Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Lord, Save Us From Your Followers

Posted by John Montgomery on September 28, 2009

16-Photograph-of-Dan-MerchantThis past Friday a new documentary has been released in public theatres, available in only a few markets.There is a DVD that has been out for some time now as well as a book.  I first became aware of the movie through a Christianity Today review that a friend sent me. Having discovered that it was showing just down the street, I attended. The following comments are very first draft reflections.

It is no surprise that this documentary has won award after award. Dan Merchant has created a remarkable cinematic effort. He has woven together disparate elements into an intriguing montage that engages, fascinates and delights those who watch. Merchant uses  media clips, talking heads, and several recurring interviews with the likes of Tony Compola, Rick Santorum, Rick Warren, Bono and even Al Franken. He has extended narrative episodes including mission trips to Mississippi after Katrina, World Vision tours of Ethiopia, culture wars confrontations in San Francisco, borrowed TV game show experiments, much more.

All of this is held together with transitions that make my power point fades look childish and the suit that turns Merchant into a walking bumper sticker occasioning short “on the street” encounters is brilliant.

The one place it could have worked better has been noted by reviewers, while very interesting, the awkward animations format just didn’t quite fit.

USA Today suggested that what we had was a cross between Monty Python and Michael Moore – an apt description. The movie is packed full, but Merchant’s wit and honesty keeps it moving forward far better than the absurdity of Python or the cynicism of Moore. It is time well spent.

For a teaser, do check out the preview on the following site – Lord, save Us From Your Followers.

Dan Merchant is disturbed by the intensity of dissonance experienced between the political left and religious right on a variety of related public issues. The sub-title of the movie, Why is the Gospel of Love dividing America, may ring more true than the main title.

I am reminded that this is particularly an American issue. Anglican evangelical theologian NT Wright, in his recent collaboration with Marcus Borg, speaks about how the public discourse in our country contrasts with almost everywhere else. Everyone wants to choose sides and marginalize the other. We seek a false victory where one side wins, but in a sense everybody loses.

Tony Campola notes in one interview segment, “Do you realize what you are doing when you frame the discussion in such an antagonistic, polarizing, hateful manner? A movement can exist without a god, but never without a devil, there has to be an enemy to be destroyed.”

In contrast, as one reviewer noted “the central thrust [of the documentary] is looking at how the Church and Christianity [might] be viewed [by others] if they did one simple thing, act like Jesus.”

Now Dan Merchant is certainly not a pacifist in the so-called culture wars? But I think it is fair to say that he might see the present conflict between Christian believers and post-modern (post-Christian) cultures as failing to meet “just war” criteria and thus behoove us to look for other patterns of engagement. While his documentary does not directly broach the issue in those terms, Merchant is certainly seeking an alternative approach to the constant conflict that seems to create more chaos than widely promote the gospel

Again, I want to be careful as I am using categories to analyze themes in the movie that Merchant does not use. Nowhere is just war criteria mentioned, but I don’t think it is inappropriate to reflect on some of the values they represent in a time of conflict.

While the documentary speaks a lot about confrontation, actually many of the episodes deal indirectly with that issue. But early on, Merchant travels to San Francisco for the Battle Cry gathering of youth and young adults founded by evangelist Ron Luce. The Battle Cry movement seeks to recruit new warriors for the cultural war. Luce preaches that our country is in trouble, Mass media culture, so influential in the lives of our young people, has transformed our once honored understanding of ourselves as a Christian nation into a culture that opposes Christianity. I’ll leave the debate about whether we were a Christian nation to others.

Luce argues that the time has come to make a stand and in fact, a group of young people tried to give witness by staging a protest event on the steps of the San Francisco City Hall.

There is disturbing footage of the confrontation between counter-demonstrators, citizens who in many ways consider City Hall, the site of numerous gay marriages, sacred space and Luce’s “youth for Christ.”

“Christians go home,” the crowd chanted. Not cowed, Luce brought his followers back for a second year.

Merchant does an extended interview with Sister Mary Timothy Simplicity, a cross-dressing nun, a member of the infamous Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The steps of the city hall building carry special meaning for Sister Mary Timothy for she witnesses that two years prior to this fractious encounter, he and her husband exchanged vows of marriage. What struck me in the interview was that in addition to the pride expressed in the passion behind the counter-demonstration, he found herself also appalled that “they were yelling at CHILDREN.” I am reminded of the statement dating from Vietnam era that the village was destroyed in order to save it.

Just War ethics require that collateral damage be avoided as much as possible even if the cause itself is moral. The consequences of the culture wars seems to me to harm our most vulnerable. Maybe, Christians should not participate.

Tangent: Some attending the movie might find the Sisters outrageous. They are – San Francisco is an outrageous place. Nevertheless, you might find the following statement from their website informative.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence® is a leading-edge Order of queer nuns. Since our first appearance in San Francisco on Easter Sunday, 1979, the Sisters have devoted ourselves to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment. We believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty and we use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit.

Not surprising, in a movie about the “culture wars” the division over GLBTQ issues comes up more than once in the documentary. In terms of collateral damage, Tony Compola tells a heart rendering story from his high school years. In his class, there was a young man who Tony indicates was “outed” and became the subject of constant bullying. Compola tells of the day when five of the young man’s fellow students dragged the youth into the corner of the showers and urinated on their victim. Tony was not present. That evening, the young man hanged himself seeking release from the constant terror. Tony talks about how he wished that he were there and that some how he could have been a friend.

In terms of this issue, public bickering leads so easy to unintended collateral damage. Statistics are frightening at how vulnerable our GLTBQ youth are and how at risk they are of suicide.

Proportionality is another just war value. Merchant has a distinct sense of wit that has the capacity to put things in perspective. In an episode, shot in St. Paul, MN he explores events surrounding the removal of the Easter Bunny from public space.

Oh, we are under attack! Attack back.

With a certain delight, Merchant tells not of angry demonstrations, but a kind of “do it yourself” shrine that grew up at the place where the Easter Bunny previously stood. One morning a box of “Peeps” appeared. First one, then another and so forth. The point had been made.

In a conversation with one of the more strident proponents of a secularized public square, Merchant pointed out that they should also change the city’s name – I mean St. Paul is named after St. Paul, right. Then in a dance around absurdity, the conversation moves to St. Louis, St. Charles, St. Augustine, you get the point. Are our tactics proportional to the real enemy? Perhaps, as Christians, we have met the enemy, and it is us.

Merchant’s jumpsuit covered with bumper stickers and car magnets becomes a lesson in point. First, we have the traditional Christian fish, with the Greek letters standing for Jesus, Christ , Son of God. Of course, that morphed into a fish with stubbie legs touting not Christ, but Darwin. A fish emblazoned with the word “truth,” was then produced eating Darwin. But of course, along came a dinosaur that swallowed the “truth.”

Speaking of Jesus as the Son of God becomes the basis of a tale told by Al Franken. Apparently at one event recently, he was asked whether he believed that Jesus was the Son of God. Franken, a practicing Jew answered that he did not believe that Christian doctrine. About 10 folks gathered around anxiously awaiting the next step in the conversation and perhaps some comedy. Franken then spoke about how, if we might understand that people can see God in all of us, them it might be appropriate to then talk about us all as  Sons (and daughters) of God. Franken witnesses that most of the group nodded their heads saying that that is an interesting take on the notion. However, one man walked away stridently telling him that he was going to hell.

Not sure this is the best of theology, but the encounter may indicate that if we listen to each other rather than beat each other over the head with slogans, we might find that the “culture wars” are not as real as some make them out to be.

In a reflective essay like this, I can only touch on a small part of what can be found in the movie.   In his documentary, Merchant’s work begins to evolve beyond reporting on the conflict defined by one reviewer as the “absence of real dialogue, real listening and real conversation among those who claim to be followers of Jesus and his message of healing love and forgiveness.” The ensuing message (and from my point of view Merchant’s vision of hope)  then changes from conflict to looking at how (as mentioned above) the Church and Christianity might be viewed if they did one simple thing, act like Jesus.” [my emphasis]

Merchant gives us several examples.of what this might look like as he closes his movie. There is the report documenting various mission trips helping with recovery efforts in Mississippi after Katrina. There are the deeply moving scenes of ordinary Christians sharing their lives with homeless people in Portland. I was stunned by the discussion of “foot washing” and the recognition of the vulnerability that must be shared between the one who is washing and the one whose feet are washed. There are allusions to Nelson Mandela and the South African efforts at reconciliation.

In what for many might be seen as the most provocative episode in the movie, (Yes, there are provocative scenes!)  a confession booth is set up as part of the Portland Pride event. We should note that to encourage the curious one sign by the booth asks people to be in a movie. But the booth is recognizable for what it is. The tactic is not original, but borrowed from the book, Blue Like Jazz and comes from a similar effort first done at Reed College.

Once inside the confession booth, the process is turned upside down and Merchant speaks first, apologizing for the church’s homophobia, its silence, its hate, and most importantly his personal participation. I should add that this doesn’t come from some other planet, for one of the earlier news clips celebrates the ministry of Pope John the 23rd and the Vatican Council where he apologized for the church’s participation in the Shoah.

Though the confessional has a wall, the wall falls. Disparate worlds are no longer seen as camps to defend, but places to learn from each other and in that context perhaps understand the gospel better.

Obviously, I found the movie helpful, deeply inspiring and when possible a conversation starter.
The audience at the showing I attended was essentially me and a church group from down the street. Folloowing the movie, the church group adjourned to Starbucks to continue the discussion. I regret that I did not have to courage to invite myself to their conversation.

Having said that, it is a conversation starter not the end of the discussion. A recent commentator on the health care debate urged that we, all of us, must learn to see that those we disagree with are not the enemy. But because we all live in our own bubbles, it is sometimes very difficult to see the larger world in which we all exist. Now there are fringe elements who still fight, turn small issues into big concerns, cause much too much collateral damage. I’m reminded of the old phrase from the 60s, “what if someone gave a a war, and the Christians on both sides simply didn’t come.”

Sometimes, we might find that even though those who do not identify themselves as Christians still share common concerns. There is wonderful footage of World Vision projects in Ethiopia where those who think they live in different bubbles find a unity that was always there if we listened to each other, a unity found less in words but in shared tasks like whisking flies out of refugee children’s eyes.

Nevertheless, I did not see myself in the movie. The map of the battle lines only shows a portion of the larger territory. This is a movie about Evangelicals and how they might not divide America. I’m not sure that there are many hard core atheists in the cast of characters. There are lots of Christians who have left because they could not stand the hypocrisy. There are lots who have found the invitation not really inviting and so they wait for something more. There are some who have been forced out and have had to find their own safe space, for there was none in the local congregations that they left.

How might the Church and Christianity be viewed if they did one simple thing, act like Jesus?

But again, I am not in this cast of characters and the places I am tempted to marginalize people are different. I am not an evangelical, never was tempted to be one. All of our faith traditions are found under a much bigger tent than we imagine. I’m not saying that personal change is not important, but the focus of my faith journey is traditionally on social change. There is no General Board of Church and Society in this movie. For me, while visits to homelsss people on the streets is important, conferences with Senators and Representatives are important as well.

These are thorny issues. Tony Compola may feel called to build relationships with his gay fellow students, but for me Tony has not taken the steps necessary to build social structures that guarantee social change beyond individual relationships. It’s Tony’s wife who has it right on means of inclusion. In similar fashion, Rick Santorum and Rick Warren who come off in this movie as holding reasonable points of view occasion skepticism for me – we have got a lot of talking to do. The issue of abortion rights is noticeably absent.

In the movie, Al Franken is the token Jew. There are no Hindu, Muslims, Mormans, Buddhists, Native Americans. But these are people who I must learn to relate to every day.

Given the ugly misstatements by culture war commanders like Tony Perkins concerning last Fridays Muslim time of prayer on the Capitol grounds, these questions loom even larger than the movie suggests. Sadly, I’m not sure that the 50,000 worshipers got much attention in the news. Issues of Multi-faith dialogue are not addressed by Merchant.

I loved the movie! We have a lot of talking to do. It deserves all the awards it got, but more importantly this movie gives us some clues about how to carry out that much needed conversation.


Looking for some fun – Drop in to our virtual coffee house – The New 12th Gate

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