“War Room” and the Problem of Prayer

Last week, I had the privilege of seeing Alex Kendrick’s 2015 film War Room with some friends of mine. We are all professing Christians, and we all attend the same church. For most of us in the group, this was our first time seeing War Room; it had been recommended to us through other Christians, and was praised during our Bible study that Sunday morning. In that class, the movie was described as a “two hour sermon on the power of prayer.” Everyone in our group was interested in seeing it after the high praise, and truth be told, I was too.

But not for the same reasons.

I’m quite familiar with the Kendrick brothers’ works (which include Fireproof, Courageous, Facing the Giants, and more), and it’s because of this familiarity that I went in wondering what I was going to be fed spiritually. My concern was not the fact that I was again going to suffer through poor acting, dialogue, direction, and storytelling – “Christian” films are depressingly notorious for those features – but what the message given to its targeted audience would focus upon.

An outsider to the Christian community would probably think my sentiment as strange. “Why are you concerned with the messages coming from a Christian movie? You’re a Christian, aren’t you? These movies are made for you!” While it’s true that I’m a Christian, not everything that bears the moniker “Christian” is, in fact, what it claims to be. In fact, some works can be quite damaging to the faith, and truth presented through some of these movies either doesn’t give the entirety of said Truth or are heavily doctored to suit a sentiment – on the worst cases, both of these ring true. Scripture tells us in 2 Corinthians 11 that “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.” With this in mind, we have to realize that movies branding themselves with the “Christian” title may turn out not to be so, in point of fact.

It’s because of this that the Christian community needs to have a serious conversation about War Room.

The summary of War Room is as follows, taken from IMDB:

With great jobs, a beautiful daughter (Alena Pitts) and a dream house, the Jordans seem to have it all. Appearances can be deceiving, however, as husband Tony (T.C. Stallings) flirts with temptation and wife Elizabeth (Priscilla Shirer) becomes increasingly bitter, crumbling under the strain of a failing marriage. Their lives take an unexpected turn for the better when Elizabeth meets her newest client, Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), who encourages the couple to find happiness through prayer.

I believe this summary highlights the crucial worldview conflict that classical Christianity has with what is known in some circles as “American Christianity.” First off, this summary does an admirable job of telling the potential viewer what this movie deals with. A trope very familiar to “Christian” movies, War Room rightfully acknowledges that there are many broken families who, while still calling themselves Christian, have fallen away from God during a process of allegiance restructuring – whether they’re aware of it or not. What each “Christian” film also deals with is how our main characters overcome their issues, specifically regarding how they allow God to work through them to heal their lives. The answer which War Room gives to this equation is what earns it the failing grade, as its solution is, unfortunately, stripped of the Gospel.

When we meet the Jordans at the beginning of the film, communication breakdown has already occurred. Elizabeth can’t talk to her husband Tony without a verbal quarrel breaking out, Tony has seemingly lost all respect for Elizabeth (and even goes so far as to plant the seeds of an affair), and their daughter Danielle is living without the emotional support or even recognition from either her mother or father. It’s truly a depressing situation. When Elizabeth meets an older, wiser woman who reveals to her that all she’s been missing out on is her connection with God and her lack of a prayer life, it’s no surprise that the Christian audience is looking forward to seeing how the Lord will change Elizabeth’s life and make everything right again. We just can’t see how the Jordans can continue to suffer like they are, and we can’t bear to watch Danielle shed tears on her bed while Elizabeth reveals to her that she essentially has no time or energy to focus on what Danielle is going through.

“Because God has to fix this, doesn’t He? He can’t allow this kind of suffering to continue, especially to His children – it’s not in His loving nature. If only Elizabeth would listen to the sagely advice from her new friend Clara, God would act on her prayers and things will turn around for the better!”

To the relief of just about everyone who collectively pooled close to $68 million dollars to support War Room during its theatrical run, this is exactly what happens. Elizabeth (re)learns how to pray (thanks to Yoda Clara’s wisdom and teachings), and before you can say “bippity-boppity-boo,” her life begins to transform before her eyes. Her husband backs out of his budding affair. Her relationship with her daughter is rejuvenated. Things seem to be going quite well for the Jordans.

And then Tony loses his job. Not only does he lose his job, but he lost it because he was fudging his numbers for his pharmaceutical sales – an act that could (rightfully) end in jail sentencing. However, our main protagonist of the story isn’t done yet – SuperPrayer comes in again to save the day, resulting with Tony experiencing grace from his former boss by dropping all charges, with only a request to pay back the $19,000 he owed them from his bonus money he received from the fraudulent sales. Tony also loses his company car in the process. These two things – $19k and an expensive company car – are all that Tony loses from the situation. He didn’t have to serve time in jail. His huge house didn’t need to be put on the market. Elizabeth’s job picked up right when Tony lost his so their income was still steady. Tony’s relationship with Elizabeth and Danielle even regained footing at an unprecedented rate, especially considering how long and how severe he had mistreated them both. And if that wasn’t enough, in War Room‘s fourth and fifth acts (because the three-act story was already completed by the time Tony and Danielle’s double-dutch competition began), we see the Jordans go on to live happily ever after. Apparently the Kendrick Brothers didn’t think the audience understood the message about prayer that they preached throughout the film, so the story concludes with a montage of Christians praying around America – in schools, at their workplace, everywhere. The end, roll credits.

I recount this story because in order to examine the view of prayer this film has, we have to look at the context of what happens to our characters – how they experience prayer, what they receive from prayer, what they learn from their actions, and so on. In light of this, I’m led to conclude that this particular sermon on prayer is not and cannot be the biblical view of prayer.

I’m shocked to see that popular televangelist Joel Osteen didn’t receive writing credits for this film, as prayer is used primarily in the same manner that those in the prosperity gospel movement use it. “Name it and claim it” you will hear them say; pray hard enough and what you ask for will be yours. No longer is the Son of God, Jesus Christ the one who is worshipped, but instead He’s substituted for an enslaved “Genie Jesus,” where your wish is his command. The Word of Faith movement is known for its marriage to new age metaphysics, shunning biblical Christianity to instead adopt a buffet-style, “create your own reality” worldview. Faith moves from trusting in a sovereign God, even throughout trials of great pain and suffering, to a means to an end; a force to get what we really want in life, not what God wants. “Thy will be done” becomes “My will be done.” And if your will isn’t done, then you apparently “didn’t pray hard enough.” It’s the American way, after all – if you put in the work, you’ll reap the benefits.

Someone can object to this by stating that Elizabeth and Tony didn’t get everything they wanted – that they did end up losing a chunk of money and the company car, and hey, they even placed second in the double-dutch tournament, not first! While this is true, the real stakes in the movie – jail-time, losing their home, loss of relationship – felt artificial, and simply weren’t taken seriously enough. Consequences for Elizabeth and Tony’s actions didn’t have any substantial weight to them. Could it be that this is due to the fact that we come to expect these kinds of movies to have everything work out in the end? Possibly, but that’s a conversation for another time. The fact remains that we just don’t feel that our main characters are in any sort of danger throughout War Room, and in the end, everything works out just dandy for the Jordans.

The thought that if one embraces God, He will in turn embrace you back to such an extent that nothing bad can ever happen to you is thoroughly unbiblical and the exact opposite of what Christians should come to expect in life. Maybe at this point we need to look back to the Cross, to see what happened to Jesus after He professed the truth. Maybe we should also remind ourselves what happened to His disciples and how they met their ends. Maybe we could look at the Coptic Christians who, instead of receiving an earthly life of health and wealth, received eternal glory after professing their faith to their ISIS captors.

I mentioned earlier that some “Christian” movies could be damaging to the faith, and unfortunately I would have to consider War Room to be in that camp. Not all of it is bad, mind you – there are some very positive Christian examples of character and principles found in the film. But the overall message of a works-based wish-fulfillment “gospel” is what I believe will negatively affect thinking Christian audiences, and I’m not without evidence on this front. In what may be my favorite topic regarding Christian apologetics, the problem of evil (in regards to pain and suffering) is an issue that affects every person on the planet, Christian and non-Christian alike. And it’s this issue that uncovers the real message preached in War Room and shows it for what it really is.

Our first example comes from JR. Forasteros, a host of the popular Storymen podcast. In an episode regarding War Room and Christian films in genera, he had this to say:

“My mom was a single mom because my dad cheated on her, and I just sat there during War Room thinking, “I’m so glad that my mom didn’t see this in the years immediately following her divorce, because the message she would have taken away is that it was her fault her husband cheated, because she didn’t pray hard enough.”

I’ll only use one more example, as this one drove the message home to me.

After our viewing of War Room, we began to pack up and leave, as it was a bit late. We weren’t afforded time for post-movie discussion, but as I was picking myself up off of the couch, I heard some loud sniffling from one of them. As we went upstairs to get our coats, I saw that the sniffling was coming from one of my friends who had gone through a terribly emotional ordeal less than a year ago. I knew this person was still very upset by what had happened, and I’m aware that feeling isn’t going to go away anytime soon. It’s usual for us to question “where is God” when something bad happens to us, but this isn’t the question I heard as we were preparing to leave. What I heard was worse (details of quotation omitted):

“I can’t help thinking if maybe… maybe if I prayed more… [that wouldn’t have happened]. God would have answered my prayer.”

What followed was an almost frantic attempt to explain away the film’s problematic message. I didn’t interject into the conversation but once very briefly, instead engrossed by what I was hearing. I was relieved that those involved in the conversation were able to give some assurance to this person, yet I was deeply saddened by what was transpiring. I find it fascinating that after watching a supposedly “Christian” movie, Christians have to explain to another Christian what the movie really meant to say (when really, the movie said what it said, to a significantly observable effect). In 1 Corinthians 14:33, we’re told that God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. With pain and suffering all around us, peace is what we need – not more guilt, or blame, or self-doubt – and we need clear messages that convey this peace.

It’s also interesting how Christians won’t hesitate to show “clean” films like War RoomCourageous, Fireproof, and similar ilk that have a mess of obvious theological and worldview issues, but balk at showing “unclean” secular movies that could have an orthodox Biblical worldview that doesn’t need further explanation, just because the movie could have questionable scenes of violence, romance, or foul language.

“Christian” movies like War Room do not deserve to be a shoo-in for our entertainment purposes. As with everything else, we need to test them. Many false prophets have gone out into the world, and Christians are commanded to be discerning of what is preached around us. Prayer is indeed a powerful weapon, as the tagline of War Room claims, but a weapon is only as powerful as the person who wields it. For the Kendrick Brothers, their presentation of prayer is undoubtedly powerful, and we see that power firsthand as our Christian brothers and sisters continue to weep for their lost, ache from their hurt, and doubt their loving God because of their supposed inability to make God fight for them. Should Christians aim to find happiness through prayer? Miss Clara thinks so. But the quest for finding earthly happiness has never led to ultimate fulfillment. Regardless of my circumstances, I have to remember as I pray that it isn’t my will, but truly God’s will that should be done. If it was our wills to be done, if Genie Jesus answered all of our prayers to our approval, I’m not sure how many of us would be left on this earth. If we have a confident faith in our Lord, the fact that His will is being done should make us happy enough.

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for Christ to make a comeback to our mainstream evangelical Christian films.

War Room
Directed by Alex Kendrick
Written by Alex and Stephen Kendrick
MPAA: Rated PG for thematic elements throughout
Rating: ★☆☆☆