I grew up going to church. I still go to church. As a matter of fact, in my lifetime, I have attended many churches of varying denominations, and the messages were always the same – Love thy neighbor as thyself, Do unto others, and For God so loved the world, etc.. The problem is that much of the time, very nice, well-meaning people go to the church of their choice, listen to the sermon, recite the prayers, sing the songs, sit, stand or kneel when appropriate, and then go home, feeling that they have met their religious “obligation” for the week. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I have, on occasion, fallen into this categorization myself.) It is one thing to say, “I believe,” and quite another to put that belief into behavior.
My husband is a Netflix junkie. He regularly scours the Netflix site looking for interesting things to add to our instant queue. Recently, he pulled up Netflix and told me, “You need to watch this movie. I watched it last night, and it was certainly not what I expected, but it was really good. You need to watch this.” And with that he started Lord, Save Us From Your Followers. If you have not heard of this movie, I highly encourage you to seek it out. It is available for instant streaming on Netflix, and has also been released on DVD. There is also a companion book (which I have not read, but would like to). The simple premise of this book/movie is “Why is the Gospel of Love dividing America?” Dan Merchant set out to discover why “Christians” have gotten such a bad rap over the years and why, if we all agree that Jesus calls his followers to “Love One Another,” we don’t seem to be doing that in our daily practice. It is a provocative look at faith and how that faith translates into daily behavior. Several years ago, a minister I knew told me that he believed that Religion had given Faith a bad name, and this movie really seems to drive that point home.
Now don’t get me wrong, this film is not Christian-bashing or Religion-bashing. It asks the question “What would Jesus do?’ and then sets out to try and answer it. Would Jesus have a political party affiliation? Would he be hanging out with the movers and shakers or would he be found with the homeless under the bridge? And if we are really striving to live “Christ-like” lives, what should we be doing? Ironically, several of the most “Christ-like” insights come from none other than Al Franken, a life-long Jew. Franken is not the only notable name that shows up in this film, either. Tony Campolo, Rick Santorum, Lars Larson, and Tom Krattenmaker also contribute their insights on the subject. Archival footage including the likes of Bono, President Bush, Bill Maher, Pope John Paul II, and Jon Stewart is also used. Many times when someone used archival footage under Fair Use, the user will “selectively edit” the footage to help support the point that they are trying to make (see “Michael Moore”), but I don’t get that here. Merchant uses footage to help tell the story, but his point is made without the footage by virtue of the first-hand experiences shown throughout the film. Merchant filmed a group going under the bridge for a once-a-week service to provide the homeless food, clothing, and personal hygiene. Watching that segment really made me stop and question what I had done recently to help those less fortunate.
Now, all the way through the movie, Dan Merchant stresses repeatedly that he is not trying to rate anyone, judge anyone, or belittle anyone for things that they may or may not have done in their lives. He is also not taking sides, by any stretch of the imagination. What he IS trying to do is “start the conversation” – get people talking about what they really believe, why they believe it, how strongly they believe it, and how that belief can be translated into action. What results is one of those films that seems to continue beyond the ending credits. It causes you to stop and think, and then want to talk about what you just experienced and how, if at all, it affected you.
Ironically, as we head, full-throttle, into the Christmas season, we see a lot more people doing those things that this movie encourages us to do year-round – giving to the less fortunate, taking time out of our busy lives to help another, and showing compassion and caring to everyone we encounter. When I was in my early teens, someone gave my mother a poster at Christmastime that said, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” She hung this poster up in our big eat-in kitchen, where we could see it every day, at every meal. I teased her in January when she did not take it down with the other Christmas decorations, but she told me she liked being reminded of that “Christmas feeling” even beyond Christmas. I didn’t understand then. I do now. So does Dan Merchant. I think Dan Merchant is a hero. Not the kind that rushes forward to face the danger, but the kind that is slowly, methodically, one person at a time, trying to change the world. And I like the direction he thinks we should take.