I’ll rely on Rebecca Cusey to pinpoint many of the particulars of Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO documentary, Friends of God. But one point I’ll disagree with is her assesment that it represents a “good hard look at evengelicals.”
The jist of the documentary is as follows: a liberal, lapsed Catholic, secular-friendly producer hits the road with a camcorder and a sense of humor capturing various and assorted Christians in a variety of settings. There are, to be sure, numerous examples of selection bias here. The bias isn’t necessarily to understand or illuminate for those who may not be familiar with evangelical culture. It’s to mock the already existing stereotype of evangelicals … with evangelicals themselves doing the self-mockery.
There’s a methodology in the social sciences known as longitudinal study. If you want to get an idea of income effects, for instance, you follow a person, or a household, over the course of 30 or more years. You pool enough of them for data, and you get a pretty rich understanding of whatever it is that you’re studying. Likewise, movies plod along far more slowly than, say, a 30 minute sitcom. They do this to offer more depth of character so the ending and the understanding of the plot are more deeply understood.
Alexandra Pelosi’s objective, however, seems to be none of this … it’s just cheap laughs at some admittedly laughable settings. A faith-oriented putt putt park? The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida? Cruisers for Christ? Brad Stine? Ted Haggard? Various and sundry “Patriot Pastors” muddling the line between love of God and love of country? It’s all in good fun … not to be misunderstood with being enlightening.
Inevitably, Pelosi highlights the political arm of evangelistic thought, giving it rather sizable treatment. It might come as a surprise, then, to realize that a growing number of churches that share a conservative theology do not openly advocate a conservative politics (and most likely, not a liberal one, either). Rick Warren’s “Left wing? Right wing? Whole bird!” approach is notably missing here. As is Joel Osteen’s sense that one’s own politics ought to derive from one’s own insight. Randall Balmer or Greg Boyd’s more thought-provoking writing on the growing divergence between the political Religious Right and the teachings of Jesus Christ? Pelosi’s camcorder seems to be too far gone to capture such thought-provoking commentary when more comic-inducing commentary is so readily found.
The coverage of Ted Haggard is notable for two reasons. One is the obvious significance of Haggard’s recent resignation as head of the National Association of Evangelicals. But the second is the result of the access that Haggard seems to afford Pelosi. The result is something you really have to see to believe and it’s hard not to be at least a little creeped out by Haggard’s portrayal.
Cusey catches another aspect of selection bias that’s worth echoing as-is:
At some point, you’d think it might be an interesting question as to how it is that people of such divergent backgrounds come together in the Body of Christ. At least that strikes me as an amazing attribute of the larger churches – Lakewood key among them, of course. When you see every class, every ethnicity, every race, every subculture, every age, every … everything … all come together to worship to the same music, soak in the same message, and encourage every new believer that accepts or re-commits to Christ, why bother with that when there’s a guy with his truck plastered with Scripture and willing to call anyone who hasn’t accepted Christ as “losers?”
Lastly, Cusey’s conclusion is one that’s worth sharing, echoing, and remembering …
There’s still, I think, a great documentary to be made on the subject of evanglical culture that more richly illuminates while at the same time being entertaining enough to watch. Recall the surprisingly high ratings that Barbara Walters gets for airing a pseudo-documentary on the subject of heaven as possibly a telling datapoint. Perhaps if unwrapped from the already dated contect of America’s political divide, there might be room to delve further into something of of more lasting interest.