Ejiofor Impresses as Conscience-Driven Christian “Heretic”
“There are so few movies where you actually see people in this country who have faith portrayed in a way that is sympathetic and in their world.” So says Ira Glass (This American Life), the producer of Come Sunday, a new movie debuting on Netflix this Friday. Come Sunday is successful in the true-to-life portrayal of that world. In fact, the movie is based on the true story of Carlton Pearson as explored on the This American Life radio program in 2005. Bishop Carlton Pearson, portrayed convincingly by Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), was a graduate of Oral Roberts University, and Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen) was his mentor. Pearson and a white classmate (Jason Segel) founded the integrated Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which had grown to 5,000 in its first 20 years. Pearson and his associate pastors successfully preached the evangelical gospel of the past 1,500 years, attracting many to faith in Christ. Then, at the peak of his popularity, Pearson is stopped in his tracks, while watching TV news coverage of starving African children in 1998. He asks how a sovereign God can allow this suffering and death, then “just suck them down into hell” for eternal conscious torment. It was then, he says, that God spoke to him, telling him that those children would not go to hell, but into God’s presence. This divine revelation frees him from his self-imposed burden, borne of firmly held Christian tradition and many evidences in the Bible, of getting everyone saved from damnation to hell. But it brings a new burden of now standing opposed to centuries of tradition, and those that uphold it. Nearly all his friends, family, congregation, mentors, and religious hierarchy reject him for his new understanding. I think the makers of this movie hope that viewers can see beyond the doctrinal debate and see it as a character study on standing up for what you believe, and the consequences of doing so, and how that looks in a faith community. Indeed, the movie succeeds there, as Ejiofor beautifully renders Pearson’s dark night of the soul, as his flock shrinks, his influence wanes, and he leaves preaching for a time. The depiction of loss and the reaction of his people defy stereotypes commonly portrayed in media. Some viewers might complain that the movie slows down here, but that underscores the life change, from jet-setting charismatic speaking and a large church, to considering starting over in an empty warehouse. We are given a virtual walk with a man who resists multiple offers to repent of his epiphany. Instead of accepting to make things all right again, thereby pleasing men, rather than God, he chooses to bear this cross. Meanwhile, questions about his emerging “gospel of inclusion” are unresolved. What happens to the Biblical commandments, sin, confession, repentance, being born again? Does taking hell out of the equation defang Christianity, and make it more appealing, or less necessary? Interestingly, the beginning of Pearson’s formulation of his new theology is based on “rereading” rather than “rewriting” scripture. He cites 1 Timothy 4:10, 2 John 2:1-2, and 1 Cor 15:22 to support Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for all people. Serendipitously for this movie, Pope Francis is in the middle of a related controversy, supposedly saying that there is no hell, but instead annihilation, then denying that he said that. Regardless of the incomplete theology, I enjoyed Come Sunday immensely. But I might be part of a small niche market that feels comfortable with thorny religious questions. I recommend this movie, regardless of a viewer’s position on hell, if only to see the performances of Ejiofor, and Martin Sheen as Oral Roberts. Sheen doesn’t play Roberts as the bad guy, but as a more complex character with sorrows, hopes, regrets, and a sincere love for Pearson. He refers to Pearson as his “black son” and wants him back in the fold. Jason Segel portrays Pearson’s right-hand man with vulnerability and affection. The comic actor might seem an odd choice, unless you’ve seen The Discovery or Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Condola Rashad (Money Monster), as Pearson’s wife, shines when she steps out of the shadows to defend and support him. Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Get Out) as the church’s gay music director, and Danny Glover as Pearson’s convict uncle, provide depth by giving Pearson real-world consequences for his beliefs. Director Joshua Marston (The Forgiveness of Blood) and screenwriter Marcus Hinchey (All Good Things), neither household names, do an excellent job of playing this story even-handedly and without Hollywood melodrama. Glass is correct that this is a sympathetic portrayal of the faithful. Even though Pearson is clearly our protagonist, both sides of the theological divide are treated with respect. And that is something worth applauding. ★★★★☆ Come Sunday is available on Netflix beginning April 13. Watch the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVQFWvm_fbU The movie is based in part on Episode 304 of This American Life: Heretics. Ira Glass is quoted from The IMDb Studio at Sundance Film Festival ‘18.