Why do some people who aren't Christians say they like Jesus just fine but have less-than-warm feelings for those who follow Him? That question frames this documentary from director Dan Merchant—himself a Christian. Actually, he puts it in stronger terms: "Why is the gospel of love dividing America?"
Merchant was inspired to explore how non-Christians see their counterparts after a trip to Africa. While there, he says, the believers he encountered radiated a joy that could not be dented by dire circumstances. Why, he wondered, are American Christians not known for their joy, too? And why, if they're following a loving Lord who offered unconditional grace and forgiveness for sins, is that not the way some people see them?
The short answer, according to Merchant, is this: Christians may be more concerned with being right than being salt and light. "Maybe the gospel of love isn't dividing," he says, "it's being turned into the gospel of being right."
The long answer? Well, it's a bit longer ... and more complicated.
Bumper Stickers 'R' Us
Donning what looks to be a white plastic hazmat suit adorned with all manner of religious bumper stickers, Merchant sets off across the country to get "man on the street" reactions to sound-bite spirituality.
It's a fascinating exercise to see how people respond to slogans such as, "Please Jesus, Protect Me From Your Followers." Some of the stickers are more serious ("Abortion: Big People Killing Little People") while others go straight for the laugh ("Jesus Had a Mullet") or pander to irreverence ("Get the H--- Out of My Way, I'm Late for Church").
Merchant's offbeat approach frequently opens the door for deeper conversations. When he asks strangers what their impression is of Christians, for example, responses include, "To be holy," "Fanaticism," "Going to church," "Warfare," "Trying to get other people to become Christians," "Love thy neighbor," and so on.
Cue the Talking Heads
Intermixed with these encounters are in-depth interviews and archival video footage of leaders and influencers, such as Bono, George W. Bush, Stephen Colbert, Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Rick Santorum, Michael Reagan, John Stewart, Rick Warren and Nelson Mandela, talking about the questions Merchant raises.
While some of the clips do little more than pave the way to making the assertion that all-out yell-fests on cable TV don't accomplish much in the way of winning friends or influencing people, one clip from comedian Bill Maher on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News show sets the stage for the central philosophical conflict in the film: "Jesus as a philosopher is wonderful," Maher says. "There's no greater role model in my view than Jesus Christ. It's just a shame that most of the people who follow Him and call themselves Christians are nothing like Him."
Merchant then puts Maher's thoughts into an echo chamber of sorts by visually and verbally comparing the body of Christ to Frankenstein's monster, saying that we as Christians often "unwittingly stumble about managing to hurt, frighten and anger the very villagers [we're] called to love."
Merchant concludes that Christianity in America has what amounts to a marketing problem. Why? Because adherents to the faith have muddled Jesus' message of unconditional grace with messages of judgment and condemnation. Ultimately, Merchant insists, we turn people off instead of inviting them to consider the Christian faith more deeply. Or, as Tony Campolo puts it as he talks with Merchant, "Do you realize what you're doing when you frame the discussion in such an antagonistic, polarizing, hateful manner?"
That sentiment is most fiercely illustrated in the film by a clash between participants in Ron Luce's Battle Cry teen conference and angry San Francisco locals. When Battle Cry staged a 2006 rally on the steps of city hall, some San Franciscans felt that it smacked of an evangelical invasion. "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Christian fascists go away!" they chanted, along with, "Please stop preaching hate."
Sound bites from speeches made by Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson, along with 700 Club host Pat Robertson and others, are also offered up as examples of what it looks like to be polarizing and divisive, especially in the contexts of homosexuality and abortion.
The Power of Love Is a Curious Thing
Merchant's comments sometimes sting—and sometimes feel unfair—but he eventually proposes a straightforward strategy for building bridges with nonbelievers: listening, serving and confessing, all of which, he believes, express a message of unconditional love. The steps he takes toward—or recommends taking toward—that kind of expression show up in the film in a couple of different ways:
First, there's Merchant simply drawing attention to himself with his bumper sticker outfit. More interesting (and potentially controversial) is his decision to open a confession booth at a gay-pride event in Portland, Ore. The twist? Merchant is the one who confesses, both his sins and those of the church as a whole to the folks who wander into his booth.
Merchant earnestly dialogues with a transvestite who wears a nun's habit and goes by the name Sister Mary Timothy. He spotlights Christians joining together with non-Christians to battle poverty and disease in Africa. And he shows viewers the profound impact a group of Christians in Portland have made by meeting the needs of the homeless there.
A Movie That Makes You Want to Read (Your Bible)
While watching, I sifted through a variety of spiritual and intellectual responses. At times I felt uncomfortable as I realized that I'm certainly guilty of some of the things Merchant points out: insensitivity, pride, selfishness, consumerism and complacency, for instance.
Other times, though, my discomfort came from a nagging sense that Merchant was oversimplifying mightily complex theological concepts. Specifically, the relationship between what the Bible calls truth and grace.
Near the beginning of John's gospel, we read, "The Word [Jesus] became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only, who came from the father, full of grace and truth."
What does that phrase, "full of grace and truth," mean? In its simplest sense, grace has to do with being the recipients of God's unmerited favor. There is nothing that we can do to earn His love, He simply chooses to bestow it. And His chief expression of grace? Jesus Christ, who came to live and die to save those who could not save themselves.
What about truth? Truth is that which God has defined as right and good. It encompasses the reality that we, humankind, don't get to set the agenda, to make our own determinations about what constitutes right and wrong. That, Scripture teaches, is God's prerogative.
Jesus perfectly embodied and expressed the tension inherent in these two qualities, truth and grace. He graciously offered forgiveness and acceptance to all who were willing to accept His invitation to come into relationship with Him. But He never did so at the expense of truth. He ate with sinners, but He never minimized sin.
That incredible tension is evident in His encounter with the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Jewish religious leaders want to stone her, but Jesus subdues them with this: "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Then, after demonstrating unconditional forgiveness to the woman—grace in action, if you will—Jesus adds this word of truth, "Go now and leave your life of sin."
Which brings us back to the subject at hand: Lord, Save Us From Your Followers.
Grace: Good; Truth: Bad?
Has the church pushed grace to the side as it fights for what's right? Dan Merchant certainly believes that's true. And if this film leaves me a bit queasy, perhaps that's because he seems to be trying to rectify things by doing just the opposite: focusing on grace (as exemplified in his willingness to publicly apologize for the church's past and current behavior) without saying very much at all about the truth part of the equation.
Merchant strongly resonates with Jesus' words to the woman caught in adultery: "Neither do I condemn you." But it's hard to see—onscreen—where or how the second half of Jesus' statement, "Go now and leave your life of sin" comes into play.
Talking about exactly when it should come into play, Merchant told Plugged In Online, "Relationship is a key word. If you go through the gospels you will find that Jesus does everything in the context of relationship. What does Jesus do for the adulterous woman in John 8? He risks His life by standing up for her. ... So if we are in a relationship with somebody, where we have given or are willing to give of ourselves the way Jesus gives in this example, then we have probably earned the right to speak the truth."
It's a good thought. But it's a thought I didn't find clearly stated in Lord, Save Us From Your Followers.
A postscript: The documentary is rated PG-13. And part of that designation stems from a few uses of "h---" and two bleeped f-words.