People don’t all worship or live their religions in the same way.
According to the Pew Research Center, most of the 10.8 percent of the U.S. population who are in evangelical Baptist traditions would feel uncomfortable at Masses celebrated for the 23.9 percent who are in Catholic churches. We’re used to differences. They seem normal. The documentary American Jesus, available on DVD Wednesday, shows people leaning toward the abnormal.
Take some of the outlying ways people live their faith and put them next to one another, and it looks like we’re crazy for God, with a bit too much emphasis on the crazy, in the way we do religion. Among the authors interviewed who examine the popular culture aspect of religion, Frank Schaeffer has a unique contribution. He is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. He was a leader in the evangelical movement, following in his father’s footsteps, but then he turned away. His perspective helps to shape the film.
American Jesus focuses on some outliers of Christianity in the United States. There is a martial arts ministry in Houston led by a former Power Rangers actor, Jason David Frank, who coined the slogan “Jesus Didn’t Tap” (which refers to “tapping out” of a fight to accept defeat). A former gang follower, prisoner, and heroin addict, Pastor Phil Aguilar or “Chief,” tells his story of becoming a favorite minister on Trinity Broadcasting Network, one of the all-religion channels, then being rejected and labeled a cult leader, told “if you decide not to follow God anymore, people are going to follow you,” and now rebuilding his Set Free Ministries.
Of course, there is a snake handler scene, one of the seeming requirements for a weird religions documentary. This one is from Matoaka, W.V., featuring Pastor Mack Wolford, to whom the film is dedicated after he died from snakebite in 2012. That scene stands out for the terrible piano accompaniment in that worship service.
And there is testimony from a former atheist who became a preacher, which is another standard in these salvation stories that look for the sensational. This minister is Pastor Cleetus Adrian of Deliverance Bible Church in Dallas, who said that the day after declaring himself an atheist, he became a Christian.
There is some footage of ministries that walk more with the needy, such as Pastor Bob Beeman of Sanctuary International feeding the hungry in Nashville and Shane Claiborne of Potter Street Community establishing housing with low-income people in Philadelphia, but this aspect of in-the-streets religion doesn’t get much focus, as it doesn’t stress the crazy for God aspect.
The documentary could have better rounding to show the vast range of how American Christians have Jesus in their ways. It gets into the differences between marketing and ministry, and very briefly gives megachurch mentions, but for most of the people depicted, it is too brief on their worshiping lives. Pastors Ty Jones and Buzz Busby of Arena of Life Cowboy Church in Amarillo, Texas, speak about their church, and we see some cattle roping, but the filmmakers don’t show their worship service.
In one of the bonus interviews, Bradley Hathaway, identified as a poet and musician, said this documentary is by “seven Spanish people making a video.” Aram Garriga of Barcelona is the director, co-writer, co-producer, and editor. But American Jesus is not presented as an outsider’s perspective. That could have helped as a tie for different scenes about religion to be tied together.
The authors and other commentators end up having the last word, so it’s talking that predominates.
With several major motion pictures having religious themes, American Jesus can join that parade. The “crazy for God” approach puts it on a motorcycle. And if you watch the credits, you’ll learn what model Harley-Davidson Jesus would ride.
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