So, in the last week, I’ve had a chance to watch a couple (well, one and a quarter) documentaries on white American evangelicalism. One of them, I thought was really good. The other, well, I only saw a quarter of it.
That’s all I could stomach before I started to yell at the television, “These guys are total tools!”
The documentary, Beware of Christians is a retrospective piece that these four white American evangelical college age guys did to reflect on their experiences traveling around Europe. Their purported mission was to go abroad and try to discern precisely what parts of their Christian identities were trappings from their specific culture and what was universal. On the face of it, that sounds like a pretty nifty idea, since it could involve some serious reflection and consideration of how all kinds of social factors influence our approaches to faith.
Instead, what I saw was four whiny entitled white guys making shallow observations about how everyone’s not as holy as they are (even as they’re trying to do the humblebrag, “but we’re not very good at it either”). I think I finally lost it when they were in Paris, acting like typical Americans traveling abroad, and they were flabbergasted to see a crowd gathering to look at a really nifty-looking sports car. This incident (they labeled it a God thing) provided them a chance to pontificate about how people get caught up in materialism too easily (they even chide themselves for gawking like everyone else). I mean, it’s not like the guy who owned the car was famous or anything.
Yes, they implied that gawking at a celebrity would be better than gawking at a fancy car.
The real headscratcher was how they came to the conclusion that this whole thing with the car clearly pointed to the problem of worldly materialism, after the documentary had just played clips from some street interviews they’d done with a few Parisians who explained that a major part of Paris culture is an emphasis on beauty. People in Paris care about fashion and aesthetics because there’s an art to how you present yourself. Following that, I just figured people were gathering to look at the car because it’s a cool-looking car. I don’t give any kind of flip about cars, but this one had a very pleasing aesthetic, and I totally would have liked to look at it in person as someone’s work of art.
I turned the documentary off at this point, because it became apparent that there probably wasn’t going to be much in the way of our narrators actually learning anything about the wider world and their relationship with it. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say the rest of the film follows the same pattern of them showing up in some cosmopolitan city, interviewing some people, and using their surface observations to reinforce what they already believe about their identities as Christians.
If you may be wondering why I’m so harsh on a bunch of college guys, who are clearly not terribly experienced in the ways of anything, it’s because I know this narrative already. The experience of the young straight white evangelical male is told everywhere in our society, and frankly it’s old. I don’t care what they have to say about Christianity, because it’s all stuff I already know (I was, after all, a young straight white evangelical male myself for some time). Let’s move on and talk about the experiences of people who don’t dominate the conversation.
The other documentary that I saw was Hellbound?, a film examining the differences between the eternal punishment and universalist views of hell in Christianity. Now, this documentary was a lot more interesting, since we got conversations with a variety of theologians and some church history thrown in, but we should be upfront and admit that this is still a documentary that’s inordinately focused on the white American evangelical church. All the people interviewed are pretty big names along the spectrum of contemporary white American Christian thought (they’re also almost all males too). That’s not innately bad, but it’s frustrating to realize that so much of the conversation about legitimate theological positions that I’m familiar with is so limited in scope. I suppose it should also be noted that many of the people interviewed who defend the universalist position also happen not to be Americans (at least one was Canadian, and another was English), which may ultimately be inconsequential in that it only expands the conversational scope from white American Christianity to white English-speaking Christianity.
Setting aside all my complaints about the diversity of the documentary’s participants (an observation that I really only made after following it up with Beware of Christians), the documentary’s discussion of universalism was very informative. If you’re not familiar with that doctrine, and you’d like to learn about it, I’d say Hellbound? is a good place to start.
Just know going in that it’s going to be a pretty narrow conversation.