It’s difficult to rise much higher in the Protestant ministry than Bishop Carlton Pearson did.
Pearson led Higher Dimensions Family Church, one of the biggest megachurches in Tulsa, Okla., and a rare congregation whose leaders and laity served as models of racial integration as well as Pentecostal fervor.
A former student at Tulsa’s Oral Roberts University, he was the founder’s protégé; indeed, Roberts regarded him as a son.
Pearson also hosted a popular TV show on Trinity Broadcasting Network. He was invited to the White House. He led an annual Pentecostal conference that drew 50,000 people.
And then from the blue, he received what he believed was a revelation from God: Christianity’s traditional teaching that eternal hellfire awaited sinners was wrong.
God was too loving to eternally punish anyone, the vision said, and Jesus had provided for all people to eventually enter heaven, whether or not they were Christians, despite whatever sins they’d committed.
Electrified, Pearson began proclaiming this message from his pulpit.
That’s when the here-and-now hellfire hit the heavenly fan.
As a result of his epiphany, Pearson’s church collapsed. He was tried for heresy by his denomination’s fellow bishops. His relationship with Roberts disintegrated.
Now, Pearson’s fall from the ministerial heights is the subject of a terrific new Netflix dramatic film, “Come Sunday,” which is unlike much else I’ve ever seen.
Directed by Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”) and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) as Pearson, it’s a balanced and compassionate look at what happens when a person of faith decides the beliefs he’s held dear might, in fact, be mistaken.
Marcus Hinchey’s dead-on script manages to explore complicated theologies in a manner that’s both clear and engaging (at least to this Bible geek), while presenting Pearson’s struggle to maintain his integrity.
No one wears the black hat here. Pearson’s disillusioned parishioners and friends, including Roberts (Martin Sheen), are three-dimensional people rather than cardboard charlatans or blowhards or fanatics. They love Pearson. Brokenhearted, they beg him to renounce his heresy so they can welcome him back to the fold.
As his church and reputation implode, Pearson wishes he could recant. But he believes the Lord has spoken to him, and so to recant would be to deny God and his own conscience.
Similarly, the elderly Roberts confesses to Pearson how much he wants to believe Pearson is right. The older of Roberts’ two sons, Ronald, a drug abuser, committed suicide shortly after coming out as gay. The thought of his child burning throughout eternity torments him, Roberts says.
But he — like Pearson — must remain true to what he believes is right, which is that his son died as a sinner and will remain forever in hell. By tempting him to embrace universal salvation, the devil, using Pearson, is trying to push him off salvation’s narrow path.
A review in Variety aptly described “Come Sunday” as “too fair-and-balanced to have come from the faith-based community and far too churchy to have gotten the blessing of any studio.”
That’s well put.
Here’s something else that’s interesting.
Among the film’s co-producers is Ira Glass, host of public radio’s “This American Life,” which ran a 2005 segment about Pearson that became the impetus for “Come Sunday.”
After that program, Glass struggled for years to find funding for the movie project.
He is, in his own description, an atheist who was raised as a secular Jew.
Not an obvious conduit, in other words, for a story like Pearson’s.
On YouTube, though, I found a video interview Glass gave in 2013 to Jim Henderson, a Christian author. This was several years before “Come Sunday” was filmed, and the interview didn’t address the movie explicitly.
But Glass did talk about why his radio show had dealt sympathetically with stories about Christians.
“I feel that Christians are really horribly covered by the media,” Glass said.
Christians in news stories or in films or on TV shows tended to be portrayed as “these doctrinaire, hot-head, crazy people,” he said.
But they held little in common with the Christians he actually knew among his public radio coworkers, including fundamentalists.
“The Christians in my life were, are, incredibly wonderful and thoughtful, and they had very ambiguous, complicated feelings in their beliefs, and seemed to be totally generous-hearted and totally open to, like, a lot of different kinds of people in their lives. … As a documentarian, I just thought, like, what Christians really are is not being captured by the press.”
Glass is only one of the producers of “Come Sunday,” and he neither wrote nor directed it, so I can’t say how great a role he had in the creating the finished product.
I can say his earlier insight, stated above, permeates the movie.
This film ranks among the more insightful, honest and fair-minded portrayals of Christians I’ve seen. It shows flesh-and-blood, fallen human beings wrestling with God and each other while attempting to do what they pray is right.