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Review of Eric Metaxas’s ‘Letter to the American Church’ the Movie

Letter to the American Church was first a book (September, 2022) by bestselling author Eric Metaxas. Now, it’s been released as a movie by the same title.

The opening sequence provides the reason for the movie. As Metaxas walks into a large warehouse, his words are, “I am convinced that the American church has arrived at an impossibly, almost unbearably significant, moment.” In other words, Metaxas produced this movie because he believes this is the critical hour for the American church to stand up and act or America as we know it will be lost. And he’s convinced that at present American pastors are acting just like the German church did early in Hitler’s chancellorship, and if we don’t wake up we’ll see Nazi-like horrors in our day.

Before we look further at the movie, I think it’s important to note that Metaxas believes his message so strongly that he is hard-selling the movie to churches. Metaxas is offering free screenings to churches (it normally costs $10 to rent online), and in one recent interview, he challenged Christians that if their pastor wouldn’t offer a free screening of this movie then they should leave that church and find one that is more faithful.[1] So for full disclosure: I find that very concerning.

Alright, back to our review.

Summary

The movie is well-produced and engaging. It’s not cheesy. It follows the same basic structure as the book, so the movie begins with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s radio message to the German church and nation in the days immediately after Hitler’s rise to power. It then describes (with plenty of B-roll from Nazi Germany in the 1930’s) some of the ways Hitler solidified his power, took control of the media, used propaganda, and indoctrinated children to achieve his objectives. Then it condemns the church in Germany during the early 1930’s, and especially the pastors, for being too silent.

That’s the point of comparison for the American church today.

From there, the movie turns to present day USA and contends that our situation is just like those early months in Germany when Hitler first began his reign. It was in those early months where the German church needed to arise and act, and now is the time to act today.

Though the main comparison is to Nazi Germany, the movie also compares what’s happening in America to Mao’s takeover in China. So, there’s a rally cry for the church to stand up and speak out to put a stop to the Marxist takeover of America, or it will soon be too late—just like in Germany and China. The kinds of examples given of the present-day takeover are things like abortion, gender ideology, BLM, and mask and vaccine mandates.


“Though the main comparison is to Nazi Germany, the movie also compares what’s happening in America to Mao’s takeover in China.”


The overall message is that the American church, and especially its pastors, must immediately arise, or else who knows how bad it’s going to get.

What’s helpful?

There are three key aspects of this movie that I think are helpful.

  • First, the movie challenges us to use our influence for the well-being of others by calling out injustice and unrighteousness in our nation.
  • Second, the movie reminds us that bad politics causes real and great harm. As the movie emphasizes, history shows us this harm over and over again, and we must not forget this.
  • Third, the movie alerts us to some of the false ideas and misplaced values currently plaguing our nation—ideas and values that are destructive to human flourishing.

What’s concerning?

While those three aspects of the movie are helpful, the movie’s overall approach is, I think, less than helpful. Here are a few characteristics that I find concerning.

Alarmist. The movie feeds on fear with a message of certain doom if we don’t act now. It essentially takes every bad thing that has happened in the last 5 years in America, equates it with Hitler’s takeover in Germany and Mao’s regime in China, and claims that our situation and fate is the same—unless the church does something.

Unbalanced and un-nuanced. Here are two examples of what I mean. First, the movie seems to put masks and vaccine mandates on the same level as abortion and gender ideology. But that’s just not accurate. The mandates of the pandemic don’t have the same moral weight as abortion or of many of the “gender-affirming” policies of trans ideology.

Second, in the movie, Charlie Kirk discusses pastors who don’t act out against what’s happening. About such pastors Kirk says, “I don’t actually believe they’re Christians.” He goes on to say, “It says in James ‘by your deeds you will know them.’ I don’t see the deeds. I see cowards. I see apathy. I see the spirit of Ahab. I see the spirit of Jezebel. I don’t see the spirit of Elijah.” So, the message is, unless you agree with him and address these issues the way he believes you must, you’re a faithless coward and not a real Christian.


“The message is, unless you agree with him and address these issues the way he believes you must, you’re a faithless coward and not a real Christian.”


Militant. The movie is a call to arms, not literally to war but definitely to stand up and fight. There is a passing line about peaceful protests, but the overwhelming tone in both word and image is militant. One speaker contends that to real men the church “looks like being neutered.” The speaker goes on to assert that real men are warriors who do hard things, and what it pictures simultaneously on screen are military images and hand-to-hand combat training.

But this misses the mark, as the New Testament invitation to followers of Jesus is not to be warriors who fight physical battles but missionaries who lay down their lives. In the New Testament, we don’t see soldiers turned away from following Jesus because of their occupation (Luke 3:14; Acts 10), but it’s inaccurate to depict militancy as a dominant image of what it means to follow Jesus.

And Jesus’ own approach is more measured and discerning. At times, Jesus did speak directly to various leaders on moral issues of his day. But on other occasions, he left Galilee to avoid conflict. He spent most of his time training the twelve apostles. And ultimately, his approach to defeating evil was to lay down his life—and he calls his followers to imitate that pattern, to take up their cross. His emissaries are instructed to be “as shrewd as serpents but as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, NIV).


“Jesus’ own approach is more measured and discerning.”


What if it really is 1930s Germany?

Now, it’s possible that you are reading this review and thinking, “Well, it seems that you’re assuming it’s not quite as bleak as Metaxas says. But what if it is? What if Metaxas is right about the current situation we are in?”

Fair enough. If it really is as late an hour as Metaxas suggests, it’s time for serious thinking and clear, wise teaching. Lathering Christians into a militant political bloc that joins all the political outrage won’t help us to move the needle on the issues that matter most. We’ll end up adding to the noise, being indistinguishable from the other political voices out there, and failing to be a city set on a hill.

By contrast, if we wisely pick our battles and dig deep into what God’s Word says about gender, human life, and other key issues, then we can disciple our people well in those crucial areas of biblical truth. The focus needs to be on discipling our people well to live out what the Bible teaches, not on conditioning our people to be able to list all the ways the Democrats or culture at large are wrong.


“If we wisely pick our battles and dig deep into what God’s Word says about gender, human life, and other key issues, then we can disciple our people well in those crucial areas of biblical truth.”


It is as well-discipled followers of Jesus that we move the needle in our communities, as we work, volunteer, vote—and above all—disciple others in the teachings of Jesus. For clear, biblical action steps for churches in navigating hostile times, I encourage you to check out David Young’s book, Resilient: Standing Firm in a Hostile World.

A Couple Unexplored Questions

As I watched the movie, I was struck by a number of assumptions that lay unexplored in the background, and it seemed to me there were two key questions (and several other sub-questions) that we Christians must wrestle with if we want to serve as good missionaries to our culture.

  • What actually should the relationship between the church and the state be? Many Christians who want to “take America back for God” have in mind a sort of church-state synthesis, but that is far from the only option for faithful Christians, and we need to acknowledge that this model brings along with it some significant temptation as well as historic baggage. Metaxas needs to be clearer on this question, rather than leaving people to assume a church-state synthesis is the correct model (and that if we don’t favor this model, then we’re cowardly and faithless). Since God’s kingdom is no longer identified with a nation, what is the church’s role within our nation and how are we supposed to exercise that role?
  • How does the kingdom of God advance? If our primary allegiance is not to America but to God’s kingdom, what’s that kingdom’s mission and what does that mean for the American church in this present cultural moment?

Those are foundational questions that must be explored if we truly want to honor Jesus and impact our country for good. Our goal is not to have our own Christian takeover of the nation. And our approach must be to embody in word and deed the kingdom of God.


“What actually should the relationship between the church and the state be?”


Would I Recommend a Free Screening for Your Church?

One last thing, would I recommend pastors host a free screening of this movie, as Eric Metaxas is pushing for?

Here’s my concern with that: those Christians who are more on the “take back America for God” side will only be inflamed and made more prepared to fight, while those who are less inclined to that mindset won’t likely be swayed (if they come to the screening at all). Both groups will be more entrenched in their position and disparage the other. So, I don’t see how it will encourage your church to love one another well and be good missionaries to their own community.

So, I’m not sure I would host a screening UNLESS I was also prepared to use it as a discipleship opportunity to explore those foundational questions I mention above biblically, wisely, and deeply. In other words, as an opportunity to think through with my people how, since we won’t all see eye-to-eye on every political matter, we can show the world a model of loving unity in the midst of diversity.

Because to be a city set on a hill doesn’t ultimately mean our job is to militantly take our country back for God. It does mean that we show a better way of being human.


[1] Watch the interview where Metaxas encourages you to leave your church if your pastor won’t host a free screening of the movie here.


For more from John, see johnwhittaker.net.

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