Bishop Carlton Pearson has a thriving ministry and high standing amongst the Pentecostal Movement, but when his theological position on Hell shifts, so do the loyalties of friends and family he has known, ministered with, and loved for over 20 years.
I heard about this film, as probably 90% of its viewers did, from “This American Life,” the award winning and influential radio show and podcast hosted by Ira Glass. The story of Carlton Pearson was reported by “This American Life” on an episode titled “Heretics.” As he was first exposed to the story, Ira Glass was intrigued by one major aspect of the story.
In so many media portrayals of Christians or church, it seemed that Christians were always written one of two ways. Either unrealistically saintly or cartoonishly angry, vile, and discriminating. What struck Ira about this story was that the people involved were so much more nuanced than that. In fact, it was one of the things that he had noticed often in his work; that Christians and the church are rarely portrayed as they really are, whether that portrayal be through secular films or Christian ones.
This is why he felt this story needed to be told. He wanted people to get the chance to see how real Christians behaved, in their messy subtleties and mixed emotions.How did they behave when faced with one of the most respected Christians broke with one of the most fundamental truths of his church and everyone he loves.
This film is based on true events. I have read that even the private conversations that Pearson has with certain characters in the film did indeed happen, though they may seem uncharacteristic of those people as we popularly know them. I did not personally follow the events as I had not yet come into my own faith and even if I had, these events happened in a denomination I would have had no exposure to.
From what I understand though, it was quite a shattering event. People will be quick to point out Pearson’s correctness or wrongness based on whether or not they agree with him, but I think it is hard to wrap our heads around, today, what that moment of revelation would have been like for the people in his church and denomination.
Several years back, popular Christian writer and pastor, Rob Bell (whose church was in my hometown) wrote a book called “Love Wins.” In it, he questioned whether Hell exists and was roundly condemned by most of the evangelical community including the now famous tweet from John Piper: “farewell, Rob Bell.”
The event portrayed in this film is bigger than that. Rob Bell was always a controversial figure. Hearing that he didn’t believe in Hell was not a huge shock to anyone who followed him. He didn’t belong to a denomination. Losing his standing with the likes of John Piper didn’t cost him a job or any publishing deals or money.
Pearson, on the other hand, lost everything. He rebuilt, but he had to do it from scratch. The shock of hearing someone like him deny the existence of Hell was more akin to hearing that John Piper no longer believes in Hell than Rob Bell.
Of course, anyone who knows any church history knows that the view that Pearson holds is heresy adjacent if not heresy outright, but I don’t really think that is the point of the movie. This isn’t a movie about heresy, or God, or faith. It’s a movie about how Christians behave, how people behave, when their core beliefs they held in common become irreconcilable differences which drive them apart.
In this review, that is what I would normally focus on.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave much else to talk about with this film. I really wanted to like it and while there are moments of the film that are really well acted, overall, I found the film to be boring and way less interesting than the original radio broadcast of the same story as an audio documentary.
It’s not the fault of the actors. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Jason Segel (Forgetting Sara Marshall), and Martin Sheen (The Badlands) turn in really good performances and the scene where Pearson is told that even his closest ally and friend is leaving him is truly heartbreaking, portraying the deepest of emotions in such a raw way that it captured my flagging attention.
Alas, that is all I really enjoyed in this film.
Why a Movie
This movie falls into a trap that a lot of films fall into. They don’t know why they are a movie, or they are a movie just because they can be. Most movies that fall into this trap can get away with it because there is nothing to compare them to; but this movie, it has an audio documentary to be compared to. A great audio documentary.
So why make a movie from this story?
It isn’t because it is such a visually stunning story like “Avatar” or “Lawrence of Arabia.” It takes place in churches and homes, mostly unremarkable, to normal people, mostly unremarkable. The director doesn’t have any ideas he wants to portray visually, no visual theme or motif weaves itself throughout. In fact, I would venture to guess that you could just listen to the audio of this film and not be confused in the slightest about what is happening in the story. If that’s the way you are going to shoot a movie, why bother filming it at all?
It isn’t because they want to make a lot of money. This is a Netflix release and not even one of their highly pushed releases. I’m sure most of the money they make from this film will be from the distribution deal and not to sales of the actual film to people watching it.
I think the real reason it is a movie at all was stated best by Ira Glass. He hadn’t seen Christians portrayed in this way before and he wanted to see it. I suppose that is a good enough goal for some, but it left me feeling empty.
I got done watching it and thought, there, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen Christians portrayed with nuance. But as someone who grew up in church, I have always known Christians as people with subtleties and deep running rivers that are not always steady. Maybe for someone who grew up unchurched, they won’t have seen it before, but then, will they be interested in the rest of this movie? I’m not sure.
All I know is that I’d rather listen to the radio program than watch the film and that's what I would recommend you do as well.
This American Life - "Heretics" : https://www.thisamericanlife.org/304/heretics
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