Practice What You Preach

(After a successful festival run, Jennifer Gerber’s The Revival is available now on VOD via Breaking Glass.)

Director Jennifer Gerber’s The Revival is a thoughtful examination of the role of Christianity in small town U.S.A. While the intended audience is the precise demographic The Revival captures with earnestly realistic intentions, it is highly doubtful they will ever see the film once if hear that it touches upon gay themes. So, unfortunately, Gerber’s film is destined to preach to the choir, but at least said choir is sure to appreciate her perspective.

Eli (David Rysdahl) is a Southern Baptist preacher who has recently taken over at his father’s church. He is an intellectual and progressive preacher, but the congregation craves to be entertained by dramatic fire and brimstone sermons. They want a show! They want drama! That is precisely what Eli is rallying against from the pulpit, as he tries to find ways to change the perspective of God in the South. According to Eli, Southern Christians selfishly believe in a personal Jesus, thinking that he will solve their problems and guide them. They often misinterpret and misrepresent the Bible for their own personal gain, often using it as a tool to judge and criticize others.

The revival that is alluded to in the film’s title is an attempt to turn the church into a profitable venture. You know, like megachurches do. Because at some point in the history of Christianity, running a church became about making a profit, not about teaching people how to be good Christians. People will pay if the preacher puts on a good performance, so the church has basically de-evolved into a form of theater for the [mostly uneducated] proletariat. Let’s just say this is not Eli’s idea.

Gerber utilizes Eli as a vessel to contemplate the existential struggle of Christians. If you believe that all of your thoughts and actions are controlled by God, that justifies them no matter how hateful or selfish they are. You are disgusted by people who think and/or behave differently than you? Well, they must be evil. So much for loving one’s neighbor, turning the other cheek, and not casting the first stone. In other words, forget about the presumed words of God upon which Christianity is supposed to be based.

What is probably most interesting about The Revival is how it confronts the anti-LGBTQ bias of many (most? all?) Southern Baptists. Gerber sets up a premise in which Eli is tempted by the flirtatious advances of a homeless man, Daniel (Zachary Booth). Like a good Christian, Eli gives Daniel shelter – and it is not without irony that Eli houses Daniel in the same log cabin Eli’s drunk mother was often exiled by his father. This is clearly a secluded location that is well-suited for hiding embarrassing lovers. The Eli and Daniel plot line brings into question what happens to sexual desires that are repressed by religion. All too often, we hear about the molestation of children by priests, pastors, and other right-wing zealots. At least Eli finds a relatively safe and healthy outlet for his sexual impulses. But it is Gerber’s handling of the aftermath, when his wife, June (Lucy Faust), and the congregation learn of Eli’s indiscretions, that is quite brilliant and quite unexpected.

Don Simpson (@thatdonsimpson)

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