MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
On Netflix Streaming:
Directed by Joshua Marston. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Martin Sheen.
Things were really going well for Bishop Carlton Pearson (Ejiofor). It was 1998 and he was on the fast track as a renowned Pentecostal preacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma and a beloved protégé of Oral Roberts (Sheen). His Higher Dimensions Church in Tulsa drew hundreds of worshipers every week and was noted for its community outreach as well as its multiracial congregation. Like Oral Roberts, Pearson was developing a presence as a television evangelist.
As a person of integrity, Pearson not only believed in the power of Christ to forgive and save sinners, but in the absolute necessity of conversion to save a person from Hell. Early in the film Pearson visits Gilbert (Danny Glover), a relative in prison who pleads with him to say a word for his parole. Pearson’s sense of retributive justice keeps him from acting upon this request, leading to a tragic ending for Gilbert. But, in the eyes of his congregation, he did the right thing. The availability of Jesus Christ to change lives keeps no one out of heaven, but people have to make a faith decision or else face the consequences.
Then, things changed for Bishop Pearson. After watching a television report about starvation and genocide in Rwanda, he goes off for a time of prayer, questioning God about why innocent children would go to Hell. He discerns that a God who would create such a worldview would be “a monster”. Since Pearson does not consider his God to be a monster, he turns to scripture to find a message of grace instead.
When he begins to share his epiphany with his congregation that a loving God could not send innocent people to Hell, he soon discovers the special kind of Hell that is reserved for preachers who assume that they could be more loving than God. His transformation leads to his disassociation with Oral Roberts, the abandonment of his friend in ministry (Jason Segel), and the exodus of hundreds of church members. Pearson is now a media sensation of a different kind.
Come Sunday’s fact-based story is worth your time and attention, regardless of your theological position, because it reminds us (as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted many years ago) that real grace is not cheap, but costly. When your faith expands your circle of caring to the place where it offends religious people, you are likely moving in the right direction. It is a sad reality that many Christians hesitate to take courageous steps of faith because of the price that would have to be paid. The United Methodist Church celebrates Wesleyan grace and the open table of sacramental fellowship, but also has a judicial council in place to make sure that our theology adheres to our Book of Discipline. Because our church polity is up for review every four years, theological certitude is a moving target.
Although there is nothing spectacular about this story’s retelling, it is anchored by a truly great performance by Ejiofor as well as a script that treats every character with compassion and sympathy. This is one movie that respects belief enough to treat it seriously, knowing that untested faith is not faith at all. May we all be open to God’s Holy Spirit and the ways in which Christ intends to “remold us, make us, like Thee divine”.
Five halos: A thoughtful biopic centered on questions of eternity and God’s grace.
One pitchfork: Brief swearing.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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