The Difficulty of Religious Communication: Brother, Born Again

J. Michael Utzinger

Streaming video affords us the ability to watch many film documentaries about religion that otherwise might escape our notice.  I have been watching several of these lately: some recent and some not so recent.  I am always intrigued about personal documentaries and what makes them compelling.  

Michael Hammond reminded us a while back in a past post that "our best understanding of this thing we call religion comes in stories and testimonies and strange recollections of the way that people find meaning in their lives."  So, I left a recent viewing of Julia Pimsleur's "Brother, Born Again" (2001), pleased with the raw and complex religiosity one can observe in a family divided by religious convictions.  The rest of this post is a spoiler, so if you wish, you can watch the entire film here before finishing the post.

The film had all of the making of a really interesting exploration: brother from an educated Jewish family joins a separatist evangelical group in Alaska.  After ten years of separation, his sister, feeling cut off from her brother, seeks to understand how this could happen and hopefully reunite the family.  Oh, and she brings a documentary film crew with her as well.

The beginning portions of the film shows the considerable misunderstandings that religious individuals bring to other religions.  One of my favorites was when Julia visited a Christian bookstore to find information about the evangelicalism her brother now professes.  After wading through Christian kitsch (and this word is both the right and wrong one in this particular context) the store clerk tries to explain the experience of his conversion: "I was on another planet.  I was like so high on Jesus." After essentially calling her Satan, another store clerk (perhaps the owner?)  admonishes to Julia just to pray that the Lord make himself real to her (which is what her brother wants for her).  When she says she cannot pray in that way because it does not mean anything to her, the clerk is genuinely baffled.  "But you want to know the Lord?"  "No, I want to understand my brother.  I want to understand what he finds in the Lord."  One is left wondering if these two worldviews are simply incommensurable. 

No sooner have we gazed at this great gulf, Julia reveals that her open bisexuality is another likely sources of division between her and her brother.  In a conversation with friend, she wonders how many concessions will she have to make and how many will he need to make for them stay close?  She worries aloud, "He has this great alibi called 'Jesus.'  And I don't know what I have that carries that much weight.  Except that I am your sister, dammit! You have to try harder."

It is our good fortune that both siblings are willing to try harder.  Julia flies to Hoonah, Alaska to see Marc and the separatist community to which he belongs, called "The Farm."  After a worship scene, Marc and Julia discuss his conversion.  After ten years on the Farm, Marc speaks of God with such familiarity with his sister that it is disarming.  One is struck by the irrationality of it all, an irrationality that seems central to Marc's notion of authentic faith, and Julia's apparent fear that such a faith is even possible.  In fact, Julia's discomfort with this irrationality leads her to throw out other psychological explanations for her brother's experiences that preclude the very religious explanations her brother uses to understand himself. 

Marc's dramatic conversion is contrasted with Lucas Clark, who was born on the commune.  Clark was five years old and prompted by his mother to accept Jesus into his heart.  When asked whether he had the option to do otherwise, Clark responds honestly but comfortably, "I never had that chance."  Julia presses this line of questioning wondering if she could be accepted if she did not accept Marc's beliefs.  Another young man at the table (Jason Koontz), however, answers for Marc: "It can't OK if he loves you.  If you don't come into the same beliefs as us, there only option about where you are going to be with your eternal life, right?" 
Julia continues to explore the mystery of the religion that divides her from her brother, and the palpable tension begs for an argument.  Julia wants to understand, intellectualize, and argue.  Marc wants to listen, follow, and feel.  The film pushes this divide further and further (one worries too artificially) as it progresses.  An elders on the Farm recounts that Marc's conversion was about breaking his intelligence.  As Marc and other commune members retell the story of his conversion, including an attempted suicide and speaking in tongues, Julia's perception of her once close family is shattered.  How much did she know about her own brother?  Had this commune functionally become his family?  She even admits, "In some ways, the Farm saved his life."

But the rationality-irrationality theme comes back to the fore quickly.  Julia says, "Sometimes I think you worked out your issues through religion, and I worked out my issues through therapy."  Marc cannot believe that her way is valid, and, despite her plea for tolerance, her attempts to convince Marc and the camera that she thinks his way may be valid for him rings hollow.  One is struck by the unfair irony that the children of famed linguist Paul Pimsleur cannot seem to learn to speak one another's "language."

The inevitable argument finally unfolds, when Julia asks Marc whether he forsaken intellectual pursuits when he studies the Bible.  Marc is clearly wearied by this line of attack.  When Marc reaches for the Bible to answer her question about heaven, she presses him to tell her what he thinks apart from the Bible.  "I don't see why when I ask you a question you have to go look it up."  It seems this divide will not be overcome.  The pinnacle of misunderstanding comes on a boat, when Julia asks Marc to promise never to pray for her to become straight.  The question was asked honestly and lovingly, albeit irrationally, for she knows she is asking him to be inconsistent.  Marc's discomfort with his sister's request is only matched by his honest inability to grant her request, coupled with his obvious affection for her.

The film's concludes with Marc flying to New York to be reunited with his mother and Julia.  They bring him to the matriarch of the family, Great Aunt Beatie, who says his faith and commune are "crap."  And in a surprise move, Marc and Julia's mother defends Marc's choices.  The film leaves us with the potential (but not the resolution) that this family can live, love, and accept one another despite being divided by faith, sexuality, and distance.

This film is definitely worth watching.  It is disarmingly honest and, therefore, refreshing.  The conversations, especially those surrounding religion and sexuality, often seem so current that one forgets that this was filmed 21 years ago.  (It is also startling to see the Twin Towers on the New York skyline).   Nonetheless, the film also missed opportunities.  Never does Pimsleur examine or engage the cultural angst so many American Jews have about conversion or mixed-faith families that inhabits background of portions of the film.  We never seemed to meet fully Marc where he was spiritually or religiously.  The film is really Julia's voice and vision, not her brother's.  We also learn precious little about the Farm, and what we do learn seems suspiciously to advance Julia's thesis about the irrationality of Marc's faith rather than an fair appraisal.  

While any viewer can be relieved that Julia's clear love for her brother overcomes her befuddlement with his faith, she never seems to bridge the chasm of understanding with the resources available to her. For example, her struggle for acceptance, because of her sexuality, might have ironically given her the best access to engage her estranged brother's conversion and faith.  After all, she movingly states that the hardest thing about being in a lesbian relationship is coming to terms with the fact that "your happiness makes other people unhappy." One wonders if Marc feels the same way about his evangelical faith?   In the end, one is left with the greatest of appreciation of the difficulty of communicating the dimensions faith with outsiders, all the while watching educated non-experts heroically try and fail at this difficult task, because they have "skin in the game," so to speak.  


Tom Van Dyke said…
After ten years of separation, his sister, feeling cut off from her brother, seeks to understand how this could happen and hopefully reunite the family.

Oh, and she brings a documentary film crew with her as well.

Then although 21 years ago, it's reality TV. Once a camera is introduced, it's no longer reality.

It's a reality of sorts. We see what he does when he's fronting for his faith, she for her sexuality.

There is truth to be extracted from theater, but does reality TV even qualify as theater?

Or is it just a study of bad actors?

Tom Van Dyke said…
Didn't you wonder, where are they now? Epilogue, via Ira Glass 1n 2000:

In the eight years since we first put this story of the air, Marc has left Alaska to medical school in Texas. He's now in his first year of residency. He is still a Christian. He is still affiliated with The Farm. In the eight years since Julia made her film, she's gotten married-- to a man, a rabbi, in fact. They have two kids.

Go figure.

OTOH, I have no idea where 2014 might find them. Life is funny that way. People are funny that way. It all could have gone anywhichway and surprised none of us.

Thx for the report, Michael.
Ben Thomas said…
Hello Michael. Many thanks for this post, and for turning me on to the documentary. As a former Born Again Pentecostal, I experienced a strange and at times uncomfortable sympathy with both Pimsleur siblings, having played the roles of frustrated believer and baffled skeptic in my own family to many of the same results (or lack thereof).

I'll toss this question out to the thread: could anyone recommend a resource (mono, article or otherwise) that addresses conversion angst in the Jewish community? Particularly conversion to Christianity. I'm developing a character for a novel who was born to secular Jewish parents and jumps camp at university, and would like to substantiate that process with good scholarship.

Thank you once again for the great report, and to everyone here at the blog. Even for an amateur who's not active in the field, the posts here are frequently informative and a delight.
Tom, you're exactly right about the cameras and reality TV. These issues always dog me, and I struggled with this as I thought about the film. At first, I was not sure I liked the film at all. Nonetheless, I think it is a film not just reality TV. In other words, Pimsleur has constructed something to make meaning, religious, sexual, and familial. The rub is that she is constructing something about herself, and, therefore, this documentary is more along the lines of autobiography. She has more insight into herself and family than we do, but, at times, we might see more than she does (because she is too close). I actually think the lost opportunities of the film (not to mention the consistent emotional restraint of Julia and Marc) lend to the authenticity of the project. In other words, while they both agreed to this "unreal" process, Pimsleur's soft touch as a director helped reveal things that I doubt she intended.
Ben, start with Lila Corwin Berman's _Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity_, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009). Kevin Schultz did a nice review of the book on this blog as well. This book will not necessarily get you to the average person/character, but it will help frame the feelings of in-between-ness that frame the emotions and concerns of community leaders. Others on this blog will certainly have even better choices. Michael
Tom Van Dyke said…
The rub is that she is constructing something about herself, and, therefore, this documentary is more along the lines of autobiography.

A strong point, Michael.

Although it may be more of a snapshot of a phase she was going through--or a self-mythologizing--about who she "is," considering how perpendicular to it her life story actually turns out.

Again, what I meant by "fronting" for her sexuality, or identity as an intellectual or artist, whathaveyou, more a chronicle of momentary self-delusion than one of genuine self-discovery.

[The brother's the one who remains who he is, more or less.]

Aside to Ben Thomas: I've been told converting from Judaism to Catholicism is somewhat understandable, but converting to Protestantism, that's a head-scratcher. Since this was a WASP nation for the longest time, Jews and Catholics often ended up together on the same couch, with Sidney, Jugdish, Mohammet, and Clayton.

[This isn't to say your second wife couldn't be a shiksa, but conversion was not part of the deal.]