The “megachurch pastor falls from grace” headline is tragically common these days, especially in the sort of celebrity-driven, post-institutional Christianity that Andy Crouch has written about recently.
The media narratives of these stories often depict the megachurch pastor as the villain and their church as the victim. Two newly released films flip this script, however, pitching the “I was once a megachurch pastor” narrative as a renegade hero’s journey. Netflix’s Come Sunday, about Pentecostal bishop Carlton Pearson, and documentary The Heretic, about Rob Bell, tell similar tales of prominent pastors who lost their congregations after they started “rethinking” hell and promoting messages of universalism.
These films pitch their protagonists—Pearson and Bell—as brave rebels who challenged a rigid, bigoted, staid religious establishment in radical and costly ways. But if that’s the case, why are these films so tedious and flat? Perhaps it’s because the supposedly groundbreaking “rethinking” these men advocate is nothing new—just boring old heresy in modern new clothes. Perhaps it’s also because the “radical” message of inclusion they present—a Christ-less, cross-less, repentance-free gospel of everything-affirming solidarity—is in no way subversive in today’s world. Rather, it’s the bourgeois gospel of Oprah and Disney movies and Eat, Pray, Love. Ho hum.
Dangers of Hearing ‘God’s Voice’
Based on a true story and adapted from an episode of Ira Glass’s This American Life, Come Sunday shows how Carlton Pearson (played by the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) went from being the celebrated pastor of one of Tulsa’s largest churches (Higher Dimensions Evangelistic Center) to being branded a heretic in the early 2000s.
After watching coverage of the Rwandan genocide on TV, the Pentecostal Pearson—a mentee of Oral Roberts (played in the film by Martin Sheen) and a TBN celebrity—became troubled with the idea of eternal torment for the scores of Africans who were dying without knowing Christ. He had previously accepted that some people went to hell, even members of his own family, because they had a choice, he tells his congregation in the film.
“But when did these people in Africa separate from God? When did they make a choice? How do they get saved?”
Pearson says he heard God’s voice, “clear as my own” say: “They don’t need to get saved. They’re already saved. . . . They will all be with me in heaven.’”
This doesn’t go over well in Pearson’s church. People walk out mid-sermon in droves. Mentor Oral Roberts is disturbed.
“That’s heresy son,” Roberts tells Pearson in the film. “Are you certain it was God’s voice that you heard, and not the Devil?”
But who could say for sure? Indeed, Come Sunday offers a cautionary tale about the abuses and theological confusion that can arise in charismatic cultures where “God told me” is common parlance and amplified by the “personal relationship” dynamics of individualistic evangelicalism.
Come Sunday offers a cautionary tale about the abuses and theological confusion that can arise in charismatic cultures where ‘God told me’ is common parlance and amplified by the ‘personal relationship’ dynamics of individualistic evangelicalism.
Formed by an evangelical culture more driven by personality and novelty than ecclesial accountability and historical continuity, Pearson ignores Roberts (among other advisers, including a pastor played by Jason Segel) and doubles down on his newfound universalism.
“God spoke to me and told me that all those people out there starving and dying in Africa without being saved, they’re all going to heaven,” Pearson says in one scene, offering his interpretation of 1 John 2:1–2 as proof: “It means Jesus died for everybody. That’s the literal meaning. . . . Everyone is already saved. That is the finished work of the cross.”
These unorthodox words rightly cause most of the congregation and its leaders to leave the church, shrinking Higher Dimensions from 5,000 to less than 1,000 and resulting in the building’s foreclosure in 2006. Eventually Pearson lands at Tulsa’s All Souls Unitarian Church, where he now serves as an “affiliate minister.”
‘Heretic’ as a Badge of Honor
Come Sunday presents a sympathetic portrait of Pearson, valorizing him for following his convictions even if it cost him dearly. But to its credit, the film does not demonize the other side. Though certainly biased toward Pearson’s theology (its telling postscript declares: “His following is steadily growing.”), the film understands why most Christians cannot abide the doctrine Pearson preaches.
The same could not be said for The Heretic, the new documentary about Rob Bell’s journey from being a Michigan megachurch pastor to a surfing spiritual guru.
Unsurprisingly given its title, The Heretic brandishes the label as a badge of honor, framing Bell as a rebel prophet and those who disavow him as stereotypically anti-gay, Trump-loving, bullhorn-brandishing fanatics.
The film makes no effort to present critiques of Bell. The voices it features are unanimous in their praise of the man behind Love Wins. Author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) is featured prominently, praising Bell as “the gangster of God,” “a spiritual Jesse James,” and someone “challenging a status quo that is profoundly invested in its conservative ideals.”
Another featured voice is none other than Carlton Pearson, who calls Bell a “paradigm shifter and shaper” who is “way ahead of his time.”
As the film follows Bell on his book tour for What Is the Bible? (read TGC’s review), in places like Atlanta and Knoxville, we see people lining up to get books signed and hear spiritual vagaries about how “We are all of the same tribe” and how the religious and nonreligious are “all just expressions of the same thing.”
Voices of dissent are seen only in cable news soundbites, as in Franklin Graham calling Bell a false teacher and a heretic. We later see Graham singing Trump’s praises, advancing a connection the film really wants to make (that evangelicals who don’t like Bell must also love Trump).
Unfortunately, The Heretic comes across more as an extended PR reel for Bell than a documentary that engages all sides of his story and truly considers the implications of his beliefs. The latter might have been interesting. The former is just boring.
Irrelevant Trajectory of ‘Relevance’
One of the sad things about these films is that both Pearson and Bell are talented communicators who had great potential. When I was doing research for Hipster Christianity and visited Bell’s Grand Rapids church in 2009, I saw firsthand how effective and engaging he could be rhetorically. You see it as well watching The Heretic, where some of what Bell says is clever and compelling (“The Bible holds the flag accountable. It has no interest in holding hands. It speaks truth to the flag.”).
One of the problems with clever communicators who have big platforms and bestseller expectations, though, is that they must constantly push the envelope of cleverness to maintain their “relevance” and renegade edge. And this almost always leads to unorthodox places.
The truth is, when “relevance” means reinventing the wheel or constantly “rethinking” major doctrines of historic Christianity, it just becomes gimmicky and sad. But this is where Bell now resides. Along with others whose “fresh” takes on Christianity (on sexual ethics, for example) come with the minor asterisk of wholly dispensing with two millennia of Christian wisdom, Bell is simply embodying the worst tendencies of ahistorical American evangelicalism and its notorious chronological snobbery.
When ‘relevance’ means reinventing the wheel or constantly ‘rethinking’ major doctrines of historic Christianity, it just becomes gimmicky and sad.
“Most people aren’t reading the Bible well,” Bell declares in the film, suggesting, “If you read [the Bible] as you should read it, it all of a sudden becomes incredibly dangerous and beautiful and provocative and timely.”
All of a sudden? As if Bell’s corrective on how we’ve read the Bible wrong will finally unleash its danger and beauty and provocative timeliness?
And it’s not just a lack of historical perspective; it’s also a lack seeing beyond the Western, well-educated, middle-class version of Christianity that spends $7 on drip coffee and spends all day on Twitter.
In The Heretic Bell says Christianity is “done” if churches are “not talking about our connection to the soil,” “don’t have a big, wide, open embrace of science,” and aren’t advocating for women’s issues and the LGBTQ community.
The may be true of churches in L.A., Portland, and London, but what about the churches in Sub-Saharan Africa, China, and Latin America that may not be tackling Bell’s list of social causes but are nevertheless growing rapidly on the basis of boldly preaching the crucified and risen Christ? Are they “done”? Quite the contrary.
Not Good News
Ultimately the gospel of “inclusion” and “solidarity” that Pearson and Bell preach is powerless to give true hope to people in their sin. It demands no repentance and has no consequences.
One of the saddest scenes in Come Sunday depicts Pearson counseling a young parishioner named Reggie (Lakeith Stanfield) who is worried he will go to hell. Pearson “comforts” him with these words: “You don’t need to be saved. . . When the time comes, you’ll be with Him.”
These words may sound to the world like love, but they are anything but.
Bell sounds a similar note at the end of The Heretic, describing his understanding of the gospel: “Everything you are working and striving for you already have. . . . [The gospel] is the announcement that you’re loved exactly as you are.”
But where in that gospel is the actual problem (sin) and the specific solution (Jesus Christ)? Where is the tension and resolution? Where is the conflict? It’s not there.
Bell of all people—storyteller that he is—should know that stories with no tension, no conflict, and no stakes are bad stories. Bad, boring, hopeless, and sad.