If “American Jesus” is any indication, Christianity is alive and well in the United States–but many people prefer to worship in non-traditional ways. Director Aram Garriga took his camera across the country to document cowboys, snake handlers, and motorcycle riders that have set up faith communities.
[Watch the “American Jesus” trailer by clicking here ]
When reached by phone, Garriga talked about the origins of the film and the reaction he has received thus far:
What was the inspiration for the film?
We got the idea [for the movie] after listening to some Christian hardcore band with my co-writers. We were surprised at these evangelical music events; some of them were very good. We got very interested and thought “Wow! These guys are expressing their faith in a way we wouldn’t have thought of.”
We started investigating the Christian music scene. We wanted to find the Christian versions of the bands we liked just out of curiosity. But then I thought this is just the tip of the iceberg; it’s a much wider thing. It’s not only about music, but culture in general. It’s about America as we know it.
So we started searching for these faith communities and this Christian approach to faith that spread out before our eyes: cowboys, wrestlers, gators. We tried to find as many interesting faith communities that we could and then we contacted them to see if they would be up for an interview.
Afterwards, we started getting a bigger picture, especially after we met Frank Schaeffer [son of American religious leader Francis Schaeffer], who is one of the main voices in the film.
Was there much resistance from some people to being shown on camera?
We were only interested in what they had to say, what beliefs they had, and why did they have them. They were always very open and welcoming to us. So, in a way, it was quite easy to get in touch with them, to have them agree to be interviewed.
One of the faith-based communities that caught my attention was the West Virginia pastor who used snake handling in his sermons. I was saddened to hear that he died from a snakebite.
It’s a very sad story. In the end, Pastor Mark Wolford went the same steps that his father had gone because he also had died because of a rattlesnake bite. I was very sad to find it out, but I have to say I was not surprised.
When we were there, I understood that they do this for real. There is a real risk and a real possibility of getting hurt. Again, like they say in the movie, they need to prove what they believe in. It makes sense in their own beliefs.
Another person that caught my attention was Revered Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. He seems like an “in-your-face” kind of preacher.
In the case of Revered Billy, he’s more of an activist and a showman than a person of faith. [He’s playing] a typical American character, but I think he is more of a socialist. I think he is more of an anti-capitalist activist. He’s an interesting character: he appropriates this manner, but he has a completely different background than he appears.
You mentioned that a shorter version of “American Jesus” was broadcast on television in Spain and generated a lot of controversy.
We didn’t know why. As I was explaining before, we didn’t try to judge anyone, we didn’t try to point fingers at what we thought was wrong or right. I was surprised that the Evangelicals were very angry–some of them, but not all of them. There were complaint letters to the TV station.