Purple State of Mind

Splash Purple State of Mind is a social documentary film (DVD) made by Christian theologian Craig Detweiler and former-Christian John Marks, the author of an engaging critique of evangelical Christians in America: Reasons to Believe: One Man's Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind (Harper Collins, 2008). This DVD is the result of four different dialogs, shot in four different locations, between Craig and John. Craig and John were roommates at Davidson College in the 1980s and remain friends, though their journey has taken them in totally opposite directions, at least spiritually. Craig arrived at Davidson a non-Christian while John was already having his serious doubts. As freshmen they explored faith deeply. This continued for several years and then their paths went in very different directions.

Profile-detweiler Craig Detweiler is now an associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also co-director of the Reel Spirituality Institute, the area of Fuller’s Brehm Center focused on theology and film. Dr. Detweiler previously taught at Biola University in La Mirada, California, as associate professor of mass communication and chair of its Film, TV, and Radio Program.

Craig is also a filmmaker who has written scripts for numerous Hollywood films. Purple State of Mind (2008) is his newest film. It won “Best Spiritual Film” at the Breckenridge Film Festival. His documentary Williams Syndrome: A Highly Musical Species (1996), won a Cine Golden Eagle.  He also wrote the films Extreme Days (2001) and The Duke (1999).  Detweiler has served as a juror for several film festivals and produced the annual City of the Angels Film Festival in Los Angeles, California, as well as the inaugural Reel Lives Film Festival: The Cancer Chronicles in Geneva, Switzerland.  He leads a coalition of schools and educators to the Sundance Film Festival each year for Fuller’s WindRider Forum in Park City, Utah. 

Craig is also an accomplished writer, having written several excellent books about theology, film, and pop culture, including A Purple State of Mind: Finding Middle Ground in a Divided Culture (2008) and Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century (2008).  His book A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture (2003), co-authored with Barry Taylor, was a finalist for the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) Gold Medallion in Theology/Doctrine. 

John Marks was a writer for U. S. News & World Report for a decade and then a producer for Morley Safer at 60 Minutes. He is also the author of three novels: Fangland, Wartorn and The Wall. Reasons to Believe is his first non-fiction book. John is a native of Texas and a graduate of Davidson College with an M. A. in creative writing from the prestigious writing program at the University of Iowa. He is married, the father of one son and lives in Massachusetts where he continues a career in writing.

Books Reasons to Believe is a very moving memoir of the fall, or the de-conversion, of a Texas evangelical who accepted Jesus into his life at age sixteen. Baptized a Presbyterian in Odessa, influenced by a lovely Methodist relative from Checotah, Oklahoma, raised in Highland Park (old and wealthy Dallas) and affiliated with the Highland Park Presbyterian Church (mainline but evangelical), scorched by the fiery preaching of Denton Bible Church (independent, a.k.a. Dallas Seminary), John Marks’ book provides an effective guide to the evangelical sub-culture of America, particularly that of North Texas.

The book begins with a account of a couple who asked John Marks whether he would be "'left behind.'" Marks knows what they mean: as some teach God will rapture his people away (in the twinkling of an eye) to save them from the tribulation and then the reprobate will suffer under the tyrannical will of the antichrist, before the final destruction of the world and heaven's reign. Marks knows, in other words, the popular ideas of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that influence millions of conservative Christians in America. (Most conservative Christians in Europe, in contrast, reject this theology entirely! Thankfully, it seems to me the number is decreasing in America, though there is still a huge following.)

Marks describes his encounters with evangelicals in a variety of settings. His simple goal is to show the evangelical movement as it really is today, not in 2004 or before. This is why Pat Robertson, and the late Jerry Falwell, are not in Marks’ account, a lovely omission for some of us. Instead, Marks looks at Young Life, megachurches like Denton Bible, and the political ideas of David Barton, who gives awidely-praised spirited rejection of any constitutional basis for church-state separation. For those who think Barton is irrelevant to conservative Christians you should travel with me across the evangelical landscape. I have met his disciples in many, many places. They are always ready to argue that America is a Christian nation, stolen from the good people of faith by the terrible, lying and deceptive secularists.

John Marks is an excellent writer when he describes the folks that he meets. In so doing he gives the reader a sympathetic primer on people who are united by their "personal relationship" with Jesus. One Internet reviewer put this quite well: “He does a fine job of describing this relationship through interviews and his own past. He does not ridicule the possibility of a personal friendship with a man dead 2,000 years, for he remembers his own life well. At the same time, he recognizes just how nebulous the experience is and so refrains from over-defining it, letting individuals tell of their own understanding.”

Eventually it was the horrors that John Marks witnessed during the Bosnian-Serbian crisis (which ended his remaining Christian faith) that shaped him as both a human and a modern writer. Marks tell us how his faith finally came to an end in Marburg, Germany, where he confronted the long history of Protestantism as well as the destruction of European Jewry. The thinking
of Nietzsche played a huge
role in Mark’s story, as the DVD brings out in his dialog with Detweiler. But it was at the Jewish cemetery in Prague, where he went to see the graves of his wife's Jewish relatives and the grave of Franz Kafka, that he began to realize that if the Christian faith were correct, then Kafka, one of his favorite authors, was at that moment burning in hell. This question, about who goes to hell and why, is at the very heart of John Marks rejection of Christianity.

This all brings me back to the film: Purple State of Mind. The cover of the DVD states the direction of the conversation takes: "Beyond the political . . . two friends, three decades, four conversations . . . it gets personal." That gives you a general idea of the context of the presentation. Their story is a bull session between friends but along the way we see how these two real people change and how they deal with the big questions: death, sex, the meaning of life, God, etc. Their conversation is, at times, very intimate and warm. When Craig describes the death of his sister in a tragic car wreck he admits that he has no idea why this happened. His tears are genuine and moving. But when John nails Craig for dodging his real questions, by always asking questions, I think he exposes Detweiler's weak point. Craig refuses to deny simple Christian truths while at the same time he attempts to deflect John's serious questions by dancing around these "hard" points of Christian doctrine. Consider that Craig is a trained theologian. I do not mean this as an attack on Craig, whom I actually admire a great deal, but a simple observation that in this DVD he fails to show that he has a really good grasp on apologetics. (I do not mean, by apologetics, "evidentialism" or "rationalistic" arguments but simple ways of stating the truth claims of the faith while dealing with the real questions non-Christians have about these views.)

I really like Craig Detweiler a lot. I have never met him but his work is inspiring to me as a Christian and as a film critic. Maybe this is why I was so deeply disappointed with his failure to answer some of John Marks' most fundamental questions. Craig seemed to apologize for the faith, but he never engaged in the kind of relational post-modern apologetics that respects the mind. I wonder if he feels the same when he now sees this film. He is such a capable thinker and writer that I hope he improves his use of apologetics. (For a very different approach to apolgetics see my recent series of articles on this subject in the ACT 3 Weekly articles that are archived in print and podcast versions on the Web site ACT 3.)

I recommend this film to all who want to see an interesting dialog between two earnest and bright friends, one Christian and one who is not. It is a model to all Christians about how to treat those you disagree with who are your friends. It is not, however, a model for how to give really solid responses to very serious objections to the Christian faith. If I was an unbeliever I think that I would likely be strengthened in my unbelief (at least intellectually) by Craig's failure to answer some elemental questions candidly. The one clearly strong point in the film is that Craig demonstrates the love of Christ with real humanness in a warm and Christ-like way. I just wish he had done a better job of really answering the concerns John puts forward. A good dose of C. S. Lewis, Blaise Pascal, Lesslie Newbigin, and the work of the growing number of post-modern thinkers within the Christian world, would add a great deal to Craig's approach.