Lord, Save Us From Your Followers: Film Review

There are several reasons why I went back and forth about whether or not I would even do this review. It was getting to the point where I was arguing with myself about it:

Come on… you haven’t posted anything in forever.

No… it’s late and I have more important things to do.
Okay, but remember the Augustine quote? Remember how fired up that got you? That’s the kind of stuff worth writing about.

Is it worth being late to church over?

Maybe, maybe not, but if you put it off now, you’re never going to get to it.
So what… Dan’s Merchant’s stock is hot right now, all kinds of people will be and have already reviewed Lord Save Us. In another week, there will probably be four or five great reviews that you’ll be able to link to.

And none of them will be from me.
Since when is it all about you? Grow up already.

After awhile I realized that arguing about it was probably more time consuming than the review itself. Thus, my first instincts won out and you get to read this.

Lord Save Us From Your Followers is both a film and a book, both of which bring an entertaining look at the cultural divide between evangelicals in America and the scores of Americans who can barely understand, much less stomach, their methods.

Its breezy, irreverent tone evokes a Michael-Moore-meets-Donald-Miller kind of thing. If that last sentence smacks of lazy cult-hero-comparison, it is… but only because it’s so easy. Not only is director Dan Merchant clearly influenced by both, but he directly references both.

That Merchant is from Portland, my hometown, is not surprising. Only someone in an extremely liberal coastal metropolis like Portland would possess the requisite balance of moxie, humility, and offbeat nuttiness to make the film entertaining while still keeping an even moral keel. It’s clear that Merchant wants to entertain, but not at the expense of promoting understanding.

This philosophy contrasts with what I call the Dave Chappelle Syndrome (alternately known as Aaron McGruder Syndrome) whereby merciless depictions of a subculture’s worst elements are justified by the creator identifying with said subculture — i.e., ‘I can make fun of Black people because I’m Black.’ This mentality, when carried out to the nth degree, creates a double standard and restricts conversation more than it promotes it, because people outside the group will complain that if they tried to say the same thing, they would be crucified by the P.C. police.

In Lord Save Us, Merchant wisely avoids this. His genteel sense of sportsmanship keeps Lord Save Us from spiraling into mean-spirited caricature by doing things like taking shots at both Left Behind and The DaVinci Code in the same breath. This means that the film should reach a relatively wide audience, even if constituents on both sides of the issues will come away feeling like he didn’t go far enough.

The director begins the film with his own story of Christian upbringing, in order to establish the impetus for his journey: to examine what’s behind society’s apparent rejection of organized Christianity, despite its overwhelming belief in God. To achieve his goal, Merchant travels the U.S. in search of answers to his sub-titular premise (“how the gospel of love is dividing America.”)

What results is a thorough explanation of how Christians get it wrong, followed by several compelling examples of what happens when Christians get it right. He does this through interviews with theologians, politicians, and policy wonks, interspersing them with man-on-the-street Q&A and a few memorable vignettes recorded during his travels as a bumper-sticker-wearing conversationalist.

My personal highlights were the opening Augustine quote from Tony Campolo, the “Culture Wars” game show, and all of the Al Franken material. I was surprised by how gentle and humble Franken came off in this documentary, contrasting so heavily with much of the strident rhetoric of his counterparts on the conservative side.

If there was anything I didn’t particularly like, it was Merchant’s overly conciliatory tone at the conclusion of the film. Throughout the film, many of his subjects repeatedly referred to God or Jesus Christ as being about love, which is definitely true. However, he does little throughout the film (other than a humorous look at historical names of cities) to demonstrate that his enemies in the faith — those Christians making the church look bad — have legitimate motives, even if their methods are suspect.

Thus, his pleas for tolerance and universal love come across to me as being a little too Pollyanna for my taste. Not punctuating the film with stronger statements about truth or objectivity may have been a move calculated to maximize positive response with secular press and promote healthy conversation between enemy combants in the culture war.

If that’s the case, then I applaud his decision to be strategic. Others might wonder if all his time spent with non-believers has weakened his grip on the truth. To each his own, I guess.

Nevertheless, one thing is clear — if this film continues to build word of mouth buzz through private screenings in churches, then Dan Merchant will join Donald Miller (“Blue Like Jazz”) and Paul Young (“The Shack”) in an exclusive club of Portlanders who moonlight as countercultural icons of authentic Christian spirituality.

If history holds to form, the leftist Christian movement will build, and then in thirty years my children will have another iteration of the establishment to rail against.

Lord, help us all.

[Big-ups to Cole Brown at Red Sea NE for the screening.]

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