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Monumental (2012)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Monumental is a well-produced call-to-action documentary about recovering the foundational strengths of the United States republic. I applaud its major points, but I wish it had been more inclusive. Don’t get me wrong: I believe the filmmakers do have — and would encourage all Christians to have — a strong love and gracious embrace for all people of any belief system (in which I include atheism), yet by the combination of what the film does and does not say, it leaves itself open to being seen as yet another salvo in a political battle for Christian hegemony over our fellow citizens. This is unnecessary both for the film and for (what I understand to be) the broader goals of the filmmakers’ program and intent. NOTE: The remainder of this Quick Talk reveals more about the film than does the usual Quick Talk, including the main conclusion of the film.

As a father of six, Kirk Cameron is concerned and worried as he looks around at the state of the United States: Out-of-control national debt, political blame on all sides, shameless free teen sex, even high school girls that want to get pregnant, economic travails, irresponsibility run amok, and more. What can one father do? What should the United States do? He decides to look back into US history to see what gave the country such a uniquely strong start. Tracing the Puritans from England to Holland to England and finally to Plymouth Rock, he sees new sides to the story that they didn’t teach in school. In particular, he notes the long-range, inter-generational vision of their faith commitment and that their separation from England was a small part of a larger vision to work for England’s restoration. He then traces how commitment to Biblical faith runs up to and through the early years of the United States, supported even by founding fathers (like Thomas Jefferson) who had notable concerns about full-on Christian belief. A centerpiece of Cameron’s journey is the National Monument to the Forefathers, an 80-foot granite structure with 13 symbolic statues that embody the Pilgrims’ vision of a well-ordered society. Through these and other points, Cameron concludes that Christian faith was and should again be the foundational strength of the United States. Running time: ~90 min.

Monumental’s concern with the state of the United States is well-placed: The US can’t seem to live within its means (doesn’t seem to really care to do so, on the whole) and I think it safe to say that very, very few people would consider teen pregnancy to be desirable, and so on with other issues. Even the core of his prescription, large-scale restoration of truly-lived, loving faith, is strong and good. To its credit, the film explicitly states that it does not advocate the establishment of a Christian theocracy. It looks to a future where deep hearts of love, selflessness, community, and sacrifice, shared deeply and lived profoundly among a broad swath of the population, are the core fabric of national strength and unity. It is a beautiful and laudable vision.

But the film is silent about key realities that a loving faith must account for, and this silence opens it to being read and characterized, perhaps unfairly, as Christians aiming to foist their religion on undesiring fellow citizens. The painful part of this to me is that, historically, such foisting — particularly in its unlovingness — is at least partially responsible for the moves away from faith, even outright rage against faith, that the film portrays as a major cause of the nation's ills. Jesus doesn't foist. He "stand[s] at the door and knock[s]." Among the film's silences are these questions:

  • What of other beliefs? In advocating a renewal of Christian faith to restore the nation, Monumental is silent about what relationship Christians should have toward those of other beliefs. Can we embrace life together with others, loving them and working for their good even when their favored lifestyles are antithetical to our own? Are they merely salvation targets? Can they, in their beliefs, be partners in renewal?
  • Who can be moral and good? Another is that, by stating clearly that Christian faith leads to moral goodness, the film's silence about other beliefs leaves the implication that a person must be a Christian to have good morals. But observation of our fellow citizens makes clear that "Christian" is not equal to "moral" and "other beliefs" is not equal to "immoral." Claiming the name of Jesus does not infallibly lead to foundational character strengths and truly-lived, loving faith.
  • What, specifically, shall we do? One other I'll mention is that, beyond the call to truly-lived, loving faith, the film is silent about any specific program of what the loving faith community would do in relation to the issues that started Cameron on his search. Is loving faith within the family the extent of it? Would there be a legislative agenda? Community service? Founding of private, planned communities in remote locations? Whatever it may be, the film's silence makes it too easy to jump to the conclusion that it intends to foster more of the "cultural battle" stance by which many American Christians have made enemies of their neighbors.

I hope Monumental is well-received. I hope the filmmakers' follow-on actions answer these questions in a "second greatest commandment" sort of way. Yet to the extent that there is backlash, it won't do to blame it on those that decry the film, saying that they are recalcitrant or intolerant. Or to say that persecution is what happens when you stand up for your faith. Whatever the truth may be about others, and whether any backlash is fair or not, our proper focus is the truth about us and whether we love others truly and deeply, no matter what their beliefs, just as Jesus loved all people. Notice that our Lord had disdain only for those who held themselves up as right and religious. Conversely, somehow Jesus lived so that only the religious lashed out at him. Which sometimes makes me wonder if we are doing what Jesus would do.

Something happened to anecdotally reinforce these points to me even before I left the theater. Shortly after the film closed, the live preview broadcast was cut short, leaving us hanging in the middle of a Kirk Cameron sentence. A couple of us stayed to ask the theater manager what had happened. A Christian brother was quite forceful and, shall we say, less than gracious with management in demanding a refund, with very little patience for any explanation she might offer. To me, it wasn't a loving-nation-building moment. She gave us free pass cards and, after he had gone, I apologized to her about him. In response, she was very gracious toward his behavior.

All in all, the film is worth the time to see, but please watch it aware of and thinking about what Monumental doesn't say. The holes must be filled with love and grace and true tolerance — not the kind of "tolerance" that says we all agree that no one is right (that's not tolerance, that's agreement), but rather the kind that says we can radically disagree about core life issues, yet still stand arm-in-arm in love and mutual respect.

There is brief but pointed description of the difficult and biologically unsanitary conditions the Pilgrims endured on the Mayflower, as well as their physically and emotionally harrowing survival (and not) of the first winter.

  • Director: Duane Barnhart
  • Screenplay: Kevin Miller
  • Leads: Kirk Cameron
  • Cinematography: John Rhode, Mike Robinson, Tim Rygh
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