What Unbroken Leaves Out

**SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet read Unbroken or seen the recent movie, you might want to skip this. But it’s so interesting, you’ll be sorry.**

Unbroken?...or Un-Finished?

Unbroken?…or Un-Finished?

What is the takeaway message from the life of Louis Zamperini, subject of the new film Unbroken? The power of resilience? The unplumbed depths of human courage?

…or is it the healing power of Protestant fundamentalism?

In the pages of World Magazine, Cal Thomas asks an intriguing question: Why did the recent film leave out the central role played in Zamperini’s life by the fundamentalist revival of Billy Graham?

When protagonist Louis Zamperini returned home from his hellish ordeals at sea and in Japanese prison camps, he struggled with alcoholism and depression. As the original book by Laura Hillenbrand makes very clear, Zamperini overcame these demons through fundamentalist faith. After attending a 1949 revival by fundamentalist preacher Billy Graham, Zamperini turned his life around.

This conversion was not an incidental part of Zamperini’s story. Zamperini, we could say, gave America a powerful demonstration of the healing power of a particular brand of fundamentalist Protestantism. But that is not the way celebrity director Angelina Jolie saw it. Thomas wants to know why Jolie left that part out. As Thomas puts it,

it is puzzling why Jolie, who directed the film, and the Coen brothers, who wrote it, left out the most important part of Zamperini’s story.

Not only is Zamperini’s conversion a central part of his life story, it reflects the power of a specifically fundamentalist religion. Some readers may be more familiar with Billy Graham’s later work, when Graham had begun to articulate a kinder, gentler evangelical faith. In the 1940s, however, at the time of Zamperini’s conversion, Graham’s crusades packed a firmly fundamentalist punch. Not just theologically, either, but politically.

In his 1940s campaigns, for instance, the message of conversion was wrapped in a conservative anti-communist package. At the blockbuster Rose Bowl campaign of 1950, for example, theologian Harold Ockenga introduced Graham’s sermon as “The Answer to Communist Aggression.”

And just as Billy Graham was helping Zamperini defeat his demons, Graham insisted on his loyalty to the fundamentalist message. Though later a split developed between the most conservative fundamentalists and Graham’s famous crusades, that split had not yet developed by 1949. At that time, Graham loudly proclaimed his loyalty to the fundamentalist message. In a 1949 letter to staunch fundamentalist leader Bob Jones Sr., for example, Graham called Jones the

model toward which we are patterning our lives. Your counsel means more to me than that of any individual in the nation.

During the late 1940s, Billy Graham remained a staunch fundamentalist partisan. The message that saved Zamperini was not just one of generic Christian healing, but one of specifically fundamentalist rigor. In this one famous case, at least, we can see the ways fundamentalism’s unyielding moral stance pulled a suffering soul out of a personal hell.

We can’t help but echo Cal Thomas’s question: Why didn’t Angelina Jolie include this part? Jolie no longer returns my calls, but I can’t help but think that she might have some aversion toward fundamentalism.

I’m no fundamentalist myself. American fundamentalism has its share of skeletons in its closets, as we’ve explored here at ILYBYGTH. It may be fair to accuse the latter-day followers of Bob Jones Sr., for example, of terrible misconduct. But if we really want to be fair, shouldn’t we also acknowledge the ways that fundamentalism has saved lives?

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3 Comments

  1. Interesting point and I think a worthwhile question. I have reminded anti-theists many times that religion, even Fundamentalism, can be of great personal benefit to some people based on their situation. I don’t think it is my place to second-guess their experiences, nor would I wish to. It hits home since both of my parents converted to Pentecostalism at a very low point in their lives and view it as the moment they were able to turn their lives around. It’s powerful.

    On the other hand, I also have to recognize the flip side of that. Fundamentalism is attractive to many injured people because it offers black-and-white answers and rigid structure… things that can be beneficial at one time and terribly harmful at others. Indeed, many such religions are well-known to be practically predatory with their conversion efforts… targeting people who are desperate, in pain, ignorant, or unable to access alternatives. In my own family’s case, the fact that they were recruited by Pentecostals at a time of great pain resulted in the eventual fracturing of our entire family and the loss of their future with their child. I can’t help but think that, if they had been given a helping hand by a less fundamentalist religion, this probably wouldn’t have happened.

    So I can’t talk about how fundamentalism destroyed my family without also mentioning how it saved them, nor can I talk about how it saved them without also having to point out that it destroyed the family. This is why I am deeply uncomfortable with parading positive conversion stories of Fundamentalism in a good light… at least without recognizing the predatory methods that are often used to achieve this, and the devastation that it can leave in its wake. All the same, history is history, so if Fundamentalism is a large part of this man’s story, then I don’t see how it is appropriate to ignore that. There are ways to present the truth without having to uncritically accept Fundamentalism as a good thing.

    Reply
  2. Agellius

     /  December 29, 2014

    “But if we really want to be fair, shouldn’t we also acknowledge the ways that fundamentalism has saved lives?”

    I’m not a Protestant fundamentalist either, but the answer is yes.

    Reply
  3. Donna

     /  December 29, 2014

    “Some readers may be more familiar with Billy Graham’s later work, when Graham had begun to articulate a kinder, gentler evangelical faith.” True.

    If what I read is true, and who knows, Zamperini wanted the film to appeal to a wider audience.

    Reply

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