Sundance 2018: Come Sunday, by David Bax
“Are we more merciful than God?” That’s a fascinating question, considering how few of us human beings would knowingly send anyone off to be tortured for all of eternity. It’s especially interesting given that the man who asks it in Joshua Marston’s Come Sunday, Bishop Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor), spends the first act of the movie so confident, if troubled, about how many people both known and unknown to him are going to Hell.
Come Sunday is a true story about a wildly successful preacher who, in the late 90s, heard God speak to him and embraced the concept of universal reconciliation–basically, that everyone gets to go to Heaven, no matter what they did or believed in life–and subsequently lost most of his congregation and money. The story was previously documented in an episode of This American Life. The radio show remains a producer, so it should come as no surprise that the whole affair is spoon fed to the viewer.
Most egregiously, Marston and screenwriter Marcus Hinchey don’t trust that Pearson challenging millennia of mainstream Christian thinking and presumably risking eternal damnation himself presents enough of a clear dramatic conflict. So they set up easy idealistic antagonists in order to knock them down, like Pearson’s viewing a news report about war in Rwanda leaving millions of unsaved non-Christians dead. Moreover, the filmmakers apparently felt that the film needed villains. As a liberal atheist, I have no interest in defending Oral Roberts or J.D. Ellis but building up their homophobia and vindictiveness in opposition to Pearson’s change in thinking makes for lazy, conventional biopic beats and distracts from the juicier internal conflict.
That’s a shame, really, because Ejiofor is more than up to the task. He’s the best thing going here and it’s not even close. He nails the inner turmoil of a man confronting a change in the philosophy that has made him who he is. Of course he does that, he’s Chiwetel Ejiofor. But he also blends in the secular, materialistic issues of a man confronting a change in the philosophy that has made him rich. Pearson and his family have become accustomed to a way of life made possible by his success and Ejiofor portrays the difficulty of an economic downgrade without ever reducing Pearson to a greedy hypocrite.
It’s clear that Come Sunday is less willing to get its hands dirty than its star is. Every time it starts to get into intriguingly messy territory–Pearson’s struggle with the parts of the gospel he’s refuting; the racial elements dictating which of his congregation support him and which don’t; the importance of morality when not tied to a reward–it deflects in favor of easier terrain. Theologically, the movie is the equivalent of a Christmas and Easter Christian.