"Why is the gospel of love dividing America?" That question fuels the provocative new documentary "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers," from Oregon-based filmmakers Dan Merchant and Jeff Martin.
Merchant (who wrote, directed, produced and appears on camera) and Martin (the executive producer) spent almost a million dollars and three years shaping 100 hours of footage into a compelling 90-minute documentary about how Christians are—or are not—living out Jesus' commandment to love one's neighbor.
What "Lord, Save Us" shows is that some—er, many—Christians aren't that interested in the gospel of love. "Christianity" has many embodiments, and it's debatable how central Jesus really is in any of them.
The documentary begins with familiar voices shouting at us: George Bush, John Stewart, Lewis Black, Bill Maher, Ann Coulter, Tony Perkins, George Carlin, Jerry Falwell—on and on this barrage of comments goes, illustrating up front just how pervasive religious talk is and how divisive it can be.
As Americans try to make sense of the Lord and his followers, we're bombarded by competing messages and warring symbols (e.g., the fish symbol, which has evolved into various anti-Christian manifestations).
Nowhere do these competing messages get better illustration than on Merchant's "Bumpersticker Man" suit: a white jumpsuit plastered with pro and con religious messages. This suit provides Merchant a point of entry for religious dialogue with complete strangers. He wanders into Times Square, for example, walks up to strangers and asks them if any message on his suit resonates with them. They have plenty to choose from—and seemingly plenty to say themselves.
Merchant is himself a Christian—the good kind. Early in the doc, he presents us with his brief bio (essentially, he grew up in the faith and was accustomed to having hell scared out of him). As an adult and resident of Oregon—the least religious state in the union, according to polls—he notices the fractious nature of the gospel.
"This collision of faith and culture is killing me," he says. Trying to survive America's faith culture, he sets off in search of answers. He queries dozens: Tony Campolo, Rick Santorum, John Perkins, Matthew Crouch, Ron Luce, and on and on. He pulls up countless news clips and talking heads, whether it's Ann Coulter putting venom in the national debate or Bono talking about God's grace at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Campolo, Al Franken and USA Today contributor Tom Krattenmaker get fair amounts of screen time, and it's worth it. No less interesting are comments from ordinary Americans—like Lou, who talks openly and honestly with Dan in Times Square about religion and faith.
As Merchant crosses the country, interviewing the famous and the unknown, he notices that most people who have a problem with Christians don't have a problem with Jesus. The fact that the faith and its founder are so easily separable indicates trouble.
Merchant compiles several different segments, each interesting in its own right: a public showdown between BattleCry (a Christian youth movement) and the gay community on the steps of San Francisco's city hall; an animated sequence explaining what "believers" mean by "the body of Christ"; a game show that Merchant himself hosts pitting agnostics against Christians; and, perhaps best of all, what happens when Merchant sets up a confession booth at a gay pride event. Note: It's not what you think.
Toward documentary's end, Merchant highlights some ways in which the gospel of love is, well, just that. These include: the response of some Christians to Hurricane Katrina; a partnership between World Vision and Oregon rock station KINK; a mission to the homeless in Portland; and the high-profile lives of people like Bono and Rick Warren.
"Lord, Save Us From Your Followers" is funny, fair, moving. Told in the documentary style of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, Merchant is every bit as funny, his topic every bit as crucial as anything Moore might tackle.
Merchant finds that Jesus may have been on to something when he preached loving kindness, grace, forgiveness. Now, if only more of his followers would listen ….
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Not rated. Reviewer's Note: Nothing objectionable.
Director: Dan Merchant
Writer: Dan Merchant
Cast: Dan Merchant; Tony Campolo; Rick Santorum; Al Franken; John Perkins; Sister Mary Timothy; Tom Krattenmaker.
The movie's official Web site is here. Visit it for screening information, documentary excerpts and information about the companion book.
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