“Hellbound?”: A Movie I Should Love

You may have heard of the book, Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be (I don’t know what it’s about — I never read it). Well, you might call this review, “Why I Don’t Love a Movie: By a Guy Who Should.” I basically agree with the LA Times review: “Meh.”

Hellbound? is a movie that features many of my friends, and at least one former friend. It takes a point of view: the conservative version of hell is losing traction because it’s based primarily on fear. And Kevin Miller, the filmmaker, both blogs here and seems like the kind of guy whose posse I’d love to be in.

Kevin has been in touch with me as he’s finished the movie, he’s screened it at Wild Goose, and he was kind enough to send me a screening version, which I watched last weekend. But you come to this blog not for platitudes, but for the truth, and the truth is: I liked this documentary, but I didn’t love it.

Here’s what I liked:

– Clips of Mark Driscoll and John Piper preaching
Brian McLaren, Greg Boyd, and Frank Schaeffer
– The two women who were interviewed: Sharon Baker and Jamie Clark-Soles
– The dude who refused to shake Ray Comfort’s hand

Here’s what I loved:

– Kevin Miller’s questions

But all that was not enough to outweigh what I found lacking:

– Only two women were interviewed (and no, I don’t count Margie Phelps)
Not a single person of color was interviewed. (I know some Black preachers, and they have opinions about hell!)
– Too much of the Phelps family
– No footage of a progressive preaching (only fundamentalists and an exorcist)
– Chad Holtz’s appearance gave me the willies, because he’s recanted everything he said on film. And he never blinks.
– After an hour, it became redundant.
– And, finally, I have no idea what the many minutes of footage of 9/11 and the 9/11 memorial site had to do with the film. I guess the tie was to the Phelps family protest, but, as I said, I don’t think that belonged in the film either.

Coming next week, a review of a documentary that I truly loved.

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  • I hadn’t heard about that Chad Holtz recantation. I just read it. Creepy!

  • I can say I agree with all of your above likes, loves and dislikes. One of the things that kind of bothered me from a structural standpoint was that it gave passing mention to an annihilationist view, but never presented anyone who believed that to argue for it.

    Personally, I’ve found myself coming down in the Miroslav Volf camp of “I’m not a universalist, but God may be,” and the annihilationist view has been an appealing one as a result. I just wondered if you had any thoughts.

  • Phil Miller

    Well, I came close to loving the film. I think it’s easy for people who read theology all the time to be dismissive about things simply because what’s old hat for them is still rather revolutionary for some. I think many Christians consider hell something like their cars alternator or something. They believe it’s there for a reason, but they hope to never have to deal with it or answer questions about it.

    Honestly the thought of the film not interviewing more women or including African Americans never really crossed my mind, and I too have a lot of African American friends. Actually was a member of a primarily African American congregation for a few years. I think in that church many of those people would affirm something like the traditional view of hell.

    As far as the 9/11 footage, I thought the reason for that was that 9/11 has come to represent a symbol of something the pure evil for Americans. And the country’s reaction to those events has been one that been based purely on retributive justice. That was what I took from it, anyway.

  • In regards to women and non-white individuals, do you have any suggestions as to who would be featured in your ideal version of the film? I mean, it’s all well and good to point the diversity finger, but it’s somewhat harder to give constructive criticism. Not that you’re obliged to do so. But I’d like to know and maybe someone else would too.

    • Greg D

      I can think of two women: Phyllis Tickle and Julie Ferwerda who would be good candidates.

      Two non-white individuals: Francis Chan and Bruce Reyes-Chow.

      • Kevin Miller

        This criticism has come up a few times, so perhaps this is a good place to address it. I will just say two things:

        1) The group of people we approached and interviewed for “Hellbound?” is far more diverse than the people who actually made it into the final cut of the film. For example, we approached Francis Chan, but after considerable internal debate, he said no. We also interviewed Carlton Pearson, but in the end decided not to include the footage in the film–partly b/c of an audio glitch that happened when we were shooting B-roll. And I have to say I fought long and hard to make Carlton’s interview work, anticipating just this kind of criticism. But I also reached a point where I had to ask myself whether I was trying to make the best movie or simply avoid charges of “narrowness.”

        2) When the “Love Wins” story broke, all sorts of people came out of the woodwork for and against Rob Bell. This just happened to coincide with our development process when I was doing research, seeking to find out who had written the most influential books on the topic, etc. So in a way, the timing couldn’t be better, b/c it showed me who had a dog in this fight. The thing I realized in retrospect though is how “privileged” this conversation really is. And by that I mean, if you look at the bestselling books on this topic, virtually all of them are written by some of the most privileged people on the planet–white males. Francis Chan and Carleton Pearson are rare exceptions (as are women like Sharon Baker, Julie Ferwerda, Jaime Clark-Soles and a handful of others). Rob Bell is a white male, and so are most of his most vocal supporters and critics, such as Kevin DeYoung, Mark Driscoll, John Piper, etc. And look at that–I’m a white male as well. What’s going on here? That’s a subtext to the debate on which I’m only now beginning to reflect. But I will say this: Had the controversy over Love Wins manifested in the African-American or Hispanic community, we would have followed the story there, and the “cast” of the film would look quite different. But it didn’t, so we didn’t. That’s not to say these communities don’t have important things to say on the topic, and as I said, I made efforts to get these perspectives on film. Perhaps you can call the absence of these perspectives in the final cut a failure, and I accept that. Perhaps I did fail on that front. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

        • Love your honesty, Kevin.

        • Nate in Minneapolis

          Thanks for sharing the behind-the-scenes information, Kevin.

  • I’ve heard several people reviewing the film comment on the lack of women and ethnic minorities. Speaking as a woman, I’m actually more disturbed that so many people would note this – as if, had a woman or Afro-American or hispanic or whatever been included, this would have been sufficient to diversify the perspectives offered. It implies to me that there is such a thing as the female perspective (so if a woman had been present, I’m covered), and also that women should be included if only to appear diverse.

    I mean, if there are specific women theologians or theologians of color that should be included and were left off, that’s one thing. But just pointing to the lack of diversity seems off, somehow.

    • Bit of a catch-22 there isn’t it? There definitely are a few very prominent women and black people that come to mind quickly, and I would have thought of them if I was making the film without first thinking, “Oh, better get some diversity”. Phyllis Tickle and Carlton Pearson, just off the top of my head. I believe Tony’s point was that it appears the filmmakers had a narrow viewpoint and the lack of diversity is evidence of that.

  • PGregory

    I watched this documentary at Wildgoose in NC. and with you. Lots of interesting questions, but way too much coverage of the Phelps family. My opinion, the Phelps family is a small handful of weirdos that are very wise in the ways of drawing attention to themselves. I think the author could have focused on other larger groups in his discussion of the polarization of beliefs about hell.

    All in all, however, interesting documentary.

    • Phil Miller

      Really, though, is there anything that substantially different about the Phelps family’s theology than Driscoll’s or DeYoung’s? They certainly aren’t using the same methodology, but when you are willing to admit that there are certain people God doesn’t love, where does that leave you?

      • Tom

        Seriously? If someone believes in hell then “you are willing to admit that there are certain people God doesn’t love”?
        I’ve heard both Driscoll and DeYoung state that they don’t believe what you claim they believe.

        As DeYoung said in a recent article:

        “If God’s love is only understood as his electing love, we’ll too see easily say God hates all sorts of people, when that truth requires a good deal more nuance.

        And if God’s love is bound up entirely in warnings like “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21), we’ll fall into legalism and lots of unwarranted self-doubt.”

        I’m not saying you have to agree agree with either of them but making false claims about what they believe and also trying to compare them to the Phelps family really does your own position no favours.

        • Phil Miller

          Seriously? If someone believes in hell then “you are willing to admit that there are certain people God doesn’t love”?

          I did not say that anyone who believes in hell believes that God doesn’t love all. Indeed most Christians who believe in hell would not say that. I was talking specifically of Driscoll and DeYoung.

          What I said was that both Driscoll and DeYoung say in the film that God doesn’t really love everyone, at least not in the same way. You can parse that all you want, but in the end they believe God has favorites. Indeed, it is the fatal flaw in neo-Reformed theology.

  • Greg D

    Looking forward to seeing this film. I live overseas in a hard-to-reach country where there is no guarantee I’d receive the DVD in the mail. I hope I can download it or stream it to my computer. In the meantime I’ll have to rely on the commentary of those who have seen it. So far, I have read two reviews (yours included) and each review has given the film a mediocre rating at best.

    • Hey Greg, as another person who has seen the movie, I’d say it’s good film, it just has some noticeable flaws. The last third definitely gets repetitive, that’s the big structural issue.

  • Dean

    I thought the best part of the movie was the part where the film maker got Driscoll and DeYoung to admit that the logical conclusion of their theology is that God doesn’t love everyone. It took a while to get them to say it, but people really need to hear it, and as another comment above clarified, it’s not directly related to their belief in hell, it’s the natural consequence of five-point Calvinism. What’s funny is you can tell how awkward is it for them to even say it out loud, I wonder if the neo-Reformed movement would be as popular as it is if this point was made more clearly to the YRR crowd (before they’re indoctrinated that is).

  • JMW

    I believe in hell, it’s the endless reading of a book called “Why We’re Not Emergent by Two Guys Who Should Be.”

  • Lee

    I attended the screening and Q and A in Nashville and the same question about blacks and women was asked.

    I wanted to ask Kevin Miller if there is any lost footage of him or anyone repeatedly kicking Mark Driscoll in the gonads and if so will it be in the DVD but they didn’t call on me. Does Kevin read this blog? If so, Kevin please affirm?

  • Lee

    I should have read the above comments first. Hi Kevin!

    I am a recent convert to Christianity (since June 3rd). I really, really, really liked Hellbound. As a film I would have to watch it to constructively critique it but as an event, I had a fantastic time. The line at the Belcourt (the art house movie theater it was showing in Nashville) was wrapped around the building. It was a pretty exciting, palpable and all those other sort of words. Even though none of the content was very new to me, seeing that type of movie on the big screen was a real treat for me.

    When I found out Kevin Miller was involved I was a bit shocked. I thought “Expelled” was a monumental piece. I felt the opposite about this film.

    As an aside, as a new convert this film could have been harmful for me spiritually. As a new Christian I had to simply but those sort of theological controversies out of my mind and focus on Jesus and love in order to convert and here I was in a movie theater watching a movie that brought up many of the theological messes that kept me from being a Christian in the first place. For me though, when I went to my church the next Sunday after I saw the film, it reaffirmed why I made the choice to convert.

  • Pam Lillyblad

    I really loved Hellbound. It is what it is, and it was good. It would be good if Kevin Miller could look at your ideas and produce Hellbound II. I would like to add that I think putting Bob Larson on the film stating he believes what the demons say about hell, that he believes the demons? Is that who we are supposed to believe? The Demons? Also that “we are the good people” Self righteousness. So putting Bob Larson on with this kind of false logic helped Hellbound’s message. No offense Bob Larson but listen to yourself. I loved Frank Shaeffer and Brian Mclaren.