For about a dozen years—between the 1983 EP I Want to Be a Clone and the 1995 concert album Liver—Steve Taylor was the most energetic and unpredictable recording artist in contemporary Christian music. His cleverly-written, frequently satirical songs tackled political and cultural issues that no one else dared to touch, and they were absurdly funny, besides. His offbeat parables, like the one about the self-righteous ice-cream salesman who blows up abortion clinics, also got him into a lot of hot water with people who didn't understand the points he was trying to make. (No, Taylor was not in favor of bombings—quite the opposite.) Taylor was also one of the first CCM artists to produce music videos, and for some years he has talked about making a full-length movie.
Well, that movie is here now, and perhaps surprisingly, it is neither all that energetic nor all that unpredictable. Some Steve Taylor fans will approach The Second Chance with high expectations, but it probably works best if you don't come to it looking for a "Steve Taylor movie." The film does offer a critique of church culture, but without the absurdist satire; instead, it's a pretty straightforward story about two pastors who have almost nothing in common, except for their ties to a certain church. Pastor Ethan Jenkins (Michael W. Smith) is white, famous, and covered in the accoutrements of material success; while Pastor Jake Sanders (jeff obafemi carr) is black, not so famous, and works in the inner city. Naturally, there is friction between them, but as they spend time together, they come to a new understanding of each other—and along the way, there are opportunities for sermons, singing, and prayer meetings. It's like a Billy Graham film without the altar call.
Which is not to say that there is no repentance or even conversion, of a sort, in this film. From the moment we first meet him, Ethan is portrayed as a self-centered glory hound who likes the good life and avoids the unpleasant things of the world—and we just know the story won't let him stay that way. His face is on the cover of his newest book, he has a best-selling worship album, he's often on his cell phone, he drives a terrific car, he locks the doors when prostitutes approach him in the street, and his expensive tastes prompt Jake to nickname him "Gucci." Ethan is also getting married soon, which gives him even more reasons to spend, spend, spend; and it probably doesn't help his spoiled-white-kid image that he has virtually inherited his success, as the son of a successful minister (J. Don Ferguson) whose comfy suburban church sponsors missions all over the globe.
However, Ethan is not entirely above shaking things up. His father's mega-church, which is called The Rock, originally grew out of Second Chance Community Church, an inner-city congregation now led by Jake; but the opinionated Pastor Jake is something of a loose cannon, so when he comes to The Rock to participate in a televised service, an elder advises Ethan to lead the congregation in applauding Jake's inner-city work, but to avoid letting Jake take the pulpit himself. Knowing that no one can describe what goes on at Second Chance better than the pastor who actually works there, Ethan ignores the elder's advice, and turns the pulpit over to Jake—who soon confirms the elder's fears when he tells the mostly white, middle-class, suburban congregation to "keep your damn money" if they can't bring themselves to come down and get their own hands dirty working for the ministry.
The church's board of elders is not amused, and they blame Ethan for letting Jake take the microphone; so they "punish" Ethan, as it were, by sending him to Second Chance to "observe" how things are done there. And so Ethan becomes a "glorified intern," following Jake around as he interacts with the neighborhood's junkies, alcoholics, and gangsters. Jake finds this arrangement irritating, and he has little to no sympathy for his colleague when Ethan loses his possessions to local thieves and homeless people. But the two men do have some things in common, sort of—during their wayward youths, one spent time in prison, while the other spent time in rehab—and before too long, they realize they may even have a common enemy: namely, the board of elders at The Rock, which has been making plans for the Second Chance community without consulting it whatsoever.
It is common with films of this sort to say that the two protagonists learn from each other, but most of the learning here is done by Ethan. It is true that Jake has his flaws—he has a huge chip on his shoulder, for one thing, and could probably stand to be a little more gracious in general—but the film seems ready to overlook them because it is through them that his righteous anger expresses itself. On the few occasions when characters do criticize him, their criticisms seem desperate or self-serving, and thus they don't really "stick" to Jake the way that Jake's criticisms stick to Ethan. And there is certainly nothing in the film's characterization of Jake that reeks of a need for change on his part, not like the many signs of wealth and affluence that are bestowed on Ethan.
That said, Jake does show some interesting contradictions that could be worth teasing out. For example, he encourages a refugee with a family to humble himself and accept a minimum-wage job at Wal-Mart, even though he was a professor in his former country; yet he objects to the mayor's plans for a new stadium, complaining that the only economic benefit it will bring to his neighborhood is to give the kids jobs selling hot dogs. It is also interesting to note that, while one of the white characters speaks fondly of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the black minister quotes Malcolm X, a Muslim, in one of his sermons.
Details like these make The Second Chance something to talk about, and the film could very well spark some interesting and even necessary discussions. It helps that the film is also skillfully made, from the hand-held camerawork to the note-perfect soundtrack (courtesy of Smith, with help from John Mark Painter and others) and the performances; Smitty in particular acquits himself well in his first major acting role. However, bits of dialogue still sound a little church-movie-ish, and the film's tone and theme, overall, are a bit on the tidy side. Those of us who had hoped that Steve Taylor would be for Christians what Napoleon Dynamite's Jared Hess was for Mormons—a filmmaker who broke out of his religious subculture through sheer force of quirk alone—will have to wait and see what he does next. For now, though, this may be a church movie, but it's one of the better ones.
This film is opening in limited release. For a complete listing of theaters, click here.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What do you think of the way the two main pastors are portrayed? Do you find it easier to identify with one than the other? Does your perception of them change over the course of the movie? If so, how? If not, why not?
- After Ethan leads worship at the mega-church, his father says to the congregation, "Who says church has to be boring, amen?" What does that say about the film's portrayal of that church as a whole? How does it contrast with the message Jake gives immediately afterwards? How does this compare to the scenes where Ethan plays the piano at Jake's church? Does the size of the church make a difference? Can you imagine Jake saying, "Who says church has to be boring, amen?"?
- Why do you think Pastor Jake encourages the refugee to humble himself and take a low-paying job, while objecting to the new stadium because local kids will sell hot dogs? Do you think he's being inconsistent?
- Jake says he doesn't object to overseas missions, but thinks "the home front should take priority, is all." Ethan replies, "You mean your home front." Does Ethan have a point? Does Jake have a point? How should we balance local and faraway missions?
- Pastor Ethan says The Rock's television ads should be more "personality-driven", so he puts footage of himself into one of them. Is there a place for celebrity in the church? Is it okay for ministers to promote themselves while promoting their message? Can it be avoided? Should it be?
- Do you think Ethan's father does the right thing, in the film's final scenes? Is there anything else he could have done?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Second Chance is rated PG-13 for some drug references. There are roughly a dozen bad words of the "hell", "damn" and "a--" variety. Several scenes involve gangsters and the threat of violence. Characters also discuss topics like prostitution, abortion and gambling.
Photos by Katherine Bomboy
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 02/23/06
Should Christians make movies about the challenges facing the church? Should they let people outside the church see these movies?
That's one of the issues dividing Christian critics regarding The Second Chance, a film written and directed by former Christian rock artist Steve Taylor and starring Michael W. Smith and jeff obafemi carr.
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says its message is "right on the money" and it has the potential "to become a catalyst for positive personal and corporate change for those who have ears to hear … [The film] offers a realistic, provocative and unvarnished look at the issues of social, economic and racial disparities within the body of Christ. Raw, unapologetic honesty and grittiness … characterize the film which pulls no punches as it addresses hard subjects those of us in the church are sometimes tempted to brush under the rug."
But other Christian film critics would prefer to keep that subject "under the rug."
Willie Magnum (Christian Spotlight) starts out claiming that the filmmakers fail to "rise above TV series mimicry or movie of the week schmaltz and create a great film. The whole piece thumps along from vignette to vignette, eventually reaching a denouement that is nothing approaching climatic … What really bothers me about this film is that it really amounts to a 'dirty laundry' diatribe against the current mega-church bureaucracy that really, in the end, is an intramural debate and ought not be so scathingly aired in public."
Marc T. Newman (Movie Ministry) says, "While the makers of The Second Chance have some good things to say, they have chosen precisely the wrong venue in which to say them. … Themes of racial reconciliation can make for great film. Glory Road was a good example of a movie of this type. But when movies focus on church politics we cannot expect that many people outside the church will want to see such fare. And even if a few do, will they come away with the right message? Filmmakers who share a Christian worldview need to rethink the best way to use the medium to move the Gospel forward. One hint—it starts with a more compelling and accessible story."
Mainstream critics, meanwhile, are giving it mixed reviews.from Film Forum, 03/02/06
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says, "What the film lacks in cinematic style—and it does suffer from a TV-film feeling and mentality—it makes up for in earnestness, although, at times, the film is a little too earnest for its own good."
He concludes, "The hostilities and invective on display in The Second Chance set it apart from other films developed within, and marketed to the Christian subculture, but that's both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it shows Christians, warts and all, without demonizing them for their weakness and, at times, hypocrisy. But a curse in that the film's anger, particularly as it manifests in the character of a church pastor, is unpleasant to watch and hear. Nevertheless, there's a truth in the depiction, and the call to a sympathetic understanding of the different struggles within the larger church community override most of the bumps along the way."
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