By: debbie lynn elias
Never has the embracing of pop culture consumerism by religion been so succinctly, and interestingly, explored until AMERICAN JESUS. While some may find it quizzical that Aram Garriga, a Spanish director, is making a documentary about Christianity in America, once we look below the surface, the interest and inquiry is not at all unusual. With few exceptions, the United States among them, around the globe Christianity is viewed simply as “Christianity”. You meet someone and ask them their religious denomination and you will generally get a one word answer, i.e., Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, Protestant, etc. In the United States, however, there has long been a very vocal and distinct specificity of the sub-sects within the broader spectrum, e.g., Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Evangelical, Unitarian. But thanks to a perfect marriage of pop culture consumerism and religion (not to mention the tax benefits of tithing, which seems mandatory within all sects, and the precious 501(c)3 non-profit status of religion as a whole), those sects have only increased in number, leading to an over-crowded, convoluted array of devotees who proclaim Christ as their savior. Or do they?
Through the lens of director Aram Garriga we travel from sea to shining sea, across the purple mountain majesty and those amber waves of grain, exploring the multiplicity of extremist/radical Christian sects that have tapped into the pop culture zeitgeist, springing up over the past 40 or so years faster than weeds in a rose garden. Arena of the Life Cowboy Church, Vintage Faith Church (for surfers and skateboarders), San Diego Rock Church, Warriors of God (for MMA enthusiasts), Treasures Strip Club Ministry and XXXChurch.com (yep, sex and porn), Rushing Wind Biker Church and Crosby Church “Team Impact” (extreme feats of strength), are just a few of the “religious sects” attempting to lure the lost into a life of faith and fun.
As we meet each group, we hear from its founder or leader, are given the geographic locale of the church (definite trends emerge) and provided an explanation of the sect’s structure, foundational beliefs and their operational methods. Completely objective with his lensing, Garriga creates an intimacy that allows the audience to focus on each individual and the focus of his/her faith and church, as if sitting down for a one-on-one meeting with one’s own pastor. Notable is that with rare exception, the leaders are all male. The result is freeing and non-judgmental. While some of the newfound faithful fall into the category of stereotypical salvation, “I was lost but then found; I was into drugs and alcohol but I was saved; My parents abused me and I was on the street but found”, many, especially some of the young people we meet as part of the Vintage Faith Church, are clearly following a spiritual path of hope and inspiring positivity under the teachings of the Bible. Or are they? Is this just manipulation of malleable minds?
With an unfettered purity, at first blush the innocence and unwavering blind faith of those like the surfers and skateboarders of Vintage Faith, resonates to the outside audience, but then the dubious face of another sect, (i.e., communicating with snakes which feels more like a Harry Potter mash-up with someone from the house of Slytherin), detracts from what may have been “the real deal.” On one hand, Garriga tacitly tells us to be wary, not get too comfortable or be lulled into self-inflicted blindness, as the obsessiveness can and does cross the lines of ridiculum. On the other, it opens the limitless possibilities of hope. An interesting dichotomous editing that plays to everyone’s own doubts and emotions.
Structuring the documentary so as to give a basic understanding of these extreme, and often radical, forms of religious devotion, Garriga then brings in interviews with religious experts, sect members and even those that have left various groups, all adding educated and personal insight into the socio-political, cultural and economic integration of religion within the structure of the United States and its consumer-oriented foundation. Fascinating and informative is discussion on how consumerism has played into the hands of religion complete with marketing, Christian clothing lines and merchandising, as well as celebrity endorsement ( Northern Exposure’s Janine Turner, a devotee of “Christoga” espouses “It’s like going to church and the gym all in one.”) Religion is a product and it is successfully sold in its various and sundry forms. News footage of religious debate also gives depth to the documentary. Particularly standout is some broadcast footage commentary by Ron Jeremy, who weighs in not only as a legendary porn star, but as a former special education teacher holding a Masters in teaching. Jeremy has an interesting perspective on not only pornography and the church, but also influencing/converting young minds.
As if the finger of God himself came down from above and touched the cinematic canvas, the purity and simplicity of Benet Roman’s cinematography is breathtaking, showcasing the hidden beauty of gorgeous panoramic landscapes as well as intimate moments of devotion and personal revelation and reflection. Just watching Roman’s visuals will have you believing that only a higher power than ourselves could create something as beautiful as this land of ours. Also serving as editor, Garriga’s work is exemplary in terms of pacing and furthering the construct of the film, keeping one engaged not only from the opening shot, but through film’s end and beyond. The imagery and the content stick with you long after the sermon ends.
Could an insider, a devout Christian, have made a documentary like AMERICAN JESUS with the clarity and objectivity of Garriga? I seriously doubt it. Thoroughly researched, Garriga’s tenor maintains an anthropological objectivity and analysis, documenting evidentiary observations and positing questions that open the door for further discussion on a public and private level. Garriga takes no sides, plays no favorites, never belittles, passes no judgment. He opens our eyes through enlightening and illuminating observation.
One of the best, if not, the best documentary on Christianity in the United States today, lift your arms in prayer and say “Hallelujah” for AMERICAN JESUS.
Directed by Aram Garriga
Written by Xavi Prat and Aram Garriga