How’s this for ambition? In American Jesus, director Aram Garriga endeavors to survey most of contemporary U.S. Christianity, in both its smallest sects and its brigades of evangelicals keen to hasten the end of days, all in the time it takes the eyewear shop at your local mall to whip up a pair of glasses. It’s too much topic, too little film, but what he gets to is arresting.
His documentary is a restless, sunnily shot, one-thing-after-another travelogue of the peculiarities of American worship and belief, and he could have pulled a full movie from most of its many, many pit stops: a West Virginia roadhouse of snake handlers and boogie-woogie piano; ’80s Christian alt-rocker Steve Taylor’s bizarre satirical anthem “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good”; the entrepreneur behind a clothing line mixing Christ with MMA fighting; tough-guy pastor Keenan Smith, whose Team Impact preaches the word through feats of strength, snapping a board over his knee and later declaring “[America] was never founded for a freedom of all religions. It was founded for the freedom of Judeo-Christianity.”
The vignettes pile up, all fascinating, many heartening. Garriga emphasizes non-denominational pop-ups catering to surfers, bikers, skaters, rockers, and believers disinclined toward main-line churches. A pastor at Amarillo’s Arena of Life says of his cowboy parishioners, “They feel like when they’re out in their pasture they’re closer to God than they can ever be in a building.” There’s a pair of comedians who target Christian audiences — and actually seem funny. Some of the pastors we meet even bother helping out the poor, a thing the Gospels mention more often than clinic-bombing.
The good feelings ebb in the final third, when Garriga turns the film over to journalists and authors like Michelle Goldberg and Frank Schaeffer, who thumbnail the currents that have given us Left Behind, the Creation Museum, and Evangelical Zionism, a movement whose endgame involves nothing less than ending the world for the betterment of all of us. All that deserves a full movie, as do most of the film’s subjects — but Garriga’s quick treatment of each is distinguished by stirring photography, empathetic interviewing, and a shrewd sense of who to let talk and who to cut off.
Especially strong: the surprise animated sequence illustrating a short story by David Dark that should rattle the teeth of the most literal-minded of believers. Scenes like that, along with many of the film’s portraits of the exotic flora sprung from this same ancient seed, mark American Jesus not as an assault upon Christian belief but as a concerned examination. There are ways to hold to something grand in your life without assuming everyone who doesn’t is going to spend eternity being flayed. Now, how about a full doc on the Nashville pastor who meets with metalheads under a bridge?