Gambling and Christianity go together like oil and water. At least that's been the prevailing attitude.
Hence the shock of an idea of a group of Christians – many of them pastors – devoting themselves to the blackjack table.
That's the premise of the newly released documentary "Holy Rollers" (not to be confused with the independent film starring Jesse Eisenberg of the same name).
"Holy Rollers" has made an impressive film festival run, and now it's available on a variety of platforms including DVD, video on demand and iTunes.
The group is organized by two young Seattle Christians, Ben and Colin, and theirs is not a haphazard undertaking.
They train fellow Christians how to "count cards" in the game of blackjack, then fund them for gambling excursions.
The players then report back their hours and wins/losses, all of which is tallied as part of the business that functions with investors' money.
A critical piece in this particular business machinery is reporting hours played and money lost and won.
That's done on the honor system, which this group – in individual interviews – says isn't difficult given their faith and its demands.
This piece becomes crucial later as the group widens and a non-Christian is allowed into their ranks – a development that later leads to accusations, or at least suspicions, that said member is stealing from the group.
The documentary relies on plentiful interviews with group members (who live across the country and regularly gather in Seattle and other destinations for meetings).
The filmmakers were also on hand to shoot many of the gamblers' meetings and some of the candid exchanges between members – like when one member begins to lose his blackjack mojo and is essentially let go by the team.
Hidden camera footage from inside the casinos plays a major role as well, as we observe the players in action and the casino managers catching on to their card-counting approach.
When casinos suspect a player is counting cards, the player is "backed off" – asked to leave – by the casino.
These card-counting Christians become recognized at a number of casinos, prompting group members to resort to various disguises at points. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't.
Several things strike the viewer about the documentary, like the way in which players – seemingly average Joes – get used to carrying tens of thousands of dollars in their pockets or stashing wads of cash in a dresser.
"It's just money," says one, who says the total effect of handling such large sums actually desensitized him to money.
More interesting, though, are the ways in which these Christians justify, if you will, playing blackjack professionally.
Some see it as a way to make money with relatively little time commitment, thus freeing them to do more pastoral work.
Some say they hate casinos and thus see their involvement as a way to take money away from (if they win) the gambling industry.
One says he hates going into casinos because that atmosphere seems so disconnected from the rest of his life. Indeed, we also see him baptizing a woman in a lake in a moment that seems far removed from his betting life.
"Holy Rollers" confounds at points as these "normal guys" (almost all of the card counters shown are young men) engage in a most unconventional endeavor – especially given their faith.
While some players come to question their gambling activity, others never seem to. In fact, it should be noted that the store selling DVDs of "Holy Rollers" also sells a blackjack training kit and a card-counting e-book.
If one is going to criticize these young Christians, the criticism should also target the casinos which, as one player point outs, market "instant cash" and then "back off" players who make a run counting cards at the blackjack table. The policy seems to illuminate the two-faced exploitation that is a casino.
Beyond the hook of card-counting Christians, "Holy Rollers" offers an opportunity for viewers to examine their own thoughts about gambling – not only as an esoteric topic, but also as a down-and-dirty business that attracts many, and not always for the same reasons.
CliffVaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Unrated. Reviewer's note: Mild language at points.
Director: Bryan Storkel
Cast: Ben Crawford, Colin Jones, Mark Treas, Dusty Wisniewski, Bradley Currah, Michael Foster.