Note to Reader, I received a free review copy of this documentary in exchange for this review. I’ve tried to remain impartial and unbiased in what follows.
In one of the opening lines of Postcards from Babylon, Brian Zhand proclaims: “I am not following a donkey, I am not following an elephant, I am following the lamb.” This is the difficult path that Postcards tries to walk through the landscape of a racially and politically divided America. The Church, the documentary reveals (to no one’s surprise) is no less divided and no less captive to anti-Christian political ideologies. The primary target of the documentary’s ire is the scourge of Christian nationalism. Christianity, Zhand argues, has become “the Chaplin of the empire”, and Jesus, “a mascot for the elephant and donkey.” The Christian imagination, rather than being ruled by the vision of the self-giving weakness of the cross, has been corrupted by nationalism, us-versus-them tribalism, propaganda and violence. Walter Bruggamen, who is also featured in the documentary, contrasts the “dominant ideology” of “scarcity, fear, greed and violence” with the Christian ethos of “abundance, courage, generosity and peaceableness.” Postcards from Babylon shows how the “dominant ideology” has seeped into the Christian imagination like leaven into dough.
The documentary takes the viewer through some of the recent events in the US culture wars: the Black Lives Matter protests, the confederacy statues controversy, the 2016 election, the January 6th protests and so on. In each of these cases, the documentary tries to show how Christians have become captive to fear-driven ideologies that constrict their political engagement into a reactive posture. Postcards wants to paint an alternative: There are other issues Christians should care about (the documentary points to the issues of race and war) and Christians need not be beholden to the Republican Party. Brian Zhand described the January 6th riot as an “eruption of the real”, when what as there all along—the nationalist conflation of faith and politics—was brought out for all to see.
For me, the primary good this documentary does, is not so much to convince Christians to vote one way or another, but simply to make and clear space. There is room for both political tribes in the church. There is room for Christians to care for all kinds of political issues. Christians don’t need to be beholden to one political party. The observation that Christian political ‘engagement’ is reactionary, fear-driven and tribalistic strikes me as accurate. Having a reactionary, fear-driven, tribalistic politics clouds our judgement. There can be no listening to the other side, considering other points of view—learning without anger as they told us in High School—if you do not first adopt a different stance towards politics.
As someone who is sympathetic to the critique the documentary is making, there were times when I wondered how helpful its approach was. In the first place, this is not a film I will be able to watch with my conservative friends: It’s one-sided, moralizing march through all of the landmines of the culture wars is sure to alienate all but the most open minded conservative. Then again, conservative culture warriors aren’t the primary audience of Postcards from Babylon, as David Peters puts it in the intro: “Just a few years ago I wouldn’t have made this film much less watched it. It wouldn’t have jived at all with what I was being taught about being a Christian in America. But over time I became open to a new narrative. Maybe you’re comfortable with your Christianity as it is, if so, this film may not be for you. If somewhere, somehow, you feel we’ve drifted off course, then please watch.” This is a good disclaimer: this is not a documentary to try to sway those who have been sucked into the political beast of Republican politics, if the events of the last 4 years didn’t make a dent, this documentary won’t either. Rather, this is a documentary for those who feel alienated from the Church or have a sense that there is something off with the relationship between faith and politics in America.
There was a second tension point for me as I watched the documentary. There seemed to me to be two distinct narrative threads running through Postcards. In the beginning and at the end, Zhand gave his vision for a renewed Christian politics, one that follows the lamb rather than the donkey or the elephant. The vast stretch in the middle of the documentary, somewhat awkwardly bookended by Zhand’s Neo-Anabaptist political theology, takes us through one street protest after another. Here the documentary seems to be rejecting Trumpian conservatism on the one hand, and calling viewers to embrace the opposite political position on the other hand. This was most clear in the section on the BLM protests. This was framed as an almost apocalyptic moment. In tandem, BLM and MAGA expose the racism of white evangelicals and the viewer is called to be on the right side of history. Here, I couldn’t help but wonder about the framing: do American Christians really need another apocalyptic political position to join themselves to? For many conservative Christians in the US, the issue of abortion functions as the apocalyptic, litmus test issue. This is what stokes the fears and anxieties of the group, keeps them politically motivated and assures them that they and their candidates are on the right side of history. On the left, a similar dynamic is emerging with the issue of Race. There are two historical trajectories, two narratives you can be a part of: the long history of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and White Supremacy on the one hand and the legacy of Civil Rights and black liberation on the other. These apocalyptic stories push, push, push, people into their respective camps and effectively shut down the possibility of dialogue. For many conservative Christians, any kind of deviation on the issue of abortion (even voting for a non-republican candidate) puts you on the wrong side of history, on the side of Nazis, genocide, mass sterilization, and eugenics. The same thing around the toxic American conversation on race. To observe that the BLM is operating like a quasi-religious movement, puts you on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. (There was an interesting scene in the documentary where a group of Protestors kneeled while a young black women read the final words of George Floyd. The emotion and reverence in the air was obvious, it looked very much like a liturgical event.) Conservatives have developed their own “right-side-of-history” story around the issue of race. There is the boogeyman “Critical Race Theory” that is “destroying Western Civilization”. The world is divided into the “enemies of western civilization” on the one hand, and its brave, fearless, truth-telling defenders on the other. In a strange inversion of cancel culture, any mention of of the validity of concepts like “white privilege”, institutional racism or the historical roots of white supremacy is a sure way to have yourself ‘cancelled’. I suppose when it comes down to it, I simply lack the kind of confidence both of these groups seem to have; that buying into either of these narratives will succeed in “making the world a better place”.
With all of that background, my fear is that Postcards, rather than charting an alternative, ends up feeding the culture wars. At times, it seems as if Postcards simply intends to tear down the red team and build up the blue team. (Justified as this may be) This can’t be helpful, all it does is embolden and entrench both sides. There are some bi-partisan moments, such as when the producers organize a dialogue between Christians on all sides of the political spectrum, and Zhand’s theological vision pulls the viewer towards the way of the cross rather than the path of tribalism. Perhaps though, the problem is not with the documentary, but with me. Maybe I have allowed my anabaptist, anti-tribalism politics to cloud my vision, to distract me from the cold, hard, political realities. Maybe there are right sides to these issues, and my anti-partisanship ends up simply being a form of complacency. These are questions that Postcards raises for me, and they are questions I will have to sit with. It’s easy to be the one always pointing out the flaws in “both sides”, but maybe sometimes you need to take a stand. But where should you stake your claim? I suppose this is where I continue to come back to that winding road in Galilee as the only way through the murky and foggy waters of our times.
In the end, this is a documentary worth grappling with and learning from. I watched it (as you should) with a group of friends and it sparked some wonderful conversations about the challenges of doing politics as a Christian in our times. I don’t think David and Kathy Peters intend this film to be the answer to all of our problems, but instead, they want to spark our imaginations, open up the conversation and point to a new way of doing Christian politics. They point our politics back to where it all ends and begins, at the cross. At the cross, the old violent world has passed away, and a new world, along with a new way of doing ‘politics’, is born. I’ll leave you with the beautiful words of Brian Zhand near the end of the film:
We see a world formed in violence reaching a hideous apex, and with great violence, the world sinned its sin into the body of Jesus Christ. The wounds on Christ’s body—on his hands, his feet, his side—these are entry wounds as sins are violently injected into Jesus. What happens when sin enters the body of Jesus? Sin itself dies. Jesus goes down into death and leaves sin and death there, conquered and defeated. He’s raised on the third day; he comes back preaching the first word of the new world: “Peace be with you.” The Cross is where Christ abolishes war and the myth of redemptive violence and calls us into a new world formed in peace.
One thought on “Postcards From Babylon Documentary Review”
Thank you for this. I am and “old white guy” (and an Alabamian to boot) so my demographic and political leanings are pretty predictable. Your attempt at objectivity succeeded, in my opinion – you are very honest about where your own leanings may have skewed your take on the documentary. Would that we were all so self-aware!
But I must say that the political divide amongst Christians in America is deeply perplexing – and the erosion of any agreeable concept of “Truth” is (it seems to me) the greatest casualty of the internecine war – words becoming less and less meaningful, the life choked from them in the strong vise of equivocation. “Justice is turned back, And righteousness stands afar off; For truth is fallen in the street, And equity cannot enter.”
I keep thinking of the passage “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Christ… are you not worldly… mere men?”
The greatest temptation of these is to take the superior position, “I am of Christ” – but even this is, at bottom, carnal.
My only hope is a faint light I think I see on the horizon of my own consciousness – and it has to do with what Paul contrasts to the immature of Corinth: “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” Somehow, by God’s grace and Spirit, if the Church would/could fix its eyes on Jesus, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and understanding”. Wisdom (and Truth) are ultimately a person – The Person, The Human Being, fully God and human, Jesus the Christ. I suspect the worldly Church (of which I am still too much a participant) must find a way into what I have to inevitably call “mystical” – into whatever the dynamic Paul enigmatically gestures in his (most mystical?) statement: “But we all, with unveiled faces, looking [gazing/contemplating] as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” This, I believe, is the only path forward, but it remains for me a path that I only barely see (if at all?) – “through a glass, darkly”…