The story of Carlton Pearson, a man of the church who was labelled a heretic, is told in Netflix’s provocative new drama. Its director and real-life subject discuss its relevance.
The words don’t come naturally out of his mouth, which is surprising because – for the bishop – that’s all words usually do.
“I’m an atheist who is a theist,” he chuckles. “I still believe in God but not ‘a’ God or ‘the’ God. Just God.
“I thought I was anointed all these years, and a lot of times I was just annoyed. I didn’t realize it until I got away.”
It’s been a long journey for Bishop Carlton Pearson, once a shining star in the Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian world who was cast out as a pariah when he began preaching a radically new message: inclusion. The message cost him most of his flock, his Tulsa megachurch, lifelong friends and family, and millions of dollars in earnings – but the bishop never turned away from what was, to him, a revelation from God: hell is what humans create for themselves on earth, heaven is for all. A part of that journey is captured in the Netflix film Come Sunday, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, and premiered 13 April 2018.
For the director, Josh Marston, Pearson’s story was especially important to tell right now in an era of “fake news” and hardening divisions. “In this day and age when people have become increasingly entrenched in their views, here’s someone who examined what he believes and actually revised his thinking right before thousands of people who had him under a microscope,” Marston said. “It just takes an incredible amount of bravery.”
Pearson was born into the Pentecostal tradition and preached the gospel for more than forty years. He cast out his first demon when he was just a teen. A gifted orator and disciple of the late Oral Roberts – whom many consider the godfather of televangelism – he rapidly built a large national profile in the 1990s, counseling presidents alongside the likes of Billy Graham.
“I lived at that same street – theologically mentally and emotionally – in that same street address for 50 years. For generations, actually,” he said.
But in the early 2000s, Pearson began to question one of the most fundamental elements of his faith: hell. In the film, his character breaks down, poring over his Bible as he watches a program on the Rwandan genocide. How can a loving god cast all people – babies and children – into hell just because they haven’t heard the word?
“For all the Bible says that the only way to heaven is through Christ, there’s just as much that says we don’t need to,” Ejiofor’s character tells his congregation in the film, to gasps and confused stares.
The film mostly rests on the concept of Pearson’s rejection of hell, but in some ways that was only a jumping-off point for the bishop, who ultimately came to reconsider the most bedrock elements of his faith. Today even the language of personal revelation – a core evangelical tenet – is strained for him. “It’s really me thinking out loud or thinking to myself; it’s not really God talking to me from some outer source,” he said.
The questions Pearson battled were not exactly new in Christianity, and neither were the answers he arrived at. Reconciling the jealous, genocidal and cantankerous God of the Bible with his terrestrial avatar, Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, has been a central occupation of Christian theologists for generations. The conclusion, too, that all humankind are to some degree redeemed by Christ’s “perfect” sacrifice on the cross, has been around in various sects for about as long.
What makes Pearson’s story so unique is his starting point: the harsh biblical literalism of Pentecostal faith, and the smarmy world of American televangelism. In that world, Pearson wasn’t asking deep and probing theological questions – he was a heretic who had probably been possessed by the devil.
“Satan is a snake, a ventriloquist, and he chose to speak through you,” Roberts, played by Martin Sheen with just the right amount of Oklahoma drawl, tells Pearson in the film.
Pearson said the extent of his shunning was nearly total. “Most of them just walked away, but the ones who turned on us were vicious – and it was like sticking a knife and just turning it in there.”
But where others saw demons, Pearson saw liberation. There was always this omnipresent strain of guilt embedded in his Pentecostal faith. Not the personal, probing guilt of say, Roman Catholicism, but something far more grandiose. As the faith held, and still holds, only those who are “saved” or “born again” – those who have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior – can go to heaven when they die. For Pearson, then, any time he made no effort to convert a stranger, it was as though he’d made a callous decision to let them burn in hell, just to spare himself the trouble.
This thinking left Pearson in a constant state of judgment. He said he would walk by someone smoking a cigarette or drinking a beer and think to himself: if they died today, they’re going straight to Hell. “Stupid thoughts like that had invaded and corroded my whole consciousness for years,” Pearson said.
“I cannot tell you how liberating that was,” Pearson said, of relinquishing those beliefs. “This tension, the stress and the constant sense of failure – I finally went from self-loathing (that I didn’t know I was experiencing) to self-loving.”
He continues to preach his new, more progressive message, which he calls “Metacostalism”, and it seems to straddle the line between faith and a more secular strain of self-actualization teachings. His profile and his flock are smaller, but Pearson has peace.
“That’s why I’m so desperate to get other people to hear this, whether, Jew, Christian atheist or other. It’s not that bad. It’s all in our hands. We can fix this since we’re the ones that screwed it up.”
Marston, for his part, hopes the streaming release will open up the film’s message to folks who would otherwise be discouraged from viewing it.
“The advantage of Netflix is that there are a whole population of people for whom getting in their car and driving to the local theater in a small town and being seen by fellow congregants going into a movie about a heretic would be unthinkable,” Marston said. “They’ll be able to sit at home and, in the privacy of their living room, give into their curiosity and maybe be provoked to think critically about what they believe and where they stand.”
By The Guardian