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Saved! at 20: Religious Satire and the Millennial Generation

When “Saved!” came out in 2004, it reflected a reality for teenagers growing up in an America very much at a crossroads. Although the level of polarization in 2004 might seem quaint by today’s standards, it was the beginning of a period when extreme conservatism (much of it borne out of the Christian talk radio boom of the 1990s and the reactionary politics following the September 11th terrorist attacks) battled against a new wave of social progressivism. The kids in “Saved!” – and the rest of us watching along as teenagers of the time – are coming of age in a world where evangelism was on the rise alongside new, kinder social attitudes about moral issues that had been set in stone just years earlier. 

2004 was the year that the Duggars, a famously fertile duo who made it their mission to launch as many babies as possible into the world to lead Jesus’s army, got their first special on TLC, becoming an overnight sensation and single-handedly putting massive Christian families on the pop culture map. But it was also the year that Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, signaling a huge shift in societal views on the LGBTQ+ community. Thus, Saved! is a timely satire, showing the conflict over issues of homosexuality, teen pregnancy, and sex before marriage within one cloistered Christian community.

At the beginning of “Saved!,” Dean (Chad Faust) confesses to his girlfriend Mary (Jena Malone) that he’s gay. Mary, being a devoted born-again Christian, convinces herself that Jesus wants her to have sex with Dean so that he can be converted to Christ-approved heterosexuality. 

Piece of bad news #1: It doesn’t work. Dean’s still gay, and what’s worse, his parents send him away to Mercy House, which serves the triple function of separating the gay kids from their holier counterparts, shaming them into embracing the straight life, and surrounding them with other gay teenagers who will presumably only derail the conversion process. 

Piece of bad news #2: Despite their sexual encounter being Mary’s first time, she ends up getting pregnant as a result. Due just after her 18th birthday, she has to survive the rest of senior year at an evangelical high school without anyone finding out about her predicament – especially queen bee Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), who has a nose for other people’s sin.

Obviously, not every teenager watching “Saved!” back in 2004 had personal experience with evangelical and born-again communities that would allow them to relate intimately to the atmosphere of aggressive piety at a Christian high school. But for those of us growing up in parts of the United States with more churches per square mile than anything else besides maybe cows, this was close enough to our reality that the satire hit home. 

Where I grew up in the wilds of New York (yes, they exist), I had to drive past a foreboding house with a yard full of crosses mourning all the unborn fetuses lost to abortion just to get to my elementary school. Freshman year of high school, I was even tricked into attending an NHL game with an acquaintance’s Baptist church that featured a grand finale of dozens of terrifyingly sanctimonious teens attempting to save those of us who hadn’t accepted Jesus into our hearts. 

Since I grew up in a family that loosely identified as Lutheran but regarded religion in general with a mixture of apathy and healthy suspicion, watching “Saved!” felt like a reflection of my own experiences. Surrounded by kids for whom their faith was an all-encompassing part of their identity while I was still figuring out who I was and what I believed in, I could relate to the characters in “Saved!” I could see parts of myself in Mary, who just seems to want to be a good person whether or not that strictly aligned with one specific set of religious teachings, or even Cassandra (Eva Murri) a rebellious Jewish girl who is an outsider at the Christian school, who regards her pious classmates as hypocrites worthy of derision.

But even without this first-hand experience of what teenagers with a devout ideology can be like, its audience could certainly relate to the internal struggle of Mary and the other characters in “Saved!” Many teen viewers from the 2000s saw themselves stuck between the values that were ingrained in so many of us – remnants of Puritanical morality the U.S. was founded on – and the brave new world that promised a more loving approach to interacting with society.

“Saved!” also represents one of the first films of the early 21st century to address the growing schism within American Christianity itself, with vocal evangelicals taking up a larger space within the religious and political landscape. Where other branches of Christianity loosened up a little bit, the born-agains saw it as their duty to hold the line. 

The brand of evangelicalism practiced by Hilary Faye and her clique of followers is performatively self-righteous. Unsaved souls are a prize to be won for the Lord, by any means necessary. Forget the fact that Mary and Hilary Faye had been friends for years – the second that she perceives Mary as backsliding into sin, she takes decisive action. Not by being an actual friend and trying to understand her altered behavior, but first by chastising her, then breaking ties, and finally attempting to carry out a hastily assembled exorcism in the back of her van. When her commitment to Jesus is questioned, she lashes out, chucking a Bible at Mary’s back while angrily shrieking, “I am filled with Christ’s love!”

Mary’s response to Hilary Faye in this farcical moment of attempted conversion is probably the film’s most resonant and the one that is most relevant to evangelical bullying today. “This is not a weapon,” she tells Hilary Faye almost wearily, indicating the Bible she just used to hit a pregnant woman. As much as Hilary Faye claims how happy her relationship with Jesus Christ makes her – and she says it on a daily basis, almost as though he’s her first boyfriend she can’t stop gushing over – she’s the angriest person in the entire film. 

The burden of being a perfect Christian soldier does no one any good: It sends Dean to conversion camp, gets Mary pregnant, and leads Hilary Faye to drive herself headfirst into a giant statue of Jesus. The more she attempts to shape others to meet the heavy demands of her faith, the more damage she does to the thing she professes to love. Evangelical Christianity, in the eyes of “Saved!,” sets people up for failure and argues that it’s impossible to be a perfect Christian without killing something vital within yourself.

That said, “Saved!” also creates an example of what it looks like to have reconciled these two contradictory elements of faith and social progress, the difference between what we are taught and what we actually believe. Mary’s love interest, Patrick (Patrick Fugit), is a Christian, raised by the school’s pastor, no less. But his missionary efforts are mostly just an opportunity for him to be part of a skateboarding tour, and unlike many of his classmates, he’s not exactly the fire and brimstone. He doesn’t judge Mary for being an unwed mother-to-be or for having sex before marriage, nor does he blink when Dean and his new boyfriend show up at the prom. He – along with Cassandra and Roland (Macaulay Culkin), Hilary Faye’s disabled brother – represent a kinder, more laissez-faire attitude that has defined the generation of teens who grew up alongside “Saved!” 

Though it mocks evangelicalism in general, “Saved!” reserves its most damning commentary for the most fervent, unyielding, and cruel characters, like Hilary Faye. By doing so, it gives those audience members who were part of a Christian community a way to navigate a changing world with kindness, showing that even in a film designed to poke fun at evangelicalism, there’s a way to embrace social change without necessarily shedding all ties to faith.

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