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‘End of the Spear’: missions buffeted by U.S. culture war

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–“End of the Spear,” a film opening in theaters nationwide Jan. 20, recounts one of the most extraordinary chapters in the modern missionary movement.

Yet it has become an unexpected example of the nation’s culture war, with an actor who is a homosexual activist playing its lead character.

The film’s release marks the 50th anniversary of the Jan. 8, 1956, killing of Nate Saint, Jim Elliot and three other American missionaries by spear-wielding tribesmen in the Ecuadorian jungle.

The story continued when one of the missionaries’ sisters, Rachel Saint, and one of their widows, Elisabeth Elliot, subsequently lived among the tribesmen, helping kindle faith among those who had cast the spears and others in the pervasively violent culture. Elliot chronicled her experiences in “Through Gates of Splendor,” which remains a classic among books on missions.

Nate Saint’s son, Steve Saint, who was 5 when his father was killed, has made regular visits to tribesmen over the years -– and found an amazing bond with the one who speared his dad, a man named Mincaye now in his mid-70s. And Steve Saint’s son, Jesse, and his family presently live among the tribe.

“When the killings occurred, it shook the entire Christian world and beyond,” Wayne Atcheson, admissions manager for the Christian Writers Guild, wrote in an e-mail to friends. “I was 13 and remember it well. Only God knows of the thousands who were influenced through their courageous effort, who committed their lives to missionary and fulltime Christian service. Only God knows of the millions who have come to faith in Christ through these men who were willing to risk and give their lives as martyrs….

“No doubt, this is the most powerful missionary story of the 20th century,” Atcheson wrote.

“If you talk to someone who was a believer at the time, it had the same effect as other events such as Kennedy’s assassination –- people remember where they were when they heard the story,” wrote Jason Janz, assistant pastor of South Sheridan Baptist Church in Denver, at SharperIron, his Internet weblog and forum focusing on “news and ideas from a Christian, biblical, fundamentalist worldview.”

“I heard someone at a missions conference say that the greatest flood of American missionaries to land on foreign soil did so after the deaths of these young men,” Janz continued. “… Who hasn’t heard Elliot’s motto, ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’?”

Janz, however, is among a number of Christians who have questioned the casting of homosexual actor and activist Chad Allen for the roles of both Nate Saint and Steve Saint in End of the Spear.

The film’s lead producer, Mart Green, producer/writer Bill Ewing and director Jim Hanon issued a three-paragraph statement to Baptist Press concerning Allen, whose career credits include one of the lead roles in “Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman”:

“We are the filmmakers of End of the Spear. We cast Chad Allen because he had the best audition of anyone else by far. We know that the character in the film and the actor are not the same. If as a film company we could only work with people who were completely sanctified, then the film would never have been made. We do not agree with Chad over homosexuality. End of the Spear is not about Chad Allen, but rather it’s about remarkable people who lived their faith against all odds, and dared to reach out at the cost of their lives.

“The discussion over sin and working with sinners has been in the body of Christ from the beginning. We are glad that our lives are not being compared with Nate Saint. We don’t believe we would stack up.

“The story is greater than the storytellers and it would be an enormous disservice if great stories of faith like this one were reduced to the human shortcomings of the filmmakers. We invite you to experience End of the Spear and then judge for yourself the message you are left with.”

Mart Green, founder of the Every Tribe Entertainment company that undertook the $30 million production, is the son of one of the nation’s most generous donors to Christian causes, David Green, founder of the nationwide Hobby Lobby chain.

Steve Saint has been a consultant to the film company, which is donating half of any proceeds to benefit the Waodani (who had been misidentified for years as Auca Indians) and other indigenous peoples. Saint led Mart Green and others into the Ecuadorian jungle to ask the tribe’s permission to film their story.

The producers have said they were not aware of Chad Allen’s homosexuality when they gave him the role of Steve Saint in the film but decided to stick with him once they were told of his sexual practices.

Saint, who has befriended Allen, hopes that the film will help people see “that all of us have tragic, shattered relationships in our lives and that God is the one who can put them back together in incredible ways.”

“If Mincaye and I can be very close friends, be family, love each other, and my kids and my grandchildren can love Mincaye and his family -– if that can happen out of the tragic relationship that we started with –- then maybe it’ll give people hope that their strained relationships can also be reconciled and that, better yet, God can be part of the answer,” Saint said in an interview with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Decision magazine.

Saint, who has written a book likewise titled “End of the Spear” (Tyndale), also has underscored the approach of telling, for the first time, the story from the Waodanis’ vantage point.

Still, though, the culture war casts a cloud over End of the Spear.

Janz, on his website, noted that Chad Allen, who plays Steve Saint in the film, was a proponent for “gay marriage” on “Larry King Live” the night President Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment banning “same-sex marriage”; he has been on the cover of one of the leading homosexual magazines, The Advocate; and he has been featured in a production of “Corpus Christi,” a stridently Christ-mocking stage play.

Janz lamented that End of the Spear “will by far be one of [Allen’s] biggest splashes on the screen. No doubt, his fan base will explode, especially among Christian kids. Every email that is sent from evangelical teens will go through his hands. [Allen has said he personally receives all e-mails sent to his fan website.] You cannot go to Chad’s website and spend any time there without seeing his homosexuality on display. At several points, kids can learn about gay publications, online magazines, and support groups for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-gendered teens.”

Janz suggested that the “Christian film-making community [should] come up with a code of ethics that will show the difference between a Christian film company and a secular film company. If you are going to ask for our loyalty and support, you need to be willing to hear our concerns and let us know that you will protect our beliefs, not muddy the waters.”

Janz also suggested that people who want to see End of the Spear “wait until it comes out on video and have lots of people over to see it in their home. That way, Every Tribe Entertainment doesn’t get as much income.”

Saint is accustomed to controversy, having heard periodic criticisms of how his father and the other missionaries approached the Waodani.

Ruth Tucker, a professor of missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich., and author of “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biography History of Christian Missions,” described the missionaries’ actions as “fundamentally flawed” in a Religion News Service story.

“To me, it would have been surprising if they had not been killed,” Tucker said, conceding that some good was accomplished, but more good would have come of the situation if the five martyrs had done things more judiciously.

Saint, in a news story in The Charlotte World, noted that within a few years of the missionaries’ first contact with the Waodani, the tribe’s homicide rate had dropped by 90 percent. About 20 percent became Christians.

“Where were they supposed to go to come by this cultural wisdom? No one had ever had contact. To suggest that they had not taken every precaution is ludicrous,” Saint said.

“This story has had an impact far beyond human wisdom,” Saint reflected. “If they broke every rule of good solid method, then I say we perhaps need to have fewer rules.”

As to the film’s quality, that also has been the subject of debate.

Phil Boatwright, who provides film commentary for Baptist Press, lamented that the depiction of the tribesmen in End of the Spear “lacked much charisma, causing the story to be stilted….” The music, while “trying to capture the feel” of the Waodani, entailed “an endless drumbeat” and a chanting chorus “to the point of tedium.” Overall, he said, the film had a “lack of emotional tug” and “little spiritual impetus.”

“I feel a bit guilty for giving a negative review to one of the few films in recent history to portray Christians in a good light, so allow me to close with a positive message from the film,” Boatwright wrote. “Toward the end, the Amazonian native who had killed the narrator’s father feels an overwhelming remorse and wants the young man to take his life. But the young man says, ‘No one took my father’s life. He gave it.’ This affects the warrior profoundly. It’s an effective scene.”

Boatwright said the film is rated PG-13 “for several battles and many deaths by spears.”

Among the endorsers of the film, however, Gene B. Habecker, president of the American Bible Society, said, “End of the Spear will speak to your head even as it moves your heart! Stunning visuals, a powerful plot, dramatic action, and spectacular scenery all combine to make this the must-see movie for 2006!”

Dennis Rainey, president of FamilyLife, meanwhile, said End of the Spear “isn’t just a good movie, but an EXCELLENT one! It’s my hope that tens of millions of young people around the world will see this riveting movie and that it will be used by God to launch a million missionaries who will perform even greater exploits for Jesus Christ. Take your children and a couple of their friends, and experience this compelling story.”