On 20 April 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, seniors at Columbine High School, infamously marched onto school property, armed with a variety of firearms, and murdered thirteen people before killing themselves. The Columbine High School massacre was, at the time, the deadliest school shooting in US history and “Columbine” has since become a euphemism for school shootings.
Harris and Klebold’s first victim was seventeen-year-old Rachel Joy Scott, who was shot four times while eating lunch with a friend on the lawn outside the west entrance of the school. In October 2016, seventeen years after the massacre, Pure Flix produced and distributed a faith-based film inspired by Rachel’s journal entries. The film tells the story of Rachel’s life—primarily of the year leading up to her murder—and intertwines the stories of Harris and Klebold into the narrative.
The film is largely a typical high school drama. Rachel is a regular teenaged girl, facing all the ordinary pressures of high school life. She desperately wants to be accepted by her peers and faces the inevitable awkwardness of a teen girl protagonist around boys. While she becomes a Christian early in the film, she largely keeps that side of her life hidden from all but her closest friends.
At church, she befriends Nathan, an older homeless man, with whom she strikes up an unlikely brother-sister relationship. Through a series of journal exchanges with Nathan, she reveals her struggles with faith and her desire to fit in. Eventually, through a sequence of events involving teen heartbreak and betrayal by her best friend, she realises that she cannot, as it were, serve two masters, and decides to give herself with abandon to Christ. Admitting that she had not been “real” in her faith, she commits that she will not be “a beer-chugging, pot-tripping, cigar-puffing, drug-dealing Christian” but instead “God-loving, Satan-slaying, Jesus-freaking, world-changing Christian—warrior for Christ.” “People,” she says to Nathan, “aren’t going to accept us for our faith, but it’s okay. You have to love and serve them anyway—and I’m talking compassion, forgiveness. I mean, if we don’t, what’s going to attract them to God?”
So begins Rachel’s prolonged commitment to display the compassion and forgiveness of Christ at school. Her friends alienate her, but her faith opens up wonderful doors of ministry among the student body. She reaches out to marginalised students and her commitment to embodied Christian living runs her afoul of Eric and Dylan, who hate everything she stands for. On the day of the massacre, she is having lunch with a friend on the front lawn of the school, when Eric and Dylan drive onto school property to begin their planned massacre. Spotting Rachel and Dave1 sitting together on the lawn, the pair march up to them and begin shooting. Both students are hit multiple times. Dave is seemingly killed, but Rachel survives the initial shooting. Eric then walks up to Rachel, grabs her by the hair, and, looking at her with intense hatred, asks if she still believes in God. When she replies that she does, he says, “Then go be with him,” before shooting her at point blank range in the temple, killing her.
The film then cuts to recorded footage of the actual massacre and its aftermath, including a statement issued by President Clinton. There is no portrayal of any murders beyond Rachel’s and Dave’s, and the film ends with students transforming her car into a memorial to her life and mourning her death.
It is often lamented that faith-based films are somewhat cringe-worthy. While I’m Not Ashamedhardly received critical acclaim, it is certainly a better produced film than many of its faith-based predecessors. It is still replete with standard Christian tropes, but as one reviewer puts it, “it’s easily the most accomplished (i.e., pretty watchable) Pure Flix film yet, meaning not every scene is risible.” Masey McLain’s performance as Rachel is beautiful and the film avoids portraying her as a paragon of Christian virtue whose faith easily raises her above the struggles of her classmates. She understands what it means to face teen angst and at one point contemplates suicide. She comfortably interacts with friends in a non-condemning way, even if they are involved in behaviours that typical Christian films frown upon (drinking, smoking, etc.). Overtures from Rachel’s journals, interspersed throughout the film, highlight the real-life struggles of a teenaged girl who desperately wishes to be accepted by her friends. Her eventual commitment to reach out to the marginalised portrays a Christlike demeanour. There is much to commend the film from a faith-based perspective.
The story also doesn’t try to make neat sense of Eric and Dylan’s motives. The film opens by asking the why question but fails to answer it in a concrete way. This reflects the reality of the situation. Commentators on the massacre have hotly debated what drove the pair to their murderous rampage, but as authorities investigating the crime ultimately concluded, “the most fundamental question—why?” could not be answered. The film presents a range of potentially contributing factors to their plans—obsession with Nazism, bullying, violent video games, etc.—and if it portrays the motive of the murderers in a hodgepodge fashion, it is because their motive was not easily discerned.
At the same time, the underlying faith-based message seems somewhat jumbled. A repeated theme in the narrative is that God actively works even in the darkest of circumstances. “God does not waste anything—not even the bad things,” Rachel’s aunt tells her. Rachel repeats those words to Dave immediately before Eric and Dylan open fire on them. But rather than leaving it as a story about Rachel’s trust in divine providence, the writers ultimately turn the story into something of a modern-day martyrdom narrative. She is ultimately gunned down, it seems, for her faith and not merely as one victim of a senseless crime.
While Christian reviewers have praised the film as “a must see inspirational film,” “a tremendous film,” “powerful,” and “inspiring,” secular reviewers have complained that the film “use[s] the senseless death of a school shooting victim to promote one’s warped political agenda” and labelled it “very unsavoury.” They object that the film’s decision to transform the Columbine tragedy into a martyr narrative is exploitation. To an extent, their complaint is understandable.
Whether or not Rachel maintained her faith in God to the bitter end (and this has been hotly debated), parents of the other twelve slain students might feel aggrieved that the tragic deaths of their children—and the senseless death of one teacher—is overlooked by filmmakers in forwarding the claim that Rachel was killed for her faith. If Christian persecution was their motive, what should be said about the rest of the victims, not all of whom stood for their faith in Christ in the face of worldly opposition? That is not to suggest that the film would have been better received by secular reviewers if claims of martyrdom had been ignored in favour of focus on divine providence, but perhaps it would have removed one leg from the stool of exploitive claims.
In the end, this is a film that Christian viewers will likely appreciate, even if it leaves them feeling uneasy about political overtones. There is wisdom in preventing younger children from viewing the film, but teenagers and adults may appreciate the story of one teen girl’s struggle with faith and trust in the God who doesn’t waste anything—not even the bad things.