National News

For the love of God: review

Thursday 21 June 2018

David Halliday, Media and Communications Office
For the love of God: How the Church is better and worse than you ever imagined
Directed by Al Dowthwaite. Limited release in cinemas around Australia from May 9. See for screening details.

There are plenty of reasons not to be a Christian. There’s colonialism, the Spanish Inquisition, numerous acts of genocide, the global child sex abuse crisis, televangelists—take your pick. On the flipside, there are plenty of reasons to be Christian. Like valuing all human life, and selflessly taking care of the poor, the sick and the vulnerable. At its simplest, that’s the basic premise of For the love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.

Ten years ago, a documentary film like this would have been unnecessary. Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable. But now, with rates of religious affiliation in decline in the West, it seems necessary. It’s the story we’re telling ourselves about Christianity and it’s undergoing a cultural shift.

For the love of God was made by the Centre of Public Christianity (CPX), an Australian not-for-profit media company that aims to ‘promote the public understanding of the Christian faith’. From their site: ‘some believers have felt compelled to adopt a strongly defensive posture against all critique. CPX was launched to engage the public with a clear, measured and respectful picture of the Christian faith and the way it can impact all of life for the good.’ The film stays true to this mission.

It opens with author and CPX former Founding Director (and now Senior Consultant) Dr John Dickson standing in a square in Jerusalem that was the site of a massacre of civilians at the hands of crusaders in the 11th century.

From this starting point, this film bravely looks at problematic elements of the Christian faith, like historical atrocities committed in the name of Christ in the crusades, and balances them with stories of grace. The pattern repeats itself like an accounts ledger with four different presenters each exploring one positive and negative element of Christian history: an atrocity where Christians unleashed great suffering upon the world (Myall Creek Massacre), followed by something good (Fr Damien aiding those suffering leprosy in Molokai).

In that sense, it’s not a history of Christianity but a defence of parts of it. An alternative title could easily have been: ‘Christianity: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’.

At times, this approach comes across as a little erratic owing to its selection of historical events. In one moment, we’re in Jerusalem in the 11th century, then we’re in 1980s Belfast or 1960s Washington DC in the next. According to producer Natasha Moore, the journey of this film started three years ago, and was intended to be a general study on world religions. If part of the reason the film feels disjointed, it’s perhaps a reflection on this fractious journey.

Tonally, it fluctuates between a sort of cap-wringing and then pontificating while sporadically making some big claims. Like declaring Christianity to be largely responsible for the flourishing of human equality, altruism, women’s rights, human rights, social welfare, even the very concept of humility. There may be some truth there, but claiming to have invented humility doesn’t strike me as being a very humble argument. And a basic Google search will reveal a suite of inconvenient details peppering this line of reasoning, such as the existence of humility in other religious traditions, like Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism and Islam to name a few. The same goes for social welfare, equality, value of life and altruism to varying degrees. 
Similarly, the film is selective about which historical events it thinks the Church should feel responsible for. Take, for example, the UN universal declaration of human rights in 1948. To say Christianity is largely responsible for human rights is lazy history, and fails to convey the full picture. Christianity may have played a major part, but so did the early Islamic Caliphate, frustrated medieval English Barons and Enlightenment atheists.
Then you have the civil rights movement in the United States which was, the documentary argues, a victory for Christianity. But the Troubles in Ireland, the film claims, was purely a political issue and really has little to do with Christianity. Arguing that Martin Luther King Jr’s religion was his key motivator for action in the 1960s is simplistic and reductive, as is discounting the role of religion in Irish sectarian conflict. These are murky waters indeed.

Trying to juxtapose a history of Christian ethics over a history of often blithely cruel and immoral Christian behavior is always going to be an icky business. But it’s especially troublesome when one cultural tradition attempts to take ownership of Western morality in general.

The list of featured experts is impressive, including Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. However, producers left out any scholar whose opinion deviated from the central thesis, which would have made for a more robust film.

For the love of God could have benefitted from a comprehensive introduction about what exactly the filmmakers were setting out to achieve or at least a sense of the intended audience. In the screening, I worried that the film was preaching to the choir, until I realised in all likelihood, that was its aim.

The most recent national census has numbers of people who identify as evangelical Christians plummeting. For the love of God responds to a secular culture that isn’t afraid to call out past failures of the Church, so the Church has a need now—for the first time in a long time—to explain why it exists. It’s a reminder of the Church’s struggle with its raison d’être and it presents people with a rationale not why they should convert to Christianity, but why Christians shouldn’t convert to something else.

Despite its title, For the love of God keeps a wide berth of any questions of doctrine, faith or belief. It says little of God, or the divinity of Christ or salvation. And perhaps that’s wise. The film is strictly a discourse in civic values and morals; an opportunity to speak to the beauty of Jesus’ ‘love thy neighbour’ message, which is something you don’t hear enough—even in church circles.

Throughout, the film returns to one verse from Matthew 5: love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. Dickson compares these teachings to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, saying Christ’s message of kindness towards strangers was like a beautiful piece of music that not everyone was able to play very well. It’s a nice analogy but a problematic one. It assumes that, if played badly, the ensuing music is a reflection on the talent or skill of the musician and not the desire of the musician to play a different tune entirely.

Stark omissions are both the instrumentalisation of religion in the West and the routine violations of basic human rights under past and current Christian administrations in the US and Australian governments. I would have liked to see more on the current role of Christianity in the political sphere. For example, how can an administration proclaiming Christian values can forcibly separate children from parents? Only this week, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted St Paul’s letter to the Romans to defend this reprehensible policy, and in doing so proved that the practice of using Christianity to cloak manifestations of human cruelty is still alive and well. Obviously, this film was completed long before that particular crisis began, but addressing issues like these would be a more divisive but more effective way of dealing with why the faithful are leaving the Church, and I hope the CPX has something in the pipeline.

‘I feel less triumphant about Christianity as a result of this,’ says Dickson during a Q&A after the screening. ‘But I’m more convinced that Jesus wrote the most beautiful tune the world has ever known.’ And fair enough—Jesus’ message to take care of the poor and vulnerable is objectively beautiful, and the question should be why a greater portion of the global Church hasn’t embraced it.

Ultimately For the love of God is intended to provoke thought and debate and it does that well. However, it missed an opportunity to present a wider discussion on ethics and the Christian role in their evolution, instead of an exercise in Christian exceptionalism. To its credit, the film argues that what matters is people’s behavior towards one another. Maybe it doesn’t matter who invented values like humility (if indeed anyone did, and you can bet that whoever did, didn’t claim it) but who practices it.

For the Love of God presents Christianity as a system of virtues and values, then examines how the Church seems often incapable or unwilling to adhere to them. But that same story could apply to all religious, philosophical and political movements throughout history. After all, to err is human. Still, I’m glad the CPX made the film and given the amount of room left to cover other relevant material, I hope they make more like it.

For the love of God will be released online as four separate episodes on 1 July. If you’re interested in hosting a screening of For the love of God, contact cinema-on-demand platform which will bring the film to your local cinema.
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