Twenty years ago, Bishop Carlton Pearson was a star in the Pentecostal cosmos. He pastored a 5,000-member church in Tulsa, was a protégé of Oral Roberts, was made a bishop through the Joint College of African-American Bishops’ Congress, and helped give TD Jakes and Joyce Meyers international recognition through his Azusa Conferences. Until he claimed one day that God had told him Jesus’ atonement was for the whole world, and that people didn’t need to be saved to avoid hell.
Pearson began to preach what he called the “gospel of inclusion.” Through it, he lost his church, his friends, and was labeled a heretic by the Joint College of African-American Bishops’ Congress.
In 2005, an episode of This American Life, “Heretics,” featured Pearson’s story. The episode formed the basis of director Joshua Marston’s new Netflix film, Come Sunday, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Martin Sheen, Jason Segel, Condola Rashād, and Lakeith Stanfield. The film was co-produced by TAL’s Ira Glass, who talked with Sojourners about making the film, the importance of telling religion stories, and hearing from God.
The interview has been lightly edited for length.
Juliet Vedral, Sojourners: I was raised in a Pentecostal and charismatic church, and I have to say, the movie does a really good job — almost too good — of portraying the subculture and the services.
Ira Glass, producer, Come Sunday: Walk me through “too good.” What does “too good” mean?
Vedral: Well, there were a couple of times where I had to pause it and just take a minute.
Glass: Are you serious? Really?
Vedral: I still have charismatic leanings but, yeah. There were a couple of moments where it was very real. Jason Segel somehow captured the cadence and the tone and the facial expressions — and even the way white Pentecostal ministers clap. I felt like I was transported back to a church service from my teen years.
Glass: I like that. I'm going to see him tonight. I'm going to tell him you said this. It's going to make him so happy.
Vedral: Please do, because it was actually shocking to me. I was like, How is he able to do this? Even Martin Sheen ... was so spot on.
Glass: You know, there's guys that it's their job to pretend to be other people who they're not. That is their whole thing.
Vedral: Yeah! I was amazed at how well done it was … but also they weren't caricatures in the slightest. It felt very respectful.
Glass: Yeah. Why do a movie if you're not going to try to capture something real?
Vedral: How was it to thread that needle, telling a story about a subculture where there are definitely some problematic aspects to it, in a way that is so respectful and shows the nuances of the story in a lot of different ways?
Glass: I mean, the mission of our radio show is to be respectful and document what's real. We just had that mission. So it was exciting, one, to make this into a movie. Two, it would be a chance to do it like a mainstream product that would accurately depict what Christian life is like for people who practice it. When you look around, there just is not that much. There's just so little. We tried to capture the daily lived experience for people of faith. The whole point was to try to capture things really as they are.
The other thing, just from a story point of view: We were very conscious of wanting religious people to come to the film. We felt like this is a subject, that if we do it right, it'll be a film that both secular people and religious people, evangelicals, would want to see.
We wanted to be careful that all the people who argue with Carlton and don't agree with him in his reading of the Bible, we wanted them to be just as sympathetic as Carlton is. Without that, there's no drama. If Jason Segel's character, as Carlton's friend, if he isn't sympathetic, there's no conflict that's worth seeing. You need him to be sympathetic. You need Martin Sheen playing Oral Roberts to be sympathetic. You want to feel like it's an even fight between this minister who has a reading of the Bible that most of his congregation doesn't agree with. For their pushback to mean something, you have to like them.
Vedral: What led you to tell Pearson's story in the first place?
Glass: In 2005, this was one of a number of stories we were doing at the time on Christianity. I became very interested in documenting the lives of Christians. Looking around at the way Christians — evangelical Christians, devout Christians — are portrayed on the news, in movies, in television, I felt very aware of the gap between that sort of cartoonish portrayal and the actual evangelicals in my life, who I really care for and who seem to be not cartoonish, and who actually seem to take very seriously Jesus' mission of love toward other people and their responsibilities to love other people. Very thoughtful, compassionate, funny people. I felt like I never see this. [I thought] we could do stories about them just in the same way that we go into other communities that are misunderstood.
The Carlton story was appealing partly because it's just an amazing story about a man standing up for what he believes in, and then he just loses everything. It's a very old-fashioned kind of cinematic story. Then it was exciting that the entire story takes place in the church. There aren't outsiders at all. It's evangelicals talking to other evangelicals.
Vedral: Were there any challenges in telling the story for film that weren't there in telling the story for radio?
Glass: Absolutely. One of the big challenges is that when you're telling it on radio, you have this incredible superpower: You have audio of Carlton Pearson preaching, and singing, and being funny on stage. He's an enormously charming, engaging presence. You enter any kind of documentary about him, like, you start off on third base. You don't have to run very hard to get to home. Whereas to actually create something that complicated — fortunately we had Chiwetel Ejiofor, so we had an actor who could kind of do anything at all, really. Then it was just a question of what scenes we create for him.
Really, even up until very early cuts of the film, there were moments of Carlton being funny in his preaching and things like that. It was really delicate to get the balance right — how do we capture all the sides of this man.
One of the things that I'm proud of is the screenwriter spent hundreds of hours with Carlton. They became incredibly close. The movie's true. The scenes with Oral Roberts, the things that Oral says to Carlton in the movie, are things that Oral said to Carlton in real life.
Vedral: Has there been any pushback on the film from the religious community, or Oral Roberts University, or from anyone in that sector of the church?
Glass: No, but the film hasn't been released yet! We've been doing screenings for evangelical audiences, and at the screenings people really seem to like it. That's in a very specialized context. I'm curious to see how it'll play out.
Vedral: In non-charismatic areas of the church, theology is so central and important. You get your MDiv or doctorate in divinity, you read all your theologians, and you better have studied the issue before you present it to anyone. In the Pentecostal church, you believe God speaks to you, and that carries weight. You're going to confidently and boldly say, "God told me this.” It was interesting to think about that, to get my head back into a space of ... "He thought God was telling him that, and he was trying to do the right thing."
Glass: Also, to be fair, he had the ego to think that it was God. He thought, "People will follow where I go," because that's always what happened. Ego is in there too, for sure. I guess that's part of the tradition, also.
Glass: To his credit, Carlton very much dove into the Scripture. After that first revelation, he made it his job and his business to really thoroughly understand what the Bible says, and what it might mean, and what it might not mean. Where the ambiguities are and where they are not. He wrote a book about that. He became very rigorous about it.
Vedral: I think the movie shows that as well … the world of where people make statements like that, and it's not crazy. Whereas, I worked for a while at a Presbyterian church, and there was a whole debate in one meeting over whether someone could say, "I feel like God might have said."
Glass: Totally. I was raised as a Jew, and if a rabbi ever stood up and said, "God said this to me last night," that would be crazy talk.
How do you think people are going to react in the Pentecostal community?
Vedral: I think there might be some concern. When I mentioned to my mother that I had just screened this movie and I had some questions, she was like, "Oh boy." I was like, "No, no — it was really respectful and thoughtful!" I think people will probably be pleasantly surprised that the movie's so thoughtful.
Glass: I have to say, the thing you're asking about how will Pentecostals and evangelicals react, this was a big business problem for us, in trying to get funding for the movie. A movie like this is millions of dollars. It's a period film, so you can't just knock it off for like a million or two. It's real money. We really had to go to major studios. I had conversations with people at studios who were just like, "This is a movie glorifying the guy who says the Bible's wrong. We don't want to get picketed." I'd say, "No, no, no. The whole point is those people, people who are religious, who believe the traditional evangelical way of reading the Bible, they're represented in the film sympathetically. They're in there, it's an even fight."
I have to say I have such respect for Netflix, understanding the story we wanted to tell. They really believed a Christian audience will come and watch. That was one of the things that was attractive to them — they it could be something that would serve this huge Christian audience, and a secular audience who would enjoy a story like this. I have to say, that was a very hard sell with other people.
Vedral: I could imagine. You experience and see the tension, and also the way that the church tends to put people into “either/or” boxes, which really causes pain and hurt for people. I do think that comes across well.
Glass: For me, I feel like the thing that I get from so many of those scenes is that they're doing it out of love. Do you know what I mean? It's such a compassionate act.
Vedral: Yes. To them it is a compassionate act. It's just for anyone who's been on the other side, it is so horrifying, because you know that they're like, "Oh my God, there's something really wrong with you. I have to help you because you messed up."
Glass: There's a scene in the grocery store where we tried to set that, where Carlton's wife's friend tries to cast out the devil.
Vedral: I hope people see that and maybe think, "Let me find a more tactful way of offering to cast out a demon."
Glass: Yeah, I don't know if we're going to be teaching anybody much, but I don't know. We'll see.
Come Sunday is available for streaming on Netflix on Friday, April 13.