Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Filming the Fringe

Nancy Pelosi’s daughter Alexandra’s documentary film, Friends of God, is airing all this month on HBO. The documentary highlights fringe elements of Evangelical Christianity, taking us into the world of Christian Wrestling, and showing a Christian miniature golf course where golfers putt through the empty tomb of Jesus. Needless to day, many Evangelicals are embarrassed and upset.

Coming as it does on the heals of Jesus Camp, Rachel Grady’s documentary on a Taliban-esque Pentecostal summer camp for 7-to-12 year olds in North Dakota, Evangelical Christians fear that viewers will see them as crazy people. The truth is they don’t need documentary filmmakers for that— there are enough weird televangelists to make many thinking people scratch their heads and ask, What Would Jesus Watch?

Evangelical Christians number between 50 and 80 million, and most of these people are normal, average Americans. But average is boring. The weird is what is worth studying.

If Pelosi and Grady claim that their films are normative, they are misleading their viewers and should be held accountable, but I didn’t get that sense at all. They are looking for the fringe elements of American Christianity, and they find it in abundance.

I sympathize with Evangelicals who cringe over these films. I feel the same when I see so-called kabbalists peddling bottled water guaranteed to bring immortality. But crazy Jews are out there, and they are far more interesting than the average Yid on the street.

The truth is I love religious nuts. They make religion interesting. I don’t care about the dozens of homophobic pastors, rabbis, priests, and imams who are straight. I want to know about the dozens of homophobic pastors, rabbis, priests, and imams who are gay. I don’t care about the decent, loving, and compassionate clergy. I want to know about the charismatic crazies who take the premises of their faith to the extreme.

I understand why people don’t like these kinds of movies, no one wants to look foolish in front of nonbelievers, but I think it is important that we see how insane religion can get. We need to be shocked by the power and madness of the fringes of faith.

Religion is not nice. It is not safe. It is not vanilla. Religion is raw, dangerous, and spicy as, well, spicy as hell. That’s why it has the capacity to transform people. If it turns them into saints, we applaud. If it turns them into apocalyptic madmen hoping to bring about the end of the world, we gasp in horror. And this is the way it should be. Religion is serious business, and needs to be scrutinized as carefully as any program that can lead to mass destruction whether it comes from a nuclear bomb or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

So watch these films and others like them. And watch those that depict religion in a positive light as well. Get to know both sides of religion. It may keep us humble. And that may be the true key to global salvation.

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