A Talk With Dan Merchant
Dan Merchant is an ordinary guy… as ordinary as a guy can be, that is, if you’ve spent several years working in TV production, put everything you own in hock to make your own movie, spent months walking around the country with inflammatory and contradictory bumper stickers pasted onto your coveralls, and then assembled it all into a powerful, moving, insightful, often hilarious, and yet somehow good-hearted skewering of the religious debates that have gripped America’s politics for the last two or three decades.
We daresay: if Dan Merchant’s Lord, Save Us From Your Followers gets much exposure, Bill Maher’s Religulous—which has now slipped to this fall’s release schedule—is going to look quite petty by comparison.
Merchant has created a fine, fine documentary—one that looks deeply at the human cost of sectarian and partisan squabbling—the band arguing, as it were, while passengers are drowning (to borrow Titanic as a metaphor). The Church, it seems, has come to care more for causes than for actual people, and Merchant is here to try to get the band to start playing music once again.
Be sure to read Mike Smith’s review of the film, which we ran at PtP last week. Also, the film is available online for a modest fee. Make sure you are using the latest version of Internet Explorer, and be prepared to wait for the entire film to finish downloading before hitting the “play” button.
Courtesy of the film’s national publicist, PtP Managing Editor Greg Wright had a chance to talk with Merchant over the phone about why he made this film.
If you had called at about five minutes to nine to start our interview, you would have found me in tears.
Dan Merchant: Oh, wow.
I was watching your film online—
DM: Oh, wow.
And I’d just gotten to the point where Tony Campolo was telling the story about Roger. And that’s heartbreaking.
DM: It is.
What happened to Roger is heartbreaking, and your film is a powerful indictment of the Church’s failure to demonstrate the compassion of Christ. So given your background—you state at the beginning of the film that you grew up in the Church, but that your own local church confused you—how did you come out of that confusion?
DM: I don’t know. I read the Word, I guess; I kept going to church. And what Jesus always said seemed to make sense to me—at some level—whether I always saw it consistently demonstrated around me or not. Eventually, after we were married, my wife and I found a church, and the pastor there “spoke English.” And I sort of locked on for good, there; and it’s a process, of course. But it’s a long journey to understand who God is, and what all this means, and who I’m supposed to be. And you know, I’m certainly in the middle of the journey. But I know lots of people—lots of people—who, when confronted with certain kinds of hypocrisy or when hurt by the Church, will slam the door for good and walk away. And there was always something that I knew was true and right—the message about the Gospel of love—so that at a certain point when I was mature enough, or ready to hear it and understand how it applied to me today, I engaged in a more complete way, I guess.
Do you think maybe it has something to do with expectations? Because I grew up in the Church, too; and as you and I have probably seen hundreds and hundreds of times, that sense of hypocrisy is so evident to kids who grow up in the Church. But I never, ever remember hearing any one of my Sunday School teachers or preachers tell us kids, “Oh, and by the way: expect to find that here.”
DM: You know, that’s a great point. Yeah, I found—and this is something that I’ve only learned more completely during the journey of making Lord, Save Us and writing the book as well—that so much of our religion ends up being fear-based instead of faith-based. You know we should be afraid of this group or that group. Or we should be afraid that the Devil is going to get us off course. Or we should be afraid of this, that, or the other thing—when, in fact, Jesus tells us that love is the thing that conquers fear, that beats back fear, that vanquishes it. So I wonder—and I had a pastor bring this up in relation to our movie—he says: “Wow, I don’t think we trust Grace”—whether we trust God’s truth. If we did, we wouldn’t be afraid of these things. We wouldn’t be afraid of these people. We wouldn’t be responding in this way.
Well, there’s always going to be fear, right? I mean, that’s an omnipresent thing, as you show in the film when Campolo says that “there has to be an enemy to be destroyed.” We’re always looking for an enemy. The question is: what’s the Christian response to the enemy?
DM: And you know what—frankly, it’s still a choice. It’s still a choice to be afraid in the face of the enemy. David wasn’t afraid of Goliath. So fear is a choice, I think.
True love, the Scripture says, casts out fear. Also, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” That doesn’t deny the fact that there are things to be afraid of, and that doesn’t deny the fact that there are enemies.
The question is: What’s the response to that fear? What’s the response to your enemies?
DM: Right, right. No, you’re right. That’s exactly right.
One of the ladies that you interview in the film—I forget which one it was—says, “If we had the courage to act in public the way that we do in private, maybe things could change.” And yet, here’s the thing: Non-Christians—or the secular culture—don’t, I think, have the sense that there’s anything terribly wrong about what they do in private. In the Church, though, as kids, that’s one thing we’re definitely taught: you know, “Be careful little hands what you do. Be careful little eyes what you see.” Because, basically, the things that you do in private are the things that God is waiting for to squash you like a bug.
DM: That’s a catchy tune, by the way, the way I learned it.
DM: But actually what McKinley was referring to—that singer who was in the Culture War Game Show—was their friendly, open, honest conversation—
DM: That they were having in private; and then in public, they were sort of like, “Well, this is the armor we have to put on to represent our team.”
But you see, I think what’s going on there is that, as Christians, this is what we have been conditioned to think of as wrong: we are willing to have that dialogue in private—
DM: Oh, interesting! Oh, wow.
But we have this—
DM: Getting along with each other is our dark, dirty secret!
That’s right. Because everything that we do in private—everything that we’re not willing to do publicly, whatever it is—has got to be wrong. Because we’ve been conditioned to think that private stuff is just wrong.
DM: Yeah, that’s an interesting observation. You might have a point there.
So as I see it, there are maybe two ways that we could change the way we do Church. Number one: teach our children to expect to find hypocrisy in the Church; in fact, we’ll talk about it a lot, we’ll point it out as we go, so it’s not up to kids to discover it for themselves or from someone else outside the Church when they get older and therefore become disillusioned. And the second thing is to change the way we teach our kids to think about what they do in private: that God is there with them anyway, not watching “up above” to “look down” on them and come squish them like a bug.
DM: You know it is indeed a matter of focus, and it does matter how we tell the story. You’re totally right. This notion that the Church is commonly known for what we’re against versus what we’re for is a fascinating way to prioritize things. The idea that we don’t start with, “God is love. God loves everybody. God requires us—it’s not an option, not something we get to if we have spare time or energy enough today to do it—God requires us to love one another. That’s how we show Him we love Him.”
DM: The fact is that the conversation within the Church sometimes—sometimes—doesn’t start there. It starts with all the bad stuff around us, and “Let’s fight against the Devil.” Sometimes he gets more credit than he deserves, I think.
Well, yeah. The defense that a lot of people will have against that line of thinking is: “Well, you know, the Good News is only the Good News if you know that you need it. So we must first, therefore, convince people that they need to hear the Good News before we get around to actually telling them the Good News.”
DM: But the question is: How do we go about doing the convincing?
Well, and my personal feeling is: My gosh! Everybody knows that they do something wrong. No matter what culture or subculture you’re in, there are cultural codes that people are willingly violating—knowledgeably, all the time. Nobody needs to be convinced that they do things wrong.
DM: You’re right. Nobody is walking around under the assumption, “Well, I’m doing this perfectly!”
So why can’t we just take that as a given, and get right straight to it?
DM: Well, one of the things that I certainly found while making the movie—as you pointed out at the start of this interview—is the lack of the Church’s compassion at times. One of the other things I think the film points out (and I guess I’ll see if you agree with me) is that when we do—and we often do—show compassion, and do great works of self-sacrifice, meeting the needs of others where they’re at—that is a language that, regardless of your cultural upbringing or your faith upbringing, people understand and respond to.
DM: So it’s not a kind of “faith vs. works” argument. It’s: “If you want to convince somebody that this is the Good News, here’s a really easy way—show them.”
Yes; and as your use of the confessional booth in the film shows, people are more than willing to confess the things that they’ve done wrong if they’re convinced that you’re willing to do the same—and, if you do it first, boy: the floodgates open.
DM: They do. Yeah. Boy. That was a little social experiment to test God’s Grace. It turns out His lovingkindness is pretty powerful.