Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Journeys With Alexandra

I was finally able to watch Alexandra Pelosi's much-talked about HBO documentary "Friends of God" on Tivo last night. The film features interviews with the likes of Jerry Falwell and the now-disgraced Ted Haggard, among many others. Some Christians have called the film a hit-job on evangelical Christianity, others (like evangelical-friendly Rabbi Daniel Lapin) say it's a surprisingly fair treatment of evangelicals, and others still (like the San Francisco Chronicle, which complains that allowed her subjects to "charm" her) go so far as to charge Pelosi with being downright solicitous in her treatment of evangelicals.

So what did I find? The truth is that Pelosi (daughter of House majority leader Nancy Pelosi) allowed her subjects to speak largely without commentary and that evangelical Christianity comes off looking like the trite, shallow, often-creepy mess that it all too often is. To be sure, the film is far from objective. While Pelosi adds little verbal commentary, there's no question in the film that she views the Christians she's talking to with a somewhat jaundiced, superior eye, and this underlying commentary shows up in her choices of shots and subjects. The interviews, for instance, are filmed at frighteningly close range through a fisheye lens that subtly distorts the appearances of the interviewees, making them look like odd, "Napoleon Dynamite" characters. But mostly she just lets the camera run.

And the sad fact is, plenty of what her camera captures is disturbing regardless of the photographic technique. Watching Ted Haggard, for instance, it's almost impossible imagine that large numbers of people who knew him didn't see his fate coming. I had never seen the man speak before the scandal of last fall, but his effeminate mannerisms are startling in the segments Pelosi devotes to him--which were shot a full year before his downfall amidst allegations of homosexual misconduct. As she travels the country, Pelosi encounters an evangelical Christian pro wrestling circuit, a drive-through church service, a Christian "comedian," and a low-rent Bible theme park, among other things--all of which frankly made me want to cry.

Ultimately, regardless of her intentions, Pelosi captures something that we Christians desperately need to see. The truth is, we evangelicals have trivialized and cheapened our faith by simply conforming it to lame, white, American middle-class culture. Sadly, I don't think most of us can even see the difference at this point. We've so commingled our suburban cultural preferences with the historic truth of Christ that we're no longer able to tell one from the other, while a yawning (and lost) world meanwhile searches for something more authentic than ugly pre-fab steel buildings and Starbuck's card giveaways.

As we watch Pelosi's images of a well-intentioned Christian leading us through his "Christian" miniature golf course (complete with a play-through facsimile of the empty tomb of Christ), or see pro wrestlers (tights embroidered with Bible verses) gouging each other's eyes out before giving a requisite come-to-Jesus altar call to the crowd, perhaps we will start to realize that we're making our God, who is a consuming fire, look like a piece of kitsch sold at a Branson gift shop. Perhaps we'll wake up from our treacle-induced sugar coma to realize that the good and right purpose of sharing the gospel of Christ is inestimably damaged when we make it one of many cheap products to be sold alongside truck tires and pop music. Can we expect God not to remove the American church's lampstand when we've made the Kingdom of Christ about tacky amusement parks, derivative pop music, bumper sticker slogans, and self-fulfillment therapy?

Pelosi's documentary is damaging--precisely because it shows a large swath of evangelical American culture as it really is.

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