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Review: "Pray Away" directed by Kristine Stolakis

The documentary film “Pray Away” is an unflinching critique of the American ex-gay movement, told through footage of its former leaders. The secular press has largely applauded the film. However, it makes uncomfortable viewing for Bible-believing Christians. As we watch, we need to work hard to untangle the ex-gay movement’s foundational biblical beliefs from the unethical practices of some of its ministries. The film makes extensive usage of archive footage, much of it from the 80s and 90s, when the ex-gay movement was in its heyday. These clips, often featuring ex-gay ministry leaders in full flow, are punctuated by modern-day interviews with the same leaders now looking back with regret at what they did and said. Many of the leaders featured were big names, such as John Paulk, Michael Bussee and Alan Chambers. Interwoven with these is the voice of a former protégé of the ex-gay movement, Julie Rodgers, who contrasts her current revisionist views on sexuality with her previous negative experiences as a resident of the live-in programme, “Living Hope”. The film shows with great sympathy the wedding preparations of Julie and her same-sex partner. Having rightly criticised the ex-gay movement’s idolising of opposite-sex marriage, it seemed ironic that the film falls into its own trap by idealising same-sex marriage. There is no consideration in the film of those who are instead called to singleness and celibacy.

The portrayal of ex-gay practices

The film rather caricatures the American church’s response to LGBT Christians by focusing exclusively on abusive and pseudo-scientific ex-gay practices that elevate traditional marriage as the goal for everyone. As the narrative progresses, it keeps returning to the story of John Paulk, who was a poster-boy for the movement. Exodus International held Paulk, a gay man, as a living example to show that people’s sexuality could and should change. However, the modern-day interview with Paulk concedes that his marriage was a sham and that he used gay pornography throughout.

The film strongly contrasts the modern-day versions of these leaders with their younger selves, whom it portrays as zealous, naïve hypocrites. The modern-day footage shows them as sophisticated and wise. Each of them has clearly come on a journey to their current revisionist views because of the failings of the ex-gay movement. The two reasons presented in the film were that ex-gay ministries failed to change people’s sexualities, and that their practices were abusive and damaged mental health. Another contrast in the film is with the lone modern-day voice for change in the film, Jeffrey McCall. His ministry is to the transgendered rather than the same-sex attracted. However, instead of bringing balance to the film, the purpose of McCall’s inclusion seems to be to convey the message that abusive practices continue today. In addition, the choice of McCall plays into American stereotypes of the unsophisticated lower classes: he is overweight and has a strong Southern US accent. He also appears in extensive out-of-context footage of passionate prayer and singing with other like-minded believers, implying a cult-like devotion. In contrast, the footage of a former ex-gay leader’s participation in an affirming church service portrays a much more reflective and considered time of worship.

What we can learn from the film

Some critiques of the ex-gay movement in this film are valid, and follow similar lines to the 2018 film “Boy Erased”. The emphasis on sexual orientation change as the key goal for LGBT Christians is not biblical. The Bible clearly calls some Christians to lifelong singleness (e.g. 1 Cor 7:8) and celibacy (e.g. Matt 19:12). It also is clear that God will sometimes leave us with our struggles despite our wholehearted desire for change (e.g. 2 Cor 12:7-10). When ministry leaders promised change to people that they could not deliver, this was clearly discouraging and sometimes damaging. Another valid lesson to learn from the film is not to put leaders on pedestals. John Paulk’s elevation, hypocrisy and eventual fall remind us of an all-too-familiar story with prominent Christian leaders. The one person whom we should aspire to be like is Jesus. Everyone else is fallible. The way we present any role models should reflect this reality.

If you watch this film, see it with other thoughtful Christians

Should I watch this film?                    

I agreed with my local Barnabas Group that we would watch the film together and discuss what issues it raised for us personally. We watched it over three evenings, giving plenty of space for reflection and prayer. We used the pause button extensively, stopping firstly to notice the frustrating bias in much of the film, but also to recognise the valid criticisms that it brings to those of us who minister to the same-sex attracted. It was interesting viewing, but we were all glad when it was over.
One member of our group felt particularly troubled by the fear that he might one day have an epiphany, like the leaders in this film. His concern was that he would eventually see the orthodox biblical position as outdated and harmful. It is helpful to recognise how powerful and influential films can be. We found it good to stop the film regularly and explain how the director manipulated us and presented her particular narrative. She achieved this through unbalanced editing, emotive music and the contrast between the people featured (articulate progressives versus unappealing traditionalists).

Instead, we should remind ourselves of the true epiphany, which is the manifestation of Jesus Christ to the entire world. No other new experience can trump this one. If we are Christians, we need not fear future revelation undermining our faith. Hebrews 3:12 sets out instead what we should fear: “see to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.”

I found the film provocative, thought-provoking and a subtle apologetic for revisionist thinking. This is not a must-see film. I would advise anyone who struggles with same-sex attractions to think carefully before watching it. Furthermore, I would recommend viewing with other thoughtful Christians if you do watch it. Take time to notice the propaganda and manipulation woven into the film. It is entirely negative about prayer, seeing it as powerless (at best) and abusive (at worst). I would also suggest that you pray for one other as you watch it. Remind and encourage one another that hope is neither found in a change of sexual orientation nor in a same-sex relationship. Rather, we find hope in the truth of the Bible and, in particular, in the person of Jesus Christ. 

 Available to stream on Netflix

This article was originally published in the spring 2022 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.

Download the spring 2022 edition of Ascend