Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dan Merchant vs. Jury Of Your Fears: Exhibit A

As you probably know by now, our blog focuses on “religious people behaving badly.”  It’s pretty much a lay-up finding stuff to post that points out the hypocrisy of the religious right.  It’s everywhere.  It’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s often dangerous.  So why is our first “Jury Of Your Fears” interview with a Christian writer, producer, and creator of a popular Christian film?  Well, we respect his message.  Dan was good enough to grant us our first interview, and his answers were so thorough that we’re splitting it into two parts:  Exhibit A, and tomorrow, Exhibit B.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defendant before you has been accused of being a Christian without intent to proselytize.  His film and book, “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers” has criticized the hyper-political American Christian attitude.  He’s spoken out against the “bumper sticker culture” of angry declaration, instead opting for civil, reasonable, and genuinely friendly conversation.  Good citizens, the decision is yours.  Do we actually have before us an example of a decent, rational, practicing Christian?  Or does the hype simply prove too good to be true?  Examine the evidence for yourselves.  Behold, the interview:

JOYF - Please tell us about "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers," and what gave you the idea to make the film.  Have you always been so critical of Christians behaving badly, or was there something specific that opened your eyes? 

DANThe catalyst for the film occurred during a trip to Ethiopia where our team was covering a UN trip to several relief projects on the 20th anniversary of the Great Famine of 1984.  While in Africa I met many, many Christians from around the world, including the U.S., who were there doing beautiful, difficult work in service of those living in extreme poverty.  I also met many Ethiopian Christians who just staggered me with their compassion, hope and belief.  When I returned to the U.S., in the spring of 2004 I was struck in the face by the strident, political rhetoric coming from many so-called Christian leaders.  The contrast between the Christians I’d seen in Africa with the leaders who were politicizing my faith gave me pause.  Because it was the believers I’d met in Africa who had challenged and inspired my faith – they reminded me of Jesus, not these guys with the microphones.  But, I was saddened to realize I was much more like the guys with the microphones who were busy “being right about everything”.  I guess I realized I had spent more time and energy trying to “be right” than I had just loving people and trying to share my faith by meeting people’s needs and loving others.  It occurred to me that most Americans had probably seen “Christian’s behaving badly” on TV, but if they hadn’t been to Africa perhaps they hadn’t seen them loving unconditionally.  Of course, as I started making the movie I realized the so-called leaders really didn’t speak for that many Christians and there are Christians sacrificing for those in need in every city I visited – but that media fueled perception can be a tough obstacle.  Why does Fox only let on the loud, opinionated Christians?

JOYF - Has there been much backlash from the religious right due to this film?

DANThere has been some, but not as much as I would’ve expected.  But I suppose I originally thought the “religious right” was a larger organism than it really is.  There is a remarkably wide range of believers out there – it’s a spectrum of color not a simple “right” and “left”.  I’ve been surprised and impressed “the church” has been open to the conversation Lord, Save Us… generates.  Turns out most people are tired of the Us versus Them shouting matches, we just don’t know how to get out of the spiral.  The mid-term elections give us another ring side seat to fear mongering and oversimplifying complicated issues – so we still have a long way to go as a country, but I’ve been so encouraged that Christians and non-Christians have come together at Lord, Save Us… screenings and events and been refreshed by the knowledge that we’re not all that different and there is much more that unites us than divides us.  The conversation is there, we just have to choose to have it.

JOYF - We agree that it's important for believers and non-believers to look for common ground.  It seems like evangelical protestants have already done this with Jews, and pretty much just let them be as they are (which is great), but why then is Islam, Atheism, and everything else such an unacceptable option?  

DANI think there is too much money to be made pitting sides against each other.  Some of the conflicts are so ancient they’re tribal.  But, on an individual level, most of the Christians I know have atheist, Muslim, Jewish friends (that one is easy because Jesus was a Jew, I reckon) friends.  I think it’s just the rhetoric of organizations, sometimes churches, who feel the need to create an enemy to push against and that gives them some kind of purpose or, frankly, makes it easy for them to rally people or raise money by encouraging them to fear “the other”.  Whoever the “other” is this week.  When I was in college I recall watching the Berlin Wall come down live on television.  The end of the threat of global nuclear war right there on CNN.  And to see the people pouring through and over the falling wall was stunning.  My head was swimming as the East Germans, the Communists, celebrated, jumping up and down, tearing up the wall, dancing with West Germans.  Well, “poof”, there went the Communists, now who should I be afraid of?  Again, Jesus is in the inclusion game, not the exclusion game.  Anything you hear to the contrary is us getting it wrong.  Jesus said to “love your enemy”.  Huh?  By definition I can have no enemies.  When you hear Christians justifying separation from the “other”, I submit they are missing the point.  And, that doesn’t mean, “if you accept Jesus and agree with me, then I will be your friend”, it means I am to love you.  Period.  See the Good Samaritan story for more details:  a Jew asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”  And Jesus tells him the story of the Good Samaritan.  But the Jews hated the Samaritans and vice versa.  There was no such thing.  Today, Jesus may call the parable “The Good Islamic Terrorist” or “The Good Axe Murderer”.  We keep looking for a loophole.  Who do we love? Who should we exclude?  The way I read the scriptures, Jesus doesn’t give us a loophole, he gives us a pretty high standard to meet.  Those who call themselves Christians have a lot to live up to.  We fail, but should keep trying rather than make excuses.  I assume it’s much easier for us humans to separate into teams and hate each other.  Further proof my base instincts aren’t always the best.

JOYF - Having formerly been a believer, and now living as a non-believer, I can testify to the fact that it's possible to live a decent life and be happy and "good without god."  Many believers seem to be convinced that it is impossible to be happy or to live a fruitful life without god.  Do you think believers could ever acknowledge that godless people can be just as good and fulfilled? 

DANAs a believer, I acknowledge that godless people can be just as good and fulfilled as believers.  There.  Happy now?  Hah.  I think many of us believers have been confused in our journey, forgetting it’s about getting to know God, not about justifying to others why I want to know God.  Obviously, lots of believers have wasted lots of time trying to convince you they’re right and you’re wrong and – I’ve seen this – it almost seems as if they need YOU to validate their journey.  I suppose, ultimately, I must believe knowing God is better than not, or else I wouldn’t be on this path, but I know so many people, VERY good, wonderful people, who are moral, ethical, kind, generous people who just don’t believe what I believe.  I’m not sure how to explain that, but I don’t have to.  I’m just grateful they’re my friends and they love me and I love them.  Which, by the way, is what Jesus always preached and demonstrated.  Funny, that some of my atheist friends remind me of Jesus.  What is that, a dichotomy?  A glitch in the Matrix?  Hah.

JOYF - When I was a teenager, we were taught that "sanctity" was making ourselves "separate from the secular world."  At the time, it seemed like a way to get us to throw our secular music in the garbage, but it seems like this sanctity has contributed greatly to the "bumper sticker" mentality.  Should the Christian desire for sanctity excused them from educating themselves about the secular world?  And if being separate from the secular world is the goal, why are evangelicals so politically involved in proselytizing to the secular world?  (excellent opportunity to reference the Family Feud segment of your film) 

DAN - I’m well aware many have interpreted “sanctity” as a synonym for “separate”.  In fact, it’s a synonym for “holiness” or “devotion to God”.  So I can understand how getting blitzed on a Friday probably isn’t the best way to exhibit your reverence to God, on the other hand, having a beer with your friends, listening to some music and being open friendships off all stripes sounds right to me.  I find a migration away from the very people we Christians are called to love (those who don’t know God) seems counter intuitive and, frankly, not very practical.  I mean, if our calling as Followers of Jesus is to share this beautiful faith that has transformed our hearts, won’t that be a tad difficult if we don’t interact with anyone different from us?  Obviously, when we don’t understand each other, it’s fairly difficult to have any meaningful engagement.  This is obviously a two way street.  I’ve been amused and puzzled to meet so many highly intelligent atheists who couldn’t imagine there was a believer out there who wasn’t like Jerry Falwell or Ann Coulter.  We are all overdue for a friendly cup of coffee (or a beer) with each other.  Hah.  I wouldn’t agree with your premise that the Christian goal is to be separate from the secular world.  Yes, this has been a byproduct of SOME faithful, but, I suppose the goal would be share the love of God in a real, tangible way and let people decide for themselves what they think about it all.  Jesus has had some pretty crummy PR for a long time and many outside the faith have been left with an image of Christianity that barely resembles the one we’re trying to imitate.  Same goes for the politically strident members of the faith, some are well motivated, I suspect most aren’t, in this way religion is still being used by some as the age-old sledgehammer to manipulate people into a desired result (voting Republican or whatever).  Again, not necessarily related to Jesus’ gospel though it may look like that to people who don’t look close enough.


  1. We experienced some technical problems with our post, and therfore had to repost this morning. In the process, we lost a comment from a poster from Baltimore. Sorry about that!

  2. First, I have to say, the attempt to depoliticize religion and belief itself is doing liberalism no good. The attempt to form some ecumenical ground where everyone can have their private belief ignores that politics is about a for and against. This whole Jesus is an "includer" as opposed to a "divider" ignores the less pc-version that emerges on certain pages of the Bible. What about the Jesus that proclaimed "Do not suppose that I came to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword?" The ignorant fundamentalist posing of the us/them dichotomy is a response to this milktoast idea of some community in which everyone merely tolerates each other and where this is no longer any place for conflict. The more we yearn for peace the more we will continue to generate its opposite. I dont think we should be emphasizing hypocrisy with Christian fundamentalists because we all have contradictions within us, even the most rational. It may be better to point out that these people do not really believe at all. Belief is not certainty and is rife with doubt. When we look at the word and declare that it is positively the truth and remove the need for interpretation, we destroy belief...and reading. Belief is a wager and so is real politics. A wager that another world is possible. The one thing that fundamentalists get right is that this idea of some universal ecumenical position which accomodates all and contains the truth is bogus. The truth only emerges from a particular perspective. Antagonism itself is the truth, not its obstacle.

  3. "The truth only emerges from a particular perspective. Antagonism itself is the truth, not its obstacle." - this pretty much justifies free speech. Peace is not achievable with or without freedom, but at least freedom of speech acknowledges this and allows us to accept it. In order to fully appreciate freedom of speech, and in order to confirm it as a true freedom, we must allow it to be bombarded and we must allow it to be attacked, and we pretty much have to just hope that it withstands these attacks. It certainly won't withstand these attacks if we remove or silence the threat, because doing so would be the ultimate attack on the freedom. By honoring freedom of speech, we are certainly enabling other problems, including the problem of how to protect free speech... and by the way, I agree that these people you refer to don't believe at all. Most of them have never gotten to the point where they can distinguish faith from superstition. And I'm not sure it's fair to assume that many of them are even capable of making the distinction.

  4. "I think many of us believers have been confused in our journey, forgetting it’s about getting to know God, not about justifying to others why I want to know God. Obviously, lots of believers have wasted lots of time trying to convince you they’re right and you’re wrong and – I’ve seen this – it almost seems as if they need YOU to validate their journey."

    It's definitely all about the journey.