**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.**
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?