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Jeff Sharlet


The Family

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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Man of interest

HBO’s Who Killed Garrett Phillips? shows how racism and incompetence can undermine justice

“We got a 12-year-old that’s lost his life. … We gotta lock somebody up.” Those words, spoken by a New York State Police officer, sum up the attitude of law enforcement in HBO’s new documentary Who Killed Garrett Phillips? Sadly, the people involved with prosecuting the case don’t seem overly concerned with ensuring they’ve gotten the right “somebody.”

Garrett Phillips was strangled in his apartment in Potsdam, N.Y., not long after he returned home from school on Oct. 24, 2011. From the start, the police focused their investigation on Oral “Nick” Hillary, the ex-boyfriend of Garrett’s mother, Tandy Cyrus. The case might not have attracted national attention if Hillary hadn’t been one of the few black men living in this upstate New York community.

The documentary exposes some racism in the handling of Hillary’s case, but more than anything it depicts the incompetence of a small town’s police department and district attorney’s office. In their quest to “lock somebody up,” they stop asking who killed Garrett Phillips and simply assume Hillary did.

But the more we watch, the less we seem to know, and by the end it seems impossible to know who killed Garrett. The documentary shows how slim the evidence was against Hillary and the lengths officials went to in their attempt to convict him anyway. It shows the difficulty of finding justice: Nick Hillary was railroaded—does that mean this kind of thing is happening all over the country? Could there be others like Hillary whose cases don’t receive national attention because they lack a racial element?

Rated TV-MA, Who Killed Garrett Phillips? isn’t easy to watch. We see accusers talk about Hillary with the foulest of language. We see police strip-search Hillary in an apparent attempt to humiliate him. We see the emotional toll the Potsdam tragedy exacts from everyone involved. But Christians should consider how to work toward improving justice in our communities, and should remember to trust ultimately in God, whose justice will resolve all our unanswered questions.

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American professor David Carroll sued to try to retrieve his personal data from Cambridge Analytica


Big data business

The Great Hack delves into the data-sharing scandal between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

It must be hard to make a documentary about a topic the rest of the media has already covered ad nauseam.

Last year, Congress questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and others about whether the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had misused 87 million Facebook users’ data during the 2016 election. The Great Hack further explores the dealings of this now-defunct consulting firm, focusing on a former employee and an American who tried to sue the company for his own data.

But the film offers little new info: It follows its main characters around the world for various interviews and hearings—and then as they check their phones. Between these scenes, for pizzaz, video graphics illustrate what it means to “scrape” Facebook data.

The documentarians try to compile a fuller picture of what Cambridge Analytica did: identify undecided voters (not a new phenomenon in politics) and influence them, sometimes by questionable methods.

That picture involves some odd characters. Former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser, for example, is way more excited to see her name in print than she probably should be. She worked first for Amnesty International and then for the Obama campaign’s social media team before switching to Cambridge Analytica, which she now speaks out against.

If you finish the documentary still fuzzy on whether this British company broke any laws while performing work for the Trump and Brexit campaigns, know that more than one government is still figuring that out right now too. Facebook was recently fined for its role in the scandal, and Cambridge Analytica pleaded guilty to not providing user data in a lawsuit by a particular date—but overall, the laws are still catching up to the technology.

But breaking the law is not the same thing as breaching an ethical boundary, which is what Cambridge Analytica probably did. Still, another former executive at the company, Julian Wheatland, summed up how this kind of data mining is the new normal for politics and advertising: “This is not about one company. This technology is going on unabated and will continue to go on.”

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