Documentary on Christianity attempts the impossible and (spoiler!) fails


american_jesusA movie review should be about the movie, not the reviewer, I know. I must admit, though, that I have a particular interest in the subject of the documentary, American Jesus. I’ve spent my entire life deeply immersed in American Christianity: I’m a pastor’s kid and now a pastor myself, and a student of religious culture. So the claim that American Jesus makes for itself in its advertising – “an exploration of Christianity in every faction of American Life” – struck me as impossibly ambitious.

Having now seen the movie I can report that Spanish filmmaker Aram Garriga certainly gave it the old college try. In 117 minutes he genuinely attempts to cover all of American Christianity, and I don’t mean that as a compliment to the film. The movie is a mile wide and less than an inch deep, and how could it be otherwise? How could one movie hope to examine, let alone provide real insight into such a diverse topic?

Garriga’s strategy for much of the movie is to offer a travelogue of quirky religious niche culture. Cowboy church, skater church, biker church, mega church, Christian MMA, Christian yoga….on and on the buffet goes, giving brief glimpses without commentary. The movie drifts on into a light examination of Christian alternative merchandise, from comedy to heavy metal to the Christian superhero, Bibleman. Helping elicit meaning from this pastiche are various cultural and religious commentators like Douglas Rushkoff, Andrew Beaujon and David Dark.

The movie is a mile wide and less than an inch deep, and how could it be otherwise? How could one movie hope to examine, let alone provide real insight into such a diverse topic?

american jesus1Finally, and oddly, Garriga directs extended attention to two particular Christians: convict turned mega church pastor Phil Aguilar, and Frank Schaeffer, son of Religious Right icon, Francis Schaeffer. Aguilar’s story of conversion and spiritual fame seems no more interesting or deserving of notice than countless other figures that the movies brushes past with barely a nod (Shane Claiborne, Bob Beeman, Steve Taylor, Craig Gross). Schaeffer serves a more understandable role, warning against the fusion of politics and Religious Fundamentalism. Ultimately, this seems to be the takeaway from American Jesus – that a subset of Christians (Premillenial Dispensationalists, to be exact) wield control of conservative politics in the United States, and have distorted our foreign policy to fit their view of the end of the world. The ominous music cues us to take this threat seriously, but to treat it as the conclusion of the “exploration of Christianity in every faction of American life” seems insupportable. It’s as if Garriga threw a hundred barely related clips in a hat, pulled one out – Christian Zionism – and declared, “This is what it all means!”

We’re all meaning-makers by nature, but for good or ill, there is no way to make one meaning out of American Christianity. The same bizarre tent includes the prosperity preaching of Rev. Leroy Thompson (“Money cometh to me now!”) and the voluntary poverty of Shane Claiborne. It encompasses the mall-like mega church and the street ministry of Bob Beeman’s Sanctuary movement. It’s hard to find much common ground between the reactionary conservatism of “Generation Joshua” and the deconstructionist intellectualism of David Dark or the eccentric indie pop of Danielson Familie. But it’s all part of American Christianity and all here, in American Jesus. What’s not clear is why. Why these choices, and not others? Because at end of the day, no matter how fragmentary Garriga has made his film, he has not succeeded in bringing us all of American Christianity. No one could, and it’s a shame that Garriga tried. A more focused slice of American Christianity might have succeeded in really saying something. American Jesus, unfortunately, is simply lots of parts, no whole.