Ira Glass, the host of the popular public radio program "This American Life," said his interest in producing the Netflix movie "Come Sunday" was driven by a belief that evangelical Christians are one of the most misrepresented groups in America today.
"The mainstream press doesn't do that many stories where everybody does everything inside the church," Glass told The Christian Post. "As I started to get to know evangelicals in my personal life, I became aware that there was a huge gap between the way Christians are portrayed on TV and in movies, and even in the news and who they really are."
"The evangelicals I was getting to know were not these doctrinaire, stiff-backed cartoons as they were portrayed. But were in fact smart, funny, and also took very seriously Jesus' message to love each other, and had much more complicated, interesting views of the world," he continued. "From there, I became interested in doing stories about people that were living in their faith and the different dynamics inside the Church."
One of those stories was "Come Sunday," the new Netflix film documenting how Bishop Carlton Pearson (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) went from being the lauded pastor of one of Tulsa, Oklahoma's largest churches, Higher Dimensions Evangelistic Center, to being branded a heretic in the early 2000s.
Adapted from an earlier episode of "This American Life," "Come Sunday" shows how Pearson, distressed after watching TV footage of thousands of children among the dying in the Rwandan genocide, rejected the idea of eternal damnation.
In the film, Pearson, a mentee of the late Oral Roberts, said he heard God's voice, "clear as my own," say: "They don't need to get saved. They're already saved. ... They will all be with me in Heaven.'"
From this, the controversial pastor started adhering to the false doctrine that there is no Hell, and thus no need to be saved. Unsurprisingly, this revelation led church leaders and congregants to abandon the church, eventually resulting in the building's foreclosure in 2006.
"I'm not rewriting anything, I'm just re-reading it," Pearson says in the film when he's accused of re-writing the Bible. "God loves us all."
In creating "Come Sunday," Glass told CP that producers made every effort not to demonize those on either side of the debate.
"For us, one of the most important things was that those who were arguing with Carlton should be just as likeable as Carlton," he explained. "When they argue, 'This is what's in the Book,' we wanted that to hold equal weight to what Carlton was saying. We wanted them to articulate just as well as Carlton does. Partly because it's not an interesting drama if it's not people who are equals going against each other, and partly because the audience — who for the most part disagree with Carlton — need to see themselves accurately portrayed on screen."
"It's not hard to portray people in a positive light when they have good motives," he added.
Although Glass was raised in a devout Jewish home, he identifies as an atheist. And he told CP that he understands why most Christians cannot tolerate the doctrine Pearson preaches.
"When Carlton's friends are reaching out to him saying, 'Brother, I wish it were so but it's not in the Book,' I think it's important, it's not some corny moment," he said. "People are doing this out of love. They're essentially saying, 'I don't want to see you go to Hell. I love you, and I don't feel like there's anything I can say to bring you back from this disastrous path you're going down.'"
"I feel like that is so real, and it's so different than the way that people who are outside of the Church understand people inside of the Church," he continued. "People are genuinely trying to do the right thing."
Glass speaks from experience. He told CP that in his own life he's had multiple Christian friends try to convert him to Christianity — and while it "didn't work," it's "not because they didn't do a good job."
"I've been lucky in that I've had evangelical friends who have tried to bring me to God, where they did it in a way where they were super friendly about it and understand who I am," he said. "It's simply that my picture of the world, when I add it up, makes sense when I don't picture a conscience being behind it all, creating it."
"I wish I could have a direct relationship with somebody; that would be comforting," he admitted. "Evangelicals have a better relationship with God than most faiths, because you can just talk to Him. He's right there. But, it's sort of like falling out of love with somebody. No amount of arguing, nothing you can say, will bring that love back somehow."
In a culture where "people tend to hit you over the head with messages a little too hard," Glass said he simply wants to tell a good story with "Come Sunday."
"We're not trying to convince people to believe a certain way about the Bible; we couldn't be less qualified to do that, and we'd make a terrible film if we tried to do that," he said with a chuckle. "We're simply trying to tell a story of people inside the Church grappling with each other and with their faith and grappling with this question about who gets into Heaven."
"The better we understand each other, the more sane we are toward each other," he contended. "It's harder to demonize people when we see the complexity of them. For me, everything we do is to document what people are really doing and how they really live. I think it's better to have an accurate picture of the world than not."
"Come Sunday" is now streaming on Netflix and also stars Lakeith Stanfield, Jason Segel, Condola Rashad, Martin Sheen, and Danny Glover. The film was directed by Joshua Marston, written by Marcus Hinchey, and produced by Ira Glass, Julie Goldstein, Alissa Shipp and James D. Stern.