Unlikely Thankfulness for Kevin Smith’s “Red State”

Kevin Smith is the writer/director behind the raunch-coms of the “Clerks” universe.  His mixture of toilet humor and sophisticated verbiage created a strange fan base, dominated by mouth-breather man-boys and ivy league types.  Even the rom-com crowd likes his stuff.

But Smith turned a whole different set of heads last winter when he screened his independent horror thriller “Red State” and announced his sole ownership and distribution rights to the film.  His purpose was to distribute the movie based on the merits of the film itself, and Smith was optimistic that the film’s content and message would find its audience.

Since then, Smith has campaigned the film all over the country, having never maintained a full theatrical run.  It’s available on DVD and BluRay now.

Surprising Reaction

I finally saw “Red State” after anticipating it since 2007 (when Smith teased his blog subscribers with a picture of the script’s title page).  I’m still surprised by my reaction.

Mainly I was disgusted, and I presume that was the desired reaction.  “Red State” is a nasty little movie, in plot and in content.  There are no characters to redeem it.  There are several strange and violent sequences in it.  It’s conclusions about humans are borderline despairing.

There’s not much to boast about in the film’s technical achievement’s either.  “Red State” features some of Smith’s least successful dialogue and exposition.  It’s shot by director of photography David Klein with a kind of film-school visual tactlessness.  This undermines some of the performances; some of the melodrama plays false because the photography is not meeting the same standard as the performances.

There is a lot to dislike about this movie.

Yet, about 24 hours after watching it, I’m filled with thankfulness, and I’ll tell you why:  The plot centers on three teenage boys who are taken captive by the members of an extreme right wing church and subjected to humiliation and torture.   The church, herein called Five Points Trinity Church, finds its inspiration in Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, the congregation dead set on protesting as many funerals of homosexuals and KIA’d soldiers as possible.  Surely you’ve seen this church on the news.  Its members are a pack of bible charlatans.  They are only as powerful as they are loud, and the louder they are the more coverage and attention they get.

The film actually calls Fred Phelps and his church by name.  Five Points Trinity goes a step further.  Westboro Baptist’s behavior is damnable, but they remain non-violent.  In the film, Five Points is not just a church, but a barracks.  They are extremely violent, and the hatred they spew is nauseating.

Religion – it’s for the birds

I know many people will watch “Red State” and say, “Well, that’s what religion does…it turns people into maniacs.”  A lot of people will watch the movie and be disturbed, not just by the content, but by the notion that perhaps all Christians are really just closet Five Point Trinity members.  Maybe even a few nominal Christians will be shaken in their faith after watching it (and I emphasize nominal; the movie will not shake a solid believer).

The reason I am thankful for “Red State” is that it shows us the functional outcome of gospel-less religion: oppression, vitriol, and potentially violence.  Religion without the gospel is some nasty business.  And I’m thankful “Red State” reminded me of the cost of totally misunderstanding the Bible.  The members of Five Points Trinity Church (and the real-life Westboro cronies) make the fatal and tragic mistake of overemphasizing one of God’s attributes over all the rest.  God is vengeful and hateful – that’s actually true.  God hates sin (and yes, even sinners) and will take revenge for the cost of those sins.

But God is patient and merciful and gracious.  God is loving and kind and faithful beyond our wildest dreams.  We know all these things by looking at Jesus Christ on his cross.  Onto Jesus, God’s hate for sinners was unleashed in full.  Onto us, believers, God’s grace was unleashed in full.  It’s at the cross we finally see the folly of hate-filled theology.

Added to this, I’m thankful “Red State” ended badly for pretty much all the characters involved.  There’s no redemption in the gospel according to Fred Phelps, no assurance that all the things of this world will pass away, no promise that all will be made new.  A happy ending to this movie would have suggested otherwise.  But in the Gospel of the Scriptures, I am promised an inheritance beyond the riches and pleasures of this world, such that even if I were taken captive by a group of psychopathic “Christians” and all I have was taken away from me, I could count my fading losses all worth it for the sake of something better and unshakable.

So yes, I’m thankful.

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About Collin Damon Welch
Collin worked in the film/TV industry for a while. Now he's pursuing ministry. He and his incomparably beautiful wife Nicole live in Chicago.

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