American Jesus, a documentary recently screened at Facets Multimedia, bites off much more than it can chew in its attempt to survey contemporary Christianity in the US, and provides an intriguing but superficial glance at America’s diverse interpretations of the man from Nazareth.
American Jesus’s title proves to be more than just a snappy hook. It’s an apt descriptor of the way the multitude of sects featured have claimed the good shepherd for their own, An introductory montage featuring churches appealing to cowboys, surfers and MMA fighters, each leaders discussing how they preach the message of Christ in terms their flock can understand. Punks, exotic dancers, and others get their turn as well to profess their faith in Christ, all filtering their (sometimes contradictory) readings of the Bible through their diverse life experiences.
It is this fascinating aspect of American Jesus that ultimately becomes its biggest downfall. Covering the vast spectrum of American Christian beliefs leaves the filmmakers little time for deeper exploration, meaning churches and groups which could have been the subjects of full-length documentaries in their own right get crammed into seven or eight minutes of screen time (personally I would pay good money for a documentary about the “porn pastor”). The last third further inflates the documentary’s scope, bringing in discussions of the rise of the religious right, the advent of the pro-life movement, and ultimately the moral conflicts and qualms of Christian belief.
Other reviews have compared American Jesus to Jesus Camp and it goes without saying that the two share similar subject matter – both explore niche sects of Christianity, and their effect on American politics. But Jesus Camp ultimately succeeds where American Jesus fails by keeping itself small in scope, focusing on one particular Christian sect instead of American Jesus’s huge spectrum. This allowed for an intimate, in-depth portrait of its subjects, giving the viewer to understand better their beliefs. American Jesus, by contrast, feels like several documentaries smashed together – an overview of American Christianity, a history of the rise of the religious right, and an exploration of the light and dark sides of Christianity. The result makes for a messy, yet still enjoyable and enlightening experience.