What’s the effect on the world if one man could prove the existence of God? And better yet, if the proof could be shared in a way that opens eyes to the wonders and mysteries of the Holy Spirit?
A month ago I received an email from the publicist of a new documentary called Holy Ghost. Apparently, he’d read my Daily Beast piece about Jesus movies and wanted to talk to me about writing something about the film he was promoting, the Darren Wilson-directed “adventure” about the Spirit of God. After watching the trailer—a three-minute teaser that features Michael W. Smith, Lenny Kravitz, members of the band Korn, pastors, evangelists, worship leaders, and other Christian thinkers—I was interested in possibly writing something for The Daily Beast. After exchanging emails with my editor, I decided to see the movie, perhaps interview Wilson (which I did last Friday), and write something prior to the documentary’s release on Saturday, September 6.
As soon as the publicist sent me a link to the Holy Ghost screener, I started watching it.
For three minutes, I was hooked. Cautiously hooked. But hooked.
It was hard not to be hooked. At the very beginning of the documentary, Wilson, who narrates Holy Ghost, plainly states his lofty reason for making this film: I want to show you something. Something you’ve never seen before. Some say he’s dead. Some say he’s silent. Some say he’s a figment of my imagination. But the Holy Spirit is real, and I’m going to prove it.
That’s what he says. I listened to it 10 times to make sure I heard him correctly. Because even for a director who I suspect leans charismatic in his understanding of God’s spirit (the documentary is somehow connected with Bethel Church), beginning a movie with I’m going to prove the presence of God is real is a mouthful.
It might be a crazy mouthful. Or as Wilson calls it, a “risky” mouthful. But as a hook, it’s brilliant. But you better be able to back it up with content.
As if proving that the Spirit of God existing on Earth wasn’t enough, Wilson goes on to say, I wanna take the greatest risk possible as a filmmaker, to make a move that is completely led by the Holy Spirit… just show up wherever he leads me, find the adventure, and make God famous.
And then, as quickly as I was hooked, I became less hooked. “Led by the Holy Spirit” tends to be little more than jargon when it’s regarding popular culture (click here to read how Wilson defines being “led”).
Inside my head, I started to hear a voice, perhaps it was my own voice or maybe it was the Holy Spirit’s voice–whoever it was, the voice caused me to think, maybe I don’t want to write about this movie for The Daily Beast.
Ignoring the voice, I kept watching.
Now, Holy Ghost features four main story lines (story lines mostly built around locations that the Holy Spirit told Wilson to visit and the people at these locations that the Holy Spirit told Wilson to talk to). In between these featured locations/stories, Wilson inserts clips from celebrities, pastors, theologians, and other Christian leaders talking candidly and passionately about what the Holy Spirit means to them. Those short vignettes are the best part of this documentary. They showcase the diversity of how people think about the Holy Spirit. They feature slightly varied theologies and thoughts and experiences regarding the Holy Spirit. I didn’t agree with everything that people talked about, but I still enjoyed hearing people talk about their understandings about the Holy Spirit.
But the majority of Wilson’s documentary isn’t that kind of commentary. Most ofHoly Ghost depicts Wilson seemingly trying really really hard to squeeze some sort of spiritual or miraculous or inspired narrative out of the experiences he and his friends encountered while visiting the locations that the Holy Spirit told them to visit.
And where did the Holy Spirit tell Wilson to go? To Salt Lake City. To Monaco. To a Korn concert. And to Varanasi, India.
The first locale presented in the film is Salt Lake City. Here, Wilson followed Will Hart and Jamie Galloway around the streets of Salt Lake City. The two ministers walked up to random strangers and prayed for them. Which seems innocent enough, right? I thought so too. But it all became weird very fast.
During the first encounter with a man who is said to suffer from night terrors, Galloway tells the man that he can get rid of those nightmares—SNAP! (he literally snapped)—right now. Galloway told the man that Jesus had saved him from night terrors when he was a kid and then he told him, “[Jesus] gave me special powers to set other people free.”
Galloway grabs the man’s hand/arm (at times, his hand just hovers over the stranger’s hand) and prays: Holy Spirit, I want you to touch my friend, show him you’re really real and break him free from all the haunting spirits that have been assigned to his life. He looks at the stranger. You feel that? The man seems unconvinced. Galloway says, Watch! Still holding/hovering a hand over the man’s hand, Galloway waves his other hand over their joined hands and says, Double it. Double it. The man seems to feel something. Galloway then prays, Holy Ghost, I pray you send your power all the way up his arm as a sign of your love. Thanks Jesus. Feel that?
The stranger says, “My armpit’s cold all of a sudden.”
Galloway says, “Yeah, watch, double it. Double it. More.”
Eventually, after a few doses of Double It praying, the stranger shouts, “Woa! My nipples just got hard.”
Maybe the Holy Spirit does make people’s nipples hard. I had a friend in college who said he sometimes got horny in the presence of God. #TrueStory But hard nipples, like erections, don’t prove God’s presence.
The Holy Spirit did lots of tricks on the streets of Salt Lake City. Hart and Galloway prayed over one young man with a hurting arm. When the Holy Spirit didn’t make the boy’s arm better the first time, they prayed their Double It, Double It prayer over him again. And that didn’t work either. So they prayed Double It again. That third time was a keeper, though it was an awkward keeper.
And that’s why I ended up deciding that I wasn’t going to write about Holy Ghost for The Daily Beast. Because but for the interviews with people about the Holy Spirit and the sincerely told stories/testimonies of how Korn’s Brian and Fieldy found God, Holy Ghost is, in my opinion, filled up with some really awkward moments, moments that include evangelist Todd White praying over an atheist who had a bad back. How did Todd a la the Holy Spirit help the atheist? He/Holy Spirit made one of the man’s legs two inches longer. That’s one of the oldest “Holy Spirit” tricks in the book.
During the moments in Holy Ghost where praying over people or healing people was the intention, the tactics used were the same exact tactics (or nearly the same tactics) that mediums and spiritual healers use. They often made “cold readings” or suggestions about what the Holy Spirit was saying about people’s ailments, trying to find a story line to jump on or a body part to heal. The only difference between the language and tactics that the pastors used and mediums use was their words were sprinkled with “Jesus.”
In Varanasi, India—the grand finale location in the documentary—the Holy Spirit told Wilson he was to go and worship Jesus at a spot along the Ganges River where, according to Wilson, worshiping Jesus was “suicide.” Why? Because Wilson said this was where “the militants” were. In fact, one of the cast members says, “This is the most radical places on earth.”
But when singer/worship leader Jake Hamilton started singing about “freedom” (and Jake can sing—he has a powerful soulful voice), rather than killing the Anglo-Saxon man with the guitar, the alleged militants who hated Jesus gathered around and seemed to enjoy the music. How the narrative plays out and is depicted on film, the viewer is left with the impression that, because Wilson, Jake, and the rest of the Christians weren’t beaten to a pulp by militant Hindus and/or militant Buddhists (the “militants” are given little to no context), that it was obviously the Holy Spirit that protected them. Now, maybe what happens in the film is indeed a miracle, something that nobody else had ever attempted without getting killed, but that’s impossible to know. The scene is so filled with narrative flaws/gimmicks, convenient and choppy editing, and a seeming lack of appreciation and knowledge about the culture and the Indian people that this scene all felt like one big emotionally dishonest clip.
Then, amid the Jesus fest that was happening on the banks of the Ganges River, just after the Holy Spirit finished healing another leg, some of the local people who hated Christians more than anything became restless. Because all of a sudden, the narrator declares, “Jake was attacked.” The “attack” happened off camera, of course, and how Jake explains what happens—that amid all of the handshaking that was happening, one man walks up and grabs his arm, which he says seemed “not good”—it remained unclear whether or not the “attack” was an actual attack or just a cultural misunderstanding. But whatever it was, whether it was a real attack or nothing at all, it was used as a movie device, a moment of tension (shaking camera footage to boot) that forced the group to leave where they were—but again, without context or story or video of anything remotely violent. Again, maybe Jake was physically attacked. Maybe, as one of the team members suggested might happen, the natives were getting ready to cut the Christians up into pieces and throw them into the Ganges River. Maybe. But no proof of that is offered. It’s just editorialized. No footage of that is shown. It’s just talked about.
And that is not only emotionally and spiritually dishonest, it’s unfair to the people of Varanasi, India who were there that day.
I had a long list of problems with Holy Ghost. None of those problems involved how people talked about God’s Spirit but rather in how they used God’s spirit, how they attempted to put God’s spirit on display like a magic trick show.
Watch the movie yourself. See what you think. I’ll confess, I could be wrong. Maybe you’ll think the movie is glorious 2-hour display of God’s wonder and presence.
I asked Wilson if he believed that his documentary proved that the presence of God’s spirit was real. He said yes. I disagreed with him. And seemed okay with that.
But having watched Holy Ghost twice and parts of it 4, 5, and even 10 times, and I don’t believe the movie offered one story or event or idea or “proof” that the Holy Spirit was real. The most compelling parts of the movie were when people were talking, telling us what they believed, or how they engaged the spirit of God.
That said, I believe in God’s spirit. I’ve had moments when I believe that I sensed God’s spirit to do something or call somebody or reach out to a stranger. But these moments are personal. Put up on a screen or on display, they wouldn’t prove that God was real, except for me and the person who I called or reached out to or helped. On my Facebook pages (here and here), I asked people about their experiences with the Holy Spirit (the conversation that developed was another reason I decided to not put this up at The Daily Beast). While some people’s stories reflected similar happenings as those depicted in Holy Ghost, the majority of the responses were heartfelt experiences that were personal, sometimes miraculous, but personal, unexplainable, filled with humanity and doubt, and often sent to me via a private message because they wanted to honor their story/experience.
Sometimes I wonder if we Christians, in our attempts to “make God famous” using the Holy Spirit, blaspheme the spirit of God with our showy attempts to perform tricks or prove.
Because how we talk about God matters. How we “use” God’s story is affecting God’s story. As soon as we take our personal engagements with the Spirit of God and showcase them as performances or trickery or emotional rallying calls—regardless if our intentions are good or bad—we are gambling with the story of God. When we say that God directed us in the making of a documentary, that documentary better good. Should it rival Creation? Perhaps, since that’s what we are comparing it to by association. Because that’s how we believe God works, perfectly, beautifully, miraculously, etc. So when our God-inspired products are bad or filled with discrepancies or feel manipulative or don’t back up our big grandiose claims, then we’re doing a disservice to God’s story.
If Holy Ghost was indeed directed/led by the Holy Spirit, it would be a much better documentary. But as is, it feels like a documentary about Christians doing what some Christians do in hopes that Christians will sit for two hours and watch what happens. Which is fine, I suppose. But this documentary isn’t proof of God existing, just proof that Christians exist.
Again, this is just my opinion.
And I could be wrong.