American Jesus (Variance Films, NR)

film american-jesus_smThe intent of Spanish director Aram Garriga in American Jesus seems to be to explore how different the American experience of religion is from that anywhere else in the world.




film american-jesus

Few things differentiate the United States from Western Europe so clearly as our relationship to religion. While in many countries religion is respected as part of culture and history, in the U.S. it’s far more common for an individual to consider it a matter of personal importance, as well a daily presence in a his or her life. Many international surveys have come to this conclusion: for instance, a 2011 Pew Institute Poll found that 50 percent of Americans said religion was very important in their lives, and 53 percent said they it was important to believe in God in order to be a moral person. By way of comparison, the comparable numbers for France were 13 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

The intent of Spanish director Aram Garriga in American Jesus seems to be to explore how different the American experience of religion is from that anywhere else in the world, because he seeks out odd and colorful individuals rather than the ordinary church-on-Sunday type of person. Granted, unusual types are more cinematic, and if his portrait of American Christianity is not representative, it certainly is interesting, taking Americans as well as foreigners to many places they have probably not been before.

Garriga and his crew certainly get around, from the Arena of Life Cowboy Church in Texas, to the Village Faith Church (which specializes in outreach to surfers and skateboarders) in Santa Cruz, to Bikers for Christ in New York, to the inevitable snake handlers in Tennessee and the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Garriga mostly lets the individuals interviewed have their say, and doesn’t go out of his way to ask probing questions or criticize their thought; instead, he has talking heads such as Douglas Rushkoff do that for him.

One tacit theme is the marriage of showmanship and religion, whether in the Rock Church of San Diego (a mega-church whose pastor is a former professional athlete) or Team Impact, an organization that puts on shows of strength (board breaking, iron bar bending, and the like) to draw an audience for their message. It’s a formula that worked in the days of patent medicine, and is still working today.

There are some darker moments in American Jesus: when the film turns to examining the consequences of allowing children to grow up without a proper education (creationism is no substitute for real science), or of the undue influence of fundamentalism on American foreign policy. Mostly, though, viewers are allowed to observe and make their own conclusions—although, of course, the filmmaker has already decided what they will be shown. | Sarah Boslaugh

American Jesus will be screened as part of the Webster University Film Series June 13–15 at 7:30 p.m. in the Winifred Moore Auditorium (470 E. Lockwood, St. Louis, Mo. 63119). Tickets are $6 for the general public; $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools; $4 for Webster staff and faculty; and free for Webster students with proper ID. Tickets are available from the cashier before each screening; to learn about other options, contact the Film Series office at 314-246-7525. The Film Series can only accept cash or checks.

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