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Power players

Jeff Sharlet (Netflix)

Religion

Power players

A lack of understanding of evangelicalism weakens The Family

The new Netflix documentary series, The Family, could have been an insightful exploration of the poisoning effects of secrecy and political power on faith. Instead, it contributes to the divisive age we live in by turning common failings into Da Vinci Code–style conspiracies and subtly suggesting evangelicalism itself is a threat to the nation.

The “family” in this series is The Fellowship, a press-shy group that ministers to government leaders. The biggest downfall of the series is that, a few brief interludes excepted, it relies almost entirely on the testimony of a single man: author Jeff Sharlet. This would be problematic even if Sharlet hadn’t built his career by suggesting the philandering pols of C Street represent a wider Cosa Nostra of Christianity. The series provides adequate proof that the Fellowship is committed to, if not secrecy, at least flying under the radar, but it reads sinister motives into the group’s behavior to such a degree it becomes laughable.

Anyone who grew up going to church in the 1980s and 1990s has heard common phrases like “Jesus plus nothing” or expressions of waiting on God for direction. These are not evangelical code language for secret plots. And because pedestrian sins like greed and adultery are apparently not enough, the show implies that Fellowship members marshaling support for traditional marriage and the sanctity of life is uniquely treacherous.

This is all frustrating because the series had ample provocation to explore far more worthwhile territory. 

When a Russian Christian sets aside the totality of the New Testament to parrot the Fellowship ideal of courting the powerful because of a single verse in Acts, we cringe from the Biblical illiteracy. 

The filmmakers rightly look askance at a positive-thinking, prosperity Christianity and the idea that any believer should have a rock-solid certainty he’s called to great leadership. But then it commits the equal error of calling for evangelicals to prove their principles with political resistance in this present era. It misses that both the resister and conspirator may sin if their foremost concern is with political power at all.

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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Mon, 08/19/2019 05:39 am

    I've taken a glance at this in my Netflix account and shuddered. But I wondered at the same time what the documentary was covering and whether it was accurate or believable. Living through these times and being a bit aware of some of the quiet behind the scenes work being done in the name of Christ I was very skeptical of Netflix. As one always should be.

    Your article, Megan, helps clarify this. Thanks so much. Your comments about the Da Vinci Code (what a silly movie and book), as well as the whole conspiracy thing (I was also wondering about the Illuminati and related) were on my mind with even a casual glimpse.

  • Kingdomnetworker's picture
    Kingdomnetworker
    Posted: Mon, 08/19/2019 10:38 am

    All Christians and Christian organizations suffer from mixed motivations. When the secular world (writers and producers such as Sharlet), filters out Christians' motivation to serve God's kingdom which is "not of this world", all they can see is a lust for "this world" power and material gain. Often, people like Sharlet and Netflix conclude that "these people are not what they seem...They are corrupt and evil like the rest." They slander and destroy, albeit somewhat subtly.... We should not be surprised. May Christians live a holy life, so as to expose the lie and cause people to ask about the "hope that lies within us".

  • Rich277
    Posted: Tue, 08/20/2019 09:07 am

    One question remains to be asked: are we really so addicted to entertainment that we are willing to fund the people who are trying to criminalize the faith?

  • RC
    Posted: Tue, 08/20/2019 09:19 am

    Well Rich277 I am not.  Don’t have cable or internet TV of any kind. Spend too much time looking a computer screens at work, I am not interested in spending much time looking at “screens” at home.