The history of Christianity in America has been my preferred research subject of the last few months (I’m a nerd, I know). So, when I got a message inviting me to review American Jesus, “an exploration of Christianity in every faction of American Life, from the bread line to the yoga studio, from the humble churches of snake handlers to the mega churches in the ex-urbs,” I was all-in.
When Spanish filmmaker Aram Garriga found himself wondering over the state of Christianity in the U.S., he did what any good documentarian would do – he hit the road to find out just exactly what is going on over here. From his perspective, “The main goal of the film will be triggering the debate and the questioning, from a non-judgmental perspective, on what’s the current state of American Faith and what are its real social and political implications.” And he succeeds, masterfully.
There’s so much about this film that I love, from the people, to the places, to the ideas. The first scenes take us to the Llano Estacado of west Texas and a cowboy church in Amarillo. From there we travel throughout the U.S. from Santa Cruz, CA to Washington, D.C. and a host of places in between. A lot of time is spent in my home state of TX, showcasing the wide diversity of expressions of Christianity here in our state. I was especially surprised to seeDeliverance Bible Church – which I’ve driven past 100 times – receive a lengthy feature. Childhood nostalgia is served up via Jason David Frank (aka Green Power Ranger) and his Jesus Didn’t Tap MMA apparel. And a number of impressive new names and faces round out the 25+ interviewees who tell the story of the modern Christian church in America.
The cinematography here is incredible, given the subject matter. This is not a film produced by the Christian media machine, where production quality is often on par with the local high school musical. Here we find serious filmmakers presenting their work with a highly tasteful aesthetic, utilizing quality tools, to tell an engaging story.
That story, in fact, is the star – and the chief conflict – of the film. The inevitable question is: how is it that these people (cowboys, bikers, MMA fighters, snake handlers, hippies, fundamentalists) who claim to believe in the same God, practice their faith so differently? Are they all right? (Many of them would argue that the others are not right.) Are they all wrong? Is God big enough to embrace them all? Or does he only have eyes for one particular strain of practice? And it’s here that I must remind you that we’re not talking about wildly variant theologies – these would all fit under the already tight label of Protestant Evangelical Christianity.
As a cultural study, this film is great, but it is even better at accomplishing the director’s goal of “triggering the debate and the questioning.” He is even able to meet his own goal of doing this from “a non-judgmental perspective.” No individual interviewee seems any more whacko than any other. Everyone seems equally earnest in their beliefs and honest in what they share. If the film takes a critical tone at all, it is toward the end when focusing more on interviews with pop-sociologists and authors while discussing the future. Here we sense a bit of “they can’t really believe this, can they?” snark.
The film, despite it’s excellent execution, is sure to offend a number of potential viewers. The type of folks featured in the film are not the kind to take criticism (or questioning) very lightly. Unfortunately, they are perhaps the ones most in need of seeing it. As a person who has been investigating the topic for a while, I found it to be a great addition to my research. The film is currently in limited theatrical release but you can rent or purchase it for immediate viewing on Amazon. For those interested in more information on the topic, I would highly recommend the soon-to-release book Our Great Big American God by Matthew Paul Turner. If you’re looking to go even deeper, check out The Unintended Reformation by Brad S. Gregory.