Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lord, Save Us from Your Followers. (2008)
Dan Merchant

Having seen one too many documentaries either directed at angry Christians like Fred Phelps in Fall From Grace, or rightfully lambasting (fundie) Christians like those in Jesus Camp, or even grappling to understand them in films like Hell House and For the Bible Tells Me So, I approached Lord, Save Us from Your Followers with a bit of fear and trepidation. Having a great love for, at the very least, the idea of Jesus, but a healthy fear of some Christians in general, to the point of having no decent answer when asked, "Are you a Christian?" ("Gee, well, um, I guess it depends on your definition of the word Christian..."), I saw the title and thought to myself: Approach With Caution. This could make you angry for days, weeks, months.

The trailer helped a bit. The main character, Dan Merchant, is a natural who is well suited in the role of "interviewer-is-the-star," like the comical documentarian Michael Moore with humor and all. And the humor here is undeniably funny, which is a great lift to some of these tonally hard-edged topics. But Merchant differs from Moore in that he doesn't go for the cynic schtick. Often Merchant comes off like a Christian Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) -- a bit more on the sensitive side, but still with an important message and a wonderful sense of timing and humor.

The other thing that sold me about the trailer was the cast of folks Merchant either interviewed or tracked down footage to include: Bono, George Bush, Tony Campolo, Stephen Colbert, Ann Coulter, James Dobson, Al Franken, Bill Maher, Rick Warren, John Perkins, Ron Luce, and Tony the Beat Poet are just a few of the names you might recognize -- the latter being one of the central characters in Donald Miller's "Blue Like Jazz," an insightful "nonreligious Christian spirituality" book which is inspiration for the most memorable, almost tear-jerking scenes toward the end of the film.

So yes, I did finally see it, even against my own instincts and worries, and I'm happy to report I did. This inspiring work is now easily one of my favorites by a Christian documentary filmmaker.

The odds are if you already like Donald Miller and Tony the Beat Poet and Bono (and who doesn't like Bono?), you're going to like the film. But it's somewhat obvious Merchant desires more than that crowd to see his film, and if you've never heard of Miller or Tony the Beat Poet (although everyone has heard of Bono), you might be the intended target audience. I have my doubts whether it will get much further than those who already know Miller and Tony the Beat Poet and actually reach its intended target audience, but I certainly hope many outside that small circle of Christians will stumble across this gem of a doc.

Merchant dons a white suit made of bumper stickers galore and walks around America like a breathing gospel slogan of displayed cliches. I have always hated these bumper stickers which incite religious wars at traffic lights. You know the ones I mean. The Ichthus fish on one car's bumper, and on the bumper next door the same fish sprouting feet. The next has the fish with "Truth" written inside, while the next has "Evolution" and its little legs poking out. I can't stand any of them, I don't like the battle-like concept, and I don't like turning concepts that take a lifetime of consideration into a few-word slogan that may speak a thousand different things to a thousand different people.

I rather like the Grand Rapids bumper sticker that reads, "Love Wins," and thought it was a milestone achievement in the Christian bumper phenomenon -- until I saw a car with the same white words against the same black background that read, "Jesus Wins."

In bumper sticker wars, no one wins.

And that is some of the point Merchant is after, even as he parades around in his bumper sticker outfit, asking questions about which sticker people like best. Some of his point is that there is no useful conversation between the different stances seen on all these bumpers. It's very much an argument in which everyone is shouting at the same time, akin to political TV and the intermingling of Christianity and politics, and the hot air and ego-infused matches you often find on those shows. On those, there is often a call (from "Christians" to non-Christians) for morality (which I still don't get at all), preached as a greater message than the call that Merchant (and I) think is much more important -- to love everyone, everywhere, regardless of their morality -- but especially the poor and those who have no ability to voice their concerns for themselves.

There's a conversation that's happening among many Christians right now in which we've realized how dead our words have actually become, especially when we park three cars and a boat in the driveway of our three-decker heated and air conditioned houses, with two refrigerators and two ovens and eight different toilets inside. American consumerism and individualism have made Christians no different than their neighbors, and I wonder whether the surge to make everyone moral is only a way to make Christians feel better (superior) as they rot in their own conformity.

The conversation seems to be taking place among people that have realized how far off track the American version of Christianity -- or rather, the American version(s) of Christianity -- have gone. And it really is a conversation. It's about love before judgmentalism, and listening before blurting out. It's about building bridges rather than launching bombs, and opening a hand to share with your neighbor rather than using it to make a fist. Blessing the earth and finding the goodness in it rather than building up wealth and isolating and arguing over who is right and who is wrong.

So Merchant, in the guise of bumper sticker man, sets out to walk all over America, simply to talk with different folks about the Christian faith, and he uses his bumper sticker outfit to launch the conversation. He doesn't want to shout or use a bullhorn to whip or scare people, and he disdains the power of an attack or having to prove how right he is in his thinking. Because, after all -- no one really knows who is right in their thinking until they are dead and buried six feet under. (And at that point if the atheists are right, well, no one will ever know.)

He takes to the streets and talks to the general public like Leno on his late show. He also talks to all sorts of famous thinkers. He finds several conflicting viewpoints and compares and contrasts how a gospel about love could have been turned into an argument, both among Christians, and between Christians and non-Christians. And while the debates and the bull horns and the abrasive nature of some Christians will still no doubt continue, Merchant's message is an alternative way to avoid the heated debate and correctly work out one's faith in the world: It's through humility, a cleaning of your own house according to the Scripture, before worrying about someone else's sin life (especially those who wouldn't even know what that is). There's redemption both between you and God and also you and your neighbor when admitting your own wrong nature and making amends for your wrong -- through demonstrating love in sewing goodness, and joining hands with those who will also sew, whether they come from the same faith standpoint or not.

Finding the beauty in all, and locating the good instead of the differences is one way we begin starting the conversation. Living a life of inclusiveness and letting God worry about the rest might be the first great fundamental with which to launch this dialogue.

Merchant is an example of a character that can do this, but he cites and references other examples, too: particularly Bono, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and Tony the Beat Poet.

When we finally get to Tony and his story about the original confessional booth built years ago with a group of college friends, and we eventually see Merchant in Portland doing the same thing at a gay festival, it's a moment on which you can hang a faith that locates growth and beauty and holiness. I don't want to give it away if you haven't read "Blue Like Jazz," -- if you have read it, you already know what I'm talking about -- but what happens between Merchant and the many festival gays who walk into his booth is a blow-your-socks-off, mind-rocketing moment. What happened in that confessional between the most different of people completely drills me. It's something I want to attempt someday.

That is, right after I travel to Topeka, pick up my bull horn, and picket against a Fred Phelps Sunday morning service. :)

This is a hopeful and uplifting documentary about a way we might repent of a faith that we find in cultural retreat. It's not about looking cool or having the right sound system or the right services that caters to the so-called needs of the "right crowd," and it's certainly not about trying to out-shout the person you disagree with.

It really is about love. And believe it or not, love wins.

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