I stopped by the Christian bookstore the other day to look for some new reading material when I overheard a patron at the counter ask the store cashiers if they had seen the movie “War Room.” They both happily responded in the affirmative. Another gentleman browsing nearby immediately interjected that he liked it as well, jokingly commenting, “Submission is when a woman puts her head down so that God can hit her husband.” And everyone within earshot laughed along with him.
Except me. Because that trite little comment does not begin to resemble the truth.
My heart began pounding, and I so wanted to speak up and explain why “War Room” is potentially harmful to abuse victims. But on they chattered, and rather than saying anything, I quickly bolted for the door. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
“Just what abuse victims need,” I screamed internally as I marched back to my car, “a Christian movie that imposes upon them one more burden of obligation to remain with their abuser.”
I had seen the movie and was very disappointed in it. The film’s basic premise is that prayer grounded in truth is a powerful force for positive change. Agreed. Unfortunately, however, that premise is only a half-truth, for the other side of that truth is that God has given men free will. All of the prayer in the world may not change the wicked – some who even call themselves believers – and we have a right and responsibility to protect the innocent and allow evildoers to reap what they have sown.
When Doug and I decided to go see the movie, I understood its emphasis to be on the power of prayer. I personally delight in spending time with God in prayer, have seen Him work mightily through it, and at times having been privileged to hear His unmistakable, inaudible voice. In that vein, I was hoping to be propelled to a higher plane of understanding and inspiration. Although the film endeavored to make the case, as an abuse survivor, the primary plot of the film killed it for me.
The focus of the conflict in the film is a borderline abusive, potentially adulterous husband (Tony) whose Realtor wife (Elizabeth) is wrapped up in her own life, neglects her daughter and has no idea what to do to make their lives better until she “coincidentally” meets a godly, elderly woman named Clara who has hired Elizabeth to sell her home. Elizabeth’s new client takes Elizabeth under her wing, mentors her spiritually, and encourages Elizabeth to make prayer a priority with the goal of reclaiming her home and her marriage.
Elizabeth takes the task seriously, emptying her closet of her clothes and worldly possessions to create a War Room where she can spend her private time immersed in Scripture without distraction and commence battle with an unseen enemy through prayer. Elizabeth soon sees how she has neglected her young daughter and makes amends and necessary change. Then a girlfriend sends Elizabeth a text message about seeing Elizabeth’s husband in an inappropriate situation with another woman. So Elizabeth begins to pray. Suddenly, a mysterious illness overtakes her out-of-town, adultery-minded husband, thwarting his obvious intentions.
When Tony returns home, Elizabeth doesn’t confront him or even seem shaken, when most of us would be overwhelmed with feelings of betrayal, brokenness and humiliation. Even knowing that her husband may have been unfaithful in the past 24 hours, Elizabeth seemingly rises above it, acting like nothing has happened, as though she doesn’t know what she knows.
When Tony pointedly asks Elizabeth what she wants from him, obviously referencing their relationship, she thinks for a moment and then calmly tells him that what she really wants is a hot fudge sundae, going into ridiculous detail about mounds of vanilla ice cream coated in chocolate, smothered in whipped cream and topped by a cherry. In spite of the audacity of it all, the audience joined in collective laughter. Then Elizabeth adds that she would also love a foot massage, even as a look of sheer bewilderment crosses Tony’s face.
I was horrified. So that’s how a believing woman in that situation is supposed to respond? Don’t let him see you weeping from the pit of your soul when faced with heart-wrenching betrayal. Just internalize all your pain. Pretend everything is just fine. Really? Apparently, those who wrote the screenplay are wholly unacquainted with the immeasurable grief of infidelity.
Anyway, Tony is dumbfounded by Elizabeth’s strange response. Yet Elizabeth keeps silent and maintains her commitment to pray. What a woman! Then, as some measure of perfectly timed divine justice, Tony is fired after it is discovered that he has been stealing pharmaceuticals from his employer.
Suddenly jobless and ashamed, Tony discovers Elizabeth’s prayer room, is suddenly awakened to the devotion of his wife, realizes how much he loves her and his daughter and tearfully repents. Tony arrives home one day soon after and presents Elizabeth with a ginormous hot fudge sundae which brings her to tears. Then she relishes her sundae on the sofa while her husband gives her a foot massage. In spite of the rough days they face as a result of Tony’s job loss, their marriage is miraculously restored.
Right about then, as if he knew that I was beginning to feel sick, my husband leaned over to me and whispered, “We know it doesn’t always work out that way.” I received his words and nodded in agreement but desperately wanted to cry, not just because of the years of torment my children and I had endured as a result of my acceptance of this same unbalanced belief system. No, my heart was filled with a whole new measure of grief for all of the Christian women who had seen or would see the movie and find themselves bound to its debilitating half-truth.
When the movie was over, I quickly stood to leave, my heart heavy and hurting, while it seemed that those who remained until the very last credit had bought in. Like so many times before, when I have been in the presence of legalists and guilt-mongers, I felt alone and wounded and frustrated for others like me, those seemingly without a voice or a defender in the body of Christ.
I am certain that the writers and producers who worked on this film were convinced that their product would encourage people in struggling marriages to pursue prayer as powerful recourse and must assume they did not for one minute consider the film’s potentially damning outcome for victims of abuse. I wonder if they would even acknowledge this tragic oversight, or would they, as the film insinuates, assert that a praying wife will without fail bring about heartfelt repentance and change in her abuser? Such an assertion is grievously common but in clear defiance of the whole truth of the word of God.
Truly, as I left the theater that day, I wish I could have found the words and the courage to stand up and speak the truth in the presence of the entire audience. But it seemed the majority was comfortable soaking up heavy doses of Saccharine-laden spirituality, and speaking up in that moment would not likely have helped my cause.
For all of the film’s good intentions, I so wish the writers had chosen some other powerful prayer opportunities to make their case. As it is, I know from my own experience and spiritual vulnerability that abuse victims who don’t know better will watch that film and feel pressured to remain with their abusive spouses, to keep their secrets and pray harder and pretend, believing that, if they do it right, their abusers are destined to change. And all the while their abusers smirk and take comfort in the reality that the church will almost always impose an ongoing expectation on their poor wives to accommodate the habitual sin, set aside their buckets of tears and wait for God to fix it.
Too many church people forget that this kind of spiritual denial and ignorance empowers the wicked among us. The victims and their children suffer in the shadow of a silent church while it closes its eyes and ears to the injustice, condoning the abuse and the destruction of families from within.
When, I wonder, will a Christian film producer release a film that shines a light on the terrifying reality of abuse in “Christian” homes? I’ve actually written a full-length screenplay based on the premise. Do you think that maybe one of these days my phone will ring? I would be pleasantly surprised, but in today’s “spiritually correct” culture I won’t be holding my breath.
Should you decide to see “War Room,” go armed with a full understanding of the movie’s glaring shortcomings and my husband’s timely words of wisdom: “We know it doesn’t always work out that way.”
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