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Letters to God: Pornographic?

Possibility Pictures is one of the more recent Christian film production studios to emerge in a Post-Sherwood Pictures world. Their first feature-length film, Letters to God, released in theaters earlier this year, and the DVD hit shelves earlier this month. I think it’s time to create a new genre: Christian Pornography.
Letters to God (directed by David Nixon, who also produced Facing the Giants and Fireproof) tells the story of Tyler, a young boy who has brain cancer and has returned home from the hospital after his first surgery and round of treatment. We first meet Tyler (Tanner Maguire) as he slips one of his many letters to God, actually prayers that he writes out in pen-pal fashion to God, into his mailbox. A new mailman, Brady McDaniels (Jeffrey S. S. Johnson) takes over Tyler’s route and, like his predecessor, doesn’t know what to do with the letters.
Jeffrey’s life is in shambles as he has been convicted of a D.U.I. some time before and is currently separated from his wife and losing custody rights to his young son. He lives in a one-room dishevelled apartment in town and gets drunk on a nightly basis. One night, after leaving the bar, he stops by a local church where he plans to leave the letters; however, before he can leave, the minister confronts him and suggests that he keep the letters…God might just have something in store for him through this. The minister refuses to let Brady leave until he prays for him.
As the film progresses, Tyler deals with the complications of his disease, specifically frequently feeling sick and tolerating kids who pick on him at school. Meanwhile, Tyler’s family, mother Maddy (Robyn Lively), grandmother Olivia (Maree Cheatham), and brother Ben (Michael Christopher Bolten), have their own struggles as well. Ben is starved for attention, angry that Tyler is sick, and unable to pray his frustrations away per his grandmother’s suggestion. Maddy is trying to resume a normal life at work while managing her two sons but finds it harder to keep up a cheerful, faithful appearance when Tyler’s condition worsens. Through it all, grandmother Olivia remains a stalwart, faithful presence, reassuring them all that God cares for them and has a plan for them through all of this.
Along the way, Tyler also draws comfort from his best friend Sam (Bailee Madison) and her grandfather, Mr. Perryfield (Ralph Waite). Mr. Perryfield assures Tyler that God has chosen him to be His special warrior. Through his battle with cancer, Tyler will prove that God is truth and his behavior will point others to God. This is indeed what happens as his perseverance inspires Brady to get his life in order. He stops drinking and becomes a close friend and supporter of Tyler and his family.
As Tyler’s condition worsens, Brady finally reads the letters and is inspired to give them away to the people about whom and for whom Tyler had been praying as a way of inspiring and encouraging them. Though Tyler passes away, he leaves behind a legacy as he inspires countless people of all ages to write their own letters to God.
That this is based on a true story makes this all the more difficult to say, but Letters to God comes across as nothing more than Christian pornography. Such a critique depends on a broader view of pornography as that which provides sensation without emotion. Letters to God attempts to hit all of the sensational marks, jerking tears and tugging at heartstrings along the way, but does so at the expense of genuine emotion. To put it more politely, Letters to God is pure kitsch, but even this leads us back to the pornographic.
In his book, Good Taste, Bad Taste, & Christian Taste, aesthetician Frank Burch Brown draws parallels between viewers’ reactions to kitsch and viewers’ responses to pornography or the erotic. The initial emotional/physical reaction to kitsch (the lump in the throat) parallels the natural/physical response to the erotic (the lump in the…well…you get the point). Granted, some of the characters do express anger, doubt, and frustration, particularly Tyler’s mother, but the tone of the film and the way in which it telegraphs every character arc rob such scenes of their potential emotional payoff. Every time we meet a new character, Contemporary Christian Music fills the air whose lyrics summarize their entire journey…even before we are allowed to take it. Just as funky jazz signals the shedding of clothes in a porn, the CCM music here signals tears and a conversion.
They might make you feel good, but the feeling won’t last.
As troubling as all of this is, we still haven’t addressed the theological implications of the film. Mr. Perryfield’s advice to Tyler sums up the film’s theology. Though he no doubt has good intentions, Mr. Perryfield telling Tyler that God has chosen him to be a warrior is too close to the notion that God chose to give him cancer in the first place. Olivia’s constant cheerful emphasis that God has a plan for all of this simply does not give Maddy and others the space they need to grieve. Even if Brady’s life turns around thanks to Tyler’s courage and cheerful spirit, that God would need to take Tyler’s life in the process (or to even have him be ill in the first place) to accomplish this is something that would never occur to Olivia. That such a devastating disease that robs a child of his youth and the family of a child could be an act of God is a theology that should die a quick and rapid death.
A highlight of the film, for younger viewers I would imagine, is the way in which Tyler relates to God. Though Mr. Perryfield’s theology implies a more menacing view of God, Tyler’s view of and relationship with God is one of an ever-present friend, not a cancer-inducing agent to be feared. Then again, I don’t know if I would even recommend this for young viewers. People of all ages and faith persuasions should avoid this like cancer.
J Ryan Parker is creator and editor of and main contributor to Pop Theology, where this review first appeared, and a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Theological Union where he is writing his dissertation on contemporary Christian cinema.

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