Monthly Archives: March 2015

“American Jesus” – The Movie

I watched last night a documentary by Aram Garriga, who I believe is Catalan. The title (ripped off from a book by Stephen Prothero) was American Jesus. Here’s how Garriga describes the film:

The film focuses on a nation-widespread variety of Christian organizations, controversial and relevant figures of the Evangelical community, Christian Pop Culture & Music specialists, secular analysts, Apocalyptic Preachers and the End Times, Prosperity Pastors, Christian Bikers & Cage-fighters, Mega-churches, Snake Handlers, the Creation Museum, Atheists, Christian Surfers and Cowboys, to name just a few. Their personal testimonies and perspectives will draw a map with all of the ideological and social positions covered and properly represented.

The main goal of the film will be triggering the debate and the questioning, from a non-judgmental perspective, on what’s the current state of American Faith and what are its real social and political implications.

“Non-judgmental”–ha ha. That’s a good one.

american-jesus-posterThis film was both intriguing and disappointing. Intriguing because of its whirlwind tour of proliferating American evangelical identities, especially in relation to forms of popular culture: Christian rodeo, Christian bikers, Christian cage-fighters, Christian stand-up, Christian alternative music, Christian outsider art. Although the film didn’t overtly call attention to this, I was particularly intrigued by how many of these forms of evangelical practice were trying to make evangelicalism compatible with some conventional image of masculinity. That is, these are often contemporary iterations of “muscular Christianity.” Judging from this film, American evangelicals are struggling to get men into the pews but take for granted the commitment of women–although why evangelicalism appeals to them, this film has little to offer by way of explanation.

Which is one of the things that’s disappointing about the film. Additional disappointments–thinking especially about this film as a potential resource for teaching–are as follows:

1. The film lands so briefly on the different groups it showcases that there’s not much material to work with for the ethnographic purpose of understanding these adherents’ worldviews from the inside out. That’s because…

2. The film is basically an American evangelical freakshow. The film isn’t really trying to help viewers understand why these evangelicals organize their lives the way they do. The film shows you just enough to give you grounds to think, “Oh my God, these people are crazy!” before hustling you along to the next freak in the line-up. Leading to…

3. The film is ultimately a rant against the New Christian Right. Frank Schaeffer is featured at length–here’s a interview subject on whom the film finally settles down to linger–explaining how evangelicals have become the “fifth column of insanity” in American politics. All those crazy people we saw earlier in the film vote! They’re driving the policies of the Republican Party! They’re gleefully promoting apocalypse in the Middle East! I’m a European filmmaker who had no idea! I must warn the world!

But “from a non-judgmental perspective,” of course.

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“Missionary” horror film

A couple weeks back, students in my “Religion and American Popular Culture” read an essay I’ve published on representations of Mormon missionaries in film. Basically, I identified four trends in the films:

  1. Mormon missionaries provide a model for generic Christian evangelists (an association which should please Mormons, though I imagine evangelicals aren’t happy about it).
  2. Mormon missionaries represent a sectarian style of religion that is treated as annoying or humorous.
  3. Mormon missionaries figure in stories about sexual repression and liberation.
  4. Mormon missionaries serve, in sometimes complicated ways, as moral grounding or agents of transformation (though not in the sense of converting people to Mormonism).

Now someone has forwarded me the trailer to Missionary, a horror film that came out a couple of years ago but which had not yet registered on my radar. It looks like theme #3 is in play. Maybe #4 if the female protagonist discovers reserves of inner strength or learns not to endanger her family by having illicit sex, especially with a repressed young sectarian.

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