Monday 10 February 2020

Cult Cinema #25: Sects Education, Part Three

Don Verdean (2015)

(Today, I'm looking at Jared Hess's interesting, misunderstood and antisemitic 2015 comedy Don Verdean. There are spoilers, but it's not like you're going to watch this movie, so don't sweat it.) 

Could it be fair to call the most vocal and temporally powerful branch of English-speaking Christianity a sect? It's easy to point out all the ways in which American evangelicalism decades ago departed from historical Christian orthodoxy. It has its own media, its own ways of speaking. It has peculiar obsessions and fears that it has superimposed over actual traditional belief – abortions, sexuality and gender, evolutionary science – and doctrines that are in most traditional readings literally prohibited by Scripture, but which somehow have become normative, like the Rapture, and Prosperity Teaching. And it is partisan in its politics, for since the 1980s, the fortunes of American evangelicalism have been tied tightly to those of the Republican Party, and so we've seen this particular take on the faith metastasise into something hard-edged, and warlike, and, to outsiders frightening and fascist.
But of course, no matter how ghastly conservative evangelicalism is – and it is a huge cultural movement in the USA, vocal and wealthy in Australia, and a prosperous but largely ignored rump in the UK – it's a world that people live in. It's a language, a society, with its own, unique form of worship in the phenomenon of the “megachurch”, and in large part it's hermetically sealed from the rest of the world.

And when you live your entire life in this world, living with the assurance that you are Saved – and hold that thought, because that's quite the word – and that the outside world is terrifying and depraved, it changes your basic assumptions about, well, everything. Every story you hear peddled in the media about North Koreans having no idea how rubbish their lives are (because, we are told, they don't know what it's like outside their borders) pales into insignificance alongside the sheltered unknowingness of the American evangelical. They don't know how poor their poor people really are, or how inefficient their infrastructure is, or how inaccurate their view of the outside world really is.
And this goes for learning, too. For many conservative evangelicals, the Bible isn't just a faith document, it's a history textbook and a guide to biology and geography. And because modern evangelicalism is a movement that arose in response to modernist rationalism, its adherents are more literal in their interpretation of that sacred text than any other version of Christianity ever has been and are obsessed with finding concrete proof of the events portrayed in the Bible in a way that flies in the face of historical Christian faith. They see an existential threat in the proposition that, for example, the Book of Job might be fictional, or that the Book of Jonah in fact couldn't possibly have happened (and I'm not even talking about the bit with the whale here, I'm talking about the date of the sack of Nineveh, which is a much bigger problem than the whale bit), or that the Book of Isaiah had at least three writers, or that the world might have been created over a period longer than six days at a point in time further in the past than 15,000 years ago. They never tire of telling you that the Bible is the Word of God, and that's the crux of the matter (even though the Bible itself never says this – in fact the Bible is explicit in telling us that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, for example in John 1).

There's a certain sort of atheist who labours under the misapprehension that pointing out the historical inaccuracies and narrative contradictions in the Bible is a death blow to the Christian faith. But conservative evangelicals in the US do buy into that narrative. They want to see proof that Pharaoh's army was swept away by the Red Sea's waves, and that the Israelites were set to work as builders in Egypt. They want to see the rock that Moses struck. They want to see incontrovertible scientific evidence that the world was born in six days. They want their truths and their facts to be inextricable.

Proving this – an enterprise which is usually called apologetics ministry – is a multimillion dollar industry. There are books, museums, educational institutions and, inevitably, celebrities. Answers in Genesis, the biggest of them, sells a regular magazine and books with titles like Replacing Darwin Made Simple, Dinosaurs for Kids, Leading Them Out: Why Christian Education Matters and The Sufficiency of Scripture. They also do a book and 12 hour DVD course called One Race, One Blood, which uses creationism to argue against scientific racism, an evangelical stance that goes back to the 1920s (and which was, in fact, the grounds for the Scopes Monkey Trial). On the other hand, the Answers in Genesis take on LGBT rights is what you'd expect, and you may not be surprised to know that they host an indignant article about how the rainbow belongs to God (Genesis 9:13).

Expertise is only valued in this world if it is morally directed expertise: science and the study of history and literature should exist to prove the factual basis of what Christians know, and not the other way round. And so you get scientists and archaeologists who create slipshod, amateurish work that deals with issues that were solved in the outside world decades ago, but since no communication of any worth happens with the outside world, these theories are constantly recycled, and the objections to them ignored.

It goes both ways. Liberalism will never successfully engage with these people. You can't argue believers in apologetics ministry into seeing your way. People are hardwired into ignoring facts that deny their worldviews. They hear what they know. Outsiders seeing into this world are rarely given the chance to get an accurate take on them. And in films, they're almost always monsters. Films that attempt a sympathetic reading of this world that aren't made by actual evangelicals for evangelicals, circulating among evangelical cultural groups, are very rare.
Like Jared and Jerusha Hess's preceding film, Gentlemen Broncos, Don Verdean was a critical and box office bomb. Some of this is to do with the way that an entire industry convinced itself that Napoleon Dynamite was a wacky oddball comedy rather than a gentle, nostalgic and heartbreakingly sad piece about that one and only day that anyone gets, no matter how isolated, lonely or awkward they are, to win. Far from being a surreal freakshow, Napoleon Dynamite was only the slightest exaggeration of people who Jared and Jerusha Hess knew. Napoleon was a real person. Nacho Libre, which is in my opinion the least of their films, does give in to the urge to be wacky (with Jack Black as a monk who takes up lucha libre wrestling, how could it not?) and although it's more sweet and gentle than its fans seem to think it is, Nacho Libre does other its protagonists in a way that Napoleon Dynamite, Gentlemen Broncos and Don Verdean do not. But Gentlemen Broncos and Don Verdean are more in line with the Hesses' most successful movie than Nacho Libre is.

Don Verdean is not a laugh riot. I think that it was never supposed to be. Its whimsical, oddball parts don't feel like they're there for the sake of being oddball; I think it's the only way Jared and Jerusha Hess can make a film. There is a lot wrong with it: it's baffling how Jemaine Clement, not at his best, somehow is allowed to play his incompetently criminal and funny-accented Israeli the way he does, and Will Forte's apparently repentant Satanist-turned-pastor is, like Clement's Hebrew chancer, basically a cartoon, while the other characters are not.

The titular protagonist Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) is a Biblical Archaeologist. He goes to the Holy Land with nothing more than a map, a Bible and something to prove. That, in and of itself, is a pretty important signifier of how this sort of evangelicalism depends on the outdated. In 1870, Heinrich Schliemann did pretty much the same, only with a copy of Homer rather than the Bible, and he pulled off history's biggest archaeological fluke and found the site of Troy, famously lifting that beautiful gold mask off the mummy buried in it and saying “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.” The reasoning goes that if you could do it with a book of heathen mythology, then you absolutely should be able to use the timeless and infallible treasury of Scripture to do the same.

And of course, first, Schliemann was just insanely one-in-a-billion lucky; second, he was looking for a whole freaking city, which is a difficult thing to lose, frankly; and third, that was in 1870, and notwithstanding what secular charlatans like David Rohl and Graham Hancock will tell you, archaeology has moved on a bit since then.

But Don believes that people's immortal souls depend on the evidence he finds. A cheesy video at the start of the film, graded to look like a VHS-to-DVD transfer, introduces Verdean, his methodology, and his passion.

Don is sincere, and if he appears a little brusque and humourless, it is because he has his eyes set on higher purposes. Twelve years after finding a pair of iron age shears that could have been the very shears that cut the hair of Samson (but probably weren't), he travels around the American South in his campervan home, accompanied by assistant Carol (Amy Ryan, best known for her role as Beadie Russell in The Wire), giving talks to churches where he preaches a gospel of Hard Evidence, even though his methodology is amateurish and his results are shoddy, and he hasn't found much since he unearthed that one pair of 3,000 year old scissors. 

He's hired by Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), the bombastic leader of a successful ministry in Utah. Every one of these ministers has a story: Tony's is that he was in a car with a sex worker and it crashed, and he died for a moment on the operating table and came back to life as “a modern-day Lazarus”, giving his life to Christ, marrying the now-repentant sex worker Joylinda (Leslie Bibb) and setting up a well-known ministry. His rival, Fontaine (Will Forte), was a high priest of a Satanic coven who now preaches for the Good Lord about the occult dangers of breakfast cereal.

Stories like this are commonplace in that world. I have met a whole bunch of former addicts, car thieves, and sexual sinners, all repentant and all keen to tell you about their miraculous redemption; I traded on it myself for a while, and it's been a while since I even thought about it, but for a few years I was the Christian Union's weapon of choice as a confessional speaker at evangelistic events, being decent behind a mic and perfectly able to spin a (true, if freely interpreted) tale of occult misery.

Tony's congregation is being poached by Fontaine – as it might be; all reasonably successful evangelical congregations have a constituency who “go where the Spirit is”, essentially moving from church to church when a more exciting Christian leader rocks up. I've seen it happen myself; when that abusive and dishonest but undeniably charismatic pastor I used to work for cleared off to Rhyl, dozens of people left the church when he did, going pretty much the next Sunday to the charismatic church with the new bombastic leader that met the other side of town. So Tony Lazarus, understanding that there is a New Miracle in town, needs something miraculous to retain his influence.

It's easy enough to understand where Tony is coming from, although the film makes it more straightforward to side with him, since it gives every sign that Fontaine is an out-and-out villain whose Christianity is either a sham or at the very least still practiced in the same way as a black magic cult, only with the names changed. He's the sort of man who instructs his henchman to leave a dead dog in the house of everyone involved in organising a press conference. Again, although Fontaine is a creepy, hissing demon of a man, there's something to be said for the reality of this, the cynicism of those evangelical leaders who are just in it for the meal ticket. Many evangelical leaders are not good people. They really are touched by the odour of brimstone. Again, I've met too many of them.

They are not people you want to mess with.
The film, then, contrasts Tony and Joylinda Lazarus's childlike sincerity with Fontaine's cynicism and venom, and sets both up against Verdean himself, who is both sincere and a fraud. A lot of evangelicals are like this, in my experience. They don't ever consciously admit this, even to themselves, and it's not limited to evangelicals, but the occasional preacher or leader will adopt the stance that sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.

And this is what Don does. He obscures, prevaricates and later outright descends to open fraud because he sincerely believes that the miraculous things he finds are going to Save people.

He begins with a genuine pair of iron age shears that could be the ones that cut the hair of Samson. They probably aren't, but they're from the time and place. They're history. But he has to find something better. He has to find something more miraculous.

His first coup for Tony Lazarus is a pillar of salt reputed to be Lot's Wife (the fact that there really is a pillar of salt in the Holy Land reputed to be Lot's Wife doesn't make any difference here). The one Don gets is definitely made of salt (it's “97 per cent sodium chloride”) and he gets his disreputable Israeli contact Boaz (Clement) to ship it – illegally – to Utah.

In the real world, the trade in Bible land artefacts is brisk. In 2017, the Green family, owners of the American retail chain Hobby Lobby and conservative evangelicals in all the worst possible ways, became tangled up in a scandal surrounding their having smuggled thousands of ancient artefacts from Iraq. Eventually they had to give them back, but the main takeaway is that these objects were intended for the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, of which Steve Green is chairman. When they were caught, the owners of Hobby Lobby stated that their organisation “was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process.” They didn't mean to break the law. They just hadn't bothered to pay any attention to it, or had considered that, acting in faith, it might apply to them. 

The pillar that gets sent to Utah is not the one from the photo. This pillar clearly has an anatomical peculiarity that is not what one would expect of a woman. Don, caught on the back foot, plays to their prejudices, suggesting that perhaps she was “a hermaphrodite” and that this was linked to the depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Tony and Joylinda shrug and accept this bit of casual transphobia, and then joyfully use it as the centrepiece of a worship celebration where Joylinda sings a heartfelt song about how Lot's Wife is an instructive lesson in listening to your husband (the funniest scene in the film: “Instead of Sodom and Gomorrah/She should've stayed at home and read the Torah”).

Don knows it's not the pillar of salt he wanted. He knows Boaz has let him down. He believes that people will be Saved if they see Lot's Wife. He thinks they'll believe if they see – even though the New Testament of the Bible explicitly mandates the opposite. But he is, in the way he constructs his faith, a materialist, and he assumes that they will accept Jesus into their lives. So he gives them Lot's Wife.

I remember a time where people being Saved was nearly everything the people I ran with talked about.
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be Saved.  

Romans 10v9
This verse gets disproportionate attention in this quarter, because it's the barest minimum statement of evangelical faith, that you have to believe in Jesus and say you're a Christian to be Saved (and I'm deliberately writing that with a capital S) from a Lost Eternity. And it's important in the terms of Don Verdean, because everything Don does in this film is because he doesn't want people to spend forever in Hell when they die and he genuinely thinks that they might have a better chance of that if they see a giant skull with a stone embedded in its forehead. And it's not that he doesn't think that this is a story that actually happened: he's convinced of it. But maybe the evidence needs some help. And this is a dangerous, slippery place to be in.

On his next trip Don comes up short again, and so, fearing the end of his ministry, he robs a grave and uses a more recent anomalous human remnant to fabricate the Skull of Goliath. Boaz discovers, and blackmails him, demanding to be given the chance to go to the US and maybe get laid.

Boaz has an incompetent eye on the main chance. He quickly loses Don his job and gets Don hired by an apparent Chinese billionaire (Steve Park) to look for “the Holy Grail of Biblical artefacts.” Namely, the Holy Grail. They embark on an openly fraudulent, elaborate charade to give this man an adventure, Indiana Jones-style.

As things escalate and Boaz's hold on him becomes more dangerous, Don finds himself accomplice to more and more serious crimes. Outright lies about death threats from Al Qaida, kidnap, assault and shoplifting all ensue. And Don betrays Carol, the woman who loves him, setting her up on a date with Boaz under the false pretence of an opportunity to share the Gospel with him.

Sharing the Gospel with Boaz is a big part of why Boaz comes to the US at all. Don only acquiesces to Boaz coming to the US on condition that Boaz at least pretends that there's a chance he's interested in converting to Christianity. He says that the Christians back home do love a Jew finding Christ, and he's right, because evangelicals are generally blithely unaware of the blank horror that the idea of converting to Christianity holds for most observant Jews, and the phenomenon of Messianic Witness is another one of those things that American evangelicals eat right up – it's a central plank of the uncritical evangelical support for Israel, for example.
Evangelical ministry in Israel is a strange, complex thing, with conflicting motivations and troubling politics. I once had the opportunity in a public setting to ask Canon Andrew White, who was then the Archbishop of Canterbury's Special Envoy to the Middle East, about his thoughts on evangelical organisations who meddled in Israeli politics by moving European Jews to Israel, in the sincere belief that Jesus would return and the world would end once God's Chosen People had returned to the Holy Land. “You are talking about Exobus,” he said, in a voice heavy with meaning. He was right, I was. I used to know someone who worked for Exobus, and had even visited my friend at Exobus's British HQ in Hull. Canon White had no good thing to say about their effect on the peace process in the Middle East. The eccentric and sincere people who I visited in Hull had no idea about the politics of what they were doing, but it was very political, for they had the enthusiastic support of the Israeli government. They would: every busload was a new influx of inhabitants for the settlements in Gaza. I still have some of their literature. It is passionate and strange, strongly opposed to a Christian history of antisemitism, and at the same time apocalyptic in its subtext, reducing Jewish people to facilitators of the Christian End Times.

The ambivalent consequences of evangelical meddling in the Holy Land cannot be understated. On the one hand, they're in lockstep support of the actions of Israel as a state; on the other hand, their evangelism is only welcome as long as it benefits Israel politically, not least because the Christian persecution of Jews, going back as far as the Church itself, is not a thing you forget, and attempting to convert Jews comes from a sort of unconscious structural antisemitism.

And this is why, on the one hand, Don freely, as an American evangelical, gets help from Israeli locals, even while the police chase him away from the places he wants to dig. And it's why the evangelicals are so happy to have Boaz come back and appear on TV with Don. He's the (antisemitic) stereotype of the “Good Jew” to the Christians in the film. And the portrayal of the character – a dishonest, greedy Jew with a funny accent – is the worst antisemitic stereotype, and the thoughtless low-level antisemitism of the other characters towards him, which is not excused doesn't excuse the antisemitism of his portrayal. I normally love Jemaine Clement, but holy heaven, Boaz is a terrible character.
And yes, this is complex, the hard truth that sincere, decent people can also be bigots at the same time, but Gentlemen Broncos worked (shut up, it worked) because the troubling bits of Mormon politics were largely irrelevant to the story at hand. But in Don Verdean, the sexual, racial and national politics of evangelicals are front and centre, and have to be. Reviewers in the secular media found it baffling that people who were to them signified as hideous, awful people, bigots and frauds, got portrayed as sincere and forgiving, and no challenge was given to them. Jared and Jerusha Hess's other films were joyous, fond and gentle. But Don Verdean is bile-filled. These people are allowed empathy, and may forgive each other, but the filmmakers do not forgive them.

Don gets caught, of course. It all comes out. He confesses to Carol and then the cops come for him. He and Boaz go to jail. But Fontaine falls anyway, and Tony and Carol forgive Don. Again, the seriousness of the prison scene (and the intention of the film is to portray this scene as somewhat redemptive) is undermined by Boaz's prison-orange yarmulke, another Comedy Jewish Guy thing.

Don Verdean is not the wacky comedy that its marketing attempted to sell it as. It's a melancholy film, about the desperately wrong places where lying to tell the truth will take you, and how a lie, even a sincere lie, will ruin you if you take it too far, and the effects that this will have on your faith. But it's so uneven: Sam Rockwell and Amy Ryan play straight, Will Forte does not, and Jemaine Clement plays a monstrous antisemitic caricature who ruins the whole film and overshadows the film's otherwise fascinating insights into the struggles produced by evidence-based faith.