Losing My Religion at SXSW 2022
Caption: Sara Cunningham offers a Free Mom Hug at Atlanta Pride. | Credit: Cameron Mitchell
In a world ripped asunder by partisan politics, the documentary Mama Bears reminded me once again that even the most ardent fundamentalist can have a change of heart and put people over politics. Using social media posts, home movies, photos, interviews, and cinema verité, this films delves into the complex intersections of politics, religion, and faith, and demonstrates how in the end love wins. (And not in that faux Rob Bell manner. When asked at the NYC launch of his book Love Wins if he supported equal rites and rights for LGBT folks, he punted. 'Nuf said.)
Back when I was covering the intersection of Christianity and LGBT rights, I attended multiple gatherings led by PFLAG (Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and others who sought to affirm gays and lesbians. (Trans folks were seen as too queer for Christian consideration.) Yes, I made some genuine connections that remain with me to this day. However, all too often, I found the conversation digressed from prophetic to platform with way, way, way too many folks seeking to cash in in on this latest biblical buzz. (BTW-sorry not sorry but I'm not going to virtue signal by going the folx route.)
Ultimately, I left that conversation for two key reasons. First, neither The Wittenburg Door or Sojourners would touch this topic lest they somehow would get infected with Christian cooties. (I decided to serve on The Door's board as part of this relaunch after I was promised that no subject would be deemed too taboo to tackle.) Second, once leaders within the Christian LGBT community felt comfortable coming out and telling their stories, it was time for me to pass the mic to them and move on. (Hint: If it's 2021 and you're a Christian cisgender straight author/speaker still marketing yourself to mainline Christianity as queer, just stop.)
However, this film made me realize just how prevalent anti-gay sentiment remains in the Christian church. Even in progressive settings, one has to assume the mantle of looking the part of a "professional gay" in order to advance their career. (As expected, those leaders in the LGBT faith community who do not conform to this desired model often find themselves defunded and even defrocked.)
Raquel 1:1 Caption: | Credit: Vans Bumbeers
SXSW's other two explicitly Christian offerings available for online viewing, the film Raquel 1:1 and the featured panel Examining The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin, represent the type of faith-based fare The Door satirizes with glee.
While Raquel 1:1 lacks the full blown ungodly gore depicted in Netflix's Midnight Mass, both works will appeal to those who like their Christian redemption stories sprinkled with the actual blood of the lamb. These flicks capture the surreal and supernatural faith journey of a true believer whose behavior in following their interpretation of The Bible causes the more righteous members in their respective communities wonder if they're Christian or crazy.
In honesty, one should not be surprised by these Pharisaic responses. After all, Christians throughout history have gone berserk biblically speaking towards those saints who dared to stand up and call their Christian crapola on the carpet. (Case in point - if St. Francis pulled similar moves such as donning hair shirts and stripping off his clothes today, he'd likely be placed in a mental institutional instead of memorialized as the world's favorite saint.)
As The Wittenburg Door didn't reopen until 2021, I somehow missed the whole saga of controversial Christian weight loss guru Gwen Shamblin. (Though to be fair to myself, she appeared to be a largely forgotten faith-based fixture until her untimely death on May 29, 2021. And as evidenced in my Lenten series on spiritual spiritual narcissism, I've been focusing more on satirizing progressive gurus with narcissistic/sociopathic streaks than televangelist types.)
During the SXSW featured panel Examining The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin, I had an opportunity for a first peek of part two of Campfire Studio's newest hit HBO Max docuseries The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin. Given their treatment of the Heaven's Gate story, I knew I would be viewing a well reported documentary and not the kind of spiritual schlock that all too often defines exposes of church abuses.
Let's just say, I never thought in my lifetime I'd ever meet any woman whose hair would even out-Jesus Janet Crouch. As the panelists noted, as she's getting wickeder, her hair was getting higher. Cue to sing the televangelist theme song, "The Higher the Hair, the Closer to God."
Nor did I think a female pastor could be more obsessed with having the "perfect" body than former Trump advisor and crazy cat lady Paula White. (Google Paula White and plastic surgery if you're so inclined.) But clearly God and Aquanet can create the holiest and hoariest of hairdos, and worshipping weight loss appears to be one of the U.S.'s major national pastimes.
More to the point, while the vast majority of cult leaders are male, this documentary proves that when given the mic, women can be just as manipulative and malignant as their male counterparts. Yet the media tends to soft peddling their reporting on "controversial" female pastors by focusing on their eye-catching appearance in lieu of uncovering their actual abuses and other issues. Such is the state of the US Christian media that chooses to regurgitate well crafted press releases in lieu of doing actual reporting that might address the reasons why said pastor is marketed using terms like "controversial."
As Shamblin and her second husband were lost in a plane crash, we'll never know if she could have had a Tammy Faye moment of reckoning and reconciliation. But according to the filmmakers', many members of Shamblin's church The Remnant Fellowship who were too afraid to go on cameras during Shamblin's lifetime felt free enough to tell their stories once Shamblin died. Ex-members reflecting on her sudden and unexpected death made comments such as, "I'm grieving the loss of life. But at the same time I know she can't hurt anyone else," "You hurt people over a period of years and there's going to be karma or payback," "The wicked witch is dead," and "It's poetic justice at the end of the day,"
I long for the day when documentaries like Mama Bears and The Way Down will no longer need to be produced, and outlier figures who question the status quo such as Raquel can be given a fair hearing. When that day arrives, I'll hang up my hat as a religious satirist.
Until then, The Wittenburg Door remains open and ready for the business.
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