Friday, September 28, 2012

Hellbound?, a review

I had the privilege of seeing an early screening of Hellbound?, and I posted my initial (mostly non-specific) thoughts here. Kevin Miller said he found the comment about "tactical nuclear strike" to be the highlight of the review. So consider this my full review.

Spoilers are included. Read at your own discretion.

What is Hell? Is it a place of sulfur and ash, or is it more akin to a really bad eternally present Nickelback concert? And, most importantly from a theodicy and soteriology standpoint, who goes there?

Kevin Miller sets off on this journey, and he brings along everyone from atheists, musicians, theologians and bloggers. His goal isn't necessarily to answer the heavy questions introduced.

TECHNICAL

The film looks good. The cinematography captures the humanity behind the people giving their thoughts on this contentious topic, and the landscapes are photographed with naturalistic beauty. The scenes in New York are especially harrowing, especially when encountered with fundamentalist kitten lovers, the Phelps clan.

The sound design is key for a documentary to succeed, and there is nothing in here to detract from the overall thrust of the narrative. Everything is as smooth as one ought to expect from a studious production.

Pacing and editing often (and should) go together, and this film clips along at a nice pace, leapfrogging from fundamentalists, conservatives, info cards, liberals and horror houses. It all blends together, especially after the surprising opening reflecting on 9/11.

NARRATIVE

it is far more difficult to analyze the film as a documentary, but there is a very specific ebb and flow towards the end. The first act deals with setting the stage, introducing the "who's who" of the afterlife debate. The second act deals with deconstructing some common misconceptions about hell, as well as some push back.

The third act, which I call ascension, is perhaps the strongest section. The music begins to kick in, the arguments become less about doctrine and more about orthopraxy, and how do we then live in regards to knowing such things. The final shot, which I won't spoil, brings everything full circle.

A tightly done journey.

THEMES

Here is where the bulk of my praise and some of my critiques will arise. I will start with my critiques first, as I always prefer bad news to proceed good news.

I wish there had been more annihilationists present. Though I am on the fence regarding annihilationism, it would've been nice to see more thoughts from the annihilationist camp. I do know Greg Boyd leans toward annihilationism, but I do wish the topic had been explored in a more full fashion. Although, to have Mark Driscoll admit that annihilationists are not out of "national boundaries" was insightful and a helpful change in tone from his earlier comments about Justin Brierley.

My second critique is more of a personal nature. I would've liked to have seen more push back on the part of traditionalists, although I sympathize with the idea that it is a majority held view and thus doesn't need to be as strongly promoted.

My praise, being reserved for last, is quite general. The thread of universalism runs through, but is firmly grounded not only in a healthy respect for Scripture but also deeply embedded in christology. Robin Parry makes an excellent point that I will paraphrase, "Jesus is pretty the reason he is a universalist." And if you haven't read his book The Evangelical Universalist, you ought to. The film is an incredible resource of literature, articles, blogs and a diverse spread of opinions that will challenge and provoke you to think long and hard about the nature and timelessness of the afterlife.

Greg Boyd's humble tone is wonderful, as he makes it clear that christian universalists are not outside the bound of orthodoxy. Though he is not a universalist, his remarks are helpful for keeping the debate civil and responsible. Robin Parry is lucid and, dare I say, lovely? Though I had heard several of his excellent lectures, I did not expect him to be as down to earth as he was. Rounding out the excellent cast is Frank Schaeffer who is both blunt and uncompromising, and Brian McLaren who offers his general thoughts on the sociological nature of the hell debate, as well as the idea of Jerusalem's destruction in 70AD.

Preterism. Atonement. Soteriology. Gehenna. Free will. It's all here. 

And on a final humorous note, Michael Hardin's comparison of "The Satan" to a prosecuting attorney ala Rudy Giuliani still makes me chuckle.

CONCLUSION

Where does Hellbound? land theologically? Honestly, right where it needs to. Presenting a case for universalism in the hopes of creating a discussion is right where this film ought to be. The film does not compromise it's vision, but doesn't disrespect the audience into thinking it must make an instantaneous decision.

Robin Parry makes a point here, as well as in his book, that the traditional view should not be easily abandoned. Tradition and history have their place.

Though annihilationism is largely absent, the manner and conduct of Hellbound? is both respectful and largely positive. The cast is uniformly interesting and compelling, and Kevin Miller has created a timely piece that addresses the nature of evil in a profound and different way.

And I still stand by my previous comments about "tactical nuclear strike." 

4 out of 5.

--Nick

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