Based on an episode of the public radio series This American Life, Come Sunday is a Netflix original film centring the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson, a rising star among evangelicals’ until he was ostracized by his own church and declared a heretic after he started preaching that there is no Hell.
Taken aback by media images of the Rwandan genocide Pearson begins to struggle with the notion of a loving God condemning so many to eternal punishment. The idea of ‘being saved’ so essential to his churches roots no longer holds the weight it had, upon announcing his new thinking one Sunday morning to his flock Pearson quickly finds that pulling one theological thread unravels his world much more quickly than he could have ever anticipated.
His main confidant and right hand man Henry (Jason Segel) abandons him, taking with him significant congregational numbers (primarily white folk) declaring ‘We built this church’. Pearson’s mentor and role model Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen) uses emotional blackmail, via scripture verses to try and return his protégé to the old message. It could be argued that Roberts concern in this moment is not for Pearson at all but rather the impact this has on the empire that he has created and the threat that Pearson’s declaration now brings to his door. He also must endure a heresy trail orchestrated to find and unpick the theological weaknesses in his newly held position, the ostracising stares of ex congregation members in the supermarket aisle and the loss of position that the machinery of church has created for him.
Yet there are those who remain loyal to him. Chief among these his wife Gina (Condola Rashad) who finds such freedom as a consequence of this change in thinking. Before this she had been a secondary consideration for not just Pearson but everyone who revolves around their world. Her comments and opinions didn’t hold as much weight as this shift allows for. Carlton’s struggle and determination to believe in something bigger brings her the ‘new life’ she had heard preached so often ineffectively around her.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Pearson with great heart and emotion. The struggle he faces is real, the impact on his family and friendships immeasurable, the implications of his new beliefs incendiary and disruptive within his church. This a film that depicts with great heft and power, the weight of deconstructing a faith that no longer stands up in the eye of the beholder. There is wrestling here on emotional and spiritual levels that many likeminded believers will take great comfort in. The sight of Pearson weeping over his Bible in despair and is deeply moving and relatable.
Credit must also be given to the film makers for their depiction of Pearson, not simply his strengths but also his flaws. It would be easy to make this film about his struggle and the victimisation he suffered, but the film also shows that he did at times put family second, he did enjoy the empire he had built and those around him revelled in the power and influence of this empire too. The film also shows his step away from his evangelical roots to not be simple or clean cut, he did still hold at that time evangelical positions in relation to the LGBT community as shown in his relationship with one of his flock Reggie (Lakeith Stanfield) urging him to remain celibate and consequently only allowing him to live half a life and not the fullness of life afforded to the majority of the flock. The flaws depicted are not a stick to beat Pearson with, but rather an acknowledgement of the flaws that exist within us all. So often the ‘celebrity preachers’ are held up as perfect examples of moral character within Christianity. It would be easy to portray him as a persecuted hero but the flaws in his character show us something we already know to be true – no one is perfect!
I was unaware of Carlton Pearson before seeing this film but I am deeply grateful that his story has been told. Come Sunday explores one pastors journey into a wider theology, some will still declare heresies abound, others may find ideas never before explored, many will find comfort in the knowledge that they are not the first to consider these things. Whatever your theological position Come Sunday is highly recommended viewing and if you’re prepared to listen to its message and ideas it may just kick start a small screen theological revolution.