Television may be taking note of the financial success of movies about faith. Living Biblically, a low-budget sitcom about a man who decides to live according to “biblical” rules, came out earlier this year on CBS. Now Netflix throws its hat in the ring with Come Sunday, a movie centered on theological disagreement.
Come Sunday is based on the trajectory of Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a minister who was mentored by Oral Roberts while Pearson attended Oral Roberts University. Pearson was conservative politically and theologically, and under his dynamic preaching and leadership, his church, Higher Dimensions, grew to be one of the largest in Tulsa, Okla.
When Pearson has a crisis of faith precipitated by the suicide of his incarcerated uncle and the genocide in Rwanda, he feels that God is revealing to him that there is no such thing as hell. After he began preaching his “gospel of inclusion,” his church lost thousands of members, and eventually his doctrine was declared heresy by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops.
Pearson had been groomed meticulously for his role at Higher Dimensions. As the film portrays, he was even pressured into marrying to better suit a “family” church. But when his beliefs began to change, the people who had been shepherding him into his role, treating him like family, turned their backs on him.
This situation hints at a racial component that is never really explored. Higher Dimensions was a very diverse church, successfully bringing white worshipers and black worshipers together on Sunday mornings. But after people began leaving, many of the powerful white evangelicals had left and the remainder of the church was almost exclusively black. It wasn’t only the white church that turned its back, since the aforementioned African-American Pentecostal Bishops also broke fellowship with him. But it’s hard to ignore the way the walkout is portrayed onscreen.
At first Pearson finds this change in his status difficult to accept, as if he is moving backward in his career. But he finds a freedom in preaching what he really believes, no longer needing to toe the line of his conservative mentors. As they tell him he will be separated from God for eternity, he says that he has never felt closer to God.
Strong performances from Ejiofor and Lakeith Stanfield as a devout gay parishioner, and interesting casting such as Martin Sheen as Oral Roberts and Jason Segel as Pearson’s brother-in-arms can’t save the soul of this film. It lags at times. And though the film pays an unusual degree of attention to Christ’s atoning work, it is Pearson’s personal convictions that are being celebrated.
Christians should take note of the way the break with his mentors is portrayed. The theologically conservative folks who walk away from Pearson are portrayed as rigid in their beliefs and willing to cut off anyone for the sake of the cause, even when the movie takes pains to have those same characters tell Pearson how much they love him. Which leaves Pearson’s inclusive doctrine looking pretty good—he is portrayed as being a courageous man of faith.
The film points out the way society perceives evangelical America to be lacking in grace and love. Christians have their job cut out for them if the church is going to be perceived as a place that people can come when they are troubled and need loving care. (Debuting on Netflix on April 13)