Sunday, 30 August 2009


Even though he was always taught that religion and politics shouldn’t be discussed in polite company, Dan Merchant decided someone needed to start the conversation.
In his documentary-style film “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers,” which hits theaters nationwide on Sept. 25, Merchant marches around the country asking everyone he meets why what he calls the “Gospel of Love” is dividing the nation.
Wearing a painter-suit covered in bumper stickers that illustrate every side of the “Christian issue,” Merchant travels the country asking tough questions. What Merchant really wants to know: How are Christians supposed to act, and how are they really acting?
In short, does following Jesus mean loving others or being right?
“The goal is to try and understand,” Merchant said during a phone interview from Seattle. “Am I the only person asking these questions?”
The film has been circulating on DVD for at least a year and has attracted a loyal underground fan base. Now Merchant hopes the nationwide theater release will help spread the film’s message.
An evangelical Christian with a background in the entertainment field, Merchant was inspired to explore American Christianity after traveling to Ethiopia and meeting Christians there who sounded and acted nothing like the Christians back home.
“There’s one voice that reminds me of Jesus,” Merchant said, comparing Christian voices on American TV to those in small Ethiopian huts. “And it’s the voice in the hut.”
So he set off to figure out if he was the only one concerned about how U.S. Christians are perceived. By interviewing a broad range of people — including churchgoers, atheists, politicians, scholars, Katrina victims and drag queens dressed as nuns — Merchant looks for everyone to find their voice in this dialogue.
Merchant’s camera captures a diversity of opinions, because it seems that everybody has something to say. “Everyone has a dog in this fight,” Merchant says at the beginning of his film.
What worries Merchant, however, is that everyone seems to be talking at the same time.
Merchant begins his film with coverage from a recent clash in San Francisco between the Christian youth campaign BattleCry and the “more colorful” figures from the city’s liberal population.
The resulting shouting match is exactly the kind of discourse that Merchant wants to address.
“Outrage is way more exciting than humility,” he says.
If everyone is talking over everyone else, where do we begin a civil conversation? Merchant starts with the Rev. Tony Campolo, a progressive-minded evangelical professor at Pennsylvania’s Eastern University. Campolo quotes St. Augustine as having said, “The Church is a whore, and she is my mother.”
“Are you talking about unfaithfulness? You’re talking about the church,” Campolo says in the film. “Unfaithful bride of Christ. Failing to live up to its marriage vows to the Lord. It’s a whore. But she’s also my mother. I wouldn’t be a Christian today … if it wasn’t for this thing called ‘the church.’ For all of its flaws … it has still been that which is kept alive, the gospel story, down through the ages.”
Merchant uses that image to grab the attention of Christians and non-Christians alike. The church may not be perfect, but for believers it still holds the truth. But what is the truth anymore?
In his bumper sticker get-up, Merchant patrols the streets of Times Square and nationwide asking people what Christians are known for versus what Jesus is known for. Big surprise: the answers are often quite different.
By using cartoons such as a Frankenstein Jesus to represent the disjointed body of Christ and Monty Python-style celebrity images spouting loaded comments on faith in America, Merchant eases the tension of an otherwise weighty subject. But he does not forget how important and schismatic the Christian/non-Christian clash really is.
After seriously considering issues where the secular world and the Christian world often butt heads — same-sex marriage, abortion, the “Hollywood agenda,” poverty, war, pornography and consumerism — the film takes a more hopeful turn.
From volunteers washing the feet of homeless people to a confessional booth at a Gay Pride event where people are invited in to hear Merchant’s own confessions, the film offers a glimpse into a kinder, gentler America. Those images and stories, which Merchant cites as the most important, suggest that we are all one in our humanity.
“Life and people are complicated, compassion should be given and not earned,” Merchant offers at the end of the film. And dialogue should never be cut off, he said, because everybody has a piece of the “rest of the story.”