NOTE: See trailer for the film at bottom of post.
Dan Merchant’s new documentary, “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers,” is a timely film, both in its use of popular documentary film techniques and its approach to Christians. In a time when the loudest voice usually wins the day, here is a film that is surprisingly pleasant. It follows Merchant across the country as he seeks to understand the widening gap between faith and culture. With both sides of the isle locked in fisticuffs, how do you determine progress? Has the winner changed anyone’s mind? Is the only reason they’re declared the winner because the other side simply stopped arguing and walked away?
It is a sad case, indeed, when most popular documentaries are taking their cues from reality TV. They’re about gimmicks, not stories. Still, plenty of people are doing good, interesting work. Places like the “True/False Film Festival” in Columbia, MO showcase dozens of well-crafted, smart documentaries each February. Merchant’s film bats a little over .500 in this department. He works for an advertising company in Oregon, and there are times when he undercuts the film’s power by over-emphasizing clever-packaging. The film opens with “South Park”-inspired, paper-cutouts of celebrities and politicians and we watch while their fake mouths go up-and-down while their comments play. The comments are interesting, but the visuals feel cheap. It doesn’t really work.
The gimmicks that do work, though, are some of the most surprising, because they place Merchant himself in front of the camera, which is usually death for a documentary. And here’s the difference. When he shows up, he acts as a springboard. He’s listening, not preaching. He has a character called “Bumper-sticker Man” which is him in white coveralls with bumper-stickers from all faiths and creeds plastered on it. He walks around and asks people to talk about anything they like or dislike. He doesn’t argue with them, doesn’t try to convince them of anything. He records. He documents. He shuts up.
What also surprised me is how fair he was. A Christian himself, the first half of the film details the ways Christians miss the mark. From people explaining their perceptions of Christians to showing clips of Christians doing it all wrong, the film lets both sides speak for themselves. One of the most interesting moments is when Merchant sets up a fake game-show, “Family Feud” style. There is an entire set, the 3 camera set-up, the works. On one team are Christians; the other team, non-Christians. The goal of the game is to see which team understands the other side better. When asked about reasons for abortion, the Christians easily came up with answers like, because the victim was raped. But it was the non-Christians who got points because they understood that for some, no reason is needed. The Christians were stunned. The final score wasn’t even close. The Christians lost something like 275-50. Merchant repeated the game with college students: Christians vs. non-Christians. The Christians got shut-out.
What’s brilliant about the documentary is it didn’t try to cover the mistakes the Christians made. It highlighted them. Merchant set up a neutral experiment and reported its results, even when they aren’t flattering to his own beliefs. If all we know about the other side is what we’ve been taught on a Sunday morning, then we don’t know very much at all.
The point of the film, though, isn’t that Christians are stupid. It isn’t even that it’s all our fault. Later, he shows non-Christians going on World Hunger trips and their interviews afterwards are eye-opening. They are blown away by the love the Christians show, by their hearts for young children, by how much they give. The film’s most powerful sequence shows a group of Christians in Portland setting up under a bridge one night to feed, clothe and serve the homeless. They wash feet. They talk to them, hug them. There’s no sermon attached to it, no forced-message on top of it. Just love.
Another powerful sequence is also set in Portland, during a Gay-Pride celebration. Merchant sets up a Confession Booth. But once again, he inverts the gimmick. When people come in, Merchant sits them down and begins his confession. He apologizes for the behavior of the Church toward homosexuals. He apologizes for things he’s done to make it worse. He asks them for forgiveness. And you know what, it’s genuine. Almost everyone we see enter the booth thanks him for saying these things. They begin talking. Once again, the film doesn’t show it directly resulting in the conversion of any of these people. It just shows Christ’s love. That’s our part. God does the saving.
Watching these sequences and the reactions of the people, hearing them begin to open up about themselves, watching a dialogue begin by two people from such opposing sides, it is subversively powerful. It sets an example. This is a film that challenges Christians deeply and directly.
The film spreads itself a little thin at times, trying to cover every single possible topic. Its structure begins to spin out of control during the middle third, going too many places for too little time, and the result is an overload. Still, because of the number of great sequences, because the film ultimately isn’t interested in placing blame, because it documents reactions and events instead of staging them to make a pre-determined point, it is a very good film. It is also a decidedly Christian one. Now that’s what I’m talking about.