The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
The life of evangelical (or mainline Protestant) churches and their spiritual leaders has been central to plots of some recent films and series. These stories about ministers and preachers have been produced mostly from a critical approach to the church culture – except when the projects were brought by what is known as the Christian film industry.
Premiering in August 2019 is the new HBO series The Righteous Gemstones. It shows with cutting humour the ‘ministry’ of three generations of TV preachers who belong to the same family. Their double life, the luxury that surrounds them (the use of private jets included), their very conservative views on issues like the role of women, their pop star apparitions, and the understanding of religion as some kind of family enterprise; all appear in a series that revolves around the stereotypes of a certain kind of American evangelicalism.
The issue of the power placed in the hands of some evangelical pastors was also addressed by another recent comedy, Salvation Boulevard. The pastor of a mega-church (Pierce Brosnan) uses his authority to make sure his devout parishioners defend him when a case of manslaughter is denounced inside his church.
The film industry has also taken interest in the doctrinal split between ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’. Especially when evangelicals have debated around what the Bible teaches about LGBT relationships.
In 2018, Netflix produced Come Sunday, a film about the life of Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a pastor who throughout his ministry growingly distanced himself from the biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality. His faith crisis led him to establish a new church in which hell and the wrath of God were no longer taught.
Also in a reflexive mood, First Reformed (with Ethan Hawke) describes the loneliness and despair of a Protestant minister faced with the task of lifting up the faith of a small congregation. A life marked by deep wounds and personal failure pushes him towards his emotional and spiritual limits.
All these films tend to represent the common places of the American culture, which in many aspects has few to do with the European church context.
Nevertheless, watching these and other stories about evangelical pastors is a good exercise to open a conversation about blind spots in our churches.
Is there a magnification of the figure of the spiritual leaders? Are there unresolved theological issues which can ultimately lead to a church crisis? Do our pastors suffer from loneliness and a “hidden vulnerability” they are not allowed to express? Are some of them suffering depression or other mental health issues?
These questions remind us of the need of going back to the biblical principle (unearthed by the Reformers) of the priesthood of all believers.
Every Christian is a minister in the Latin meaning of the word: he/she serves God and other people. Pastors of course have an important role in local churches, but they should not carry the weight of being some kind of intercessors before God. May we appreciate them for what they are: followers of Jesus called by God to encourage other believers in the task of accomplishing the Great Commission.