Monday, May 6, 2013
Faith and Fraud in "The Undershepherd"
By Sikivu Hutchinson, from Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels
The gospel of social capitalism is unpacked with salacious brio in writer-director Russ Parr’s 2012 film "The Undershepherd". Set in Los Angeles under luminous blue skies, the film provides a window onto the cesspit of thug religiosity. In the opening scene two “junior pastors,” Roland and L.C., from First Baptist church, chafe at the leadership of a cabal of older pastors led by veteran actors Louis Gossett Jr. and Bill Cobbs. When the head pastor is exposed in an embezzlement scandal, the young pastors embark upon separate ministerial paths. In typical Cain and Abel form, the story focuses on the opposite arcs of virtuous Roland, who branches out to start his own storefront church, and best friend turned rival, corrupt messiah complex preacher L.C. Roland skews toward Billy Graham; L.C. toward Jim Bakker. L.C. assumes leadership of First Baptist and spirals down into a cesspit of sex, lies, and depravity, Roland and his good woman/first lady minister to the poor and struggle over the light bill. Played by the expertly diabolical Isaiah Washington, L.C. is a caricature of swaggering preacherly sleaze and machismo. He dips generously into the church till, abuses his wife, impregnates a senior pastor’s daughter, and pins the rap on one of his minions, then orders him to take the woman to get an abortion (which, like most female characters on the big screen, she’s adamantly opposed to). Parr pulls his punches at the beginning of the film by having a commentator provide a “this doesn’t reflect all of the Black Church” disclaimer. Moreover, gender roles are rigidly prescribed; the black female characters fit neatly into the Jezebel/temptress or loyal, God-fearing/caregiver mode. For the females, being God-fearing is signified by prairie dresses with “tastefully” revealing necklines. The men are locked in a duel for power, but the women’s clichéd backbone-of-the-church status bear out Jill Nelson’s caveat about the nexus of religious power and gender: “If black women boycotted religious institutions for a week, they’d cease to function. Instead we continue to worship faithfully, tithe, answer the phone, and cook the minister’s lunch.” Nonetheless, the film ably spotlights predatory religious masculinity. L.C. liberally uses scripture to justify his debauchery. The church elders are portrayed as inept, overbearing and incapable of leading their way out of a paper bag. Meetings devolve into bickering and incoherence. The pecking order for who gives a sermon turns on ego and dominance. L.C. repeatedly attempts to upstage one of the elders with overwrought “can I get a witness” whooping and hollering. Church funds are secretly used to buy a condo hideaway in the Bahamas. The coup de grace comes when L.C. tells a church deaconess who accuses him of being a fraud that he is God, kisses the microphone he’s holding, then proceeds to poke her breast with it.
Throughout the film, Parr contrasts L.C.’s lust for stardom and celebrity with Roland’s humble struggle just to keep a roof over his storefront congregation’s head. L.C. brings in the cameras and turns his services into a reality show. He browbeats parishioners and even publicly chastises a shiftless father with a new girlfriend on his arm for deserting his kids. L.C.’s gross hubris becomes a metaphor and cautionary tale for the pitfalls of prosperity gospel demagoguery. It’s implied that Roland is closer to the Christ model and L.C. to the Pharissee. True Christians don’t act this way, or so the party line goes. The L.C. types pervert the true spirit and letter of the Bible and betray its overriding message of tolerance, charity, love, and humanity. Thus, L.C. and his real life counterpart Creflo Dollar give Christianity a bad name. In 2012, Dollar was arrested for hitting and choking his teenage daughter after she defied him about attending a party. He was soundly trounced in the media for hypocrisy, abusiveness, and sullying “true” Christian values, even as his flock predictably rallied around him with “he’s a true Man of God” declarations. So what would Jesus, protector of the meek and defenseless, do? He would cast out the false prophet Dollars of the world and protect the lambs from their predations. Why hasn’t this happened? Why do the prosperity gospel predators continue to rake in tax-exempt billions decade after decade with no divine oversight or intervention? The standard Christian rationalization is that they will pay in hell. But instead of punishment one can see collusion, deftly skewered by Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen in her book Quicksand: “How the white man’s god must laugh at the great joke he had played on them! Bound them to slavery, then to poverty and insult and made them bear it.” Indeed, there is no evidence that Jesus was simply a kinder gentler Michael Jackson milquetoast lover-not-a-fighter vision of tolerance and forgiveness. In the New Testament he slams Jews, smacks down non-believers and wants to kill the babies of adulterers (John, 3:18, 15:6). But the propagandists for a sanitized Christ always want to have it both ways. They want to cherry pick scripture to amplify Jesus’ essential benevolence while keeping critics from cherry picking the bad “out-of-context” stuff. As Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation notes, “Believers often accuse skeptics of ignoring the good while picking out only the bad parts of the bible. Believers ask why we don’t join them in emphasizing that which is good and beautiful in the bible. This might appear to be a fair question until it is turned around and we ask them why they don’t join us in denouncing the ugly parts. Then, they don’t see the questions as being quite so fair.”
It’s precisely this kind of hyper-masculine license that allows the cult of the charismatic preacher to dominate the landscape of black America. Because the Bible is filled with so much rot, hatred, and anti-human rights vitriol, Christian propaganda about its moral righteousness is a schizoid enterprise. Although Larsen’s caveat about the gullibility of African Americans within the context of religious debasement rings true, the white man’s God has long since morphed into the God of black bootstraps opportunity. The legacies of slavery and racial apartheid have made the church one of the easiest venues for black entrepreneurialism. Drive down any urban street and the explosion of small ministries, makeshift spiritual centers, inner-city temples (one right around the corner from me is headed by a man who calls himself “Prophet”), and other low-rent vehicles of worship attest to the enduring power of this entrepreneurial hucksterism.