4 Star Review From Newsblaze.com

14 07 2010

Today we’re running a 4 star review from Kam Williams at newsblaze.com, a daily alternative news site. I suppose some could call it progressive evangelism but I particularly liked how Williams uniquely sums up the film’s thesis as asking “evangelicals to examine their own morality in relation to Jesus’ words instead of conveniently pointing fingers at folks they’ve long since dismissed as heathens.” Very insightful and just the kind of thinking that can lead to church growth.

How is it that Christianity has come to be so closely associated with the Religious Right and conservative political causes? This is the fundamental question being asked by director Dan Merchant in Lord, Save Us from Your Followers an alternately humorous and sobering look at how far the practice of Christianity has deviated from the teachings of Jesus.
“You can tell you’ve created God in your own image,” suggests one of his interviewees, author/activist Anne Lamott, “when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” Her tongue in cheek assessment of the state of religion in the U.S. reflects the perspective shared by Mr. Merchant, who proves himself something of a Michael Moore here, as he perambulates the country, microphone in hand, deliberately provoking outrage amidst an array of self-righteous Bible Thumpers.
But his goal, ostensibly, is not to generate controversy for controversy’s sake, but to raise the consciousness of what he sees as a well-meaning, if narrow-minded Christian community. For again and again, he asks worshipers whether their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ would be as intolerant of gays and other groups that the Born Again demographic seems so dead set against.
Dan thinks Christ would be appalled by what has evolved in His name, since “We’re raising consumers, not people committed to the mission of God in the world.” Still, by the end of his peripatetic project, he is heartened by a charity in Oregon where volunteers not only help feed the homeless, but even wash their feet as well. “If this outpouring of love can happen in the least religious state, then I have hope,” he concludes.
An extraordinarily-insightful endeavor urging Evangelicals to examine their own morality in relation to Jesus’ words instead of conveniently pointing fingers at folks they’ve long since dismissed as heathens.


Bumpersticker Man Goes To Church

25 06 2010

One of the real joys of the Lord, Save Us journey for me has been sharing the film in churches. I was joking recently with a film executive from 20th Century Fox, “if you had picked up the movie then I would’ve thought I was done. I would never have gone out to churches and colleges to participate in the conversation the movie starts.” Just another example of God’s idea running counter to mine – hah. But, in retrospect I have benefited greatly from experiencing Lord, Save Us with audiences and the rich engagement of the Q&A sessions and personal conversations that follow the screenings. The featurette in this post is included as a bonus feature on the recently released Lord, Save Us DVD and was a wonderful indication, early on about how Lord, Save Us could be an inspiration and a tool for churches. Enjoy!

Bridge Out Ahead

23 06 2010

One of the most common questions that I get in response to Lord Save Us has to do with how we treat those in our life who are living outside the will of God. I believe we need to approach this topic with a great deal of humility and self-reflection. Personally, I’ve found myself in trouble when I start being too sure that I understand God’s will for SOMEONE ELSE. Clearly, it’s an area we’ve all struggled with which probably explains why, “Well, what do we do then?” comes up so often. Now, those less charitable accuse me of “loving people straight to hell” or the more civil phase it “how do we introduce the notion of repentance?” The following is an exchange of letters that explores this conflict.

Really enjoyed your convicting commentary. Honest question, “Conversation” is important. Do we share with those living in sin willfully are we not to bring to their attention the Idea of Repentance? If a person is going on a road and we know the bridge is gone and they are headed to destruction and we don’t tell them, where is the Love behind that?

Thanks for checking out the film and thanks for your comments. Good question, fair question.

I guess my take is that the true Gospel isn’t really shared outside of some kind of relationship. And Conversation is simply a place to start. I believe that if these people (whomever we want to witness to) KNOW that we are a Christian – that is the source of our love – then that love, in fact, WILL lead them to the cross. When we demonstrate something beautiful and true (God’s love, His Truth and Grace) to people, they are attracted to it. If we are obedient to God and truly rely on Him and create a space for the Holy Spirit to show up (relationships), then He will do so – and it’s amazing. I find it curious that in John, Jesus calls the disciples to LOVE one another (13:34-35) and later tells them he will leave a Spirit of TRUTH as a helper. Why not the other way around? We need to do our part and trust that God is with us. I think we often feel the need to jump in front of God and the Holy Spirit if we don’t see the results WE want.

As for your bridge-out analogy, it doesn’t account for someone who doesn’t believe that the bridge is out – which is likely to include most of the people we are talking about here. So then what? Interestingly, in my five or so years working on this project and then screening it for about every kind of audience imaginable (gay, straight, Christian, secular, young, old, etc), I didn’t meet ONE person who hadn’t heard the Gospel – or some version of it. I’m not sure they understood it in the same way we do, but they THINK they do and therefore aren’t open or aren’t the blank slate we sometimes assume they are. But, interestingly, I did meet hundreds, possibly thousands of people who had NEVER felt God’s love, specifically never felt God’s love from someone who claimed to follow Him. That blew me away. So our premise is often wrong. People need to experience God’s love – which Jesus explains and demonstrates repeatedly is our job. The thing we forget (and I learned on my journey) is that when people know we care about them – when we’ve proven it so they believe us we have their best in mind – they are likewise interested in us and what we believe.

I believe evangelism, sharing the Good News, requires much more from us than posing a simple question like, “You don’t want to burn in hell do you?” or “Do you know Jesus died for your sins?” This faith is not an intellectual transaction it’s a heart transforming experience to enter this journey of knowing God. So for me, trusting in God to teach me how to love the unlovable (uh, me) is how I myself will truly understand the Good News and how we can more fully reflect God’s love to people who don’t know Him.

My reading of the Scriptures leads me to believe Jesus was showing us HOW to do it as well as what to do. Relationships with others are the key. If we love God, this is how we show Him. His idea, not mine. Hah. ‘Cause it’s pretty freaking difficult, wouldn’t you agree? The iconic American preacher Billy Graham once put it this way, “God’s job is to judge, the Holy Spirit’s job is to convict and our job is to love.”

Well put! Especially the part that addressed my “bridge-out analogy”… I get it!!! I was convicted of that fact in your movie and in your response to my question. I do try to jump ahead of God and His Spirit many times in these situations. Thanks for taking time to respond and may God continue to bless you and your unique ministry. “The unlovable” is me as well. I think I understand your view on conversation/relationship. Kind of like the Game Show version where they spent a couple of hours in the green room talking. Thanks again.

This conversation really encouraged me. Illustrating again, that there are so many people who love God are sincerely trying to figure out how to best love others. Being open to revising and improving my relationships with others seems to help me find ways to better serve and know God. That’s my experience anyway. I invite you to give it a try and see what you find – this whole “loving others” thing may turn out to be quite a revelation.

Behind the Scenes of the Today Show Interview

18 06 2010

A couple of springs ago when the Lord, Save Us From Your Followers book launched I was invited to appear on NBC’s The Today Show. Of course, I was excited by the prospect, but wasn’t so sure of what angle the show was going to take. Mind you, this was before the movie was finished and before I’d enjoyed the benefit of thousands of conversations, in April 2008 I was unsure how this whole drive for a conversation was going to be received in an Us Versus Them climate. The other specter was the standard rhetoric of the anti-Christian bias in the media. Personally, I’m not a subscriber of that position – but now I was going to put my head on the block and find out.

I had enjoyed several long pre-interview conversations with a wonderful, non-Christian producer who had really enjoyed the book but was still anxious when I learned that Matt Lauer would be interviewing me and that my segment would run in the eight o’clock hour “sweet spot”. I fully jumped into the deep end when I agreed to their request to don my “Bumpersticker Man” outfit. “Hi Mom, it’s me, Dan. Good news: I’m going to appear on The Today Show. Bad news: I’m going to look like a complete tool.”
A couple of fun side bars: the wardrobe mistress at the show was so enthused by the spirit of my effort that she spent a full half-hour doing touch up to the Bumpersticker suit. I sat in the make-up chair next to Kathy Lee-Gifford, I spent about eleven seconds in the chair…she was still there when I left. And, on the way to the studio I ran into Jack McBrayer, the Emmy nominated star of 30 Rock (Kenneth the Page) and he posed for picture with me. Loved it.

I’ll let you watch the interview with Matt and you can draw your own conclusions about media bias, his choice of questions and whether I was able to convey the message of the book and film. I will tell you that I was thrilled to be able to share my heart on national television – and that the four minutes or so went by so fast that it felt as if I was lucid dreaming. Enjoy!

True Engagement Shouldn’t Be A Happy Accident

17 06 2010

Before I embarked on the Lord, Save Us journey I didn’t have a long personal history of being particularly open about my faith. I hoped that actions would speak louder than words, and for the most part that seemed to be true. On the rare occasions where someone would ask me – point blank – about what I believed or why I believed it I was truly amazed at the deep and meaningful engagement. What I didn’t understand years ago is that most people are interested in talking about these subjects. Most of us have wondered about the big questions, we all think about them, we all have an opinion, widely varying, diverse opinions, but those rich conversations seemed too rare and occurred more like happy accidents. I suppose this is at the root of why I designed Lord, Save Us From Your Followers to be a conversation starter. Was it possible start these conversations with each other in a way that didn’t lead to harsh words, hurt feelings and blood shed? Was that really possible or should I shut up and be content with the occasional “happy accident” conversation? The good news turns out to be that the conversation is possible if we are willing to engage.

Now that the film is available on DVD one of the truly amazing things about the reception Lord Save Us From Your Followers has received is embodied in the kind of responses I’m getting from such a wide range of beliefs. Here are excerpts from a few notes from people who don’t believe what I do. I can’t tell you how good it feels to connect with and learn from these fellow image bearers of God.

I am not a believer in God or Religion because of the world I witness and the treatment of my friends and others in the world. I just watched your movie and I am FLOORED. The whole movie was GREAT! The last 40 minutes when you held the confession booth hit me very hard. I am not gay, but I have many gay friends who have been hurt by the religious and the hatred projected by them so your movie really moved me.

I don’t think I will move to a religious life any time soon, but I definitely felt something powerful because of your movie. You and your crew have really made something special. I will be asking all of my friends (Religious and non-religious) to watch your film.

I really just wish that others would watch your movie and take away your final message. It is all about Love, Forgiveness, and caring. If more people believe that and put it to practice I think this country and world would be a better place.
– B.C.

I watched “Lord Save Us From Your Followers” a few days ago and wanted to say thank you for it. Growing up an atheistic/agnostic Russian Jewish immigrant in the South, I’ve had my share of less than desirable interactions with people who identified themselves as Christians, beginning with 1st or 2nd grade when I would get in trouble with teachers for NOT saying the “under God” part of the pledge of allegiance. It is nice to see examples of folks who are willing to reflect on their own behavior.
– A.M.

Atheist queer here. Think you inspired me and my partner to volunteer. Great film. Good message. I’m sure your god digs it… We did.

– J.F.

I don’t share this to be self-serving, just to illustrate the point that conversations are out there in places we don’t expect. People who believe differently than we do are still moved and intrigued by the same things that move and intrigue us. Stop to take a look around your office or neighborhood or school and know that a conversation is possible with anyone that crosses your path or crosses mind. And also consider it’s probably not an accident when a particular someone does cross your path or cross you mind. Be open and let the wonderful surprises begin.

“In Bumper Sticker Wars, No One Wins”

8 06 2010

Great reviews for Lord Save Us keep pouring in! I particularly enjoyed this review from the blogger at filmsweep.blogspot.com. “Filmsweep” relates his own experience being caught up in the cross-fire of the bumper-sticker war in this sharply written account.

“Having seen one too many documentaries either directed at angry Christians like Fred Phelps in Fall From Grace, or rightfully lambasting (fundie) Christians like those in Jesus Camp, or even grappling to understand them in films like Hell House and For the Bible Tells Me So, I approached Lord, Save Us from Your Followers with a bit of fear and trepidation. Having a great love for, at the very least, the idea of Jesus, but a healthy fear of some Christians in general, to the point of having no decent answer when asked, “Are you a Christian?” (“Gee, well, um, I guess it depends on your definition of the word Christian…”), I saw the title and thought to myself: Approach With Caution. This could make you angry for days, weeks, months.

The trailer helped a bit. The main character, Dan Merchant, is a natural who is well suited in the role of “interviewer-is-the-star,” like the comical documentarian Michael Moore with humor and all. And the humor here is undeniably funny, which is a great lift to some of these tonally hard-edged topics. But Merchant differs from Moore in that he doesn’t go for the cynic schtick. Often Merchant comes off like a Christian Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) — a bit more on the sensitive side, but still with an important message and a wonderful sense of timing and humor.

The other thing that sold me about the trailer was the cast of folks Merchant either interviewed or tracked down footage to include: Bono, George Bush, Tony Campolo, Stephen Colbert, Ann Coulter, James Dobson, Al Franken, Bill Maher, Rick Warren, John Perkins, Ron Luce, and Tony the Beat Poet are just a few of the names you might recognize — the latter being one of the central characters in Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz,” an insightful “nonreligious Christian spirituality” book which is inspiration for the most memorable, almost tear-jerking scenes toward the end of the film.

So yes, I did finally see it, even against my own instincts and worries, and I’m happy to report I did. This inspiring work is now easily one of my favorites by a Christian documentary filmmaker.

The odds are if you already like Donald Miller and Tony the Beat Poet and Bono (and who doesn’t like Bono?), you’re going to like the film. But it’s somewhat obvious Merchant desires more than that crowd to see his film, and if you’ve never heard of Miller or Tony the Beat Poet (although everyone has heard of Bono), you might be the intended target audience. I have my doubts whether it will get much further than those who already know Miller and Tony the Beat Poet and actually reach its intended target audience, but I certainly hope many outside that small circle of Christians will stumble across this gem of a doc.

Merchant dons a white suit made of bumper stickers galore and walks around America like a breathing gospel slogan of displayed cliches. I have always hated these bumper stickers which incite religious wars at traffic lights. You know the ones I mean. The Ichthus fish on one car’s bumper, and on the bumper next door the same fish sprouting feet. The next has the fish with “Truth” written inside, while the next has “Evolution” and its little legs poking out. I can’t stand any of them, I don’t like the battle-like concept, and I don’t like turning concepts that take a lifetime of consideration into a few-word slogan that may speak a thousand different things to a thousand different people.

I rather like the Grand Rapids bumper sticker that reads, “Love Wins,” and thought it was a milestone achievement in the Christian bumper phenomenon — until I saw a car with the same white words against the same black background that read, “Jesus Wins.”

In bumper sticker wars, no one wins.

And that is some of the point Merchant is after, even as he parades around in his bumper sticker outfit, asking questions about which sticker people like best. Some of his point is that there is no useful conversation between the different stances seen on all these bumpers. It’s very much an argument in which everyone is shouting at the same time, akin to political TV and the intermingling of Christianity and politics, and the hot air and ego-infused matches you often find on those shows. On those, there is often a call (from “Christians” to non-Christians) for morality (which I still don’t get at all), preached as a greater message than the call that Merchant (and I) think is much more important — to love everyone, everywhere, regardless of their morality — but especially the poor and those who have no ability to voice their concerns for themselves.

There’s a conversation that’s happening among many Christians right now in which we’ve realized how dead our words have actually become, especially when we park three cars and a boat in the driveway of our three-decker heated and air conditioned houses, with two refrigerators and two ovens and eight different toilets inside. American consumerism and individualism have made Christians no different than their neighbors, and I wonder whether the surge to make everyone moral is only a way to make Christians feel better (superior) as they rot in their own conformity.

The conversation seems to be taking place among people that have realized how far off track the American version of Christianity — or rather, the American version(s) of Christianity — have gone. And it really is a conversation. It’s about love before judgmentalism, and listening before blurting out. It’s about building bridges rather than launching bombs, and opening a hand to share with your neighbor rather than using it to make a fist. Blessing the earth and finding the goodness in it rather than building up wealth and isolating and arguing over who is right and who is wrong.

So Merchant, in the guise of bumper sticker man, sets out to walk all over America, simply to talk with different folks about the Christian faith, and he uses his bumper sticker outfit to launch the conversation. He doesn’t want to shout or use a bullhorn to whip or scare people, and he disdains the power of an attack or having to prove how right he is in his thinking. Because, after all — no one really knows who is right in their thinking until they are dead and buried six feet under. (And at that point if the atheists are right, well, no one will ever know.)

He takes to the streets and talks to the general public like Leno on his late show. He also talks to all sorts of famous thinkers. He finds several conflicting viewpoints and compares and contrasts how a gospel about love could have been turned into an argument, both among Christians, and between Christians and non-Christians. And while the debates and the bull horns and the abrasive nature of some Christians will still no doubt continue, Merchant’s message is an alternative way to avoid the heated debate and correctly work out one’s faith in the world: It’s through humility, a cleaning of your own house according to the Scripture, before worrying about someone else’s sin life (especially those who wouldn’t even know what that is). There’s redemption both between you and God and also you and your neighbor when admitting your own wrong nature and making amends for your wrong — through demonstrating love in sewing goodness, and joining hands with those who will also sew, whether they come from the same faith standpoint or not.

Finding the beauty in all, and locating the good instead of the differences is one way we begin starting the conversation. Living a life of inclusiveness and letting God worry about the rest might be the first great fundamental with which to launch this dialogue.

Merchant is an example of a character that can do this, but he cites and references other examples, too: particularly Bono, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and Tony the Beat Poet.

When we finally get to Tony and his story about the original confessional booth built years ago with a group of college friends, and we eventually see Merchant in Portland doing the same thing at a gay festival, it’s a moment on which you can hang a faith that locates growth and beauty and holiness. I don’t want to give it away if you haven’t read “Blue Like Jazz,” — if you have read it, you already know what I’m talking about — but what happens between Merchant and the many festival gays who walk into his booth is a blow-your-socks-off, mind-rocketing moment. What happened in that confessional between the most different of people completely drills me. It’s something I want to attempt someday.

That is, right after I travel to Topeka, pick up my bull horn, and picket against a Fred Phelps Sunday morning service. 🙂

This is a hopeful and uplifting documentary about a way we might repent of a faith that we find in cultural retreat. It’s not about looking cool or having the right sound system or the right services that caters to the so-called needs of the “right crowd,” and it’s certainly not about trying to out-shout the person you disagree with.

It really is about love. And believe it or not, love wins.”

Communication Breakdown

4 06 2010

By Dan Merchant

While producing my documentary film Lord, Save Us From Your Followers I’ve spent the past few years trying to understand the so-called “Culture Wars” in our fine country. Is the conflict the genuine collision of opposing social and political viewpoints? Is all the yelling simply human nature as amplified through cable news hosts and talk radio personalities? Is the Us versus Them mentality that pervades America and it’s churches an inevitability in a fallen world? Maybe.

Or maybe the fundamental problem is so simple and obvious that we don’t want to believe it’s true.

As I traveled the country meeting with and interviewing all manner of folk I kept hearing the echo of one of my all-time favorite movie lines: “What we have here is failure to communicate.“ I can still hear Strother Martin’s menacing innuendo as he stands over Paul Newman in the classic Cool Hand Luke. Could it be that we have lost the ability or, perhaps, the will to communicate? And by “communicate”, I don’t mean simply spouting what I believe at someone else, but actually caring enough to find a way to articulate the message in a way “the other” receives it. Think of communication like a quarterback throwing the ball to his receiver: it requires timing, accuracy and sometimes touch. If the quarterback drills the ball off the side of the receiver’s helmet when he isn’t looking and then cries to the heavens, “Nice catch brick mitts!” I’d argue that the QB failed to “communicate” with the receiver.

I have to admit that I’d spent years perfecting a “debate and conquer” technique that bears a striking resemblance to the “brick mitts” approach. And if someone responded with, “Hey, I wasn’t looking, “ or “I’m standing two feet from you, put a little touch on the ball,” I had a cadre of Biblical trump cards at the ready: “The truth divides,” or “pearls before swine,” or “the world will despise us”. I had become more comfortable being right than emulating Christ and being obedient to his call on my life. There was not a lot of “dying to myself” going on in these encounters. Humility was absent and judging was quick and easy and, sometimes, kind of fun. I was amazed by my own ability to turn acquaintances into enemies over issues large and small. Yeah, I was in a downward spiral of moral superiority.

Which brings us back to the Lord, Save Us interviews. I wanted to know if others had been struggling like I had been. Was it even possible to communicate in a respectful, civil fashion on issues of faith and hot button political issues? To frame the potential conversation, I began each interview with five simple questions:

1) How do you think the world began?
2) Where do you think you’ll go when you die?

3) What is something that Christians are known for?

4) What is something that Jesus Christ is known for?

5) If Jesus returned today do you think he’d vote Republican or Democrat?

Then I stood back and listened. You would have been as amazed as I was. The willingness of people to engage floored me. When people believe you are willing to listen to them, and that you are not merely lying in wait to shout them down with your opinions, they will talk to you. Yes, and let me encourage you here, an actual conversation is possible. I spoke with young and old, meek and bold, obnoxious and gentle, intelligent and earnest, those who agreed with me and those who didn’t – and I have to tell you, I was transformed. Just being able to connect in a simple conversation seemed such a positive first step to closing this abyss that can separate us from others. How can we love our neighbors as ourselves – as Jesus inconveniently tells us to do – if we’re not even willing to talk with them, to attempt to understand who they are as fellow image bearers of God?

But here’s the punch line: many of those who had negative perceptions of Christians had positive perceptions of Jesus. Those who thought Christians are known for “warfare” and “hypocrisy” claimed Christ was best known for “healing the sick and loving the poor,” and “loving the least, those discarded by society”. Uh, what? Why do they understand these important things about Jesus and want to run from me, his representative, his spokesperson? “What we have here is failure to communicate.” If interacting with me discourages someone from considering Jesus and what God has for them, then I need to change how I’m communicating. If my desire to be right causes me to miss being used by God then I need to change how I am communicating. Yeah, I know, people walked away from the Sermon on the Mount, “following this messiah sounds hard, let’s go find another one,” but when I fail to communicate (live out the Gospels) I may be driving away the very people God brought into my path.