This is the first of a semi-regular section of The AQ Blog called ‘AQ Reviews.’ It will primarily involve book and film reviews. Film will be rated out of 5 stars. Books will either be ‘recommended,’ ‘not recommended,’ or ‘recommended with reservations.’ I will attempt to review things that are readily available on the internet, Netflix, at libraries or bookstores and will provide links to what I can. There’s no sense in reviewing things that can’t be shared by all. Enjoy.
Netflix released its new titles and I went through them like I always do, looking for something (anything!) to watch that was interesting and could keep my attention for longer than half an hour (I watch a lot of animated shows, like Family Guy). When I saw this documentary listed, I knew I had to watch it. Since leaving the country, my perspective on America and its relationship to religion has changed drastically. Other countries don’t treat religion the way we do. Or at least the Christian one. This movie shows a lot of the reasons why.
In an article on MovieMaker.com, Larry Fessenden, the producer for American Jesus and many others of an “independent horror-themed films with a psychological bent,” talked about the beginnings of the film. According to the article, the working title for the film was ‘Pop Church.’ That’s a very interesting little factoid, especially after watching the film itself. There are a lot of intersections with Christianity and pop culture, as well as a discussion of how the two became interconnected. Looking at some of the people interviewed in the film, the relationship is easy to see. There is a:
- Former drug addict who served prison time and now runs a large ministry
- A former stripper turned urban-missionary in Vegas
- The owner of an MMA based dojo and Jesus Didn’t Tap Apparel
- The pastor of XXXChurch
- The pastor of Amarillo Cowboy Church (the building of which is an indoor cattle ring)
- The pastor of a ‘biker church’
This is not a full list, but it is the highlights. There are also some serious people on the list who make quite an impression. One is the co-founder of Answers in Genesis & Creation Museum, a well-known creationist organization. The other is Frank Schaeffer, author and former evangelical preacher. He was briefly powerful in evangelical circles, but gave it up after a change of heart. These are just a few of the people who make American Jesus so fascinating.
Conclusions, But No Answers
The format of the documentary is one of interviews with various people. Most are with Christians who have some kind of unusual ministry. Interspersed with these are skeptics, authors, people who generally don’t approve of the direction Christianity has headed. We’ll come back to that point in a moment.
Overall, I thought that the Christians represented in this documentary were very interesting and were represented very fairly. This was not a negative hack job. Instead, it was an exploration of what Christianity is like in America today. It was not a complete picture, but it was an accurate one of a part of the whole. There can be no doubt that Christianity takes part at the fount of pop culture’s spring. As my parents were fond of lamenting, “Church services are like rock concerts.”
What’s interesting about this exploration, however, is not that it exists, but that it does not seem to come to any conclusive answers about this state of affairs. Information is presented with a certain amount of commentary, but all it does is leave the questions for the viewer to hold in their mind and that’s it.
For me, the person who left me with the most questions was Frank Schaeffer. He is the author of a few books, including “And God Said, Billy!” He was the son of a high powered minister, Francis Schaeffer, and he joined his father’s ministry when he was old enough. He enjoyed a lot of power and fame in evangelical circles, but eventually he gave it all up. His explanation?
All the people he liked, were the people his religion so vociferously and categorically condemned. That might seem like a shallow sentiment, after all we can like people who are bad. Mostly, however, Schaeffer’s experience was that the people his religion condemned were not bad people, only people that members of his religion disagreed with.
Schaeffer’s interview is the only one that contains a truly negative tone to it, and that is because he is discussing his own opinion on the matter. After some research, his opinion becomes quite clear. He has described himself as a ‘Christian atheist,’ likening it to the back and forth that often exists between spouses. There are good days and bad days. Schaeffer also seems to be involved in Orthodox Christianity, which is a distinctly sacramental tradition and also one of the oldest continuous ones in the world. For an evangelical, becoming an Orthodox Christian is a very big step, though I know many who have made it.
In an article on Orthodoxy Today, I found a piece about Schaeffer that had this quote:
“If you take the Christian teaching seriously that Jesus is the son of God, then obviously his life is the lens through which you read the rest of scripture and pick and choose what you will do and not do because he said there are parts of the law that are bull****. [Jesus said] ‘The law says [do this,] but I say don’t do this.’ So therefore, read the Bible expecting to edit it and get rid of the crap and stick with the stuff that fits with the life testimony, which ends with Jesus saying ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do.'”
This viewpoint has obviously shaded Schaeffer’s part in the documentary with a slightly disapproving tone of evangelical Christianity, if not Christianity as a whole. Thus, I found it very interesting to learn of his involvement in Orthodoxy, which is radically different from both evangelical and Catholic streams of Christianity (for instance, Orthodox Christians do not believe in original sin).
Honestly, I would recommend this documentary solely for the parts with Schaeffer if the rest of it were not just as interesting.
The documentary is overall very good. It has high production values, is easy to listen to, and it avoids the pitfall of being overtly negative. Many of the people presented in the film are very interesting and earnest people who are living out the ministry of Christ in the way they think is best. There is no condemnation of what they do on the part of the filmmakers, rather any negativity or positivity comes from the viewer. I have some strong negative feelings towards evangelicals, and I found them surfacing, but an objective viewing reveals a much more complex presentation than my bias or that of anyone else. For Christians, this could be a very thought-provoking film, if they gave it the objectivity it deserves. Unfortunately, I do not believe many Christians would, especially if they approach it defensively.
My estimation is that American Jesus is worth the viewing, no matter who you are. But because it leaves so much up to the interpretation of the viewer, it will inevitably create disappointment for the people who wanted clear-cut answers. And so, I’m giving it 4 stars out of 5.