Arts and Culture


When it comes to Christians, there's no hotter dividing line than hell, reveals Kevin Miller's new film.

By Steve Burgess 20 Oct 2012 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other week for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

Let us pause a moment now and thank the Lord for the Westboro Baptist Church -- those "God Hates Fags," "God Hates Jews," "Thank God For Dead Soldiers" lunatics. They're like the Nazis of American Christianity, poster children for the evil and the extreme, sent here by a benevolent deity to serve as handy symbols of religious wing-nuttery. And they show up early in Kevin Miller's new documentary Hellbound? as they picket in New York on the anniversary of 9-11, celebrating the event that humbled wicked, fag-loving America.

But their onscreen appearance is, in this case, deceptive. Miller, a Vancouver-based film maker, is not attempting a variation on Bill Maher's Religulous, nor a cinematic version of The God Delusion. Hellbound? is a Christian film in every sense -- made by, for, and about Christian believers. Happily, those atheists and agnostics who possess a sincere interest in biblical history and doctrine will find a lot to appreciate.

By focusing on the question of hell, Miller goes to the heart of modern Christianity. No other doctrinal prism so clearly reveals the dividing lines between Christian sects. As Brian McLaren, author of The Last Word and the Word After That puts it, "Our whole theological system has been boiled down to a hell avoidance plan. Every dime that's put into every collection plate is based on assumptions about hell."

Hellbound? is not afraid to delve into theological doctrine, using some cute graphics to illustrate the three main bodies of Christian hell theory: Eternal Torment, Annihilationism, and Universalism. Basically, Theory #1: Sinners and non-believers are condemned to endless torment and a rather uncomfortable sort of prickly heat; Theory #2: Sinners and non-believers are simply destroyed, extinguished, kaput; and finally Theory #3: All sinners are ultimately given a chance at redemption and welcomed into the grace of a loving God.

Who shall be redeemed?

It's a debate that gets some Christians worked up. Rob Bell, author of a universalist book called Love Wins, and William Young, author of bestselling Christian-themed novel The Shack, have both found themselves under virulent attack by evangelicals who favour a more judgmental iteration of God.

Universalism in particular poses a threat to the fundamentalist after-world view. Heaven is supposed to be reserved for the elect, the right believers, the born again. As with the credit card, membership has its privileges -- or should. If everybody ultimately has a chance at redemption, what's the point of joining the salvation club?

Miller also gives us some outside viewpoints, notably Oderus Urungus, the genial, demon-masked lead singer for heavy metal band Gwar. Mr. Urungus admits that, while hell is likely more fun, "in heaven they do have some excellent prescription drugs."

Hellbound? offers up meaty theological debate from the likes of author Frank Schaeffer, who points out that in their pure reliance on the Bible, evangelicals have actually moved much closer to Islamic tradition. Another author, Ron Dart, refers to the Bible as fundamentalism's "paper Pope."

Carrying most of the doctrinal water for the other team is Mark Driscoll of the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church. A well-spoken guy with an obviously extensive theological education, Driscoll is nonetheless an unabashed firehose of sulphur and brimstone from the pulpit. "God personally, objectively, hates some of you," Driscoll tells his congregation. "He's had enough."

Driscoll will have no truck with the universalist crowd. He compares doctrinal disagreements to state and national borders. Some disputes are mere state lines. Denying a true, hellish hell, Driscoll believes, is a national border. And he's definitely one of those border fence types. "I can't partner with anyone who's crossed a national border," Driscoll says.

Schaeffer puts his finger on the key to these debates, and their ultimate futility -- the fact that fundamentalists cannot accept that all biblical theories and interpretations are inherently subjective. "That's the true divide between modernity and fundamentalist literalism," Schaeffer points out -- "the skepticism about our ability to decide what's true."

Imitating God

Representing the opposite of blind faith is the estimable Jaime Clark-Soles of the Joe and Lois Perkins School of Theology, author of Death and the Afterlife in the New Testament. Clark-Soles is one of those scholars who knows the languages in which the original scriptural fragments were written. "I always get on guard when someone says 'taking the Bible seriously,'" Clark-Soles says. "By seriously they don't mean, 'Have you learned all the biblical languages and all the languages around it that were being spoken, and the centuries after it, including Coptic' -- they don't mean that. When I say 'take the Bible seriously' I mean you better go study and you better care enough to do the really hard boring stuff."

No doubt it's English only for the fun folks of the Westboro Baptist Church. They may seem like the proverbial fish in a barrel, easy targets for fundy-haters (whatever else they might be, the Westboro are indubitably the most famous 40-member church in North America). But Miller puts them to good use. While questioning church members Jonathan and Margie Phelps about their vengeful God -- a God who hates the majority of his own creation -- Miller asks Jonathan Phelps if he loves each of his own four children. Phelps admits that he does not. It's a tangible demonstration of a point made later by Razing Hell author Sharon Baker: "Our behaviour will be to imitate God."

Asshole God leads to asshole behaviour. Then again it's really a chicken-and-egg thing.

Miller's position in all this is clear. Just listen to the music -- not so much a score as an underscore. Gentle strings are reserved for messages of universal redemption. No strings for the "God hates you" crowd. Miller is a Christian, and the debate played out in Hellbound? is definitely an intramural one. It's a question of what sort of Christian you want to be. But even those who have no interest in being any sort of Christian at all can still express a preference. There's no doubt about which Christians you'd rather have dinner with. But if you're a TV producer on deadline it's a different story. "Siri? Get me the Westboro Baptist Church."

Hellbound? is currently playing at the Colossus in Langley, B.C.  [Tyee]

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