About a month ago, in a meeting of the content creation team for All Souls’ blog, I volunteered to write a review about Come Sunday, which premiered to a sold-out crowd at the Circle Cinema this past Sunday. The film tells the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson and his formation of the Gospel of Inclusion and the loss of Higher Dimensions Family Church. Netflix subscribers will be able to watch it starting Friday, April 13. I was given early access, watched it twice at home, and wrote a post before watching it at the Circle.
That post is now in the trash. After seeing it on Sunday, I had to start over.
You know how your parents, or siblings, or even cousins, can talk and joke about the shortcomings in your family? But when an outsider says the very same things, your fangs come out? How dare they talk about your family that way! All Souls must really be my family now because I can’t say a thing that is critical of the movie, or its subject, Bishop Carlton Pearson, or the demise of Higher Dimensions. So, I’m going to write about my month-long journey down the “Road of Lost Objectivity.”
First Stop: It’s Just a Movie
First, let me be clear that I do not know Bishop Pearson personally. I’d like to interview him, but when he has interviews with people like Megan Kelly on The Today Show, it was impossible to fit in an interview with a church blogger like me. Hopefully, I’ll get my chance soon.
So, all my comments are about the way Bishop Pearson was portrayed in the film, not about the man himself. Watching the movie, I was struck by three things: his courage and integrity, how blindsided he was by people leaving Higher Dimensions because of his “re-reading” of doctrine, and his mental anguish when he lost Higher Dimensions.
After watching the film and writing the first draft of a post about it, I sent the Come Sunday link to my smartest and most worldly friend, so she could watch it. Her takeaway was that there must be a way for a minister to change his theology without losing a church. “Bishop Pearson should have talked to a trusted advisor! Taken a sabbatical! Gotten someone to take over the church until he could get himself together!” she said. I agreed with her in theory, but being a little impulsive myself, I could understand why Bishop Pearson didn’t take a more measured path.
After all, the news he had, that there is no hell, seems like really good news.
The Devil at 30,000 Feet
So I had a first draft of my post, and was editing a hard copy of it on a plane trip from Tulsa to Charlotte to spend spring break with my sister. My seat mate struck up a conversation. “I see you’re writing about Carlton Pearson,” she said. “There’s a woman in my Bible study who says he’s the devil, Satan himself.”
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Oh, I told her she’s full of it. I’m not sure I believe in hell either.” I was shocked that after so many years after Bishop Pearson’s reversal of theology that people still felt so strongly about it.
I sent my edited post to three friends from Higher D. I told them that writing a post about the movie was not worth losing a single friend over. Since they all had lived through the demise of the church, could they tell me what I had missed? Each one said my review was rough reading. On the other hand, each one also said they chuckled over this part of my post:
When an actor the caliber of Chiwetel Ejiofor was chosen to portray Bishop Pearson, surely it was flattering, not that Pearson’s ego needed any enhancement. In fact, Bishop Pearson’s ego was the subject of the only funny line in the movie, when the organist at High Dimensions wryly comments that a photograph of Bishop Pearson’s head on a poster couldn’t be cut down to size, just like the real thing.
Their consensus was that yes, Bishop Pearson has an outsized ego, a trait that is rampant among visionaries. It goes with the job. But Bishop Pearson also cared deeply about other people, whether it came across in the movie or not.
After spending an hour on the phone with one of my Higher D friends, I started to get the full impact of what Bishop Pearson and his wife Gina went through after his change of heart. It wasn’t just the church, or their home, or their standing in the evangelical community that they lost, it was their life. My friend told me that Gina’s stylist, a gay man, refused to cut her hair after her husband’s revelations. Their dog groomer refused to schedule their dog for a trim. People took Bishop Pearson’s rejection of the old hellfire and brimstone theology personally and took it out on him and his family in personal, hurtful ways.
Sunday at the Circle
My husband Gary and I arrived at Circle Cinema an hour early on Sunday to beat the crowd. All four theaters had sold out. We were lucky to have tickets in Theater 1, where three rows of seats in front of us had been reserved for the Higher D and Pearson family. After the screening, I looked around the theater to see if anyone looked as if they had been crying. A few did. I admit that I cried the first two times I saw the film during Ejiofor’s portrayal of Bishop Pearson’s mental torment the day that Higher Dimension’s furnishings were auctioned off and the reality of it all hit him.
After the screening, Bishop Pearson and Director Joshua Marston answered questions with Rev. Marlin Lavanhar moderating. When asked why he was interested in making the movie, Marston answered that it was unusual to for someone to have the courage to change his convictions while living under a microscope, being watched by thousands of people. “Carlton’s story was compelling both intellectually and religiously,” Marston said.
While considering making the movie, Marston spent a week in Tulsa with Bishop Pearson. “I told my wife that even if the movie doesn’t work out, it was well worth it just to spend a week with Carlton.”
My Higher D friends who watched Come Sunday recognized that, like all of us, Bishop Pearson has his flaws, and the movie doesn’t sugar coat them. But how many of us would want our lives, our marriages, our weaknesses to be exposed on Netflix for tens of thousands of viewers to see? Just like baring your soul to a congregation of thousands of people, that’s a unique kind of courage. The movie is well worth watching.
If you want to read an objective review of Come Sunday, click here.
I couldn’t write an objective review.
It’s my family.
Join All Souls for a community screening of Come Sunday, on Wednesday, April 25 at 6:30 p.m.
Come Sunday, the film about Rev. Carlton Pearson, will release on Netflix on April 13, 2018. Come Sunday is based on true events about the globally-renowned pastor Carlton Pearson risking everything when he questions church doctrine and is branded a modern-day heretic.
Carlton Pearson joined All Souls in 2008 and preaches in the Contemporary service twice a month. Join us in-person in the Contemporary Service at 11:30 a.m. or on live stream at allsoulschurch.org/live.
Cover image courtesy of Netflix.