Sam Atwell is a smooth-talking, ethically unencumbered college senior and frat pack alpha dog … who has accidentally let his scholarship lapse. He needs $9,200 to stay in school. And he needs it in three weeks.
But desperation, like necessity, is the mother of invention. And when Sam uncharacteristically ends up in a church service, he hears about a group of young missionaries going to Hawaii that has raked in $16,000 in support—in one week. An idea is born.
It’s not a nice idea: scamming gullible ‘n’ guilt-ridden with a fake charity promising clean water for needy African children. “Project Get Wells Soon,” Sam names it, as he tells his frat bros Pierce, Tyler and Baker why they have to help him.
“Why do people give to charity events?” Sam asks them.
“Because they want to help people,” Tyler answers.
“Wrong!” says Sam. “Because they want to feel like they’re helping people. And that feeling comes with a price. The sadder the cause, the higher the price.”
Sam lays out his plan: “So I’ve been doing my research. It seems that right now, saving Africa is as popular to Christians as Jesus Christ Himself. So if we can challenge Christians to prove their faith through giving, essentially they’re going to give whatever they have to to not feel guilty about it later. Basically we’re going to—”
“Steal,” Tyler finishes. “You want to steal from Christians!?”
“Yeah,” Sam says.
The next thing you know, Ken Hopkins, executive director of a travelling ministry called Cross Country has signed Sam and Co. on to bring their vision for African missions to the masses by way of a 27-city tithes-and-offerings tour.
Cash only, please.
Suddenly the absolutely unbelieving and hard-partying Sam, Pierce, Tyler and Baker are preaching the Gospel and pressing palms for alms in a glossy evangelical roadshow. The God Squad, they’re called.
High time to learn how to speak “Christian” so they don’t get caught with their cash drawers open while separating Christians from their mammon like veteran charlatans!
Believe Me is something we don’t seen very often: Christian satire. Satire, of course, gently and not-so-gently lampoons its chosen target. Arguably, it’s best done by insiders making fun of themselves and their own subculture’s idiosyncrasies. And that’s exactly what comes across here. For the most part. (It’s undeniable that some of the film’s jabs will jolt a bit too much.)
We’re quickly introduced to several stereotypes within the American church: the eager-and-earnest geeky believer, those followers prone to speak enthusiastically in Christian jargon all the time; the suave and polished worship “artist,” in this case a guy named Gabriel whose pretentiousness borders on rock star ridiculousness); and the aging leader worried more about his ministry’s success than perhaps doing everything exactly for God’s glory. The foil for all of those not-so-flattering caricatures is Ken’s pretty executive assistant, Callie, a woman who seems to genuinely love Jesus with all of her heart and wants others to love Him too. Callie’s integrity is used well here as it’s stood up in sharp contrast to Sam’s shady plan. [Spoiler Warning] But to his credit, Sam is not only drawn to her because of her physical attractiveness, but also because of her rock-solid, compassionate beliefs. And he slowly begins to want to raise money for real for those needy African children.
Sam’s not the only one who has a change of heart. Though Tyler capitulates, he’s got qualms from the get-go, and he’s never completely comfortable with Sam’s scam. He also calls Sam out for giving spiritual counsel to people without having any genuine convictions himself.
It’s Callie who eventually forces Sam to consider what he truly believes. And there are hints that Sam is growing as a man of conviction by the time the stage fades to black. (Viewers are left to decide for themselves exactly where Sam’s unlikely spiritual journey might end up.)
So, as you can see, spiritual content permeates Believe Me. But it’s not always presented in the way you might expect. At one point, for instance, we see a song lyrics slide that reads, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” with the instruction below it, “x16.” Gabriel tells someone proudly, “I took a closer look at the song and I realized it was supposed to be about Jesus. So what are all those other words doing in there!?”
Likewise, a lengthy section of the film humorously critiques different worship postures (which Sam diagrams and describes), what Christians wear, the slogans they latch onto, what they drink, buy and approve of. The guys sit through a primer on how to pray, and how best to insert a long list of names for God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit into your prayers, as well as Sam’s observation that you’ve got to include “metaphors, self-degradation, dramatic pauses and Old English.” When Baker puts the formula all together, he spouts, “Father God, Lord, Jesus Christ, Father, We ask that You just break our sinful hearts and just, just, just help us, please help us help You help Africa. OK? Please?” Another “training session” finds the guys in a swimming pool randomly highlighting verses in their bibles and dipping the books in the water to artificially, as Tyler says, give them that “one of a kind distressed look.”
The overarching message communicated throughout these and other satirical moments is that Christian are easily duped and led astray when we focus on trying to maintain “right” appearances and doing all the “right” things to be in the “club.” In contrast, Callie’s faith is portrayed as deep, genuine and significant. Before she learns that Sam’s not who he seems, she tells him, “I wanted people here to know Jesus. I wanted them to come to things like this and not miss the whole point of it all.” Then, after Callie learns of Sam’s duplicity, she grapples with what it will take to forgive him and struggles to genuinely do so.
Meanwhile, Sam increasingly weighs the cost of what it really means to follow Jesus, an internal struggle that comes to light in his final message which focuses on the parable of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19. By that point, Sam has not only given back the money he’s stolen, he’s also given a $6,500 royalty check to a needy young man who’s going to use it to be a missionary in Africa.
Baker starts a “Christian” clothing company he names Cross Dressing Apparel. One shirt proclaims in all caps, “ABSTINENCE IS BAD-A.” Someone makes a crude, sexually suggestive gesture. A poster in the guys’ apartment features a woman in a bikini. When two of them walk into a meeting late, someone jokes, “You guys just making out?” The day after a wild party, someone says suggestively to Baker, “I heard you won big last night.”
Baker and Pierce engage in a brief, grappling fight. Someone jokingly punches another person in the face.
Sam instructs his compadres, “Christians hate swear words but love searing. If you want to swear like a Christian, you either spell out the word or make it into a letter.” Onstage, Sam illustrates his point by saying that even though he’ll probably get in trouble, he still has to call someone out as “being kind of an a-hole.” His churched audience laughs uproariously. Thus, one of the shirts sold by Cross Dressing Apparel bears the big-and-bold slogan “F Satan.”
Believe Me doesn’t stop with that kind of shorthand for “Christian approved” swearing. It also blasts out four s-words, along with three uses of “a–,” and one use each of “d–k,” “b–ch” and “b–tard.” Jesus’ name is misused twice. We hear “jeez,” “screw it” and “fricken.”
Never mind that they sign a contract prohibiting them from drinking, Sam, Pierce, Baker and Tyler down lots of beer, sometimes at parties, sometimes secretly in their hotel room. Several scenes involve people pouring beer on one another. A raucous frat party shows revelers drinking excessively and playing beer pong. Baker tells Sam that he sneaked off to a wild college party where he drank 19 beers. Then he says the younger guys there probably just thought he was some “old guy with a drinking problem.” It’s implied that he’s trying to quit smoking by switching to chewing tobacco. A college guidance counselor pours alcohol for himself and for Sam.
When it looks as though Sam might have to take time off between college and law school, that same counselor taunts, “Sam, stop thinking about your dreams being crushed as a bad thing. It’s fantastic. This is the first day of the rest of your pathetic life. Take the advice my father gave me: Life is difficult.”
[Spoiler Warning] Ken eventually finds out that Sam and his crew are perpetrating an elaborate fraud. But instead of turning them in to the police, he insists that their illegal and unethical scam must be kept secret because the scandal would damage his ministry’s credibility. He even says the stolen money is an “answer to prayer” because it will now help cover the ministry’s expenses.
Pictures (played for over-the-top humor) show African children being stalked by lions, riding a cheetah and wearing stylish sunglasses. We see a guy begin to unzip his pants in the bathroom, standing in front of a urinal as he talks to others.
While watching the first half or so of Believe Me, it’s pretty easy to take offense at the sometimes sarcastic arrows the filmmakers fire at the evangelical Christian subculture, from tawdry T-shirts to pious slogans to worship music mayhem. And when the sporadic profanity starts showing up, well, lots of families will have had quite enough.
And then the story starts digging down to its core message in earnest, focusing on increasingly serious (and not so satirized) faith themes: substantive discussions of the essential Christian teachings about forgiveness, repentance, true generosity and the cost of being Jesus’ disciple. It never offers an altar call. But it’s more than clear that it wants us to see Sam wrestling with deep questions about whether he’s willing to yield everything to follow Christ.
That tension between satire and salaciousness on the one hand and godly convictions and calling on the other is something Believe Me relishes. For better or worse. And sometimes both at once.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.