"FAITH": The Humanity of Spiritual Crisis
Doubt and human tragedy are a normal part of life. Jesus promises us this fact in the conclusion of his famous sermon. Here he tells us that under the pressures of life many so-called believers will turn away. Spiritual crisis or a faith deconstruction, as it is commonly called today, should not come as a surprise. We might even say that it is an inevitable part of everyone’s spiritual pilgrimage. The rains will come, the water will rise, the winds will blow, one’s foundations will be tested. It is at that moment that the quality of one’s faith is revealed. And sometimes it will end, Jesus says, with “a great crash.”
A tragedy of contemporary Christian spirituality is that there is no room for an honest discussion about this tragic sensibility. Smiles, sunshine, and success are the expected norms of spiritual pilgrimage. For $40 you can purchase a Joel Olsteen “Inspiration Cube,” which will give you immediate access to 400 inspirational messages. In doing so, we gradually disconnect spirituality from our lived humanity. If you’ve lived long enough, you know that this pattern of denial is actually a bunch of crap. This is consumer marketing not biblical reality.
Sadly, so many faith-based films fall into this happy-clappy arch of spiritual unreality. I am on record for strongly disliking most faith-based films, quoting Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington’s description of them as “Christian pornography.” I am also a student of religious nones and the spiritual disenchanted. Many cultural observes are aware that the business of spiritual deconstruction is a growth industry. Entire conferences, publishing houses, and podcasts are now dedicated to this phenomenon. High profile church leaders have famously abandoned their faith and in the process become deconstruction celebrities. To use dated language, “backsliding” has become cool. So it was only a matter of time when this cultural phenomenon would find its way into film. What is unexpected however is the cinematic and spiritual achievement of its depiction in Eli Daughdrill’s film “Faith” (2020).
This is a film about spiritual crisis for a non-faith market, written and directed by an ex-evangelical without anger or an axe to grind. There are no villains in this film—no hypocritical pastors, abusive parents, or flippant friends. There is instead an honest depiction of the humanity of a crisis of faith. This is the film that should be watched in every evangelical seminary for its authenticity will soon be the lived reality of every pastor within his or her congregation.
The film is a cinematic achievement of high order. It is Daughdrill’s first feature film. It was made for $200,000. It was shot in his own hometown, Atwater, California, and in his former home church. Most will consider this an art film as it centers appropriately on character rather than plot. The acting by Brian Geraghty, Nora-Jane Noone, and Thomas Francis is of the highest order. Brian Geraghty is in every scene and is able to carry the weight of spiritual anguish with remarkable authenticity and humanity. This is effective filmmaking at its best and the fact that it is a first feature at this budget only adds to its miraculous power. It should be a lesson for aspiring filmmakers everywhere. This is what faith looks like in a Sundance indie film. And rather than being a critique of the church, this is a film that uniquely teaches about the nature and character of faith.
Faith for the Central California farmer Chris is more a familial identity than a spiritual reality. Being a Christian was more of a sociological reality than a spiritual one. “This is who we are,” says his father in the film. When faith is grounded on such a weak foundation, it is not surprising that it will not have the resilience to face up to the crises of suicide and mental illness. Daughdrill acknowledges that the film is as much about identity shifts as it is about religious shifts. This is a film that calls one to check one’s spiritual foundation. Being a Christian simply because of one’s family or upbringing is never enough for authentic enduring faith. Yet many do not make this transition easily—particularly among the young.
The relational fruit of this sociological faith is one of black and white thinking that leads to judgment and anger. In spite of often saying the right things the lived reality is more obligation than grace. If one’s faith does not make one more loving towards those with whom one disagrees, then one has good reasons to question the validity of one’s faith. This is depicted here in the coercive manner the farmer treats his children and wife. Coercive parenting creates toxic faith. The measure of one’s faith is revealed in one’s relationships.
While it is not true of all forms of evangelicalism, this film depicts faith as mostly an encounter with a subjective experience—“do you feel the Holy Spirit moving?” Either a highly cognitive—believing all the right things—or a highly subjective faith—having all the right experiences—are not the measure of authenticity of a relationship with Jesus. Ironically, what is evidence of faith is genuine anger toward God... the angry despairing scream in the night. The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. As long as one remains really angry toward God, there mains hope of God meeting one at the point of this anger. The despairing scream in the night is a sign of faith.
The process of deconstruction is painful. Typically we resort to behaviors to numb our pain, which lead to secondary destructive complexities—alcohol, drugs, or sex. We must encourage the deconstructing to stay with their pain. Pain is to be embraced not numbed or discounted. Well-meaning Christians can too easily get sidetracked by the drinking, the drugs, or the sexually carousing. We dare not focus on the symptoms with moralistic finger-wagging when the root cause is where our compassion and grace must be focused.
Deconstruction and reconstruction are always a gradual process. Too often we approach faith as if it were a mechanical light switch expecting instantaneous results. Life is not like that. Sometimes it demands simply putting one’s foot in front of the other, taking life one day at a time. The lie of most Christian films is in the climatic epiphany, after which all of life falls neatly into place. In reality, faith, or the germ of what is left of faith, demands simply carrying on. Deconstruction needs gentleness: the quiet presence of others, the touch without words, and the sunrise of the next day. God is not found in the whirlwind, in the dramatic, in the cinematically eventful, but often in the still small voice, the glimmer of light, and the slow growth of a new harvest.
Daughdrill is an ex-evangelical. His personal faith has taken a beating since leaving his hometown twenty years earlier. But his haunting honesty about doubt, spiritual struggle, and deconstructing faith is a gift. For he places this reality not as a spiritual anomaly, but as an expected experience of all humanity. This is the starting point of spiritual reconstruction.