I tend to view myself as a charitable individual. And, as one well-entrenched in the evangelical culture, I find it important to listen whenever individuals (attempt) to offer substantive critiques meant to put evangelicals back on the right path. So, with Dan Merchant’s documentary “Lord, Save Us from Your Followers,” I knew I had to watch it.
As astute readers, I’m sure you’re all aware of the stereotypes levied upon evangelicals, especially of the conservative brand. We’re supposedly intolerant, obscurantist, judgmental, too political, Paul-shaped rather than Jesus-shaped, and my personal favorite: beholden to Republican Party politics.
I was hoping for something different from Merchant’s documentary. Unfortunately, what I viewed was what I feared—a one-hour forty-five minute documentary attempting to demonstrate evangelicalism’s cultural ineptitude coupled with an all-to-familiar remedy: Donald Miller Christianity. You know what I mean; the type of Christianity disguised as self-critical and culturally savvy, but is really simply self-loathing and suffering from the notorious evangelical inferiority complex.
The thesis of Merchant’s movie, best I can detect, is that cultural hatred of evangelicals is apparently our own doing. We’ve failed to represent Christ. Is there truth in that? Of course! But, is levying generalized statements meant to indict every Christian’s failure helpful? No. When you make a charge at everyone, you are making a charge against no one. Indeed, Merchant’s piece can be best summarized as offering a “sign-post to nowhere.” Merchants jeremiad is more accurately aimed towards the .001% of Christians who are both arrogant, ignorant, and worse, given a media platform.
Now, to be fair, there are several worthwhile moments in the documentary. Merchant does an excellent job demonstrating how cultural issues between evangelicals and American culture have been relegated to bumper-sticker pithiness. Because moral discourse has broken down, both sides no longer understand one another. Secondly, the last forty minutes of the film rightly demonstrate how Christians are serving the poor with their actions. Even evangelical scourge Tony Campolo’s statement “We can love someone without legitimating their lifestyle” deserves praise.
The troubling and underlying assumption lurking behind Merchant’s entire documentary is the belief that animus towards evangelicals is due simply according to evangelical fault. Never in the movie is the possibility explored that may seem to indicate that cultural polarities exist not simply because of evangelical mediums, but because several core tenets of Christian faith are simply incompatible with mainstream East Coast/West Coast culture.
Take, for example, the issue of homosexuality. The video is rampant with homosexuals giving their low opinion of evangelicals. That’s fine. Admittedly, a small contingency of Christianity has given the rest of Christianity very bad PR. Yet, not once does Merchant ever highlight Christianity’s doctrinal content so as to conclude that doctrine might cause a disagreement. He seems to believe that proper communication technique will overcome the largest gaps within the cultural divide. If only that were the case.
At the end of the day, I can love homosexuals (I do). I harbor not an ounce of hostility towards this group. Yet, by virtue of biblical interpretation, two-thousand years of received tradition, and doctrinal content which confirms homosexuality’s incompatibility with the Christian faith, I will be received as intolerant. It’s that simple. Simply saying this with a smile on my face will make me no more popular with those who disagree with me.
This can be demonstrated by Merchant’s visit to Ethiopia. Because he sees Ethiopian Christians possessing little materially, but possessing much spiritually (and with joy), he assumes that cultural polarity, for example, on the issue of homosexuality, is absent. But all of this is subtly undermined if we were to examine Ethiopian Christians’ views on homosexuality. Even the most joyous, pious, and friendly Ethiopian Christians when asked about their views of Christianity, would offer the same conclusion as I would. The Global South has more clarity on this issue than most wayward American evangelicals.
In one particular scene of the movie, Merchant seeks to re-play a scene we’re all now very familiar with in Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz—the scene where Miller and a friend open up a confessional booth at Reed College’s debauchery-fest after finals. Thus, Merchant sets up a confessional booth at a gay-pride event, allowing individuals to come into a confessional booth (expecting to confess their own sins), but instead, Merchant surprisingly begins confessing the sins of institutional Christianity. There is truth in this moment; individuals whom we’ve harmed or offended ought to be apologized to. But, Merchant leaves confession without any recourse to truth. He, a Christian, confesses the sins of Christianity to homosexuals and then allows these individuals to go on about their day without sharing any word of truth, or…the gospel. No matter how noble Merchant’s motives may be, he simply shirks on the opportunity to share the gospel.
In all of this, I am not seeking to defend the impropriety of Christians who have offended those for whom they’ve disagreed with. If Christians are acting as jerks, such ought to be repented of, not duplicated. At the same time, Merchant’s movie and failure of clarifying and making quality distinctions between content and expression of content leaves the movie wanting.
In conclusion, Merchant’s version of Christianity is fine…so long as your beliefs do not form opinions…and your opinions never cause you to reflect on social implications that might get you in trouble. What Merchant wants is a Christianity re-focused on the Red Letters, but what’s left of his Christianity after its been stripped of doctrinal content, all besides the Social-Gospel, is No Letters at all. Even more, the subtitle of this movie “Why is the Gospel of Love Dividing America” undermines the very attribute it seeks to advance. When one offers a diminished or truncated view of love—so as to elevate the status of love to the status of granting one permissive and destructive control over one’s life—one genuflects before the god of niceness. And niceness is what this documentary suffers from. Sadly, it’s love in the form of a crucified God that I feel this movie is missing.
Great stuff. Combating the evangelical inferiority complex is a worthy pursuit I hope to help with! Have you heard of the latest version of this self-loathing mediated through film “Beware of Christians”?
I appreciate your general sentiments, but I believe you are missing Dan Merchant’s and Donald Miller’s intentions. Seldom have Christians had the courage to receive the criticisms and blame for past wrongs committed in the name of Christ. I don’t think either man was looking to hide or be a spineless Christian. To go in front of those who openly hate Christians and be the brunt of their critique portrays a perfect picture of Christ. After all, our redemption was accomplished through similar passive reception of hostility and blatant rejection from all of those in the 1st century who hated Christ himself. This speaks to the redemptive power of the Cross, not the weakened state of Christianity.
Two years ago in Bible College, Mr. Merchant came to my school to do a screening and a Q&A. Thanks for saying what I couldn’t put my finger on at the time. He goes to different kinds of organizations and people to get a picture of what Christianity is putting out culturally. TBN is at the top of his list apparently, as is Tony Campolo to talk about the other side. Does he go to a place like Mars Hill? Redeemer Presbyterian? Biola? He picks a very imbalanced sampling, which leads to a very imbalanced documentary. Ultimately, it’s a pitch for social justice. While I have no problem with that, to completely throw out any kind of theology, or the gospel, I would look elsewhere to get a picture of what he’s aiming at.