a manager's notebook with a sticker: "The beatings will continue until morale improves"
Reading Time: 10 minutes This joke was really awful even in the 90s when I was working for a Christian who thought it was the BEST THING EVER. (Tim Patterson, CC-SA. "My new boss's notebook.")
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Hello and welcome back! Lately we’ve been talking about the horrible Christian movie Only God Can. In it, we encounter a great many tropes beloved of evangelicals. And one of their very favorites–said in that Zorg voice of course, mah fav’rit–involves how they see their god engaging with humanity. See, he’s got a novel approach to winning friends and influencing people: he destroys their lives till they bend the knee. Yep! Today, my friends, we look at the Jesus beatings that shall continue until salvation improves!

a manager's notebook with a sticker: "The beatings will continue until morale improves"
This joke was really awful even in the 90s when I was working for a Christian who thought it was the BEST THING EVER. (Tim Patterson, CC-SA. “My new boss’s notebook.”)

(Two quick notes: First, here’s your pre-emptive TVTropes Walkabout Warning! Second, I use the term “heathen” to mean anybody who isn’t the correct kind of TRUE CHRISTIAN™ to self-proclaimed TRUE CHRISTIAN™ Judgey McJudgeypants. In the pagan world, it bears a different and very specific meaning. Here, it only means this one general thing. Okay, let’s move on into the post now!)

A Brief Synopsis of Characters.

As I did last time, I’ll present here a brief rundown of the characters as they pertain to today’s post.

  • Coley, the clique’s queen bee, lives a purely meaningless life marked by alcohol addiction and loneliness. After she almost kills herself with over-drinking and taking pills, she has her big come-to-Jesus moment thanks to Sara.
  • Patrice, the only black person in the cast that I remember, suffers mostly through opportunity costs. She pursued a life of success and literary achievement to the exclusion of marriage and family. She converts because of a song.
  • Glen, a successful philanthropist charity organizer, suffers mostly with a dysfunctional family that couldn’t care less about her. After almost getting in trouble with the Feds over an internet romance gone wrong, she converts thanks to Sara.
  • Gracie, a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, declares that her life royally sucked before her conversion. Afterward, it didn’t improve at all materially. However, now she has Jesus Power to help her feel superior to the heathens around her! She ends up dying a purely meaningless death, which drives the three heathens in her clique to convert.
  • Sara, the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ protagonist of the movie, appears to be living a purely meaningless life marked by codependence and self-delusion. But she has Jesus Power, so she feels totally superior to the heathens around her. She shamelessly pounces on Gracie’s death to prey upon the the heathens in her clique.

Of the five clique members in the movie, three are heathens at the beginning. They’re Christian, just the wrong kind of Christian. The other two are TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who believe the correct flavor of nonsense and pursue it with the correct amount of fervor.

As is usual with these movies, all of these women are either converted to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ or dead by the end of the movie.

The Trope of Divine Destruction.

If I had a nickel for every single Christian testimony I personally heard along the lines of “Jesus beat me up till I accepted his love,” I’d have enough to establish a tiger sanctuary. For some reason, authoritarians think this is a selling point for their product.


The basic idea:

To convert people, the Christian god must sometimes beat them up for their own good. He either causes significant damage to them himself, or he deliberately allows demons or just life-in-general to cause this damage. (In Christianese, toxic Christians express this notion as their god “removing his protection” from them, or of them “being out from under His covering.”) Once the Cuties Are Broken enough, they’ll realize they totally need divine help to get through life.

See, instead of just communicating with his victims like a rational agent, the Christian god chooses to send the message “you totally need me!” through coy signs and portents like oh I don’t know, your entire life getting destroyed before your very eyes.

Talk about wowzering people’s sockzers clean off!

What a loving god!

Abuse always pushes people’s thrill buttons, y’all.

Low Christianity.

But it’s not something you hear Christians discussing in their blogs and books and whatnot. It’s part of Low Christianity if anything ever was. It forms an integral part of the folklore of the most atavistic and childish members of the religion, not part of High Christianity’s lofty doctrinal disputes and bizarre rationalizations for the Problems of Hell and Evil. It’s so central to their beliefs that they don’t really talk about it. It simply informs everything they do.

To hear this central belief of authoritarian Christians, you must listen for the dogwhistles they use.

For example, consider the scene near the end of God’s Not Dead. In it, Dean Cain’s mom–an elderly woman facing Hollywood Dementia and living in a full-time care home–begins talking to the air. Her son overhears her declaring this near-universally-accepted truth in fundagelicalism:

Sometimes the devil allows people to live a life free of trouble because he doesn’t want people turning to God. Their sin is like a jail cell, except it is all nice and comfy and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leave. The door’s wide open. Till one day time runs out and the door slams shut and suddenly it’s too late to get out.

The movie presents this scene to us as an example of A Moment of Lucidity. That’s exactly how its target audience would perceive it, at any rate. Dean Cain sure seemed uncomfortable about it!

You can also hear this belief hinted-at in testimonies constantly. Authoritarian Christians look at Christianity in the same way that authoritarian parents and judges look at Army service. They think it’s a splendid last option after someone’s destroyed their life in all the usual ways.

(I’m sure Army recruiters and officers really enjoy encountering that belief in the wild.)

Breaking the Cuties in Only God Can.

The heathen women in this movie face a number of obstacles in life. Coley is addicted to booze and desperately lonely, feeling useless and meaningless. Patrice is either past menopause or coming up on it, and her biological clock is TICKIN’ FAST. And Glen feels like everyone she loves just sees her as an object to be used and used-up, without any care for her feelings or needs; the first man who comes along who makes her feel like someone’s actually listening to her, she leaps on him like a ravenous dog attacks a steak.

Bear in mind that every single one of these concerns can and very frequently does happen to TRUE CHRISTIAN™ women. This movie demands we not worry about that fact or even recognize its existence. Instead, it will set about worsening these women’s problems and bringing them to a laughably-overdone crisis point.

So Coley overdoses on alcohol and pills (but Sara insists that this doesn’t represent a self-harm attempt). Patrice, well, she finally hears a Christian song that makes her realize she had this whole Christian thang wrong all along. And Glen’s online boyfriend turns out to be a con artist being investigated by federal authorities. Somehow, this discovery propels her into an intense grief over her wasted life spent trying to please the gormless, thankless wankers in her family.

In all of these cases, Sara–the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ heroine–presents her product as the perfect fix to all of these problems.

The movie makes crystal-clear one point above all: without these sorrows, the heathens would not have converted. They needed to experience these problems in order to see Jesus as their solution.

The Really Broken Cutie in Only God Can.

Further, the movie does something absolutely reprehensible to kick-start Sara’s sales attempts.

It kills Gracie, the other TRUE CHRISTIAN™ in the group.

I wish I could be astonished that Christians so easily dispose of women in their stories. And they do it with the blithe assurance that their god simply needed these women’s deaths to save other people from his own incompetent universe-management.

Gracie dies in the most non-notable way possible: driving home in the rain, on her way back from Coley’s get-together that she didn’t even really enjoy. We learn about the death the next morning; Sara hears the news on the teevee while she’s folding laundry (probably for her sons, who are more than old enough to fold their own goddamned clothes).

Without Gracie’s death, the heathens would not have been brought to their various crises. Coley wouldn’t have gotten in a huge histrionic fight with her frenemies after Gracie’s funeral. Patrice wouldn’t have heard the Magical Christian Pixie Dust Song that plagued her mind and made her feel especially sad about not following the fundie life script for women.

As for Glen, she wouldn’t have gotten so much ammunition in such concentrated form about her family being rat-bastards. Seriously, she asks her philandering husband and her mother to go to the funeral with her, and they both act like she’s absolutely crazy to put that on them. Cuz only non-Christians would ever mistreat their close family like that. Obviously. Y’all, this revelation threw her into a total tailspin.

So you see? Gracie had to die so that her friends could be born again. This god couldn’t have figured out how to do it in any other way! And this is a good god, remember!

The Really Bad Downsides to This Belief.

Obviously, this belief suffers from some very serious dealbreakers.

First and foremost, it sounds super-abusive. This belief would send up red flags to anybody operating on full critical-thinking thrusters. In order to capture people’s allegiance, this god must harm his victims–or allow them to be hurt, which amounts to exactly the same thing. I really don’t get why Christians keep thinking this is a complete sidestepping of the problems inherent in their notion of godhood.

Second, it seems all too easy for believers in this idea to decide that Jesus needs a little of their help wrecking his future worshipers’ lives. It’s hard to escape noticing that the exact people expressing their fondest hopes that our lives will be wrecked also seem like really authoritarian, controlling, angry people who could tip over into violence or mayhem at a moment’s notice. They also tend to be the exact people constantly piously informing us that if it weren’t for their beliefs in nonsense, they’d be out there murdering and raping people with no end in sight.

Third, this belief becomes a self-fulfillment of the believer’s claims about Christianity. There’s no way that it can be falsified in any way. Having a great life? That’s Jesus! Having an awful life? Well, that’s Jesus too!

Fourth but by no means last, the Christians believing in this idea seem entirely too pleased whenever they behold heathens’ lives going poorly for any reason. Just yikes.

The Heathens in Foxholes.

Christians don’t realize that it speaks very poorly of their religion that only people who are absolutely desperate would ever consider joining it. Equally devastating to their case: people with better coping mechanisms and more options in life reject it in growing numbers.

That indeed is more or less why the religion’s plummeting in numbers all over the world. But those numbers fall mostly where people do have better coping mechanisms and more options in life. Where people remain desperate and terrified of the future, Christianity remains popular.

The classic 2007 essay, “Why the Gods are Not Winning,” really predicted the future of this religion.

In the end what humanity chooses to believe will be more a matter of economics than of debate, deliberately considered choice, or reproduction. The more national societies that provide financial and physical security to the population, the fewer that will be religiously devout. The more that cannot provide their citizens with these high standards the more that will hope that supernatural forces will alleviate their anxieties. It is probable that there is little that can be done by either side to alter this fundamental pattern.

In this movie, we find ourselves in a strange nexus indeed: a leading world economy nonetheless suffering from disadvantaged nations’ social problems. Likely in 20 more years, this movie’s plotlines will seem unintelligible.

Man alive! We can hope, right?

I’m such an optimistic lil bug.

Loss of Coercion, Again.

Years ago, Christians lost their powers of coercion over Americans. But they’re still selling the religion using the old tactics that they think brought them so much success in the past.

They tell us so much about their god, even when they don’t realize it. Everything they tell us tends to be a projection or a self-disclosure in the worst possible way.

Their imaginary god thunders, “LOOK AT ME! OR ELSE!”

He bellows, “Obey my servants, OR ELSE!”

He beats his chest with bloody fists: “Worship me… OR ELSE!”

More often than not in response nowadays, some slacker in the back row pushes her gum against the inside wall of her molars and snarls in her very best steel-cloaked-in-fondue drawl, “Or else the $&#* what, asshole?” 

And she directs that sentiment to the Christians demanding her time, resources, and attention–not to their imaginary friend.

The Answer to the Challenge.

Well, y’all. This movie got made to answer that heathen harlot. What they could never win in real life, they at least get to fantasize winning in their pandering, sophomoric movies and books and whatnot.

It’s what its target audience members wish would happen–to all of us who mock and reject them. And it’s what they threaten will totally happen–to any sheep already in the flock who forget who their shepherd is and why he tends sheep in the first place.

Oh, it won’t help ’em make a lot of sales of their product, no. Not even a little. But we’ll have to discuss that next time. For now, we rest here: this movie got made to pander to fundagelical women who feel bad that their heathen friends ain’t suffering like their religion predicted they would. And they themselves suffer way more than their religion predicted.

This movie functions like an emotional band-aid on a wound already festering into green goo in evangelical women’s hearts. And I’m sure that’s why it shows up on some “outreach” website as a movie-license DVD for churches to use to show to their congregations!

These sorts of Christians still possess the capacity to astonish even me… just not in the ways they’d probably prefer.

NEXT UP: The last Only God Can post: Exactly what “Jesus” did to solve the heathens’ problems. See you soon! <3

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Weirdly, this movie might just pass the Bechdel test. Patrice talks to Coley at least twice about her career as a published poet without them talking about men. In addition, Glen talks to Patrice several times about doing a poetry reading for her charity fundraiser. Sure, the fundraiser ends up being a front for her to finally meet her online crush. That goal doesn’t materialize until after Gracie’s funeral, as I recall. I don’t remember the two TRUE CHRISTIAN™ characters having a single interaction that doesn’t centrally involve husbands, potential boyfriends, or rivalries about men.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...