Over the past few weeks, a few people have mentioned that they thought the Netflix movie Come Sunday sounded interesting. So I watched it and I thought it was interesting too, though perhaps not for the reasons its makers fully intended! Today, Lord Snow presides over a movie that might be about Christians and tackle a thoroughly Christian topic about one of the most universal Christian beliefs in the world, and yet still–despite all of that Christian-ness–couldn’t be considered a “Christian movie” by them.
(I’m going to try hard not to spoil this review because it’s still a really new movie and I’m hoping you’ll see it.)
The movie comes from upon a 2005 episode of the podcast This American Life called “Heretics.” It centers around Carlton Pearson, an actual African-American bishop/pastor, and his equally-real fundagelical church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Mr. Pearson grew up mentored by Oral Roberts–yes, that Oral Roberts. Fervent, charismatic, dazzling, compassionate, and handsome, the young evangelist quickly parlayed his gifts, fundagelical education, and connections into a megachurch of his own in the 1990s: Higher Dimensions. Featuring a great band and choir, fiery preaching, and strict adherence to standard-issue fundagelical doctrines, Higher Dimensions attracted a congregation of black and white Christians. (That kind of integration is rare anywhere in American church culture, especially in the South.)
After many years of ministry, Mr. Pearson suddenly realized that Hell, as a doctrine, is horrific, cruel, and unjust. He saw at last this doctrine’s essential incompatibility with the conceptualization of a loving, just, and merciful god. Through Bible study, he confirmed his findings.
When Mr. Pearson shared his findings with his church, however, all hell broke loose (pun intended). Oral Roberts rejected him along with his congregation. He lost everything–except for his family. Slowly he began to rebuild his ministry along more inclusive lines, which is where he stands now.
The 2018 Netflix movie made from this podcast episode follows real events fairly closely. To be sure, its star-studded cast brings home some stunning moments. Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Mr. Pearson himself; Danny Glover plays his ill-fated Uncle Quincy; and Martin Sheen delivers a powerful, if all too brief, performance as Oral Roberts himself.
Almost all of the movie’s scenes center on Carlton Pearson. We watch him try to proselytize a woman on a plane. We walk alongside him into a prison to visit his Uncle Quincy, a damned-near-lifelong prison inmate. And when he gets his life-altering revelation about Hell, we’re right there to see how that happens.
Though the revelation about Hell at first concerns foreign children who die without ever hearing the Gospel, everyone around the pastor quickly realizes how it applies to their culture war against gay and bi people. Mr. Pearson himself is the last person to put those blocks together.
Production values looked great; the music wasn’t distracting at all; subplots got introduced and then resolved in what I thought were satisfactory ways.
So overall, Come Sunday is a competent movie.
A lot of critics, however, hated it.
I strongly suspect that their reasons center around not fully understanding fundagelical culture.
Glenn Kenny, writing for RogerEbert.com, declares that the movie is “bloodless.” He writes:
Scenes in which Pearson is called upon to defend his new vision kind of fizzle rather than catch fire. The collapse of his church is depicted in undifferentiated scenes that pack no punch. Pearson’s spiritual and practically adoptive father Oral Roberts rebuffs his acolyte in the quietest, politest way possible.
I got a totally different feel from those particular scenes, though, largely because I know what happens in a fundagelical church when someone deviates from the party line.
See, I cringed when Mr. Pearson foolishly revealed his new doctrinal stance in a Sunday sermon, springing a huge change on a congregation in a religion not known for embracing change well. Martin Sheen’s rejection hit home hard for me because I know what passive-aggressive rejections in Christianity look like. The slow but inevitable collapse of Higher Dimensions comes with each step getting dealt like a hand of cards–one, two, three–and because I’ve seen churches struggle and then collapse, I could empathize with what each step meant for the hero.
Other negative reviews ran along similar lines. Critics weren’t happy with the movie’s slow-burn collapse, nor with the resolution that eventually emerges.
But those are exactly the elements that made this movie work for me as an ex-Christian viewer.
Why Ex-Christians Might Like This Movie.
Besides very strong performances by actors who seem to truly believe in their project, the movie might well speak to a lot of our own experiences.
Come Sunday doesn’t flinch away from showing viewers the evil underbelly of church politics–and all the mundane details about how a Sunday service’s sausage gets made. Nothing supernatural goes into any of it, and viewers will come away appreciating this realistic treatment of ministry.
One major subplot follows the stresses that ministry puts upon Carlton Pearson’s marriage and family life–and it’s uplifting to see how his wife Gina comes into her own as her husband’s star falls. The cruelty, passive-aggression, and antagonism of the church’s women toward Gina will look quite familiar to us, too, I’ve no doubt. Even before her husband has his big turnaround, she struggles hard to deal with Higher Dimensions’ TRUE CHRISTIANS™ and their version of “Christian love.”
Martin Sheen easily pulls off the silky, subtle coercion inherent in Oral Roberts’ character. That subtlety vanishes and the silk gloves around those steel fists disappear when Roberts realizes that his onetime protege will not, after all, be recanting his heretical views. I thought the Oral Roberts scenes were among the most compelling of the entire movie; any moment he was onscreen, my attention riveted right toward him. (At the end, his sheer broken sadness came through well–even knowing he was responsible for his own misery, I felt sympathy. This sympathy represents one hell of an achievement for Martin Sheen.)
It’s not easy to renounce an important doctrine. Most of us here have done it. We know what the tribe does to dissenters–to heretics. And this movie doesn’t shy away from any of the fallout from doing it.
Come Sunday just has SO. MANY. WEIRDLY. VALIDATING. MOMENTS.
A Running Theme.
I also think that many of us will be interested in one major running theme of the movie: anti-gay bigotry and inclusion.
A potent subplot involves a young gay man who attends Mr. Pearson’s church. He struggles with the bigotry of his group and his beliefs; generally speaking, his pastor–Carlton Pearson–urges him toward celibacy and self-denial. It’s heartbreaking, and what makes it worse is that this pastor is still struggling with all of his indoctrination about homosexuality itself being some kind of sin.
Most of us know what it’s like to have these tatters of indoctrination clinging to us. We have to puzzle over each fragment, decide if it’s worth keeping (it never is), and then discard it. Everything we thought we knew about the world and about people turns out to be wrong. Everything we thought was clear-cut suddenly dissolves into shades of nuance. This subplot makes clear that Carlton Pearson didn’t quite realize where that one revelation would lead.
When Hell doesn’t exist, everything changes, absolutely, within Christianity. Every single culture war, every single custom, every doctrine, even methods of evangelism itself turn on their heads. Control-lust, lying-for-Jesus, culture wars, exclusion, “Christian love,” all of it hinges upon Christians rationalizing the evil that they do in the name of this illusory greater good they imagine they’re doing. Take away the threat of Hell, and fundagelicals fall apart.
So Mr. Pearson really has no idea how to engage with this young gay congregant, and it’s clear that he understands the huge contradiction between his revelation about Hell and how he counsels the young man. When that congregant laters flees the church entirely to spend the rest of his shortened life with his mother, the reunion scene he has with his onetime pastor is one of the most powerful in the entire movie.
And Something Hilarious, Just Because.
If you watch this movie–and again, I hope you will–be watching for Carlton Pearson’s head deacon, Henry.
I am absolutely convinced that the director took that actor aside and told him, “Play the scene like this: you’re a closeted gay man. For years you’ve been madly in love with your pastor.” And then he forgot to tell the other actors that fact. YES. Like in Ben-Hur.
I defy anybody to watch that deacon and not think he sounds exactly like he’s having a romantic breakup. The fact that Henry keeps harping on about homosexuality only adds to the frisson of the scenes. He genuinely seems personally threatened by the pastor’s softening stance toward bigotry. And when he realizes that his pastor isn’t going to go back to the way things were, his feelings of abandonment, anger, frustration, and betrayal seem just a little more personal than if they just had a professional relationship.
This change is personal to Deacon Henry. His pastor didn’t just shift doctrines; he committed a personal injury to one of his closest followers and dearest friends. Even if I’m wrong about Henry being a closeted gay man, I reckon almost all of us have seen those emotions flicker across the faces of our own friends and loved ones when they realized we weren’t backing down either.
WOW, Fundagelicals Hate Come Sunday.
It’s almost ironic that Come Sunday really should be a Christian movie–and yet it profoundly isn’t. It involves Christian ministers and laypeople and deacons talking about one of the very most universal Christian beliefs in existence. And yet fundagelicals utterly reject it.
One YouTuber advises his followers, “Beware of that movie.” He offers up exactly the same criticisms of Carlton Pearson’s change of view that he faces in the movie. His commenters, similarly, react exactly the same way that the Higher Dimensions congregation does: with more threats of Hell. (When one’s ideology is crafted from coercive threats, that’s about all one has in response to pushback.)
Another YouTuber thunders that “Heresy Begets Heresy” and his rejection of the movie’s message runs along the same lines.
In digital print, we predictably find The Gospel Coalition railing against the movie. There, Brett McCracken dismisses Mr. Pearson as yet another “rebel” and uses scare quotes to completely invalidate the revelations Mr. Pearson says he’s received from his god:
But if that’s the case, why are these films so tedious and flat? Perhaps it’s because the supposedly groundbreaking “rethinking” these men advocate is nothing new—just boring old heresy in modern new clothes. Perhaps it’s also because the “radical” message of inclusion they present—a Christ-less, cross-less, repentance-free gospel of everything-affirming solidarity—is in no way subversive in today’s world.
(I’d say in response: First, the Christian movies that TGC likes are what’re actually tedious and flat. I’m not sure most of them even qualify as movies in the first place. Second, the regressive coercion offered by fundagelicals is the “boring old heresy.” A fundagelical focusing instead on love and grace? That’s subversive.)
Remember, fundagelicals’ out-group isn’t folks like us. It’s their fellow Christians who follow different doctrines and have Biblical backing and claims of divine revelation for their beliefs, just like fundagelicals say they do.
What makes Christians like the TGC folks and those YouTubers the angriest, it seems, is the mere existence of a movie that follows a storyline and narrative that is becoming increasingly common in today’s world.
Indeed, people are leaving Christianity way more often than they join it. They reject Christianity way more often than they embrace it. And Hell, as a doctrine, is slowly-but-surely losing its power over Christians’ minds.
The 2015 Pew Religious Landscape Survey discovered that belief in Hell has, indeed, declined slowly over the years. As we might expect, the younger a survey respondent was, the less likely they were to believe in Hell as a literal place. Belief in Hell was also tied strongly in respondents’ minds to their general level of religious fervor; respondents who felt that religion was very important to them tended overwhelmingly to believe in the idea of Hell. And fewer and fewer people think religion is important, that’s all.
But here’s the really shocking part about that survey: only about half of all the respondents believe in Hell in the first place. Most of the people who believe in Hell believe in some flavor of Christianity. Christians’ numbers are declining even faster than belief in Hell is!
A Defanged Threat.
So Christians can’t reasonably expect most of the people they encounter every day to believe in this nearly-universal Christian doctrine. As I myself discovered back in my Pentecostal days, most of my group’s most hallowed evangelism tactics depended utterly on exploiting that fear in prospects. If someone simply didn’t suffer from that fear, the tactics I had learned were completely ineffective on that person.
Remember all those Christians who were outraged about Come Sunday? Think about them and all those threats of Hell they shared with each other, like a person in a restaurant might savor the sight and scent of a dish coming out to their table.
Well, they are a fast-fading group. Carlton Pearson has aroused their rage and their vicious retaliation–but there are millions more Christians just like him that they don’t even know about yet. They only attack him because he’s been raised enough in visibility to catch their attention.
Their pew-mates are watching them attack this man for nothing more than the “sin” of disagreement. They’re maybe even starting to wonder–as I did once–how these Christians can possibly say someone hasn’t heard a divine revelation. Certainly they’re seeing how enormously hypocritical this behavior is. Maybe they’re even wondering–as I also did once–how this religion manages to spawn so many total hypocrites.
They might possibly even start to wonder about how Hell ever came to supplant love.
We’re going to be looking, in coming days, about the backfiring of fundagelical extremism. It’s not our imagination; as we investigate the results of the Christian culture wars, we’re not finding anything that might give the religion’s leaders a single iota of optimism. And yet somehow they still always find the worst possible ways to react to their own decline!
NEXT UP: Christianity sets believers up to fail. The more extremist the flavor of Christianity, the worse the situation gets for adherents. I’ll show you how to spot a no-win situation, and we’ll dive into why this strategy worked for so long–and why it doesn’t anymore. See you then!
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Lord Snow Presides… is our weekly off-topic chat series. I’ve started us off with a topic, but feel free to chime in with whatever’s on your mind! Lord Snow is my sweet, elderly white cat, who keeps an eye on my household like Bit watched over Tron.