Review of Movie “Come Sunday” (A Personal Perspective)
What I mean by “a personal perspective” is that I am not a movie critic; I have nothing worthwhile to say about production values, acting, etc. This is a personal perspective insofar as I was “there” when and where some of the events portrayed in the movie happened.
“Come Sunday” is a Netflix original movie about the life and ministry of African-American Pentecostal evangelist Carlton Pearson. I have been urged by several people to watch it and finally I have. I suspect those who urged me to watch it wanted some response, so here it is.
First, I will say there are very few movies that actually take on theology in a serious way. So that pleased me about the movie; the makers of the movie actually focused a lot of the drama on the issue at the heart of the controversy: belief in hell.
Second, I will say that the presentation of characters and events seemed fair; I did not detect any blatant bias although some characters did not come across as especially sympathetic. Maybe they weren’t and aren’t.
Third, I will say that I found the movie somewhat difficult to watch just because it provoked some memories and feelings that accompany those memories—of two very challenging years teaching theology at the institution—Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma—that appears in the movie. I was indirectly employed by Oral Roberts because I was on the faculty of the university that bore his name and of which he was president.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I was surprised and a bit shocked that Martin Sheen played Oral Roberts in “Come Sunday.” But I think he did a pretty good job even though he is much more diminutive than Oral who was a big man both physically and in terms of “filling the room” wherever he went. He had what some people describe as “The X Factor”—charisma that had a way of sucking people uncritically into whatever he was saying. He could “cast a spell” over an audience like few others could do.
In case you don’t know the story the movie is about: Carlton Pearson was, even when I taught at ORU, Oral Roberts’s “black son” (as stated in the movie). Oral obviously loved Carlton Pearson. He was often at Oral’s side on campus and often sang in chapel. I saw and heard him many times during my two years there and was impressed with his voice and message.
Pearson, a minister with a large African-American Pentecostal (not fundamentalist!) denomination, pastored a mega-church in Tulsa. Many of my students attended it; it was racially integrated.
Sometime after I left ORU (but kept in touch with my former colleagues and paid close attention to what was going on there) Rev. Pearson (or Bishop Pearson) began to reveal publically that he did not believe in hell. The doctrine he espoused is traditionally known as “universalism”—that all people are already saved or will be saved regardless of whether they have faith in Jesus Christ. The movie is mostly about the aftermath of that public change in Pearson’s theology; it portrays almost all of his friends and supporters rejecting him. It portrays him as a kind of martyr of conscience and yet it includes some verbal objections to his universalism that are not ridiculous (for those who take the Bible seriously).
At the end of the movie, Pearson is speaking and singing at a mainline denomination’s church, a church that had long before embraced universalism. Pearson was embraced by liberal Protestants and Unitarians and, apparently, for a time pastored a New Thought church in Chicago. But he lost his Tulsa church, his evangelistic ministry, his circle of friends—including Oral Roberts—and even some family members.
Everything about the movie made me sad. I kept thinking “If only he read C. S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce maybe he wouldn’t have leapt to embrace universalism.” I won’t go into all the reasons why universalism is normally considered heresy among almost all “brands” of Christianity (except liberal Protestantism) but only say there are good reasons—and some of them are mentioned by Pearson’s critics in the movie.
And yet, I can understand from my heart why someone desperately wants there to be no hell or for hell to be temporary (as in the case of some universalists). And in the movie Pearson (the actor playing him) articulates those reasons very well.
The main thing I liked about the movie was that it centered around a serious theological issue and did not sacrifice theology to drama. The two were brought together and the controversy about universal salvation (no hell or temporary hell) was the focus of much of the movie. That’s unusual in Hollywood made movies. (By “Hollywood” here I only mean the secular movie-making industry in the United States.)
However, as one who was also kicked out of Pentecostalism for changing my mind about typical Pentecostal beliefs, I could certainly identify with Pearson’s struggles and his pain.
But even more, the context brought back very painful memories for me. By the time I accepted a teaching position at ORU I had left Pentecostalism. I was never asked by anyone there about that. Just having a Pentecostal background and family connections with people high up in the “ministry” (Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association) paved the way for me to teach there. And, to be frank, at that moment, I had no other option for employment.
When I taught at ORU (1982-1984) the Roberts family was going through tremendously difficult experiences and I thought I saw Oral himself collapsing mentally and emotionally. There was much death in the family including suicide, and a major divorce scandal. The university was going through extremely difficult times financially due to the building of the “City of Faith”—an enormous medical facility that Oral claimed God told him to build.
I grew up in a home and church that almost worshiped Oral Roberts. My Pentecostal stepmother provided me—as a child—with Oral Roberts comic books to read. Seriously. I don’t know if any exist anymore, but for a time in the 1950s they did exist and we had them in our home. They were about supernatural healings that allegedly happened in Oral Roberts’ ministry. My parents watched Oral Roberts on television on Sunday afternoons (when we had television) and several close family friends attended or worked at ORU when it was founded in the 1960s. Back then ORU was widely considered a kind of model evangelical Christian institution of higher education—packed with the latest technology for students’ use.
I could write a book about all the things I saw, heard, and experienced at ORU during my two years there. But the essence of that book has already been published in a book by another person who worked closely with Oral Roberts before I went there to teach. I read that book before I accepted the position there and thought it was unbelievable. I assumed the author was just bitter and either telling lies or distorting the truth. After one year on faculty at ORU, however, I believed everything that author said in that book about his experiences there.
I must say, however, that at ORU I had outstanding colleagues and students. Most of the problems I observed happened in chapels and during Oral’s “Prayer Partners” conferences which we were all required to attend. Oral’s son and designed successor as leader of both the evangelistic association and the university was gradually taking over chapels and was highly visible on campus (but both he and Oral were virtually unapproachable by “little people” like I was; I never met either one of them).
But I must say that Oral Roberts was never a “fundamentalist.” That label simply did not fit him—unless one distorts the word by divorcing it from its religious-historical-theological context. For example, Oral did not permit any formal, written statement of faith at his university. Doctrine was whatever he said it was. And that fluctuated greatly. In the departments of theology we faculty took turns taking phone calls from people asking about Oral’s theology. I simply explained to callers that Oral was not a theologian and they should not expect him to be perfectly consistent or deep in his thinking or presentations of doctrines.
Yet, and nevertheless, running afoul of Oral by, for example publically denouncing the “prosperity gospel,” could get a faculty or staff member in much hot water. Because I spent much of class time “cleaning up” after chapels I knew that if I stayed there long I would eventually be called up to Oral’s office and confronted. He did not like faculty or staff (or even students) disagreeing with anything one of his invited guest evangelists said in chapel.
I thought the portrayal of Oral by Martin Sheen in “Come Sunday” was believable but it lacked the power of Oral’s personality.
All in all, I found the movie distressing, sad, confusing and…sad. I can’t think of a better word for how it made me feel—for everyone involved in the controversy. I went through my own extremely painful departure from Pentecostalism and was called a heretic by people who I thought of as my spiritual mentors—merely because I stopped believing in doctrines such as speaking in tongues as the “initial, physical evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit” and the “rapture.”
I’m not comparing Carlton Pearson’s change of mind with mine; his was much more significant in terms of basic Christian doctrine. (I mean here by “basic Christian doctrine” what most Christians have believed over two thousand years.) But I could feel some degree of empathy with him as he was rejected by his peers and spiritual mentors.
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