Filmmaker Dan Merchant Digs Deep into Politics & Religion

Remember that rule about never discussing politics and religion in polite conversation? Apparently no one told Dan Merchant. Merchant is the writer/producer/director, of Lord, Save Us From Your Followers, a film in which he investigates the polarizing social issues that have long kept Christians and society at odds. In the film, Merchant takes to the streets to ask five simple questions about Christianity in an effort to answer the quandary, “Why is the gospel of love dividing America?” Fresh from a recent screening of the film, (the 183rd to be exact) Dan sits down with Risen to talk about bumper stickers, perceptions and the power of asking difficult questions.

Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California

Risen Magazine: What experience or encounter inspired you to make a film like this?

Dan Merchant: I traveled to Ethiopia in the spring of 2004 as part of a United Nations trip to see the progress that’s been made since the droughts of 1984.There I met lots of Christians and Muslims and saw them getting along with each other. I met Christians who lived in huts and had to walk miles to get water, [who were] happier than I was. As best I could figure, they were happier because they believed God loved them, which I believed, but it didn’t make me that happy. There was one kid in particular I met and we were talking about our faith and he said something to the effect of, “Even though our skin color is different and we speak in different tongues, we are brothers because we are brothers in Christ,” and I thought, “Oh that’s nice, he must have a different picture of who Jesus is.” My vision of Christ was this blonde, blue-eyed Dutchman Jesus. So I asked “Who is Jesus to you?” And he answered, “My father died of AIDS, but not for me, my mother died of AIDS, but not for me, but Jesus Christ – He died for me.” And the thing that’s embarrassing to repeat is that the first thought I had was, “Wow this kid really believes this stuff.” The next thought was, “Wait a second, that’s what I believe – but I want it the way he has it.” I want faith like that. I thought I had it. How is this guy happier than me? I’m in America, I grew up on a cul-de-sac and I met Jesus like 46 times in youth group. I came back that spring and it was the run up to [President George W.] Bush’s re-election. It was a highly debated, us vs. them, red-state vs. blue-state, Christian vs. non-Christian, gay vs. straight

– all these divisions… and the questions spurred on by the kid were, “Who are we as Christians in America, and why don’t any of them yelling on TV remind me of Jesus?” And that was the starting point for asking some of the questions I ask in the movie. Really, the film is a detective story about questions I don’t understand. As it turns out the questions that most people – gay, straight, atheist, Christian – had also been asking.

RM: The majority of the movie is made up of interviews. Why is there power in starting a conversation rather than a debate?

DM: I address that question with a Phillip Yancy quote in the beginning of the film that says, “Nobody ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument.” It became very clear that the “us vs. them” is fueled by a great misunderstanding of who the other is. We don’t really know each other. We speak different languages; we come to the table with different assumptions. Really, the goal of the movie is to suggest a third paradigm which is “we.” As a Christian if you read the Bible, inconveniently it is exposed that God created everybody. It’s absolutely biblical. So if I believe the stuff I say I believe, I probably ought to take that seriously. I’ve become pretty comfortable about being right about everything and when you’re right about everything you take this cold comfort in dismissing those who are “wrong.” That’s not how Jesus did it. So if I’m going to follow Jesus, then I have to do a better job.

RM: He never said “Clothe yourself in self-righteousness…”

DM: [Laughs] That’s right. The Bible says “love one another” and it’s like, “uh oh, that one’s hard. He just set the bar high.” The movie stirs things up with Christians and atheists alike and really brings us together because it puts forward Christ’s idea that love is a different kind of being right; a more complete version of being “right”. Truth doesn’t exist without grace. Truth without grace is a bulldozer coming through your wall. But with grace it’s a very different thing. That’s the paradigm. Things change when you lead with love, grace, kindness and compassion. Those are languages that everyone understands. There’s no confusion about the message that’s being communicated when a person is washing your feet and they’re there to care for you and feed you. It’s not just a biblical gesture; it’s meeting a need, its practical. You’re meeting their most basic need and you care about them. And that’s transformative to both the person giving and receiving.

RM: In part of the movie you take to the streets in a jumpsuit covered in Christian and anti-Christian themed bumper stickers – what was the idea behind such a public display and what were you expecting?

DM: I was wondering how to have a conversation with people who don’t agree with you, if it was even possible. It sounds idiotic to go on the streets and talk to people about religion and politics unless they agree with you. The bumper stickers to me represented the way to oversimplify complex issues and boil them down to a one-way form of communication. We are shouting at each other and nobody’s listening. The idea of wearing competing bumper stickers was a signal to whoever I encountered that I was open to the conversation. Having both views showed that I was willing to listen.

Truth doesn’t exist without grace. Truth without grace is a bulldozer coming through your wall.

RM: At one point in the movie you say, “There is a lot to be gained or lost in the way we choose to engage others.” How does this translate in a culture that values being right all the time?

DM: Our culture values being right at the expense of everything else. If I tell you you’re wrong, the door is slammed shut; there’s no relationship or opportunity for growth. We run around like we’re supposed to judge like God judges, and convict like the Holy Spirit convicts. We are not qualified to do either of those jobs. We’re supposed to be modeling as freely as we can, the things Jesus did. When we are around people who don’t think like us, it can be very helpful to us in a way that we’ve been too self-righteous to notice. I used to be super defensive about my faith. I thought I had to have every answer to every question and be able to prove it with the scientific method. If we are trusting God, the rest of it is pretty easy.

RM: How do you deal with controversy that comes in response to your film?

DM: The controversy is the scandal that is Jesus. If you really have a problem with that, then you need to take it up with Jesus. I’m not inventing anything; I’m plagiarizing Jesus. It’s not my fault if you’re offended by loving someone you don’t like; deal with it or don’t be a Christian, call yourself something else. I didn’t make the rules. The movie is a good conversation starter. Most people come away feeling convicted. It’s like a wake-up call for Christians. The fact that people could have heard of Jesus and not heard of “love one another” is baffling to me, but it’s true.

RM: What role does the media play in shaping people’s faith?

DM: Depending on how much stock a viewer puts in media, it can be fairly influential. What’s damaging and very dangerous is that the media oversimplifies and sensationalizes. All the sound bites are of people saying things that are inflammatory, crazy, dramatic and confrontational – good drama makes good television. It’s unfortunate that in the last 15 years the news programs have become entertainment shows. I wish there was a bigger difference between The Daily Show and CNN, but there’s not … except that Jon Stewart is better and funnier. It’s about entertainment, it’s about holding viewers, it’s about selling soap.

RM: When do you feel gratified in your work as a filmmaker?

DM: There are moments when you’ll read a scene on a page or see a scene in the movie and think, “That came out of my head just how it’s supposed to.” It’s pretty neat when the idea floating around in your head becomes a scene on the screen. With Lord Save Us, I’ve been to 183 screenings. To be able to stand in front of the audience after the movie and see how they are effected and hear how it touched them, is a pretty neat thing as an artist who sat alone in an edit room three years ago… its powerful. I’m pretty grateful for that. That beats $200 million at the box office.