American engages cultural stereotypes
Thomas Nelson, 2008
Film by the same name
Lightning Strikes Entertainment, 2008
The question of Christianity’s relationship to culture is an old one with no shortage of differing viewpoints. Are we to flee from it? Subvert it from within? Take it over for Jesus? None of the above?
What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in a pluralistic 21st-century environment? What impression should Christians create in the cultural contexts in which they find themselves – and for what reasons? How should Christians engage their neighbours who don’t share their faith?
These are some questions tackled by American filmmaker Dan Merchant in Lord Save Us From Your Followers. Both the film and the book that accompanies it are animated by the question: Why don’t Christians look more like Jesus?
Merchant’s main targets are cultural perceptions of Christianity in the U.S., and the shallow level of engagement evidenced by what he terms a “bumper sticker culture.” To this end, Merchant goes on a cross-country journey dressed in a suit covered with politically loaded bumper stickers, equipped with microphone and camera.
From Jesus fish to NRA stickers, evolution vs. creationism material to pro-life versus pro-choice sloganeering, Merchant uses these attempts at one-way communication to engage the average person on the street in conversation about Christianity’s role in American culture. Through showing how Christians are often perceived, and critiquing their modes of conversation, Merchant urges Christians to adopt a more generous and respectful posture toward those with whom they disagree.
Two of the most enduring images – both from the film and the book – come from the city of Portland. In the first, Merchant opens a confessional booth in the middle of a gay pride festival where he confesses how he and his fellow Christians have treated homosexuals as modern-day lepers and failed to show them the love of Christ.
In the second, a group of Christians assemble under a bridge and set up a foot-washing station for homeless people in the area. People who wouldn’t otherwise have access to haircuts, shaves, clean socks, warm water to wash their faces, hugs, and conversation are given these things as an act of obedience to Jesus and commitment to his pattern of being in the world.
For Merchant, these represent Christianity at its most Christ-like, and this is surely a worthy ideal for all Christians, no matter which side of the border or which position along the church spectrum they happen to inhabit.
Parts of Lord Save Us From Your Followers will likely strike Canadians as somewhat odd. While providing a fascinating window into the religio-political context in the United States, there is much in Merchant’s film and book that will not resonate in a Canadian context that hasn’t been characterized by the same bitter, high profile public battles (the evolution/creationism debate, for example) that have characterized the American context for the last several decades. In addition, while the film is engaging and flows well, the book reads in a very scattered and rambling fashion, consisting mainly of miscellaneous thoughts about the American religious scene, combined with a few comics, illustrations, and personal experiences.
Nonetheless, Anabaptists will appreciate Merchant’s central conviction that the Christian way of being in the world should more closely mirror the pattern of the one whom we claim to follow. There is undoubtedly value both in asking the question of how we, as Christians, are perceived in the broader culture, and in calling the church to a more respectful posture toward those who don’t share our views. Lord Save Us From Your Followers will surely provoke necessary dialogue around both these important issues.
To view the film online, purchase the book, or arrange for a public screening, visit lordsaveusthemovie.com.