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Building a Celluloid Bridge
What happens when an evangelical church and a documentary film festival decide to be friends?
That was the question I brought with me to Columbia, Missouri last March when I attended the True/False Film Festival, the premier documentary and nonfiction film festival in the country. I knew from a 2013 New York Times article that one of the major partners in the festival was The Crossing, a large church in the Evangelical Presbyterian denomination. But I also know documentary film—how it often specializes in highlighting and exploring causes and ideas you’d be hard-pressed to find represented in your typical church library or on any list of “Christian” movies. Documentaries often challenge conservative politics and organized religion, and the sorts that make the rounds at festivals (and the audiences that turn up for them) don’t tend to be predisposed favorably toward evangelicals.
The Crossing, however, sponsors the True Life Fund, a monetary award given to one True/False film every year. This year’s pick was Sonita, a film about a teenaged Afghani rapper who tries to bring awareness to the issue of child marriage in her country. The history of other recipients on the festival’s website reveals an incredible diversity of causes and recipients.
One day in the middle of the very busy festival, True/False co-director David Wilson and The Crossing founding pastor Dave Cover took an hour to chat with me about their friendship and the partnership between True/False and The Crossing. Wilson is, by his own description, a “secular atheist” and a political liberal; Cover is an evangelical pastor and a pro-life conservative.
The two men clearly have had many discussions about their beliefs—where they differ, yes, but also where they converge. Together, we sat on a pair of benches in the University of Missouri quad and talked about conviction and pluralism, art’s power to build bridges, and how a church can actually make a difference in its community.
(The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
CT's The Local Church: Could you start by talking about how your partnership came about?
Dave Cover: I think the narrative starts with me. I came to the film festival in 2007 and saw In the Shadow of the Moon. I experienced the environment, and the film, and the idea of being able to speak to the director afterwards. I hadn't been to film festivals. The idea of a film festival in Columbia, I thought, was great.
At The Crossing, we really wanted to find a way for us to be a part of the community and partner with the arts. I thought it would be a slam dunk. [We contacted True/False about] sponsoring, being an advertiser, or something. [Our contact] said, "Well, I'll have to ask them and find out what they say."
I was taken aback. "What do you mean ask them? They don't want our money?" There was something about it that intrigued me. Somebody had a vision for what they do—and I might not fit it. I respected the idea of having a vision, not just wanting to do something for money. That impressed me. I became even more bought in at that point.
Then we met David [Wilson] and had lunch with him. We hit it off. I'm sure he had stereotypes of me. I definitely had stereotypes of him. He broke a lot of them in that lunch, in the sense that what he said was really true. He wasn't afraid to talk about things that he didn't believe. He wasn't afraid to talk with somebody who may have been in a different camp culturally.
I think both of us got the impression that as long as we both respected each other's camp and didn't try to take advantage of the other for our own agenda, we would get along. I felt more positive about it after that lunch.
[To David Wilson] I'll let you pick up wherever you want.
David Wilson: I jumped in at a very similar moment, I guess—coming and sitting down, and being suspicious. I personally come from a sort of secular Jewish background. I have had moments in my life where I would say I was strongly anti-Christian, and I definitely have a big suspicion of any organized religion. Certainly.
Also, I like people, and I like ideas. I like when people talk about ideas and exchange ideas. That, I think, really hit me. The fact that Dave sat down and listened, and seemed to understand where they were coming from—that got to me. I was like, "Okay, this is interesting."
About the same time, we were talking to another church in town.
DC: I didn't know that. I'm hearing this for the first time.
DW: Totally different experience. It wasn't that we said, "Absolutely not." It sort of fizzled. It fizzled because clearly the agendas were different. Clearly the place they were coming from didn't sync with our place.
Even then, that first film [for the True Life Fund], we were like, "Okay—we are going to pick this film. We are going to take it to [The Crossing]. It's going to be the film. That's it. They can be in or out."
We picked Burma VJ, in which the heroes are Buddhist monks. It celebrates clandestinely conspiring against the government to bring them down. It's a totalitarian government—but it’s a government. We just thought, “Well, this is going to be the end of this. We'll show them this film . . .”
DC: A Buddhist insurgency!
DW: ". . . We'll show [The Crossing] this film, and they'll be like 'Ah, not for us.' We'll be like 'Okay. Cool. Nice try. Good game.'"
DC: "We tried."
DW: Instead, they got it. These guys watched it.
DC: We loved it. We were excited about it.
DW: They talked about it. It wasn't just they were like, "Okay, whatever you say." They said smart things about it. They engaged with it. We were kind of like "Oh, okay. Let's see where this goes."
LC: How did the filmmaker react?
DW: The filmmaker is this very dry, pretty circumspect Danish guy from an entirely secular country. I can't imagine he’d set foot inside a church. Then we are calling him up and saying, "So, on Sunday morning, we want you to go to this church."
He took it in stride. Filmmakers with films coming into the world want an audience. They are fascinated by the idea that any audience, especially an audience they had never thought of before, might like their film.
DC: When he came to The Crossing, all his body language said, "I'm suspicious. I probably shouldn't be here. I'm told I have to be here. I'll fulfill my role." We all have our role. We are just playing our part.
Part of [what the True Life Fund selection winner does] is come into the worship service [at The Crossing on the weekend of the festival]. The minute he went in there and started hearing people sing—well, it's a young church, and it's a singing church. His head was on a swivel. He just said to me, "I've never heard people sing like this before." He goes, "You guys are an incredible singing people." In his Danish accent. He did a great job. It was an honor to have him speak at our church.
We've been honored ever since to have filmmakers and subjects of films speak at our church. I don't think any of them (maybe with the exception of one) would ever consider themselves Christian, if even religious. Yet the fit has always been great. They have always been respectful as they spoke and have appreciated where they were. We appreciated having them, and we wanted them not to compromise who they were. I always tell them, "Say whatever you want. If you want to bash the church, bash the church." But it's always been a great fit.
DW: We've had people who work with the fest come to us with a web page that was linked from The Crossing's web page, saying, "Look, they say this! How can the fest get with this?"
I guess it just boils down to this: you're not going to agree with everything that everyone you know thinks. What a boring and terrible world that would be! You are going to have points of distance. I think if you can actually draw those lines sort of openly and say, "Look—you believe this, and I believe this, and we are going to differ there," it actually makes it easier to find the stuff you agree on. That feels so much more productive to me.
DC: There's a large secular culture in Columbia. It's very pluralistic. That's one of the reasons we like Columbia. I like being in a church in a secular culture—not because I like being combative, but I like the free exchange of ideas. I think our church operates best when people like talking about issues without necessarily always trying to convert each other. There’s a large Christian-ish population here, and I would say we've learned to live side by side. I think we're friends with each other.
DW: One of the other preconceptions I had was around this idea of a mega-church.
DC: I hate the idea of a mega-church, too. Hate it.
DW: [But The Crossing is] more than two thousand [people]. That was the thing: I looked at The Crossing, and still, if I drive by The Crossing, I'm like, "That's clearly a mega-church." But you guys said something really early on—you kind of said, “Look—these mega-churches are going to have your daycare, you've got your coffee shop, you've got your barber shop, and you've got your sports teams. Everything you do is looking—”
DW: "Inward. You build that wall around it. You make it this sort of safe space where you don't have to engage."
You said, "Look, that's not us. We are looking out. We are going out. We are going into the community." And you backed that up with actions. That stuck with me. This is a model of a large church that may even theologically believe the same things as these other large churches, but its stance is opposite. The stance is looking outward, not inward.
DC: We want to have long-term relationships with people who don't believe the same things as us. There's always a risk in that.
LC: When True/False started, was the idea to move in the direction of talking across traditional boundary lines, or is that something that has evolved over time?
DW: Everything has evolved. Or, at the very least, we've gotten better at articulating it. At the very least, we did know that we had built an identity as a fest devoted to art and craft, and not topic.
We also put into the name—into the slash between the T and the F—the idea that we want a media literate audience. I want to live in a media literate culture. I want myself and our audience to question and challenge everything they see. There is no choir to preach to, like the Liberal Documentary Loving Choir. They know what they think, and it gets told back to them on screen, and they cheer it.
DC: It's really true.
DW: You've got to push people. You've got to challenge people.
DC: I think they do a great job, and I'm somebody that's coming from a different perspective than David Wilson, probably on nearly every issue. We're on political sides that are different, although probably not as much as we both assume—and, for sure, religiously.
I think Dave has done a great job. I say this to everybody. I say this to our church—they've done a great job of selecting films. I don't agree with every film, by any means. Some of them, I know, are pushing the envelope in all kinds of ways, on everything. But I think I've learned a lot from the films over the years. I really have. My perspective's been broadened, and that is for sure true for our church. Our church is a more educated church because of the True/False Film Festival.
I think that's true for Columbia, too. The films they select have been really great at shaping a broader worldview. Even if I don't agree with the worldview, there are really good things that come from a broader education about that worldview that makes us better thinkers and makes us a better church.
LC: Do any examples stick out to you?
DC: Well, we had a film here (and he knows what I'm going to say) called Holy Wars that was embarrassing for me, as a Christian, to watch. . . . I thought the film was extremely fair. It wasn't trying to bash anybody. . . . I just thought that the film exposed some things that I think all Christians have to own. It was a good discussion. I liked it so much, even though it was embarrassing, that we had the director come, and we actually showed it at The Crossing. David was there for a panel afterwards with the director. That was one of my favorite nights as a pastor.
LC: How does your congregation react when you do something like that?
DC: There's no monolith called “the congregation.” They're all different people. They have different stories. Some of them are going to react very defensively. Others are going to say, "You know, there're some good points here." I think the people we consider the leaders or insiders in the congregation are more of the latter: I didn't like it, but it really made me look at myself in the mirror. I didn't like it, but it made me think about some things.
LC: Do you hear those conversations happening well into the year?
DC: Absolutely. Our church loves True/False now. A good chunk of our church are all pass holders. I see them all downtown. . . . That has become part of our church culture. We're heavily invested now. If this thing goes down, we're going to look bad.
LC: That's what a partnership is, right? It's not really a partnership if that's not true.
DW: One of the funniest moments was when we picked this film, Bully [as a candidate for the True Life Fund]. When we picked this film, we knew it had gay characters, teenagers who are bullied because they are gay.
DC: Every once in a while he's trying to push our envelope to see what we'll sponsor.
DW: We went in kind of thinking, that's the thing. That's the thing that they might balk at—having not really ever had any conversations about [homosexuality], having sort of an uneasy sense of where The Crossing stands on that.
They watched the film. The first questions and comments always hit me out of left field. In [Bully’s] case, I was ready for the talk about homosexuality. But then there was a whole conversation about suicide—about a mother who says that she knows that her son is in heaven, and had committed suicide, and how to theologically grapple with that statement.
DC: That was our problem. Our problem wasn't the gay high school students. The problem was the mother who's convincing the audience, because she's convinced, that somebody who commits suicide is in heaven. We don't honestly know the answer to that. Her confidence was a question mark.
Now, at the end of the day, we said, "Okay, she can have the right to say whatever she wants to say.” I'd probably say the same thing if my son committed suicide. But that was our big hangup. A theological one. [Chuckles]. We're Presbyterian.
DW: Because of that, though, we started talking. I asked him about homosexuality, and he says, "Do you really know what we think about that?" I was like, "Honestly, I don't. I was afraid to ask." He can probably tell this better, but he talked to me about how there are sins, and there are big sins and little sins, and a spectrum of stuff you are going to pay attention to. Everyone is a sinner.
DC: The lesbian girl is being bullied. Any Christian who understands their Bible is going to be against that. They're not going to be for that. We were wholeheartedly behind the message of the film. Somebody shouldn't be bullied because of their sexuality, or whatever.
But then, because we were talking about it, I wanted to make sure Dave knew where we stood. We live in a secular culture. We're not going to try and Christianize a secular culture. We have our convictions about marriage, and we have our convictions about sex, but we're not trying to Christianize Columbia with those convictions. That was important, I thought, for him to know.
The other one was After Tiller.
DW: Dave blew my mind. We showed this film called After Tiller. It's a portrait of the three doctors in the U.S. who do late-term abortions. That he saw it at all kind of blew my mind.
DC: You said you wanted me to see it.
DW: You said it was your favorite film you saw that year.
DC: It was. It was my favorite film. I thought it was fair.
To me, this is the big deal about documentaries: Are they fair? Or do they straw-man to bash a point? If they're fair, they can say whatever they want—if they're fair. I felt like [After Tiller] was very fair.
What I really liked about the film was that it showed the human side of these late-term abortion doctors. We have stereotypes—that there is somebody wearing a Satanist mask and can't wait to kill their next child. That's a joke. That's not really a stereotype. The whole point of the film was to break those stereotypes, and it did a great job of it.
You won't find somebody more pro-life, anti-abortion than me. I still am. I tell Dave that I for sure am. I know that's an issue that we're never going to be on the same page. But I would even be willing, I think I told him, to show After Tiller at the Crossing and have a discussion about it. . . . I'm all for discussing things, as long as it's being played fair.
LC: Has your congregation grown in its ability to have good conversations?
DC: What the True/False Film Festival has done for us as a church is enable us to have more intelligent conversations without reacting. Learning to listen. Learning to try to represent the other side so the other side would say, "Yeah, that's what I'm trying to say." I think if you can do that, you're a more educated person, which is always a good goal.
Also, I think it helps us as a church to be more effective in a secular culture. Nobody wants to engage with a church that thinks they're always right, that doesn't have anything to learn. . . . We become a more effective church when we can listen and have more intelligent conversations with people who believe very different things. I think the festival helps us do that.
LC: Have particular films helped you re-orient the way you think about your community of Columbia?
DC: That's an interesting question, because right now we're going through a little bit of an awakening on the race issue in Columbia—obviously, because of what's happened here [at The University of Missouri]. Several months before that, we started reading books, like a lot of churches in America are right now—we’re not on the cutting edge of that by any means. We started reading books that challenged some of our assumptions when it came to Christianity and racism—our willingness to accept responsibility, as Christians, that Christianity has propagated a lot of racism in our culture. It’s also been the solution to it a lot of times—but a lot of times it's propagated it. It’s one of these “look in the mirror” things.
Columbia has racial pockets in it, like any city. It has racial pockets when it comes to churches as well. There are predominantly black churches and predominantly white churches. We started trying to figure out a way to break that up a little bit.
Since December, we've been getting the white pastors and black pastors in a room on a monthly basis, having breakfast together. At first it was very stiff, like the first lunch Dave and I had together—suspicious of one another. Now, we're laughing a lot more, and the conversation is becoming a lot more honest. We're visiting each other's churches. We had a unity service in January, and it was phenomenal.
A couple of films [this year at True/False] showed the condition of African Americans, and they stick out to me more than it would have a year ago. I'm thinking of Presenting Princess Shaw [now called Thru You Princess, in theaters May 27]. That really stuck out to me more than it would have a year ago. It's just making me think a little differently about our city.
LC: The partnership between True/False and The Crossing is unique on the film festival circuit. Why do you think other people aren't creating partnerships like this? What are the challenges?
DC: I think that Dave really is different from your average secular atheist—well, I don't want to put a label on him he's not wanting to wear.
DW: I'm okay with those.
DC: Okay. Atheist. He's definitely open-armed. What he says with his words, he does with his actions. He's always the one who's making sure we golf. ([To Dave Wilson] We need to that again, by the way, this summer.) We spend time together doing social things. It's not just here—we have lunches together and things like that. I think his mindset really is unique, for those who head up a film festival to be open to a church partnering. Suspicious—who wouldn't be?—but open to exploring it. Seeing how it works. He's been very open-armed in the whole process.
DW: I know we're different from other festivals, but it’s also very clear that The Crossing is different from other churches. I hope that there are churches like The Crossing in other cities, and that festivals that are a little bit like us can find them and connect. That openness to new ideas, that lack of fear—I think that confidence in your own beliefs gives you a willingness to listen to the beliefs of others. To know that it doesn't weaken your own beliefs to hear those things expressed.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s critic at large and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans). She tweets @alissamarie.