In this age of digital movie making, instant YouTube publishing, and homebrew editing software that anyone can use, I’m starting to wonder just what qualifies a work of film as a documentary. In the classic sense, a documentary should investigate a subject in the hope of arriving at some type of conclusion. And if no conclusion can be found, then at least the documentary should unearth facts, viewpoints, or ways of thinking that are generally missing from the public consciousness. But when anyone can pick up a camera and start filming, the brute force research and legwork required to produce a quality piece of work is often missing at the expense of graphical flair and story narrative. Even though Lord, Save Us from Your Followers is an interesting look at faith in America today, it doesn’t function well as an actual documentary on the subject. In the end it is more of a video-blog of one man’s journey to some sort of spiritual enlightenment or resolution. An entertaining and at times touching video blog, but nonetheless, it would be hard to draw any meaningful conclusions about religion, or specifically Christianity, after watching this film.
The idea, as director/narrator/star Dan Merchant tells us, is to find out why Jesus’ gospel of peace has resulted in such extreme viewpoints in our country. Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, David Koresh, James Dobson…all have espoused a particular brand of Christianity, but all are fairly divisive when expressing their viewpoints or political opinions. How can this be, asks Merchant, and how can we rectify the Culture War that supposedly exists in our society today? His solution is to dress up in a white jumpsuit with all manner of religious extremist bumper stickers and paraphenalia, cobble together a camera crew, and interview people on the street about what they think of Jesus, Christians, and Christianity.
His results are about what one would expect–some people think Christians are mean-spirited, others think they are kind and loving. Some think Jesus was the son of God who died for our sins, and others think he was more along the lines of a troubadour with an impressive array of parlor tricks at his disposal. Also chiming in are Al Franken, Michael Reagan, Rick Santorum, and other prominent figures in American politics and media, each with a position on the issue or at least a personal story to tell. Excerpts from speeches by Presidents Bush and Obama, as well as prominent media figures like Jon Stewart and Bono, also add some good perspective into the mix as well.
The most interesting, and ultimately effective, segments are when Merchant talks to secular radio host Shelia Hamilton in Portland, Oregon, about her station’s involvement with the Christian relief organization World Vision, his exploration of the Christian response during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and his time spent with Night Strike, a ministry that serves homeless people in Portland. In each of these instances he discovers that, despite the politicking of some outspoken leaders in the Christian community, the ground-level view held by many in the secular world is that Christians are nice, decent folks who are willing to lend a helping hand or two when the going gets tough. It’s these bits that are comforting and reassuring, and help dissipate the pharisaical air of so many national Christian figures.
Unfortunately, for every morsel of genuine insight in this movie there are a dozen flashy gimmicks and Michael Moore-style empty-headed stunts that do nothing except to draw attention and generate a few laughs or crocodile tears. A few statistics are thrown out here and there, like the fact that 9 out of 10 individuals in America profess a belief in God, but a cheesy Family Feud-style game show pitting Christians against Atheists sheds light on nothing and only serves as a distraction from the main argument of the film. Anecdotal evidence, gleaned from dudes on the street or interviews with mid-level politicians, should never be confused with actual research. But actual research is rarely flashy and, darn it, just takes so much time.
A large segment near the end of the film is dedicated specifically to the mainstream Christian treatment of the gay community–or at least the perception of mainstream Christians by a handful of gays and lesbians. In a bit that seems oddly self-serving, Merchant sets up a fake reverse confessional at a gay and lesbian festival in Portland, and invites people to hear his confessions and apologies on behalf of all Christians and their treatment of the GLBT community. Discounting all serious theological arguments that many decent, level-headed Christians have to the GLBT lifestyle, Merchant sanctimoniously offers his apologies to the gay community and promises to offer love and support rather than condemnation and ridicule. It’s the kind of stunt that might generate a few DVD sales, much like Michael Moore driving around Washington D.C. with a megaphone, but ignores the deeply-held convictions of many individuals on both sides of the fence. Editorializing should have no place in a documentary, but sadly, it is far too often on bold display here.
The film does serve as a somewhat compelling wake-up call for Christians who might need to swallow a taste of their own medicine from time to time. It is certainly worth watching, and should be required viewing for Sunday School classes (if for no reason other than to generate a discussion), so long as it is accompanied by a healthy-sized grain of salt.
Last 5 posts by Simon R.
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