Over Sunday and Monday I spent 176 minutes watching the 2020 documentary American Gospel: Christ Crucified. The film aims to describe the historical Christian Gospel via interviews with pastors and theologians. Interspersed through the orthodox interpretations, and meant as their foil, are interviews with and footage of progressive Christians. Chief among the contrary voices also is Bart Campolo, the likable and secularist son of pastor and author Tony Campolo.
The documentary isn’t perfect: it’s 176 minutes! For those who aren’t given to theological inquiry, the back-and-forth contrast might be disorienting, at least temporarily. The pacing is uneven, and overall the film seems a little disorganized. And did I say it’s 176 minutes!… and didn’t really need to be: some of the shots are gratuitous – e.g., how many flyovers of crosses do we need? Redundancy runs throughout the interviews, and some ‘kill the darlings’ editing could have been applied, even to the contributions from the evangelical power brokers.
But there are three reasons to take the time to watch this documentary:
- Director Brandon Kimber made the decision to put the articulation and defense of the Gospel in the mouths of a wide strata of believers: white, black, latino, men, women, young, old, staid, dressed down. It’s a good tactic in an era of identity politics and intersectionality. More importantly, the medley of different voices explaining the Gospel warms and encourages.
- The documentary demonstrates that the details of the Gospel are very important. And the decision to diverge from those details, no matter how well-intended, leads to serious problems. Reminds me of a favorite G.K. Chesterton quotation:
“Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, anyone can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. The smallest link was let drop by the artificers of the Mediterranean, and the lion of ancestral pessimism burst this chain in the forgotten forests of the north….If some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrine had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.”
- The documentary exposes a fact which our corner of Christianity, that tends toward the genteel, seemingly would prefer to ignore: there are plenty of false teachers within the church. And many of these are very persuasive: funny, “with it,” articulate, compassionate, sometimes possessing a delightfully withering intellect. And we’re suckers: our age and context is especially vulnerable to being persuaded by a) atmosphere generally i.e., aside from intellectual content b) the suggestion of depth c) a type of self-deprecating congeniality, d) urbanity e) good-humored taunting. Many false teachers possess a knack for singling out those doctrines, or aspects of doctrine, or moods around doctrine, that often quietly trouble the Christian’s intellect or sensibilities. Then they’ll assign those ideas with a label that shocks and discourages e.g., the historical doctrine of atonement entails divine child abuse! But thankfully (the story unfolds) they’re here willing to unburden us of these troublesome ideas, and replace them with concepts more upbeat, less nuanced, widely palatable. Anyway, there are a lot of things to say about false teachers, and there are a lot of false teachers, and the diplomacy that steers us around speaking out probably isn’t helping. This film reminds us to “be sober, be vigilant, because.”