Netflix’s new film Come Sunday, in which a conservative Pentacostal preacher embraces universalism following the Rwandan genocide, is a perfect example of not just the sentiments of current culture, but the methods by which that culture is communicated.
But the important thing to notice for this film is the approach that it takes. The film does feature an apologetic of sorts for the universalist interpretation of Scripture, but not until the turn of the film’s second act. That’s not what it leads with. Rather, it leads with tragedy, relying on the suicide of Pearson’s uncle, the Rwandan genocide, and later anchoring this recurring theme with the suffering of one of the supporting characters.
Granted, this is partially for reasons that relate to the craft of film itself. Film as an artform is much more conducive to pathos than logos, a fact that many orthodox Christian filmmakers could use to learn. But it is still telling that when logos is introduced into the story, it is solely from the perspective of our universalist bishop. While there are some characters that represent the opposing view with varying levels of grace, none of them provide a rebuttal that goes any deeper than momentary proof-texting, and never does the film engage with well-known and well-established orthodox responses to the universalist doctrine. Nor does anyone ask him why, if that is the case, we shouldn’t ignore the verses that paint God as loving, rather than the verses that paint God, in the Bishop’s words, as “a monster.”
It’s pretty clear that the filmmakers are behind what Pearson is doing. But how is it communicated? It is not primarily through rational argument, but emotional resonance. The questions are not “What does the Bible say about this?” except for a few passing references. Instead, questions like “How could God send these people to Hell?” dominate.
But the most significant part of this found in the character of the bishop himself, and how the character is framed. He’s certainly a flawed character – multiple scenes depict his sin of pride. But he is not a charleton, either. The feelings of the other characters towards him are uncharitable, but we see an honest and sincere man struggling with a pivotal shift in his worldview. He doesn’t match the evangelical stereotype of false teachers, which makes his teaching easier to accept.
Writing about the portrayals of LGBT characters in film and television, Michelangelo Signorile at Salon writes, “LGBT characters on television, when they are represented at all, tend to be offered up in covered forms, with their difference diminished to a note so soft you can barely hear it, especially on network shows. It’s a response to what is often called the ‘ick factor,’ the fear of turning off an audience by challenging its implicit bias.”
As these characters, minus the “ick” factor, have been introduced into stories on TV and film, the opinions of the West on homosexuality have shifted dramatically. When people started to notice that LGBT people in the real world didn’t match their stereotypes, their evaluation of the morality of their behavior changed.
It seems we want to paint people who believe different from us as enemies of war. We do this not just in religion, but in politics, culture, even in sports. The danger in doing this – behind the sinful attitude – is our views are built not on reason, but personality. If universalists are greedy charletons, then we don’t have to engage their ideas. But this is the same logical error the unchurched make when they cite experiences with hypocritical Christians.
Films like Come Sunday will get attention from Christian commentators largely because of the danger they pose to weak-minded Christians. But I submit that it reminds us of a need for us to found our faith upon reason, and to communicate it without stereotypes or ad hominem attacks. We leave ourselves open to these kinds of attacks when we fail to acknowledge that there are kind atheists and sincere heretics. Once we are willing to have a nuanced view of those who are in the wrong, then maybe our faith will not be so vulnerable to the culture around us.
Logan Judy is a Christian blogger and science fiction author with a Batman complex. At A Clear Lens, he focuses on worldview analysis and pop culture, as well as co-hosting the A Clear Lens Podcast. In addition to his work on the ACL website and podcast, he is also the founder of Cross Culture, the host of the Cross Culture Podcast, and the author of three novels. He tweets @loganrjudy about writing, apologetics, entertainment, parenting, and Batman.