Paradise Recovered is inspired by the story of the Good Samaritan, although after seeing this movie I think it more often than not resembles the prodigal son. It concerns Esther, appropriately named for the beauty queen in the biblical story who saved her people by sleeping with the king. Sorry folks, but I don’t buy that Esther stopped the king from destroying her people by staying up all night and talking him to death.
Esther apparently comes from a branch of the Apostolic faith that does not celebrate birthdays, holidays, forces her to wear long dresses, yet doesn’t seem to have a problem sipping wine in a public restaurant. This particular fellowship meets in a bingo hall where they watch videotapes coming from church headquarters. Esther has been ‘promised’ to marry Phillip Sawyer, the son of the pastor, David Sawyer. One night, Phillip decides to sneak into her bedroom. Pastor Sawyer catches them making out and immediately tosses the girl out on the streets.
Esther finds work at a health food store where she is taken in by Gabriel, the manager, who just happens to be the son of an evangelical minister. His roommate is a devout skeptic and together they coax Esther out of her shell. They have a tattooed woman give Esther (a redhead, btw) a new hairdo and make her ditch the Little House on the Prairie dresses for tight blue jeans. They entice her to eat food forbidden by her church. In the most tasteful skinny dipping scene ever filmed, the boys turn their heads so she can get naked and get in the water. They follow suit although it looks like no one ever saw anyone naked in the first place.
The tables get turned on Gabriel when he throws her a surprise birthday party. It triggers something inside her. She gets drunk and then eventually questions Gabriel’s motives in trying to de-convert her. Like most fundamentalist expatriates, she experiences the yo-yo effect and returns to her world. Gabriel tries to win her back and, with the help of his evangelical father, shows her how she can ‘love God and still be free’.
The difficulty in crafting such a story depends on how fearless the writer will be in pursuing the obvious implications. What if Esther decided to reject both the religion of Gabriel and her new inlaws and find enlightenment in Eastern religions? What if she became a Hindu, or a Wiccan, Unitarian or even embrace Atheism? What if Esther decided to simply sleep in on Sundays? Sometimes the most radical thing a survivor of an extreme fundamentalist sect can do is simply lead a normal life.
When I crafted the storylines for both Bible Madness and Christian School Confidential, I realized that if I had my characters reflect my view (Atheist) the stories would resemble propaganda. I didn’t want to go that way so I showcased the different ways people can recover from spiritual abuse. If I leaned too far to propagate my own views, then it would rob the readers and viewers of finding their own path from an abusive subculture. It was important to me to show that being either a moderate Christian or rejecting religion in total are both valid paths of recovery for the spiritually abused.
On a personal note: I noticed one of the advisors of this movie is Janja Lalich, who was a speaker at the Survivors of Institutional Abuse convention of 2012. She has written extensively about cults but nearly ruffled my feathers (and those of a few at the convention) when she accidently used a ‘trigger phrase’. Someone asked how to deal with people who make light of the abuse experienced at group homes. The response was simply not to talk to those people which, in the ears of some, sounded like another version of ‘get over it’. Since that time, survivors have engaged in dialogue with her regarding this but for some it still rubs the wrong way.
My experience with cult experts is they fall into the temptation to separate ‘cults’ from the legitimate religions.
What happens when the so-called legitimate groups begin covering up scandal? The Southern Baptist Convention has reacted deplorably to victims of child abuse within their ranks, yet no one refers to them as a cult. The same can be said for the Presbyterian Church (USA) as well as just about any other major religious organization.
Paradise Recovered is definitely a movie I would recommend since there are few movies dealing with the cultic aspects of fundamentalist religions. I would have enjoyed seeing more of Esther’s background. What was her upbringing like? I’m assuming she was raised in this denomination but was it out of choice? Did she grow up in it? What were her parents like?
There should be more movies like this showing other paths of recovery and fulfillment. I plan to watch Paradise Recovered again and maybe I’ll feel different after giving it a chance to grow on me. The fact that it prompted this reaction shows it is worthy of an hour and a half of your time. It is good that there is a movie dealing with spiritual abuse that is palatable to the evangelical subculture. I would just like to see more variety for those of us with different viewpoints.