The conversation between spirit and law is illustrated in the new film Come Sunday, about how Pentecostal bishop Carlton Pearson found himself on the outside of the community he helped lead when his beliefs about love and hell evolved. Directed by Joshua Marsten from Marcus Hinchey’s script, and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Pearson (a magnificent, immersive performance) and Martin Sheen as Oral Roberts (tender and authoritative), Come Sunday was originally a story on This American Life. I grew up in a similar church, and thinks that Come Sunday is one of the least cliched and most authentic depictions of Christians I’ve ever seen. Crafted well enough to remind me of earlier lower budget dramas with compelling central performances, such as Kramer vs Kramer and Do the Right Thing - there isn’t a discordant note in this film. It really moved me, and I’m grateful that it exists. I had a chat with This American Life producer and host Ira Glass about the film.
Ira Glass: I don’t know much about religion, so I’ve been both excited to do [this interview] and pre-empt your profound disappointment or meet your expectations exactly!.
Gareth Higgins: I think the film’s really beautiful, complex and surprising. I knew it was going to be authentic when I saw that the Bible in the opening sequence has so many handwritten notes in the margins - that’s an authentic depiction of evangelical bibles.
Glass: Well that’s actually Carlton’s bible!
Higgins: I wondered about that… The obvious question now is that with so many stories on This American Life that would lend themselves to being filmed, why this one?
Glass: Although we have lots of stories that have a cinematic quality, it’s rare that we have a story that can sustain a three act screenplay with enough length that it can be a real film. That said, there are still dozens, and from the time this was on the radio we were interested in this being a film - partly because it was a great story, and it always seemed to us to be a classic structure of a man who stands up for what he believes in against a doubting world, and then the last thing which made us interested in making it into a film has to do with the way that Christians are usually portrayed in the press and in films. There was a period when I came to realize that there was a huge gap between the evangelical Christians in my life and the way I saw Christians portrayed by the media, and I became very aware that in news coverage or the rare time that Christians would show up in a TV show they would be like the neighbor on The Simpsons. They would be unidimensional figures who would be corny do-gooders or shrill, intolerant people; yet the people I was close to who either were deeply religious or had been, were nothing like those depictions. They were thoughtful, and compassionate, and really did try to think in a serious way about what Jesus would want them to do, and try to react to the world in a more complicated and loving way. So there was a period on our show where there was an ongoing project to do a lot of stories about Christians - [recognizing that] it was just a badly covered group in America.
As a documentary maker it was exciting to get in there - it was funny to me, as a Jew, with most of the country being Christian it’s really weird that the media would get this so wrong. This is a lot of people, a very big target. One of the things that was exciting about Carlton’s story is that it was a story that took place completely within the church, it wasn’t like outsiders coming in like anthropologists to understand and explain - it took place entirely in the world of the church. I find it moving in the scenes when Carlton’s friends say “I wish the Bible say this, but it doesn’t; and brother I don’t want you to go to hell.” Like, I’m worried for you - and it’s not said in a scolding way, but by people who worry for him. I felt excited to be able to get a story like that out there that could portray how this part of the country works. The director and screenwriter were super careful to avoid making it a heroic story where Carlton’s right and everyone else is wrong. The people in the church who are upset have a reason to be upset…that we’re not taking lightly what the friends are saying.
Higgins: Why do you think the judgmental portrayal of Christians has prevailed for so long? I want to say that I think a lot of it is deserved, not when it gets into the dehumanizing kind of rhetoric, but why do you think there’s such a dissonance?
Glass: You know that’s an entirely reasonable question, but I’ve never given it any thought at all - let me hear your thoughts on it?
Higgins: I think it’s because mainstream Christian-ish culture has been in power for so long, and no matter who you are, no matter how benign your exercise of power has been, you’ll get taken down after a while, so there’s almost a naturally occurring kind of thing in the universe - like all political careers end in failure. Then I think underneath that there’s been a brand of Christian nationalism that’s been very loud, and I say this advisedly as an immigrant and one who grew up in a place where there was a religiously-inflected conflict, the particular brand of Christianity that took hold in the mainstream in the US has a shadow side that’s to do with service being confused with exercising power as fear. It rang true to me when Carlton says in the film “I preached fear so much that I became afraid not to preach it.”
I suppose it’s that the exercise of power by some of the kinds of men who have risen to the surface in the rugged individualist way that America does so well doesn’t lend itself towards humility, kindness, and inducing a sense of safety in the world. Now that’s the shadow as I see it, there’s lots of goodness and generosity in the system also; and then of course there’s always a contradiction between the individuals you meet and your perceptions of the systems they come from. Much the same way is that when people meet me and hear I’m Irish they always make drinking jokes and fighting jokes, because that’s the stereotype. I don’t think there’s necessarily any animus behind it, I think just that people default to superficial memory, and I also tend to think people who’ve gone to work in the media have tended to not be the most religious people. This is understandable, because lots of people have had bad experiences of religion, but I don’t think they were being fair in their assessment. It’s not fair to treat the worst examples of something as being representative.
Glass: This is a really good example of a moment in an interview where you’ve said things that are so much better than what the interviewee has to offer! That seemed very interesting - you’re opinions have now become mine!
Higgins: [Laughs]. Well let me ask a question about you that only you can answer: Why do you think you are curious rather than judgmental? If I am interpreting your public work and This American Life generally, it seems to me to be more curious than judgmental.
Glass: Well I think I am that way by disposition, and then once I started to do stories I realized that that’s an approach to story that opens up a lot of feeling, and a lot of things that aren’t covered by other people. There are plenty of people out there who do work that’s more judgmental, and some of that work is amazing, but it just seemed like a way to get at things that other people weren’t saying.
Higgins: So what happens when you know that people of influence are expressing beliefs that are damaging to others? How do you try to have a dialogue with people like that? The film certainly seems to be respectful, seeking truth and not insulting its characters.
Glass: Our screenwriter spent hundreds of hours talking to Carlton, and he does seem to be a very accurate reporter of his own story; even the private conversations that Oral had about his gay son. In fact we showed the screenplay to someone very close to Oral Roberts, and his response was that it actually captured something about Oral. Everything we have him say is stuff that Carlton said happened. With Oral like with anybody else, we tried to accurately capture who they are. I didn’t know just how much of an innovator Oral Roberts was, that he moved evangelism to television, and that he was a very progressive force for integrating the church. I didn’t know much about him except for the corny TV preacher image I had of him - so all of this was just an attempt to get the story right. And I have to say I don’t know if this is good or bad, but it was pleasing to think that there would be a lot of people in a public radio audience who wouldn’t have a sympathetic feeling about Oral Roberts going in and would be forced to confront other sides of him that they didn’t know.
Higgins: I think a lot of times these guys get treated as if they’re cynics, but they believe what they say; your film is honest enough to admit that rather than going for cheap shots. I think you’ve managed to do something that people thought had gone away - you’ve made a compelling drama with extraordinary talent, and it didn’t cost $100 million to make!
Glass: Can I say that weirdly getting the actors is the easiest part - a lot of actors want to do things of this quality, and it doesn’t take long to shoot. Just last week I saw this incredibly wonderful film, Outside In, by Lynn Shelton. It has a low budget, and the cast is amazing - Edie Falco is just mind-blowing, and she’s super happy to be in that film because the part’s amazing. So the actors aren’t the problem. It does seem like Amazon and Netflix have brought back that space between the $1 million and $150 million film, but who knows how long it’s going to last?