'We need to be honest about the failings of the church'
The worst and best of Christianity on show in major new documentary
A documentary three years in the making that explores the best and worst of Christianity is set to be released this May.
For The Love of God: How Christianity is better and worse than you ever imagined is been produced by Centre for Public Christianity (CPX). A cinematic release is expected from May 7, followed by a digital campaign for schools, universities and churches.
CPX director Simon Smart told Eternity that while he felt already “painfully aware of the failures of Christians across the centuries”, he was “horrified anew” at some of the stories told in the documentary. “It’s sometimes beyond belief that people could act in a certain way and equate that with their Christianity. Not in spite of it, but because of it,” he says.
“But all the way through history there are also really beautiful stories of people who really do ‘play the tune of Jesus’; who live in a very self-sacrificial way, because of their faith. And I get inspired and encouraged by those people. In equal parts, I think this documentary is both challenging and encouraging. Better and worse, right? That’s the title.”
The issue of slavery was a complex one to look at …
Shooting the documentary took the CPX team to far flung places, including an historical leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. There, Smart and his team tell the story of Belgian priest Father Damien De Veuster, who travelled to the colony in the 19th century. “It was a dreadful place, but also rather spectacular” Smart says. “The island population in Hawaii was decimated by European diseases, and when leprosy came to the island, the people were very scared of it. They separated those with leprosy from the rest of Molokai by sending them to this colony, which was like a natural prison, separated from the rest of the island by treacherous sea cliffs. The only way in for us, 200 years later, was still on mules down a narrow trail.”
“Father Damien in the 19th century went in with great compassion and commitment to the people. He restored a sense of community, education, music; he brought dignity to the lives there. He contracted leprosy himself and died from it.”
The documentary, says Smart, doesn’t try to be comprehensive. “It would have taken us twenty years to do that!” he laughs. Instead, the stories it tells fit into four categories: War and Peace; Rights and Wrongs; Rich and Poor; Power and Humility.
He says he particularly enjoyed telling the story of Martin Luther King Jr and the fight for human rights, “especially the campaign of non-violent resistance, and the way King’s faith contributed to that.”
Smart says the issue of slavery was a complex one to look at for the documentary: “The way in which Christians both supported and benefited from slavery, as well as the way in which they were singularly significant in its defeat. That’s a complex story, but I really enjoyed being able to tell that, and the way in which Christians, as they started to take their Christianity more seriously, grew more important in opposing it.”
“Christian people have to understand that there is a very legitimate criticism of their faith.” – Simon Smart
CPX conducted more than 50 interviews for the documentary, speaking with experts at the top of their fields from around the world. Smart says he was most impressed by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. “I found Rowan Williams absolutely stunning in his comprehensive knowledge and his ability to articulate it in concise chunks. He spoke about a lot of things: human rights, slavery, human value, education, music. You could pretty much ask him anything and he could say something sensible about all of them.”
While many of the experts have only brief appearances in the final documentary, extended interviews with all will be available on the documentary website. Smart hopes viewers come away both “better informed and more encouraged to live in the way that some of these stories reflect.”
“Christian people have to understand that there is a very legitimate criticism of their faith. That too often, either institutional or individual, the church hasn’t lived up to the ideals that the faith sets out before them. However, many Christians aren’t as aware of the incredible, positive legacy of Christianity on the west, particularly. Whether you’re a believer or not, you experience, appreciate and are the beneficiary of huge worldview changes that come straight from Christianity, that create the world we live in now.
“We need to be honest about the failings. It’s not surprising to Christians who understand the gospel that there are going to be terrible failings. They’ll recognise those failings, but also be able to tell the good story in a way that perhaps they weren’t able to before.”
Smart points to the “revolutionary, astonishing value that Christianity places on every individual life”, calling it “unprecedented”.
“It changes everything,” he says. “I’d love people to come away with a better appreciation of that.”