As you likely have already noticed, the divide between Christians and non-believers seems to be getting wider every day. For every bold individual that manages to construct a bridge to navigate over this gulf, there are dozens, if not hundreds, more who are happy to sling invective, insults, or worse back and forth.
There is hope, however. Hope of closing this gap, opening up dialogue between these two disparate parties, and healing some of the hurt inflicted on each group toward the other. Hope in the form of a tall, bespectacled fellow who likes to walk around covered in bumper stickers.
True, that’s not the only way he likes to dress, but when we first meet Dan Merchant in his entertaining and eye-opening documentary Lord Save Us From Your Followers, he’s wearing a white rain suit covered in stickers and varieties of Jesus fish decals and drawing attention from a variety of passersby. It’s a quick way to grab people’s interest, but also a quick way to get people talking to Merchant on camera about their beliefs, their understanding of Christianity and just why it is that, as the subtitle of the film spells out, the gospel of love is dividing America.
“We are the ones who are supposed to understand compassion and forgiveness,” says Merchant, “so why are we in the middle of all these political arguments? Why is it when people yell at us, we swing back?”
Merchant, an advertising and marketing filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon, took a film crew with him across the country, interviewing theologians, politicians (including Rick Santorum and Al Franken), preachers, a beat poet and even a drag queen hoping to answer these questions and shake up of his own firmly held beliefs, the first cracks of which started to show about five years ago.
“I was on a trip to Ethiopia to shoot a documentary for the State Department on aid and I saw some profound things,” says Merchant, speaking from his production company’s office in Portland. “What really struck me was the Christians that I saw there who come from around the world to do the difficult work that needed to be done. And that Ethiopian Christians have a much greater depth of faith than anyone I know. There I was thinking, ‘This guy who lives in a hut half way around the world understands God better than you do.’”
Coming back to the U.S., Merchant saw the stark contrast go into deeper relief in the news coverage leading up to the Presidential elections of 2004. “I heard people on TV and on talk radio and they had this very strident, aggressive, divisive approach and were really alienating people. I compared the people on the mics to that kid in his hut who reminded me of Jesus…and then I looked in the mirror and realized that I had much more in common with the guys on TV.”
Like Michael Moore and Bill Maher before him, Merchant puts himself in front of the camera, giving viewers a figure to follow through the film and giving us a chance to watch him peel away his preconceptions as he goes along, as well as watching him challenge himself for the sake of being a more loving Christian. The most potent example being the confession booth he set up at Portland Pride, the annual event for the city’s gay and lesbian community.
Taking its inspiration directly from the pages of Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, this booth was for Merchant to confess the sins of Christians towards homosexuals, as well as his own personal sins. As the film attests, the experience had quite an effect on the booth’s visitors and on Merchant. “Half the people that came in broke down in tears and so did I,” he remembers. “They were so generous and kind to me to be willing to listen and accept my apology. And the conversations that we had afterward, they told me things that were very personal and I told them things. And that’s just what friends do.”
Lord Save Us is not without its lighter moments, as well, like Merchant’s very Michael Moore-like attempts in St. Paul, Minnesota to have the city’s name changed to New Leningrad, a satirical reaction to the city council’s decision to remove the Easter Bunny from their holiday decorations. The director is quick to point out though that moments in the film, like these were thought up on the fly, free of the preconceived agendas that mark the work of Moore or Maher’s anti-faith film Religulous.
“It’s why the film took three years to shoot. It was like I was in the middle of a detective story. I would read the news and go, ‘Oh, here’s a clue: a guy in kabuki makeup screaming at kids playing guitar on the steps of city hall in San Francisco [the aforementioned drag queen, Sister Mary Timothy, protesting a Christian youth conference holding an event in his hometown],’ then that’s what we’d do. Or when talking to Al Franken and he’d say something about the Easter Bunny being removed from St. Paul City Hall and we’d go find out about that. My personal quest is simply mirrored in this movie.”
The film is going to slowly be released in theaters around the country starting on September 25th, but Merchant has already taken the film to churches and colleges around the country for small screenings, events that the director says have already started to help push these two sides closer together. “So many people who call themselves Christians have told me this is a movie for them, and non-Christian audiences – Jewish, Muslim or Atheist- they think the movie is for them. It speaks to them all.”