American Jesus review by Trylon volunteer David Berglund.
There is likely no more essential subject of study in a pursuit to understand American culture than Christianity. It is undeniable that the person of Jesus defines America – not because he holds the nation’s allegiance, but because no matter your worldview or theology, it remains inescapable to be defined by your view of him in some way. Even the most secular of Americans cannot avoid confronting and interacting with Christianity, as its influence is not only apparent in the many church buildings that pepper our landscape, but because its teachings have impacted the social and political lives of all citizens.
With American Jesus, filmmaker Aram Garriga examines how Christianity has shaped our nation and how Christian faith and practice has been shaped by broader cultural shifts. It is revealing, for example, that with the rise of prosperity and consumerism in Reagan’s America, the methods of Christian proselytism largely shifted from local communities and interpersonal charity to slick, sensory appeals. This shift reveals that where once Christianity created culture, it now quite often becomes subservient to it. Why, for instance, would there ever be a need for Bibleman, the Christian superhero, or Christoga, a Christ-centric yoga video? The answer is that in America, Christians many times are more concerned with fighting a battle for cultural relevance than knowing and sharing faith in the person of Jesus. While the film points to some Christians who are actively creating interesting works of art and honestly processing their faith, it rightly asserts that such figures find themselves with no real audience – too Christian for the art world, and too progressive or uncertain for the Christian world.
This Christian finds this disconcerting, as a polarized culture war leaves little actual room for Jesus. Indeed, for a film titled American Jesus, there is surprisingly little mentioned of him. While there is attention given to Christ’s more humble servants, it is the loudest and most forceful pushers of Christendom and their opponents that are given the film’s weight. This, of course, is fitting, as these are the voices that are likewise most noticeable in the culture at large.
Ultimately, however, it is the many shapes and shades of American Christianity in the film that both serve to make the film consistently interesting and somewhat disjointed. As there is so much variance in the Christian practice and theology presented in the film, its ultimate lament of culture war seems misaligned with the faithful and seemingly genuine voices of faith in the film that do not fit this warrior part so neatly. Nevertheless, American Jesus is interesting, engaging, and important. It commendably addresses a topic of great societal relevance that is rarely discussed without animus and calls us to enter a conversation with patience, thoughtfulness, and respect. To that, it is hard not to simply say, “Amen.”
David Berglund is a proud Longfellow resident and ardent cinema junkie who previously wrote on film with his wife, Chelsea Berglund, on their Movie Matrimony blog.
American Jesus screens Monday and Tuesday at 7:00 & 8:45. Purchase tickets here.