We learn more about Carlton Pearson in the first 10 minutes of “Heretics,” a 2005 episode of This American Life, than we do in the entirety of Joshua Marston’s Come Sunday, a biopic inspired by the podcast. Pearson is a fiery and charismatic minister who united whites and people of color in worship in Tulsa. He studied at the Oral Roberts University, and became something of a son to the institution’s founder. This was a remarkable ascension for any man, let alone an African-American who grew up in poverty on the wrong side of the tracks, in a deeply religious family that believed in demonic possession. “Heretics” masterfully tracks the intersections between African-American and Caucasian religious life, illustrating how the two somehow met in Pearson’s church. The episode includes excerpts from Pearson’s sermons, allowing the listener to discern his gift for imbuing scripture with humor and empathy. And it’s this empathy that nearly destroyed Pearson’s career.
Pearson was declared a heretic in 2004 when he began to preach that God spoke to him, claiming that there’s no literal hell. This caused a problem for Pentecostals and other branches of Christianity, who prefer to interpret God as a supernatural extortionist who demands that one submit to specific rhetoric in exchange for salvation. Pearson was struck by a revelation that many atheists take as a given—that such a God would be a monster—and this epiphany is Come Sunday’s inciting incident. Reeling from the suicide of his uncle, Quincey (Danny Glover), in prison, Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sees images of African genocide and wonders how such people, who haven’t been “saved” in accordance with Pentecostal scripture, could be damned to hell. Would a deity capable of such logic be worthy of worship?
In the film, Marston leaches the narrative of nearly all the social texture that infused and empowered “Heretics.” We see very little of African-American Pentecostal life, particularly the conviction in possession that contextualizes Pearson’s sudden epiphany as shocking, and little of the racial tension that made it easier for Pearson’s white followers to abandon him. As dramatized by Marston, Pearson’s crisis suggests little more than a career change that’s met with revulsion that will strike outsiders as ludicrous and contemptible.
In a chaotic time for evangelicals who feel abandoned by modern culture, revealing their desperation and hypocrisy by flocking to an American president who embodies none of their supposed beliefs, Marston mounts a film that’s studiously polite and neutral to the point of nonexistence. Pearson’s most blunt and startling statements have been sanded down and sanitized by screenwriter Marcus Hinchey, as Come Sunday exists in a vacuum of blandly expositional generality. “Heretics” earnestly wrestles with Pearson’s test of faith, treating it compassionately and specifically, allowing us to feel the shock of Pentecostals who hear their hero questioning their bedrock of belief. Pearson speaks at length in the show, voicing shattering and poetic sentiments such as “For the first time in my life, I did not see God as the inventor of Hell.” In the film, there’s a poignant reading of 1 John 2:1 (“But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—his name is Jesus Christ the righteous one”) and there are references to portions of Timothy and other passages from the Bible that illustrate the tome’s simultaneous assertion that we do and don’t need to seek salvation.
Director Joshua Marston’s Come Sunday exists in a vacuum of blandly expositional generality.
But Come Sunday’s narrative doesn’t have much in the way of emotional stakes, which is exacerbated by the film’s vague sense of character and society. Pearson’s conservative politics and advocacy are never disclosed in the film, and his family life is rendered in the usual biopic sketches in which a wife complains about a great man’s absence. Gina (Condola Rashad) doesn’t appear to have religious convictions, so why is she with Pearson, and how does his reversal of conviction affect their relationship? And when Pearson faces the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops to defend his new preaching in a heretic trial, the audience is primed for a battle of wills and faiths that’s astonishingly left almost entirely off screen.
Watching Come Sunday, one may long for someone who would have wrestled with the ironies of the subject matter, such as Robert Bresson, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, or Bruno Dumont. These filmmakers might have homed in on a disturbing truth that many of the devout refuse to confront: that people are actively fulfilled by the intolerance of their faith, resenting the idea of a God who loves everyone. The implication, to this atheist, is that people yearn to be assured that they’re following a set of rigid rules better than non-believers. Such competition roots a chaotic world in binaries that are appealingly small but fantastical and naturally conducive of evil.
A portion of modern American Christianity is rooted in achievement rather than empathy, explaining the close alignment between the religion and conservatism. (In a sermon, excerpted in “Heretics,” Oral Roberts likens worship to “putting money in your account.”) Marston won’t go near such explosive implications, and he tepidly underscores the most obvious parallel: that Pearson is rejected in the same way that Christ, a supposed hero of Pentecostals, was rejected, and for proffering similar revisions of culture to favor acceptance. Marston doesn’t explore the comfort to be gleaned from religion either, which is also conducive to communal and individual exaltation. Come Sunday will probably frustrate the devoted and atheistic alike.
Marston’s pointless neutrality grows inadvertently appalling. A musician in Pearson’s church, Reggie (Lakeith Stanfield), is gay and dying of AIDS, and has of course been conditioned by his Pentecostal convictions to hate himself. As portrayed by the film, Pearson might be self-conscious and generous enough to wish away hell, but he won’t grant Reggie approval of his lifestyle. Marston doesn’t interrogate this intolerance either, which is ironic given that Quincey killed himself in part due to Pearson’s ideological inflexibility. A more daring film might have implied that Pearson’s only superficially changed, risking his career on a gesture that might only constitute a rhetorical parlor game. Instead, a gay man’s misery is used as fodder for a straight man’s reckoning.