holy rollers

Printi 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?”

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

9 Comments

  • Don’t even know where to start, having only watched the trailer it makes me want to watch the whole thing and then again maybe not. This punched so many of my “old conservative fundamentalist” buttons that I am not sure I can be fair in any evaluation.
    The word that really comes to mind is

    FASCINATING

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    • talk about trigger words, ha ha. hope i get to see you soon and catch up!

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  • Hmmm…this is particularly interesting to me since my husband has worked in the casino industry for years. A lot comes to mind, but here are a few thoughts:

    1. It is interesting to see a presentation of gambling in ‘christian’ circles that is not labeling it as ‘sin’ and fully embraces it. (btw- I don’t think its a sin….its a form of entertainment like anything else, and should be treated as such.)

    2. Related, I don’t actually like seeing these guys using this to fund their ministries….not because of ethics, but because this is not steady money. Now, if they are doing it for fun and happen to win money they can put to good use, that is fine.

    3. I don’t like seeing gambling over spiritualized. I don’t buy into the ‘word from the Lord’ business. Card counting is a skill. Nothing mystical about that. (Slots are different…they are simply random number generators.)

    I definitely would like to see this film in it’s entirety!

    Reply
    • i had a feeling this would stir up some good thoughts on your end. lmk if you guys watch it. it was so fun to get to hang out with you last weekend & look forward to hopefully seeing you in phx in april!

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      • I’m so glad we got to meet and it would be great to see you again!

        I showed Jake this post….he has some thoughts about it too…hopefully he’ll be able to join the conversation too! We are really interested in watching this and will try to get a copy.

        Reply
  • It seems to be to be a case of these guys trying to rationalize their behavior.

    You said “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 reality, some of the money they’re “winning” probably was lost by people who really needed it to put food in the fridge, pay the utilities, and pay for tuition. So these guys are “winning” it to pay their salaries?!

    To me this is just another example of the crazy stuff that goes on to support the common “model” of “church”, church that needs lots of buildings, staff, programs, “ministry” and so on, all of which costs $$$ and more $$$, many of which end up in the pockets of the people who tell us this is the way church must be done. Yeah, right! It’s the way it must be done for them to get their paychecks.

    Sorry for the rant, but I just cannot believe people buy into this stuff, or the stuff about the “proper role of women”. (BTW, Jim Henderson was on Drew Marshall last month talking about his new book “The Resignation of Eve – What If Adam’s Rib Is No Longer Willing To Be The Church’s Backbone?”) Apparently, we find it very easy to buy into the crazy stuff some people (so-called “spititual authorities”) tell us, and are willing to follow them off the edge of the cliff.

    Reply
    • oh i knew this would get your juices flowing, ha ha. so many things in there that hit so many of our hot buttons! hope to talk to you soon.

      Reply
  • I guess this is a good reason to set aside some funds for movie seeing? I don’t see anything wrong with gambling, just as long as you know how to gamble and when to say “enough.” Many people in Las Vegas gamble for a living, and make good money out of it, but I am sure for them it’s a matter of knowledge and observation. Should this be used as an outlet to keep a ministry moving and alive? Only if your Christian character can be held intact throughout the process. But then again, should money be a part of ministry anyways? The only example, or hint we have is when Peter took the money from the mouth of the fish in order to pay taxes.

    Reply

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