In his first cinematic documentary excursion, God on My Side, Andrew Denton tackles a big topic—and one that cuts close to the question of what it means to be a believer in the world today. Considering much Western media attention has focused on Muslim fundamentalism in recent years, Denton set out to explore “our side” of fundamentalist belief.
To this end, Denton spent four days at the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) Convention in Dallas, Texas, held in February this year. This annual convention attracts more than 6000 Christian communicators representing 350 TV stations and 750 radio stations. As one first-time convention-goer describes it to Denton, it's “an interesting mix of religion and money.” Denton's first objective is to assess the scope and impact of these broadcasters and the magnitude of the Christian industry of which they are a part.
Originally conceived as a special edition of Denton's regular Australian Broadcasting Corporation program Enough Rope, Denton—an avowed atheist—employs his trademark interviewing style to gently, sympathetically and intelligently explore the faith and ministry of a number of the participants in this event. In this context, a number of convention participants have opportunity to give their personal testimony briefly and to explain the focus of their respective ministries and beliefs.
One of the significant features of Denton's portrayal of the faith he discovers is the variety of experiences, views and beliefs represented. While they might be described broadly as Christian fundamentalists, they represent a breadth of perspectives—and the pattern for Western attempts to understand Muslim belief is significant. It is wrong, Denton demonstrates, to assume that all believers believe the same things in the same way—and we should be prepared to consider this when relating to believers of all faiths.
Of course, one of Denton's reasons for interest in this gathering is to explore the political influences of such a gathering. And he finds himself in the heart of George Bush country, geographically and ideologically. President Bush sends his greetings to NRB convention-goers by prerecorded video, praising the work of these media evangelists. Indeed, the closest Denton comes to finding a differing political viewpoint is one interviewee who reports knowing some Christians who vote Democrat.
Denton's storytelling moves on to the end-time focus of many of these voices. America and the wider world are in moral decline, Denton is told, and this coupled with various disasters is a sure sign of the nearness of the end. Most of the interviewees link this prophetic focus strongly with the role of Israel and the United States in the Middle East. Having worked through the various shades of Christian “industry” and other oddities, this is where the fundamentalism turns nasty.
For some focused on Israel and Bible prophecy, the US should stop at nothing to preserve and protect the nation of Israel, including the use of nuclear weapons if necessary. Denton includes footage of preachers calling on US leadership to expand military action in the Middle East for this purpose.
God on My Side largely leaves it to the viewer to draw their own conclusions but offers a prompt with the words of John 15:12—“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”—punctuating the final credits. This is a profound contrast to the appeal to military power preached in the last few minutes of the documentary.
It's also at least a partial answer for those of us who are less than comfortable joining in the narrow, often negative, politically conservative, fundamentalist agenda that seems to be increasingly assumed with the label Christian. Even when we share some of the same beliefs, a priority on Christian love and service will set us apart. After all, that's what Jesus said: “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
It is good when commentators, such as Denton, hold believers accountable to what they say they believe. As such, God on My Side is a useful prod to believers of all kinds and should spark worthwhile thinking and discussion. For that we should be thankful, even if it might also be uncomfortable for some of us at times.