by Luke Oleen-Junk
Towards the end of American Jesus, Aram Garriga’s documentary about Christianity in America, we see a clip from a 1970's film about counterculture evangelist Francis Schaeffer in which a typewriter onscreen inscribes the words: "With no absolute by which to judge society, society itself becomes absolute." If the film could be said to have a thesis, this might be it. American Jesus attempts (and that’s a very strong use of the word “attempts”) to examine the ways in which American consumer culture has filtered into the practice of religious faith. In a nation where capitalism is the central religion, a staggering diversity of approaches to the same faith has flourished. Market drive and consumer incentive seem to have created a different version of Christianity for every imaginable subsection of American society—cowboys, surfers, indie rock weirdos, MMA fighters, dudes who like to break cinderblocks with their hands. It’s free market faith!
Director: Aram Garriga
Producers: Larry Fessenden, Aram Garriga, Brent Kunkle, Carles Torras
Writers: Aram Garriga, Xavi Prat
Cinematographer: Benet Román
Editor: Aram Garriga
Music: Erisian, Zlaya Hadzic
Cast: Pastor Keenan Smith, Mara Einstein, Mickey Stonier, Douglas Rushkoff, Billy Talen, Jason David Frank, Daniel Radosh, Kerri Pomarolli, Pastor Cleetus Adrian, Pastor Mack Wolford
Premiere: February 19, 2013 — Spanish Television
US Theatrical Release: May 14, 2014
US Distributor: Glass Eye Pix
What American Jesus ultimately reinforces is the idea that religion comes foremost from the human need for community. All of the congregations highlighted in this film are tailored to people already united by social, political, or geographic bonds. The challenge Christianity faces in such a diverse nation lies in finding ways to adapt effectively to such diverse subcultures. In exploring the myriad ways in which people have attempted to adapt an ancient tradition in a secular consumer society, a society in which community is already shaped on the level of shared consumer identity, one is left questioning the sincerity of a faith willing to turn itself into any other marketable commodity.
A compelling question, no doubt, and one which American Jesus is completely unwilling or unable to explore in any depth. In an attempt to cover as many diverse congregations as possible in just over an hour, the film turns into little more than a collection of interviews, a highlight reel of fanatics with no clear throughline. As eager as he is to move on to the next oddity, writer-director-producer-editor Aram Garriga does not stick with any one subject long enough for us to genuinely understand these people or the reasons that their religious faith has taken the shape it has.
For example, where did the anti-consumerist preacher Billy Talen’s hatred of consumerism and advertising come from, and does he realise that his anti-consumerist gospel is itself a form of advertising? Did the surfer church of Santa Cruz, CA begin with surfing, or church? What does the phrase “Christian yoga” even mean? There’s no exploration of any of this, because as soon as the film introduces a new subject we’re on to the next one. Granted, getting evangelists to openly examine the nature of their beliefs is akin to asking Gene Simmons to reflect on his misogyny (big ups to Terry Gross! you tried, Terry!), but Garriga’s seeming unwillingness to even attempt this suggests a profound lack of curiosity, if not outright cowardice.
Resulting from this lack of curiosity and shallow form is an undeniable sideshow aspect. While an outsider’s perspective can be valuable in understanding American culture, I must admit that I bristle at the thought of a European filmmaker (Garriga is Spanish) travelling the American South, pointing his camera at a variety of religious fanatics, and then naming the product something as generic and totalizing as “American Jesus.” At its best American Jesus is merely dismissive; at its worst it is downright condescending, particularly when addressing the tackier elements of Christian culture. Granted, Christian yoga and heavy metal are certainly laughable, but why show us infomercials for these products with little to no context and absolutely no follow up? Nothing new is revealed in this film and at times the only thing it seems to be saying is, “Get a load o’ this shit!” I have a mental image of the filmmaker and his friends sitting around running through archival footage of televangelists and ads for Christian action figures, laughing their asses off while drinking moscato and complimenting each other’s shoes.
To really understand how skin-deep and cowardly this picture is, consider its complete elision of African-American Christianity in any form. For all of the attempted breadth, not one black preacher is interviewed. Perhaps this is because it might require actual research and historical context to understand the role faith plays in African-American culture? Or because the filmmaker’s distance would be revealed for how alienating and condescending it truly is if a racial dimension were added?
I shouldn’t say that the film completely avoids black preachers. A brief clip of Martin Luther King Jr. is shown when an interview subject brings up the protests and counterculture of the 1960s. But all we’re shown there is less than a minute of the “I Have A Dream Speech,” and there is no attempt to explore the way religious faith animated and informed the civil rights movement. The only other black preachers in the film are seen in two brief clips of so-called “prosperity preachers,” whose gospel revolves around the acquisition of wealth. These clips are included as cutaways from an interview with Billy Talen in which he decries the materialism of modern Christianity. Without a discussion of the racial or economic origins of prosperity theology, the inclusion of this footage feels mostly like a punchline.
Probably it is unfair to accuse Garriga of outright racism; likely he gave as little consideration to this footage as he seems to have given to anything else in the film. The style here mostly suggests that he had an excess of material and absolutely no idea how to use it. Why else would there be a sequence showing Salvation Mountain, an astonishing fifty-foot high hand-painted artificial mountain and outsider art masterpiece in the desert of Southern California, without an explanation of what it is or an interview with the man who created it? Why is there a shot of a bridge from the window of a car while media theorist Douglas Rushkoff talks about apocalyptic thought and religious narratives?
Occasionally the film gets it right, as when early in the film the leader of Team Impact, a travelling show wherein bodybuilders perform feats of strength before preaching the gospel, explains his beliefs in voiceover while onscreen footage plays of men crushing giant blocks of ice and ripping phone books in half. The disconnect between word and image suggests the disconnect between his faith and the way he communicates it. About halfway through the film there is some absolutely electric footage of a Pentecostal snake handling church (the most compelling footage in the film, which gives lie to an assertion made earlier that there is no ecstatic tradition in American life; those cats know how to party for God). But this is shown with no explanation as to why the preacher onscreen is drinking whiskey and playing around with a venomous rattlesnake. (The practice is based on a literal interpretation of a verse in the Book of Mark which states “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” [Mark 16:18].) By not explaining the practice Garriga once again lets his film become just another freakshow.
As mentioned earlier, the majority of the film is given to talking head interviews with preachers and congregants, an approach which suggests that religion, even in the modern age, remains an oral tradition, another interesting idea which is completely avoided. I know that it’s pointless to state here that I would like this film if it were a different film, but there’s so much hinted at in American Jesus that could have been incredibly compelling and is instead incredibly absent. Towards the end it seems to develop something of a thesis as it shifts its focus to the political influence of the religious right, but by then it’s too little too late. That story, frankly, could be a complete film in its own right. In fact, any of the people interviewed for this film could have been the subject of a feature length documentary. And maybe, by settling on one or two subjects, Garriga could have achieved the kind of specificity and clarity that might actually help to illuminate the nature of American Christianity. As such, what we have here is a fertile failure which suggests all kinds of fascinating insights and which explores none of them.