There is something extraordinarily dangerous and ugly at the heart of American life: literalistic religion. There is something extraordinarily beautiful and enlightening at the heart of American life: literalistic religion. Now there is a movie that explores this paradox: what’s uniquely best about America — religious freedom — is also our continuous downfall.
I’m an author and commentator not a journalist. So it’s not often I get the pleasure of stumbling on what’s called a “scoop.” This time I’m beating the rest of the media to a big story. My scoop is to introduce a movie to you. American Jesus is an important documentary that will redefine how the world looks at America and how we Americans look at ourselves. I only know about this movie because I’m in it. So last week I had the privilege of seeing an advance screening.
Premiering at the Woodstock Film Festival (and in Spain) on Oct. 4th American Jesus documents the strange relationship between faith, materialism, politics and personal spiritual passions in what is a uniquely American inner life. American Jesus asks how dynamic and loving faith may coexist with the darker side of cynical empire building and magical thinking. In asking this question, with a level of intuitive intelligence I’ve never seen before in a film on religion, American Jesus shows us how the best and worst coexists in big time American religion. The movie shows us the paradoxically improbable combination of idealism and crass grasping for riches and striving for power. This combination of the venal and the sublime is what American religion is. And this matters because we impact the rest of the world as the world’s only superpower. What we believe translates into global, often violent, action.
Two years ago I got a call. Would I agree to be interviewed for a European film to be called “American Jesus” exploring the world of American religion. I was not paid for the interview nor do I have any official connection to the project. The crew arrived and spent a day in my house filming and interviewing to me. They left and I forgot about the movie.
Two years later Brent Kunkle, the producer, sent me a link so I could watch the completed film. It turns out that director Aram Garriga‘s pilgrimage across America to make his movie resulted in a stunning and beautifully made film record of an outsider’s clear-eyed view of the impact — both personal and political — of Christianity in modern American life.
Garriga is the new Alexis de Tocqueville. In American Jesus he doesn’t take for granted what to us Americans is so familiar it’s hardly noticed. Garriga brings a fresh perspective to the outsized place religion plays in our life, politics and national ethos. “American Jesus” is to religion what de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” (1835) was to our national life then: a revealing outsider’s exploration of truths we Americans are too close to, to clearly see.
My personal history prepared me to understand just what an accomplishment this movie is. As an insider’s insider to the world of American religion I was described by the New York Times like this: “To millions of evangelical Christians, the Schaeffer name is royal, and Frank is the reluctant, wayward, traitorous prince. His crime is not financial profligacy, like some pastors’ sons, but turning his back on Christian conservatives.” I grew up as the son of an American religious leader (religious right founder Francis Schaeffer). I not only lived in the pressure cooker of big time American religion my family was part of the political and religious history of modern America.
As my dad’s sidekick schmoozing with congressmen, famous preachers and even US presidents, I watched and participated during the 1970s and 80s as fundamentalist religion shaped American politics. I’ve charted my fraught and funny journey out of big time American religion in my book on the inner anatomy of religious delusion: And God Said, “Billy!” Thus my perspective on the film is one of someone who has lived through the events the movie explores. Been there-done-that. And I can tell you this movie gets the details right! It also goes a long way toward answering a rhetorical question I asked Rachel Maddow when she was interviewing me on the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC: “Can Christianity be rescued from the Christians?”
American Jesus shines a bright light on big time American religion and its effect on society and on the world. Through interviews, with such clear-eyed thinkers as Michelle Goldberg, American journalist and author, the movie also intimately explores the quest for meaning so many of us find in our personal struggles to reconcile ourselves to mortality through religion. The movie also highlights how the wounded churches in America spread their contagion globally.
And the movie is fair to religion. For instance it provides a platform for the well known and deservedly admired evangelical Shane Claiborne, to speak up. Shane is an author and leading figure in the New Monasticism movement as well as one of the founding members of The Simple Way. Shane talks about his Christ-centered work with the outcasts of our society. And having him in the movie is a clear indicator that the director is not out to “get” religious people because he shows some of the best American religion has to offer in terms of social justice issues and compassion. The film also includes luminary evangelical filmmaker and musician Steve Taylor, street minister to the indigent, Pastor Bob Beeman (of Nashville) and the remarkable author Jason Boyett. These interviews bring the viewer into a deep and nuanced dialogue with some thoughtful religious people who have deep insights into faith and spirituality and even share their doubts about their most intimate hopes and beliefs.
In a way this film is a plea for the true spirituality that can survive the false gods of commerce and power. Sincere believers will not feel threatened by this film, rather affirmed by its debunking of all that is worst in religion. That dark side of faith hurts the witness of faith more than anything any so-called new atheist writer has to offer.
Since few outsiders ever understand the “flavor” of what really animates the vast subculture of American religion the movie opens a new world to non-Americans and/or to more secular Americans struggling to understand – for instance – how religious delusion has shaped American foreign policy. Because America is powerful understanding what makes America “tick” is not optional. That’s why I say that this film should be required viewing for everyone, at least for every world leader. What political leaders who deal with America need to know is that what motivates so-called American exceptionalism is not rational. It is rooted in magical thinking.
America, like some of the more fundamentalist Islamic countries trying to impose Sharia law, brings irrational religious conviction to world affairs. For instance America’s long involvement in the Middle East, and twelve years of non-stop war in Iraq and Afghanistan, can’t be understood outside of the context of religious delusional thinking explored in American Jesus. This context is the eschatological fantasies of “End Times” theology that leads so many Americans – including many right wing political leaders – to conclude that America is helping to fulfill biblical prophecy by taking sides in various Middle Eastern conflicts.
If the ayatollahs of Iran look crazy to many people then so should the religiously deluded American public be branded as nuts. It was this group of people, mostly evangelicals, that voted for George W. Bush and other evangelical American leaders that believed or at least paid lip service to, literalistic biblical interpretations of unfolding world events. These are the people that took us into needless bloody non-stop wars.
What the movie exposes is the truth that in the American religious community life goes on as if the Enlightenment had never taken place. A look at the so-called Creation Museum proves this. In what other place on earth could millions of visitors approve the obliterating rewriting of science and conclude that the world is 6000 years old and that dinosaurs coexisted with humans? In what other country is foreign policy hostage to a literal belief in events leading to the so-called return of Christ?
For the people who wonder why American foreign policy seems insane at times one answer to their questions about America is this movie. At the heart of the superpower that leads the world are many leaders who believe in cartoonish myths. American Jesus is a brilliant warning about where these cartoon characters will take us all unless challenged.
And yet American Jesus takes a compassionate look at many religious people of good will who find meaning and beauty in their spiritual faith. The movie is a tribute to them as well as a subtle warning about the political and religious leaders who seek to manipulate sincere faith for their own enrichment or worse, to gain power.
The price of a scoop is that I’m ahead of the review curve. The movie isn’t out yet. I’ve begged the filmmakers to get this movie in front of the legions of Americans and non-Americans who will be astonished by its scope and sensitivity. But there’s a protocol in securing the best possible distribution. That process is just beginning with the premiere in Woodstock.
Meanwhile, there’s the website which the producers will be expanding in the coming weeks. While American Jesus is in its festival run, tune in to the website www.americanjesusthemovie.com for what I trust will be screenings near you, and so you can keep track of the commercial release soon to follow.
Then, when you get the chance, WATCH THIS MOVIE!