Stories of Hateful Fundamentalists Coming to a Theater Near You

A new film premiered at Worldfest-Houston, one of the oldest and largest film festivals in the world, caught my interest. It’s called Hell and Mr. Fudge, a feature length film narrating the true story of a young Bible-belt preacher, Edward Fudge.

This curious film takes place in the early 1980s in Alabama and tells the true story of a preacher who changed his mind about hell. Yes, that’s h-e-double toothpicks, as in the place of torment and suffering, the opposite of heaven, the site of perpetual weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The story uses dramatization to play out key moments in Pastor Fudge’s life. A key plot point involves the unexpected death of an “unbelieving” teenager. The shock of his death provoked Pastor Fudge to question whether the destiny of this young man was indeed a place of eternal damnation. Is that what happens to him? Believing the Bible to be absolutely true, he began an intensive Bible study on the doctrine of hell.

What he found changed his view away from traditional ones. While Fudge eventually wrote a 500-plus page tome to argue it out (The Fire that Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, now in it’s third edition), at the time his conclusions provoked the malice of formerly-congenial brethren. His “heresy” cost him his job and his pulpit.

The specifics of Fudge’s views on hell are not what interest me most.  What does interest me is that such a fairly minor story of doctrinal dispute based on changes in religious conviction can sustain the considerable effort and expense of a mainstream movie. Movies aren’t cheap. Writing, producing, and acting in any film requires a lot of time and a measure of faith in the future of the product. Yet this film is not only professionally produced but also won the 2012 Platinum Award at the Houston International Film Festival in the “Theatrical Feature Film – Christian” category, beating out nearly 5,000 entries. It is an excellent film.

Even more, who is interested in such a quirky theme? I found myself intrigued–and then I quickly thought that the theme of re-working conservative Christian belief and practice may indeed be the order of the day. With so many ex- and former- and too-embarrassed-to-admit- conservative Christians out there today, a story about reacting to conservative doctrine has potential. The angst of working out one’s own convictions in the face of enormous pressures toward standard responses may have a wide base of appeal.

I suggest that this film is important because it highlights that there is an audience for sharing stories of hateful Christian fundamentalism. It immediately provides a counterpoint to the passionate reactions faced by Rob Bell with his recent book Love Wins. It also connects with the imperatives behind Donald Miller’s recent film Blue Like Jazz which also ruminates on the definition of what it means to be a faithful Christian in the face of strict orthodoxy. It also brings to mind news stories of groups like Westboro Baptist Church whose definition of correctness clashes with those of other Christians.

Very few people desire to be a hateful fundamentalist. But I suspect just about everyone has stories to share about them. And the Hollywood industry has more and more Christians who understand the doctrinal and experiential nuances and have the time and talent to craft their stories for a broader audience.

 

Blacks, Gospel Music, and the Pursuit of Diversity in the American Church

By Gerardo Marti

In conducting interviews for my book Worship across the Racial Divide, I enjoyed talking with a Caucasian worship leader at an outdoor café on Los Angeles’ Westside. We drank coffee as he described his enthusiasm for racial diversity and the type of music he worked into each Sunday service. Then, in the middle of our conversation, he suddenly blurted out, “I just wish I could be black!”

I was struck. Although it was not the first time I had heard a white person admire black music performers and styles, this blunt yet seemingly natural statement stuck out as one of the most significant. This leader’s abrupt remark crystallized observations that had been building on racialized perceptions of worship over the previous months. Over and over again, non-blacks expressed a profound belief in the ability of African Americans to attain a deep, emotional, and, for many, inspiring worship through sacred music. Even African Americans themselves agreed that they had a racially-specific connection to worship.

What I found over the course of two years was that African Americans occupy a unique place in the moral economy of multiracial congregations. Like the canary in the coal mine, the assumption across America is that if there are few African Americans in a congregation, then the congregation’s culture is racially “toxic” against blacks. Congregational leaders serious about addressing racial issues are trying to alter their cultures. Attracting African Americans is now a major priority for many non-black churches, and this priority influences the type of music being introduced.

Gospel music is generally thought to be the music required to successfully bring African Americans into a congregation. This belief is driving changes in musical liturgy. “Gospel is a very African American thing,” one Asian musician said. “The African American spirituals we sing intentionally acknowledge the African American members of the church,” said a white choir member. A Black female church member said, “I’d say Black people do mostly enjoy gospel music.” Another Black female and member of her choir referred to the more diverse of two Sunday morning services and said, “That service is for the African Americans predominantly, and the music is different. More gospel.” Blacks enjoy gospel, therefore gospel is required. The introduction of gospel music becomes a form of instrumentalism as a musical genre that is intended to achieve a particular effect.

My book provides an extensive look at this belief in the need for racially-specific music and shows that specific types of music are not necessary for the successful racial diversification of churches. Of course, not everyone agrees with this, and reactions to this newly research are only just beginning to appear. Here I will stress that it is important to approach the notion of “superiority” of Black worshippers by recognizing that the image of blacks orients around a universally held idealized image of Blacks singing gospel. A white female church member said, “I love black gospel music—like when Whoopi Goldberg did it in the movie Sister Act.” Another white female church member in another congregation said, “They all really know how to sing.” African Americans by virtue of skin color – even before people hear them sing – are bestowed authority on worship and connection to God in multiracial churches. I’ve known of some African Americans being recruited to the choir or to the worship committee the day they first walked through the door. Indeed, I found that the fewer the African Americans in a multiracial church, the more they are emphasized by members, and each African American attending becomes imbued with even more authority on music and worship.

The universal assumptions regarding the nature of Black worship radically separates experiences between racial-ethnic groups, makes racial groups absolute, and reinforces the dynamic of “Black performers” for non-Black audiences. When church leaders mix notions of black superiority of worship, the need for gospel music to be included in musical liturgy, and the requirement of black authenticity in the performance of gospel music, such music becomes the basis for separation on the basis of race. If only Blacks can truly perform gospel music (e.g., they have soul), incorporating gospel music creates a tension between “black performers” and non-black audiences. All combined, the beliefs surrounding Black gospel music have the potential to creating conditions for separation and difference rather than unity and togetherness. Insisting on gospel music inadvertently exaggerates, rather than ameliorates, one of the fundamental sources of racial divisions in America – beliefs of racial essentialism.

In the end, what’s most surprising is that the incorporation of diverse people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds into liturgy does help achieve diversity — but not through the selective incorporation of racially-specific styles of music. As one pastor wrote in response to his reading of the book, shaping a caring community through practice and performance is far more important.

Blue Like Jazz: The Anti-Christianity Christian Film

by Gerardo Marti

The film Blue Like Jazz premieres nationwide next week on April 13th, a film based on the New York Times bestselling memoir by Donald Miller. True to the spirit of the book, which was subtitled, “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” the film includes swear words, drinking, a lesbian character, and is open about the hypocrisy found in the Christian church. The adaptation is fun, poignant, and ultimately religious—and that’s what makes this new film so interesting.

Don Miller is one of the most prominent representatives of a messier modern Christianity, an open and more humanistic orientation toward being a follower of Jesus that avoids a distant “holier-than-thou” stance and relativizes the practices of the modern church. It makes any film based on the book a type of Christian film—more specifically, this new film, featuring an evangelical as the hero, is a new type of “Anti-Christianity” Christian film.

When the book Blue Like Jazz appeared in 2003, it was banned from many conservative Christian bookstores. Not only did it shun a straight-laced image of the faith, it also avoided more strident remarks on the evils of the world, refused to idealize conversion or discipleship, and conveyed stories that were far from the sentimental Sunday School portraits that would have won over the “family-friendly” crowd. Conservative Christians concluded the book did not represent orthodox Christian theology. To top it all off, the book seemed to espouse a more liberal political agenda.

Six years later, a film based on the book arrives—featuring a trailer with a voiceover that says, “I’m ashamed of Jesus”—and a discussion emerges on whether this is a “Christian” film or not.

Conservative Christians have tried to affect the moral content of films through boycotting, like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), the gay-themed Priest (1994), and the irreverent comedy Dogma (1999), but boycotting has fallen out of favor. Now the strategy is patronage. Patronage is the active support of films that are morally acceptable, and it is a shrewd strategy that addresses what is most important to movie studios: financial profit. The strategy of patronage succeeded in promoting films like The Omega Code (1999), Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie (2002), Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), the adaptation of the C.S. Lewis novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), the retelling of the Christmas story in The Nativity (2006).

More on this dynamic can be found in my book Hollywood Faith. Some filmmakers believe “Christian” film should only be made by Christians and for explicitly Christian purposes. Only Christian films should be supported. But the world of Anti-Hollywood “Christian” filmmaking is a strikingly political one defined by a fairly tight orthodoxy. Correctness in doctrine and lifestyle are all-important in this realm. Should young children see it? Does it represent a “biblical” understanding of truth? Will “non-believers” be influenced toward the faith? Behind the designation of a properly Christian film is whether conservative churches endorse the film and whether Christian retailers will eventually sell it.

“Christian” filmmakers also struggle to attract the same financing and talent as major Hollywood studios. Low budgets and a tight ideology have soured the label “Christian” film to mean a “sloppy” film, a “cheesy” film, and one that is more interested in spouting a one dimensional propaganda in presenting a gospel message instead of telling a good story.

No surprise then that the lack of strict orthodoxy draws critics from the “Christian” realm for Miller’s new film. Rebecca Cusey writes that there is a virtual “Christian fatwa” against the film. As Paul O’Donnell writes, the film allows for more nuance in understanding evangelicalism, one that is in conversation with forms of secularism and eschews any tone of moral superiority. This is nothing like either Fireproof (2008) or Courageous (2011) which sought to encourage the faithful. Instead, Blue Like Jazz fails to fall into this recent genre of “Christian” film—to the great satisfaction of Don Miller and director Steve Taylor. The film addresses spiritual struggles in a forthright manner, one that is attuned to the complicated, cosmopolitan, and fiercely egoistic society we live in today.

The basic belief guiding the filmmakers of Blue Like Jazz is whoever controls the media controls the culture. If they are to engage with American culture, they must engage the entertainment industry because movies are considered to be the most important medium for shaping values in society. Alex Field in his book The Hollywood Project writes, “the truth is that every day, films are changing people’s minds, stirring up controversy, unearthing compassion for various causes, and inspiring people to make big decisions that ultimately change their lives.”

Filmmakers like Miller are seeking a different type of status: acceptance by mainstream audience. Miller is quoted as saying, “movies about the faith struggle that millions of Americans deal with don’t have to be cheesy.” Even more, such films “can compete with other films at the box office.” Resisting a fundamentalist segregation, Miller wants to attract people regardless of their faith commitments. They went to venues like the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, to find them.

Ralph Winter is another prominent Christian producer and an active member of his Los Angeles Presbyterian church with an impressive string of credits including four of the Star Trek films, all three of the X-Men films, both Fantastic Four films, and a modern remake of Planet of the Apes. Although Winter struggled with whether he could work in the industry and be a loyal follower of God, he is now a prominent role model for many Hollywood Christian hopefuls. Blue Like Jazz seeks to be associated with this kind of quality filmmaking.

So: Is the film merely Don Miller’s personal story put on the screen? Likely not. So many people resonate with Don Miller and his story (and his subsequent speaking and his books) that the film may well be capturing a more recent type of religious orientation within evangelical Christianity today, one that is being legitimated by his film. And one that is threatening to some conservatives.

And the ability to portray this “Anti-Christianity” Christian could spur the production of even more creative work that puts religion and social change into a broader conversation.

Kony 2012 Tells Us What We Care About

By Gerardo Marti

An email showed up last week in my inbox with a brief subject heading, “Kony 2012.” It contained a simple message: a link to a 30 minute video with a note underneath, “Please share with all friends & family.” Clicking the link took me to a keenly edited film about an African military leader who had coerced hundreds of Ugandan boys into war.  This was my introduction to what has become a national sensation.

Kony 2012 is a film gone viral, attracting millions of viewers and galvanizing them in a few short days to the cause of stopping Kony. With an easy click, people promoted the link through email, Facebook, and Twitter, and money poured into Invisible Children, the organization that produced the film, as mere viewers became generous contributors to a newly discovered cause.  [Read more...]


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X