested to see if, in the end, it is a "good" film artistically, or whether it turns out to be another clunker, like "Left Behind" or "Meggido". Tim Challies has an excellent discussion on the aesthetics issue, and makes other points about the film worth reading.

If I do see the film, I'll try and post a review and further comments.

Further Resources:
What Were They Thinking? The Controversy Over The End of the Spear by Al Mohler
‘End of the Spear’: missions buffeted by U.S. culture war
End of the Spear review by Senior Editor Greg Wright
End of the Spear- Misc. Film Reviews
NY Times Review
End of the Spear - Interviews, Photos and Review
World Magazine story
Interview with "End of the Spear" Director, Jim Hanon
A Review by Richard Propes

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