Interview: “Armor of Light,” the Documentary about Faith and Guns

Interview: “Armor of Light,” the Documentary about Faith and Guns

Posted on November 4, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Armor of Light is a thought-provoking new documentary with important insights for everyone on all sides of the debate on guns. Documentarian Abigail Disney made a film about two people who are making a faith-based case for addressing gun violence to conservatives.

Reverend Robert Schenck is an evangelical clergyman who has been very active in opposing abortion and Lucy McBath is the mother of a teenager who was shot and killed by a man who tried to claim the “stand your ground” law as a defense.

Copyright 2015 Fork Films
Copyright 2015 Fork Films

I spoke with all three of them in Washington, D.C. as the movie was opening around the country.

Schenck explained that being raised Jewish and converting to Christianity gave him an appreciation for different perspectives. “My mother was actually a convert to Judaism in order to marry my father and all the children were raised Jewish but that was our story. So already there were boundaries that had been crossed and that brought different cultures into the family. So that’s very important but I think probably more than anything the way my Jewish experience informed this was in the kind of traditional way of approaching a puzzling question. There is a long history in Judaism of asking questions and listening to lots of voices and perspectives. I mean it’s Talmudic, it’s Midrashic but that’s the way it’s done. And it takes sometimes a long time, it can take centuries to come to a conclusion. And I do think even though there is an urgency about this question of gun violence, of course lives are on the line, it’s matters of life and death that brings an urgency to the question. At the same time it’s profound enough to demand at least a period of contemplation. Growing up with the rabbis arguing and not necessarily in hostile, confrontational ways but arguing a question to its conclusion and sometimes hearing scores of opinions on that. You read the Talmud, you read the Torah portion and then the commentary and the commentary on the commentary and the commentary on that. This question is worthy of that kind of investigation so in that way it’s been very, very helpful to me.”

McBath spoke of reaching out to people through their shared faith. “How deeply and morally are they really willing to be the face of God, to walk out their faith? I challenge them all the time in saying ‘What does the Bible say? What does Jesus specifically say we are to do and be and do you really believe that your line of thinking is in line with the moral precepts of Jesus?’ I try to push them and challenge them to think morally about gun violence and not so much through fear.”

Fear is something both McBath and Schenck try to address. Schenck said, “Faith it is a certain antidote to fear and I do think in many cases this is a failure of faith. And of course I include myself in that. I mean I’m not finger-wagging because there are many, many occasions when I fail in faith and when I experience fear, not so much over this kind of question of physical safety. I don’t experience much of that fear but other kinds of fear. So this is really a challenge to faith and I think it is one of the reasons why pastors are key players in this. The pulpit is a place where faith is fostered and gun shops are places where fear is fostered. So I think pastors or spiritual communities in general need to play a key role but it may be the most important for our evangelical community because research shows over and over again that the pulpit, the pastor and the preaching that occurs within the evangelical community is really the most persuasive and important source for that. And one of the problems is of course pastors have been largely silent on this question of gun ownership use, self-defense, all of the questions that surround this gun violence. And that creates the vacuum that I addressed in the film. I’ve always spent a lot of time on is the crisis of fear within the Christian community.”

Though her views on politics and faith have little overlap with McBath and Schenck, Disney said working with them was “Such a pleasure. When I first met Rob of course I was expecting cloven hoofs but I obviously encountered a lovely human being who’s eloquent and intelligent and well read. Shame on me for assuming otherwise. So it was pretty quickly that we were able to put aside differences. It was a conscious decision from the onset. I said, “We could fight or we could just take that and put it aside and choose to inhabit everything else,” and it turns out there’s a lot else. And generally when you choose to inhabit everything but your political differences you find your way up above politics. And because I came from a different kind of childhood than adulthood I live in I’m used that. I think of it as being politically bilingual. I always refer to Thanksgiving dinner because everybody knows about the Thanksgiving dinner. So you still love people, even with the most violent deep disagreements about politics but your values are never all that far apart. So I definitely tapped into my experience growing up at odds almost all the time with my family to sort of discipline myself to remember that I love people and we are different. So it’s been good for me because I have been living in Manhattan for a long time with all the fellow travelers stuck on one island together reinforcing each other’s point of view. It took some discipline for me to kind of not engage sometimes and I wanted to fight about an issue. There were a couple times that I didn’t hit someone over the head but it has been such a pleasure.”

She went on: “First and foremost I wanted to reach people who weren’t already on the same page with me about everything violence related. I mean this is not about guns; it’s about violence and the particular American relationship with violence which is unlike I think another country and any other time. It’s a particular problem and I don’t think we look at it or frankly address it very often and so I wanted all stripes politically and socially to sit down and have a frank conversation about it. So we’re looking to engage with Christians in part because evangelicals are the group of people most likely to want guns and most likely to say that they are pro life but the depth of the inconsistency between those positions is profound and troubling to me. But I also want to engage liberals too because I think my liberal friends have a smugness that needs to be challenged and they’re quite certain about how bad other people are on the other side of the fence or so forth or so stupid or the rest of it and I really want to challenge us on that too because I’m uncomfortable with people being too comfortable. So I just wanted to stir it up.” They are making some screenings of the film free to NRA members.

McBath, whose father was an example of activism through his work with Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights movement, reaches out to the faith community on gun violence. “I just knew as a woman of deep faith that that had to be part of the culture of gun violence prevention specifically from the lobbyist of view, from an activist point of view, that if this was not incorporated in a spiritual way in faith that they were never going to be successful. That’s a huge element that has to be addressed because it is the evangelical and the white conservative Christian community that so entrenched in this gun culture and so specifically in faith. So that’s how I kind of evolved into the faith and community outreach leader in every town. I kind of created my own position.” While she did not always understand as a child what her father was working on, “I knew what that he was doing was important. I did understand from my father the urgency to always make sure that people were protected civilly and humanely protected. I understood from my father very early on that prejudice was wrong and that a segregated country was wrong and that it always had to be addressed, always had to be watched. We always had to continue to fight because my father did teach us that to remain free you always have to be very diligent and protecting that freedom. I know that it’s my role to specifically make sure that the work of God is deeply incorporated in this work. It has to be, there is no other way to do it.” She is working with Everytown and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

Reverend Schenck is working with the pastor community to bring the message to their congregations through an online forum called Narrow the Road. “Evangelicals brag about the fact that we don’t have a structured hierarchy to the church, we don’t have bishops and archbishops but then again we have very influential personalities who others will almost obediently follow. Yesterday we met with one of the leading evangelicals in America. He is at the top tier of influence. We received a relatively warm welcome and he indicated the willingness to talk about, to really seriously examine the issue but at this point privately, quietly not publicly, behind closed doors. Well, that’s progress because we hope that we can get to a place where he feels strong enough about it to actually venture his convictions as they emerge in the public setting so that’s one way.” But he has lost friends and supporters over this issue. “Right now is a pretty lonely road for me. So that’s costly and there will be other pastors who will face the same consequences. I hope maybe I can be literally an encouragement to them, I hope I can give them courage, and we can give each other courage and then a create a critical mass where there is strength in numbers and eventually I hope a small group of us can come out and thereby encourage as many many other pastors who in turn have influence on their congregations.”

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Directors Interview

Heaven is for Real

Posted on April 15, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material including some medical situations
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Child very ill, discussions of death
Diversity Issues: Assumption that all faiths have or should have the same beliefs about heaven
Date Released to Theaters: April 16, 2014
Date Released to DVD: July 21, 2014 ASIN: B00KDK64DY

heavenisforrealA movie like “Heaven is for Real” requires two different reviews, one for believers/fans of the 1.5 million-volume best-selling book, one for those who are unfamiliar with the book and whose views about faith and heaven and proof may differ from the evangelical beliefs of the Wesleyan pastor who wrote the book about his son.  The first group will find what they are looking for.  Anyone else is unlikely to feel enlightened or inspired.

Nebraska clergyman Todd Burpo co-wrote Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, the story of his not-yet-four-year-old son Colton, who told his parents about a visit to heaven when he “lifted up” during abdominal surgery.  On that visit, he said, he sat on Jesus’ lap and spoke to two family members.  He described the bright colors of heaven and Jesus’ horse.

Fans of the book and those who share Colton’s ideas about heaven will find the movie skillfully made by co-writer/director Randall Wallace (“Secretariat,” “Braveheart”) and very true to the story that Burpo tells. Others may find what is very much a four-year-old’s concept (he asked the angels to sing him Queen’s “We Will Rock You”) limited and cloying.  This is very much a self-congratulatory closed loop wish fulfillment idea of heaven, where everyone is young and healthy and we are reunited with everyone we lost (apparently everyone of our faith, anyway), even those who died before birth.

Greg Kinnear is likeable as always as a father coping with the stress of many different commitments and pressures.  He has a devoted wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly of “Flight”) and two darling children.  But his garage door business is suffering in the depressed economy.  He is also a volunteer fireman and a high school coach as well as pastor of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church.  He has had some injuries and health problems.

And then what they think is stomach flu turns out to be Colton’s burst appendix and he is rushed to the operating room.  While Sonja calls church members to ask for their prayers, Todd goes to the hospital’s chapel and cries out to God over the unfairness of putting his little boy at risk.

Colton (Connor Corum, a cute kid with a nice natural presence but no actor) recovers.  After he is home, he matter-0f-factly begins to tell his parents about his experiences in heaven.  At first, they are dismissive, but then Todd and, later Sonja are convinced, based on details he shares about people and events he could not have known.  Todd allows a reporter to write about Colton.  Members of the church are concerned, but they, too, become convinced.

Those who are already believers, especially fans of the book who want to see the story on screen, are likely to be very satisfied with this well-produced and sincere portrayal of the Burpo’s story, and it is for them that the movie gets a B grade.  Those from other faith traditions, seekers, and skeptics are unlikely to be convinced, however.  For many people, the “proof” from Colton’s stories is easily explained away or the vision he describes is substantially different from their understanding of God and the afterlife.  The one consistent reaction from viewers is that both believers in this specific idea and those who are not will both find their views re-affirmed by this movie.

Parents should know that this movie includes a seriously ill child and discussions of miscarriage and loss.  There is some marital sexual teasing.

Family discussion:  Ask family members for their ideas of what heaven is like and research different faith traditions and their views of heaven.

If you like this, try: the book by Todd Burpo and Diane Keaton’s documentary Heaven

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Based on a book Based on a true story DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Spiritual films
Interview: Carl Christman of ‘Selling God’

Interview: Carl Christman of ‘Selling God’

Posted on April 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Carl Christman, writer/director of the documentary Selling God, answered my questions about his film, an exploration of the way that fundamentalists market their religion.

How did you come to this project?

My films are a form of catharsis. I have many opinions about the major issues in life and feel the overwhelming desire to share my ideas. In past films I have dealt with War and Patriotism (Freedom Fries) as well as Terrorism and Fear (Culture of Fear.) The topic of religion seemed to be worthy of discussion.

How do evangelicals differ from other religious groups in spreading their religion?

Most religions movements work to spread their message. What sets the evangelical movement apart, and prompted me to focus on it in this film, is the skill with which they do it. They have very effectively used all forms of media and marketing to get their message out.

Are evangelicals successful in converting outsiders? In retaining those who grew up in the faith?

Judging by the continued growth and increased power of the evangelical movement I would say they are very effective at converting outsiders.

What do they consider the biggest threat to their way of belief?

There seems to be a feeling among many evangelicals that they are under attack from secularism. Since secularism is basically defined as being non-religious this means that religion is under attack from non-religion. Since three quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christian, however, I do not see Christianity as being in any danger.

Are they a political force?

The evangelical movement is definitely a political force. Evangelicals make up roughly a quarter of all Americans. This is a highly prized demographic for politicians and has tipped the balance in many elections.

How are some evangelicals like people who market books or music or other consumer goods?

My point in this film is to show how the marketing of religion is very similar to the marketing of anything else. The same techniques are used whether one is selling clothing or cars, soda or salvation.

Who do you think is the audience for this film?

Selling God has different audiences that watch the film for different reasons. Those that are not religious are likely to view it from the outside as a critique on the evangelical movement. Evangelicals are likely to watch the film and relate to the examples I offer, often on a personal level. In talking to people that grew up in the various denominations I dealt with in the film I found that they were amused by my unique take on the religious customs they had often taken for granted.

Did the evangelical community respond?

Most of my evangelical friends thought this was a thought-provoking critique. They did not necessarily agree with all of my conclusions, but they certainly enjoyed the process of exploration.

Do you see hypocrisy in the way that Christianity is marketed?

I do not see the marketing of Christianity as hypocritical. There is nothing that I am aware of in the tenets of Christianity that opposes marketing. Many people will not like talking about Christianity in terms of marketing, because they view it as being above such earthly techniques. I, however, have enjoyed applying the well-known consumer paradigm to the world’s largest religion. Hopefully this film offers a unique perspective on religion.

What good works do the members of this community support (other than trying to make converts)?

The Christian community has established many important institutions that improve all of our lives. I went to Christian schools from pre-school through college and I now teach at a Christian university.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in making the movie? What surprised you?

The biggest challenge in making this movie was trying to get access. Much of the footage I wanted to use was not easily available and many of the people I wanted to interview were not willing to speak with me. When I did have people welcome me with open arms it really stood out. I remember being outside the local Unitarian Church getting some shots from the street. When some of the parishioners saw my camera operator and myself outside, they invited us into their church, allowed us to film inside and spoke with us about their faith. I found their openness very refreshing.

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Directors Documentary Interview
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