Sunday, December 13, 2009

Friends of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi (2007) (Trying to Understand Evangelicals or to Mock Them?)

Alexandra Pelosi was born in San Francisco and lives in New York City. She is the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the granddaughter of the Democratic politician, Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. Alexandra Pelosi is a former journalist who began making political documentaries for HBO in the 2000s. Her most recent film was Right America: Feeling Wronged, which chronicled the failed 2008 McCain bid for the presidency and the subsequent plight of disappointed Republicans. With such a pedigree, it probably comes as no surprise that Ms. Pelosi tends to be left of center culturally and politically. In interviews, however, she has expressed that she tries very hard to be fair and not simply portray conservatives as freaks or fanatics. When watching Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi, that assertion is pretty hard to swallow.

In the film, Ms. Pelosi does not visit with people whom I would consider to be typical Christians. There are no visits to the local youth group sorting cans at a food pantry or a men’s group meeting for a monthly Bible study/pancake breakfast. Instead, Ms. Pelosi introduces us to a much more unusual slice of the American Christian population as her road trip crisscrosses the South. (Aren’t there Christians outside of Dixie?? Or is it just easier to lampoon the subjects of the film when they speak with a drawl?)

The film kicks off the road trip with a visit to Lakewood Church in Houston. Predictably, it is noted that the Church’s current facility is humongous—it is the city’s former pro-basketball arena. Ms. Pelosi also introduces us to a Bible-themed theme park in Florida that is attempting to compete with Disney World. The Christian Wrestling Federation (complete with cheesy costumes) and Cruisers for Christ (a club for Christian automobile enthusiasts) are also spotlighted. Ms. Pelosi interviews a gentleman who spends tens of thousands of his own dollars to erect huge, towering crosses in prominent locations near high traffic roadways. She also shares footage of a seminar where young children are shown evidence that the Theory of Evolution is a lie. Later smug adults are interviewed to explain why they believe in Creationism and why Evolutionists are not well-educated. Ms. Pelosi and her camera also visit a bank-style drive-through church where a Christian in a teller booth provides motorists with a quick prayer before they drive off into the sunset. And in between these vignettes, we are shown lots of religious billboards with bumper sticker type humor and/or scary warnings.

One of the few times Ms. Pelosi’s road trip ventures outside the South, she visits the New Life Church in Colorado Springs and interviews its pastor, Ted Haggard. In one particularly bizarre scene, Pastor Ted boasts that Christians have the best sex lives, and to prove his point he impulsively asks two of his stunned parishioners how often they have sex with their wives and how often their wives have an orgasm. Due to the reactions of the parishioners, the scene is actually painful to watch.

To open the film, Friends of God begins with silent text indicating that shortly after the documentary was shot in 2006, Pastor Ted’s affair with a male prostitute became publicly known. My sense after watching the whole film was that the news of the scandal was likely received with glee by the makers of Friends of God because it just added to the freak show nature of their film. Indeed, Ms. Pelosi’s next film focused just on the scandal: The Trials of Ted Haggard.

Friends of God was produced at a time when the news and entertainment industries (are they really separate industries any more?) were still reeling from and trying to dissect John Kerry’s narrow loss to George W. Bush in 2004. The semi-hysterical tag line from the election had been that Christians were the secret to W’s success. The press and pop culture particularly focused on the influence of an apparent subcategory of Christians: the Evangelicals. Pelosi and HBO plugged this documentary as an attempt to better understand Evangelicals, who were an increasingly influential cultural and political force.

Personally, I get a little wary whenever the term “Evangelical Christian” is even used. I hear the term most from people who are not Christ followers, particularly as they try to describe the relative political success of George W. Bush and other socially conservative politicians. In my life, I’ve attended a lot of different churches. In my experience, the term just doesn’t come up. People don’t say things like “I’m not an Evangelical, I believe in the Theory of Evolution” or “This is an Evangelical Church, liberals beware.” That just doesn’t happen. Indeed, I’m not sure what the term “Evangelical” even means. I’ve looked it up in several dictionaries, but the definition is fairly broad and technically describes a good number of Christians. Heck, per some definitions, I even appear to be an Evangelical. But I don’t think that is what the news and entertainment industry intend when they use the term. Their aim seems to be to describe the narrower slice of Christians who vote in elections inspired by conservative positions on hot button issues like abortion, gay marriage and the teaching of evolution in public schools. My perception is that such use corrupts the term “Evangelical” just like the term “Christian” has been corrupted in recent years.

Although Alexandra Pelosi is polite to her interviewees and does not exhibit towards Christians the overt hostility demonstrated by others in pop culture, Friends of God just cannot fairly be characterized as an honest attempt to better understand Evangelicals. The film sets such a freak show tone that Pelosi’s clear message is that Evangelical Christians are quite different from us normal folk. Such an approach does not promote understanding, it promotes further polarization. If Ms. Pelosi had focused on more mainstream individuals, the result might have been different.

Ephesians 2:14-16

“Christ has made peace between Jews and Gentiles, and he has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us. ...He even brought Jews and Gentiles together as though we were only one person, when he united us in peace. On the cross Christ did away with our hatred for each other.”

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