[NOTE: This review was later published on Youth Worker Journal’s website]
by Wes Woodell – westcoastwitness.com
“Why is the gospel of love dividing America?” This poignant question posed by Dan Merchant sets the framework for his latest film, Lord, Save Us From Your Followers.
Merchant, a long time producer and writer whose resume includes stints working for television’s VH1 and CBS, makes his directorial debut with Lord, Save Us, and his is a film you’ll likely remember. After all, who can forget a 6’3 man walking around in a white jump suit covered with Christian merchandise (i.e. “Jesus schwag”) containing sometimes offensive messages? Bumper stickers that say things like, “Get the he** out of my way, I’m late for church” or “Abortion: Big People Killing Little People.” Oh, and did I mention it’s ladled with atheist and agnostic propaganda as well? That’s right, The Jesus Fish is chillin’ right next to The Darwin Fish and The Flying Spaghetti Monster … how’s that for diversity? Merchant believes the two extremes represented by the conflicting messages found on his suit illustrate a great point: both sides have something to say, but neither are having a conversation – they’re simply yelling at one another without listening to the other point of view.
Merchant believes the yelling needs to stop and dialogue needs to start, and starting a conversation between the two extremes is exactly what Lord, Save Us aims to do. The tagline on the official movie poster, “The Conversation Starts Now,” articulates this. With that in mind, it’s safe to say this film accomplishes its purpose – you will feel the urge to converse.
Indeed, the film itself is a collection of conversations. Merchant travels the continent speaking with people from all walks of life. In addition to people on the street taken aback by his odd jumpsuit, Merchant also speaks with celebrities like Al Franken, evangelical leaders like Tony Campolo, plus many other famous talking heads and politicians. Merchant’s adventures take him to places like San Francisco, where he encounters Ron Luce’s brainchild BattleCry – a rally organized by Luce that involves teenage Christians protesting the immorality that permeates contemporary culture. He travels to Portland where, taking a cue from Donald Miller’s popular book Blue Like Jazz, he sets up a confession booth for people to listen to his apology for Christianity’s sins, only he’s not apologizing to reveling college students – he’s apologizing to attendees of Pride Northwest – Portland’s gay pride festival. In addition, Merchant participates in Night Strike – another event in Portland where Christians serve the city’s homeless population in an all night service project. He also makes a trek to an adult film convention to hang out with the guys from xxxchurch.com – a Christian ministry aiming to reach porn stars with the love of Christ – to hurricane ravaged Mississippi to speak with Christian relief workers in the aftermath of Katrina, plus much more.
If that weren’t enough, Merchant organizes a gameshow styled after Family Feud called “Culture War” that pits teams made up of “heathens” that is, non-Christian media personnel labeled “secular progressives” or “agnostic scholars” against teams made up of conservative evangelical Christians labeled “religious conservatives” and “young believers.” In perhaps the most telling portion of the film, cultural questions are posed to both sides with the “heathen” teams winning out overwhelmingly each time. A very insightful moment came when it was noted that non-Christians could easily predict the cultural answers of the Christians, but not vice-versa. Indeed, it appeared the Christians in this game were very much out of touch with contemporary culture, and this led to their having trouble relating to the other side. Also interesting is that, after the gameshow ended, each team retreated to the green room where they hung out conversing with one another for over an hour. Both groups came to realize that, even though they strongly disagreed with the other, they could still have a civil conversation and even enjoy it. One of the Christian participants commented with surprise: “I actually liked talking to them!”
Lord, Save Us is a direct assault against the “us verses them” mentality that’s become characteristic of American Evangelical Christianity. Quotes like “outrage and being more right than them doesn’t remind me of Jesus,” and “fight fire with fire and you get a bigger fire” are prevalent in the film. Merchant’s call to “get out from behind the microphones and megaphones and have civil conversations” with people will no doubt resonate with many church leaders tired of evangelicalism’s bullhorn tactics and mass protests being touted as viable forms of cultural transformation.
Lord, Save Us does, however, have a glaring weakness in this critic’s opinion: for all of Merchant’s talk about “The Gospel of Love,” he never gets around to actually sharing what that gospel is. In fact, if one ignorant of the core doctrines of Christianity were to watch this movie, they would likely walk away thinking the gospel is equivalent to doing nice things for people like donating to charity (since Merchant spends much time highlighting the good works of Rick Warren, U2’s Bono, and several other philanthropists). The wrath of God against sin, justification by faith, substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell – none are touched on or hinted at in this film.
Also, the final line of the movie could leave some believing Merchant is a universalist. Merchant says at the close of the film, “Sometimes I feel like a river trying to make its way back to the sea. And though the journey is long, I know the sea refuses no river because I belong to the sea, and I believe you do too.” It almost sounds like he’s saying, “You’re okay no matter what, you’ll find God no matter what, all religions lead to heaven, blah blah blah truth is relative.” I’m fairly sure Merchant doesn’t believe this, so why he would choose to end his movie with this vague quote is baffling.
Christian theology does teach all people belong to God, and all will eventually make their way back to Him, but Merchant’s final line leaves out a key biblical truth: we’ll initially make our way back to God to be judged by Him. According to Scripture, polluted “rivers” uncleansed by Jesus will be in trouble of eternal proportions.
The strengths of this film do, however, outweigh the weaknesses, and, as mentioned earlier in this review, Merchant’s aim for this movie is to spur on discussion – not to provide an in-depth theological education to viewers (perhaps this is what the ensuing conversations could lead to). This movie will be enjoyed by anyone interested in religious discussion, Christian or not, but will especially be healthy for evangelicals who value argumentation over dialogue.
Lord, Save Us From Your Followers is slated for theatrical release starting February 28, 2010*, and for DVD release on April 20, 2010 (retail $24.99). If you simply can’t stand to wait, church groups willing to pony up $199 can immediately buy a package including the official DVD, site license, small group discussion guide, 250 tickets and bulletin inserts, and four movie posters. For more information, visit the official website at lordsaveusthemovie.com.
My thanks to Seth Simmons for loaning me his screener of this film.
* A limited theatrical release took place in September ’09. The latest will land this film in more theaters than before.