As a critic, I rarely find myself in the position of feeling like a shameless promoter… but this is one of those rare instances. I really can’t find enough opportunities to champion Dan Merchant’s documentary Lord, Save Us From Your Followers; and I don’t feel bad about that in the least. It’s not only a film whose content is deserving of an audience from Christians and non-Christians alike, it’s also entertaining and knows precisely what the limits of low-budget filmmaking are. It never overextends itself, and it never rests on its indie laurels.
If you’ve been tracking the market for documentaries over the last ten years, you’re probably not surprised that the top five non-IMAX grossers in that period are Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins, Sicko, An Inconvenient Truth, and Bowling for Columbine. The Michael Moore model of documentarianism has captivated the minds of careerists and bean counters alike, and—in keeping with larger cultural trends—documentaries now flaunt their biases and take positions that are guaranteed to fan the flames of controversy. Last year, two documentaries from the polar extremes—Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and Religulous—waded into the top-twenty list by adhering to that very model.
It’s a model that literally makes me sick to my stomach.
Dan Merchant understands and also leverages that model—but it’s precisely the subject of his film, as well. While he understands that nobody’s forcing us to tune in to CNN or Fox News, or ramming movie tickets down our throats, he also keenly observes the growing commercial value of polarizing rhetoric. “It’s my choice to be offended or not,” Merchant notes, “but it’s becoming easier to be… This country is polarized, and we’re loving it.”
If the Church Has the Answers, Start Acting Like It
Of particular interest to Merchant is the Church’s role in all of this. To help investigate popular opinion of Christian sloganeering, he toured the country as “Bumper Sticker Man,” a roving reporter with a microphone and white coveralls plastered with slogans from the right and the left. What he found might be surprising. Opponents of Christianity often understand it quite well; but more often, Christians have no clue about the values of secular culture, indicative of a head-in-the-sand mindset worthy of Sergeant Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes.
What’s really great is that Merchant talks with and features the highest-profile minds from both sides of the debate: Rick Santorum and Al Franken; Michael Reagan and Janeane Garafalo; Bill Maher and Matthew Crouch. It’s a balanced and fair presentation that says, “Hey, we’re all at fault. But if we believe the Church has the answer, we’d damned well better start acting like it… or expect the consequences.”
To be fair, Merchant’s film is at times equally provocative. At the conclusion of one such sequence, though, he confesses: “I can do hyperbole, too… but it doesn’t remind me of Jesus. … We have—I have—to do better.”
In the interest of modeling what “better” means, Lord, Save Us heavily features clips with Tony Campolo, John Perkins, Bono, and Rick Warren, and keeps the focus squarely on “waking up the faithful” rather than pointing out the faults of “the wicked.”
The third act of the film turns on three powerful illustrations: first, Merchant’s stint operating a confession booth at a Portland, Oregon, Gay Pride festival—in which Merchant himself starts the ball rolling by confessing his own sins, and those of the Church; a heartfelt tale from Tony Campolo about how, as a youth, he stood by and did nothing while a classmate was literally persecuted to death; and a visit to Bridgetown Ministries’ Nightstrike at the Burnside Bridge in Portland, a regular event at which those who care can minister to those in need: food, clothing, medical assistance, haircuts, and, yes, footwashings—just the sort of thing that Jesus commended to his followers, and that his brother James called “true religion.”
“I’m not used to hearing anyone who’s a Christian say anything nice,” says one of the visitor to Merchant’s confession booth.
Well, quite frankly, neither are many Christians. And Merchant’s film is a good start toward changing that.
I’m pleased to report that the DVD of Lord, Save Us is once again available for purchase at the film’s official site, in support of Merchant’s 2009 tour of college campuses. Soon, hopefully, he’ll also get the details of a mainstream distribution deal nailed down.
If you’re at all interested in being part of a larger cultural conversation that’s more about answers than complaints, more about love than about fear, and more about Jesus than about ourselves, take the opportunity to watch this film. You might not agree entirely with Merchant’s theology; but honestly, the hungry, the sick, and the hurting don’t much care about splitting hairs. Let’s give the divisiveness a rest, eh?
Lord, Save Us From Your Followers is at present unrated. Be aware that, while Merchant doesn’t go in for potty language and gratuitous provocateuring, his look at the gay culture in particular is frank. If your family wouldn’t be able to handle a visit to a Gay Pride festival, you don’t want to sit down and watch this film with them, probably, either. On the other hand, if you’re interested in getting your family over that particular hump, a screening of this DVD might be exactly what you need.
Courtesy of the filmmaker, Greg screened both an online press copy and the present “Movement Edition” DVD of "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers."
Greg Wright is Managing Editor of both Past the Popcorn and Hollywood Jesus. An ordained pastor, Greg is the author of Tolkien In Perspective: Sifting the Gold from the Glitter (2003) and Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004). A widely-known lecturer on Tolkien, Lewis, film, and fantasy, Greg resides in the Seattle area with his precious wife Jenn and their two cats, Grynne and Bearrett.