If Judge Jakob Ware is wrong about this one, he's going straight to hell.
"The Christian Church still is a franchise and a business. They're in the business of feeding upon people's weaknesses and guilt."—Bob Harvey, PhD, UCLA, Professor Emeritus
In the last few years there has been a boom of documentaries deconstructing organized religion. Jesus Camp showed us the process of religious indoctrination of the young, What Would Jesus Buy? gave us a view of the cynicism inherent in the annual Christmas shopping hysteria, and Bill Maher's Religulous argued for the complete abolishment of religion. Written and directed by the appropriately named Carl Christman, Selling God fits well with this collection of documentary films, and focuses on the evangelical movement within Christianity.
The hypocrisy of many evangelists is not news. In fact, in 1972 the Oscar for best documentary went to Marjoe, a film that presented evangelism as little more than a con.
Selling God expands on this argument and presents organized Christianity as a business offering peace of mind to the weak and the disturbed while lightening their purses. The film suggests that within Christianity it is not enough to believe, one must also spread the word of God and recruit new members, an essential step for making the movement grow. The greater a church's congregation, the film argues, the greater its profits. And what is the church's key asset, its main product? God, of course, and the connection to the divine.
The film leads us through this argument in a well-constructed and easy to follow manner, and with the help of a lighthearted and often sarcastic narrator. We are given a history of Christianity and its division into the many denominations that exist today. We are then shown a brief summary of the central pillars of marketing, the model on which most modern business is built. These include creating a need, offering a solution to that need, threatening some kind of catastrophe should the solution not be bought, and then instilling a sense of urgency in the potential buyer. Sound familiar?
Selling God then shows us the many similarities between this marketing model and the way in which the evangelist movement has used the message of Christ to fill its coffers over the centuries.
Celebrity evangelists including the colorful Jerry Fallwell, media mogul Pat Robertson, and "that kid from Growing Pains" Kirk Cameron are rolled out and archival footage featuring them putting their righteous feet in it and supporting the film's arguments are included. For instance, during one of his broadcasts for the Living Waters evangelical video channel, Cameron argues that when speaking to skeptics, a Christian must "learn to circumnavigate or go around a person's intellect, the place of argument, and speak directly to their conscience." Whoa! What?
I doubt that the filmmakers will be on any of these 'contributors' Christmas card lists.
Along the way, we are introduced to various PhDs and famous thinkers, including Noam Chomsky, all of whom offer a plain and direct analysis of modern Christianity as the business of faith and its place in our culture over the last two millennia. Interestingly, many of these experts are men of faith, themselves appalled by the commercialization of the same word of God they believe in.
The main flaw of Selling God is that it never presents any view that in any way contradicts its thesis. It is a totally one-sided argument, and it is delivered with a flippant tone. None of the evangelists whose archival footage is used to illustrate the filmmaker's points are given the opportunity to reply to the argument made against them. The whole enterprise is reminiscent of Michael Moore and similar activist type filmmaking.
However, behind all the jokes and wink-wink narration, there is a well researched, organized, and engagingly presented thesis. Even if one were not inclined to buy the arguments offered, there is enough substance here to at least leave the viewer contemplating some hard questions presented by the filmmakers. Sadly, as the film makes no attempt to present a balanced view of this emotionally charged topic, I doubt that it will convert any of the religious and faithful to its argument or even attract them enough to watch the film in its entirety.
The film's picture quality varies throughout as it contains footage obtained from various sources including old color and black and white film stock, video, etc. The interviews shot for the film look as if they were shot using HD camcorders. As all we received from the film's DVD distributor was a screener it is difficult to judge the quality of the transfer, but what I saw looked good enough for this documentary's scope. Likewise, the sound was always easily audible and discernible.
The sole extra that came with the screener was a trailer. I would have been interested to hear a commentary from director Carl Christman, or to see some extended versions of the interviews with the key interviewees. Whether these will appear on the final DVD release remains to be seen.
Selling God will no doubt make the Vatican's banned list. And this is a shame as the film has a solid argument to make and makes it well. Unfortunately, the film's tongue in cheek delivery will appeal only to the secular crowd and more than likely offend anyone who actually stands to learn something from it.
Not guilty, but sinful.
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