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Filmmaker Dan Merchant wants Christ's followers to stop slugging it out and start talking it out instead.
In Lord, Save Us from Your Followers — a smart, funny, fast-paced documentary rife with religious and pop culture references — Mr. Merchant holds a mirror up to American Christians in hopes of helping them see themselves in others' eyes.
At the same time, he wants non-Christians to gain a better understanding of who Christians are — and who they are trying to be.
In Lord, Save Us, Mr. Merchant crosses the country to interview prominent and everyday people about their feelings on God, faith, culture, politics, and religion. The movie opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, but is not yet scheduled in Toledo.
The filmmaker's mission is to find an answer to the question posed by the movie's subtitle: “Why is the Gospel of love dividing America?”
In a recent interview with The Blade, Mr. Merchant said that “we're all tired of the fighting … and I think somewhere in our spirit we know it feels better to be connected than at odds with each other.”
A devout Christian who describes himself as someone “who walks around claiming he loves Jesus and is trying to follow his teachings,” Mr. Merchant said he was troubled by the way people tend to retreat to familiar ground and hang out with like-minded souls.
He was as guilty as the rest, he said.
“It's just lame that I wasn't interacting with people the way Jesus would,” he said. “You go through the Gospels and who does Jesus talk with? And who does Jesus hang out with? And who does Jesus risk his life for? It's for the people on the wrong side of the mob, the people on the wrong side of the religious establishment. It's the marginalized. It's the disenfranchised. These are the people that I avoid confrontation with, that I avoid running into?”
Mr. Merchant, a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University who is making his first feature film, steps out of his comfort zone in Lord, Save Us, sitting down for interviews with people across the spiritual spectrum, including U.S. Sen. Al Franken, talk show host Michael Reagan, author and educator Tony Campolo, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, and Sister Mary Timothy of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
His interviews with Sister Mary Timothy, a 33-year-old San Francisco man who wears a nun's habit, gaudy costume jewelry, and clown-like makeup, forced Mr. Merchant to step back and re-examine some of his ingrained perceptions. He doesn't mind if it rattles a few conservative Christians' cages as well.
“As a person who comes from a Judeo-Christian perspective, trying to understand how God sees me and how God sees everyone else is a huge part that I was missing,” Mr. Merchant said.
He was shocked to realize that “God loves Sister Mary Timothy as much as he loves me,” he said.
“Here's a guy who's dressed up in quite a crazy get-up and he's homosexual and he's this and he's that and so on, and the thing that I have to be reminded of is that, all things to one side, he's a fellow image bearer of God and God loves him as much as he loves you. To be reminded of that is humbling and embarrassing,” Mr. Merchant said.
He also was filmed going to a gay-pride event in his hometown of Portland, Ore., and following a story that author Donald Miller told in his book Blue Like Jazz, set up a confession booth.
This confessional had a twist, however. When people entered, Mr. Merchant apologized on behalf of the church for the way Christians judge homosexuals and for ignoring the HIV/AIDS crisis for so long.
The visitors are stunned by the unexpected turnabout, and one teary-eyed soul tells him, “I'm not used to any Christians saying anything nice to me.”
Mr. Merchant said half the people who stepped inside the booth just assumed he was gay.
“They were completely shocked that I was straight. It just didn't compute that a married Christian male would come here without a sign in his hand to condemn them,” he said. “All of us were out of our element for a little while. And then it didn't take long before we go, ‘Oh, OK, so you're a human being and I'm a human being and God made you and God made me. So what do you want to talk about?'”
In Lord, Save Us, Mr. Merchant is shown wearing a white jumpsuit decorated with bumper stickers espousing competing ideologies, from the “Jesus fish” to the “Darwin fish” to a “fish and chips” icon.
He said the idea came to him in a flash of inspiration when he was feeling depressed by news coverage on religious divisions.
Mr. Merchant said bumper stickers can start conversations about religion and politics because they “sort of exemplify how we've oversimplified the conversation and reduced complex issues down to catchy slogans.”
Asked to name his favorite slogan on the bumper-sticker suit, Mr. Merchant said “it's the one that says, ‘Sorry I missed church, I was busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian.' I can't explain why it makes me laugh the hardest but that's just funny, man. That is flat-out funny.”
He said the documentary, which is targeted for a broad demographic, has been well received in screenings but in Christian settings he frequently has been challenged to “stand up for the truth.”
Mr. Merchant responded that Christians tend to cherry-pick the Scriptures they like and gloss over ones they dislike.
“Here's Jesus who goes to the cross because none of us are worthy and takes on our sin and what does he ask of us? He asks us to love God and love one another, as the Hebrew text would say. Or to love your enemy. That's the truth that I'm talking about.
“You know when the Bible talks about taking the plank out of your own eye before you bother with the splinter in your neighbor's eye? That's the truth I'm talking about.”