i love the movies. if i could, i’d go every day. i especially love documentaries. last month a friend of a friend asked me to watch a review copy of holy rollers: the true story of card counting christians. i’d watch pretty much any movie, but one that involved christians and gambling made it even more intriguing.
released tuesday, holy rollers is making some good headway in the film circle, winning several awards. as a viewer who didn’t know anything about it before we popped it into our dvd player, i was pretty open to whatever it might bring.
it was captivating! and conversation-stirring.
it follows a christian blackjack team. yes, you heard that right: a christian blackjack team. formed by all christians, its mission is to make as much money as they can playing blackjack by counting cards (which is not illegal but rather a strategic math skill). they have a clear and organized system when it comes to team tryouts, training, work requirements, and payouts as a team.
supposedly, the money they were making funded their “ministries.” a lot of the team members featured were pastors in some capacity; they were using blackjack as a way to make a lot of money in a short period of time so they could then do the work of their churches the rest of the month. they also involved investors who put up money and then would receive a good return on their investment. some of the math was a little hard to follow, but the bottom line is that they found it to be a lucrative enough way to earn a living. and they worked pretty hard at it.
at what cost is another story. the whole thing was a little freaky.
the filmmakers (bryan & amy storkel, jason connell, and bryan liepe) did an excellent job of not leaning one way or another on the big questions of christian gambling and the ethics of the whole set up. the interviews with the leaders and team members were interesting & the hidden camera experiences at the casinos were fascinating.
the most intriguing–and difficult part for me–of the entire film occurred when they were on a losing streak and fairly sure someone was cheating. one of the members “got a word from the Lord” about who it was specifically. because this individual often had a strong prophetic gift, the team listened to him, and the supposedly-cheating member was kicked off the team. there was zero evidence or anything that directly implicated him. yeah, he also just happened to be the non-christian, the perfect scapegoat. it was a fascinating glimpse into group dynamics.
there were a few other things that the film stirred up for me:
the crazy things christians sometimes do to make ministries go. some team members framed their work as “taking money from the casinos” and as modern day robin hoods. if the money was going directly to food in empty refrigerators & tuition for single moms & paying shut-off-power notices, that’s one thing. in their case, it would be a lot more honest to just say: “we gamble to make money to pay for salaries for ministry. it works.”
christian language cracks me up. these guys were coming from that perspective so of course it was a big part of the communication. but as a viewer, watching it with someone who is a christian outsider, i just kept noticing how weird it can sound.
how convenient & easy it is to think christians are ethical and non-christians aren’t. it was stated clearly that there absolutely no evidence for the axing of the non-christian except for someone’s “gut feeling from God.” when that trump card gets pulled, i want to scream.
community is compelling, until you’re on the outs. even though the team was a community, they were also working professionally, and so “just like that” your position could become tenuous. if members weren’t performing, they were asked to leave. i didn’t have any trouble with it in this case because it was, indeed, a profit-seeking business and the team leaders appeared very professional and clear on that. at the same time, it reminded me of the mixed message that so many christian groups send–we are family, we eat together, laugh together, work together, work together, but if you don’t deliver the goods, you’re out.
this is how i know it was a good documentary–i have thought a lot about it since i watched it and have since had many interesting dialogues on the topic. that’s what a solid documentary should do–stir conversation.
this one did that very well.
check all of the details on ways to buy or watch it & the trailer here. it’s rising on a lot of different film ratings’ lists this week. i hope you watch it! if you do, i’d love to hear some of your reflections.
meanwhile, what do you think about this idea of “gambling for God?”