A provocative, probing and ultimately disturbing look at the beliefs and practices of American Christian premillennialists, this scrupulously thorough and fair-minded documentary by Kate Davis, David Heilbroner and Franco Sacchi probably won’t draw the kinds of audiences that it should; recession-era filmgoers clearly being more interested in escaping the world’s problems than confronting them. Fortunately, distributor First Run Features is also a first rate DVD distributor, guaranteeing that this very important documentary receives a suitably long enough life to make a difference, well after it has exited from theaters.
Granted free and open access to interview congregants and ministers, Waiting for Armageddon enters their religious gatherings and even accompanies them on a trip to the Holy Land. In the process of these excursions the film draws the curtains on that most activist and vocal wing of evangelicalism—so-called “fundamentalists”—for whom Biblical literalism and inerrancy, combined with a pointed fixation on eschatological theology, engenders not just a lifestyle but a mission. It’s a mission which, for better or worse (depending on one’s political or religious bent) now plays an inextricable role in American social and political life, and an increasingly volatile role in international geopolitics—a mission predicated on a reading of scripture that suggests a bloody, violent apocalypse is just around the corner, obligating true believers to get themselves and others ready for that inevitable day.
The Rapture, which holds that a select few will be snatched from the earth and spared the horrors of the apocalypse as a preparatory sign of the judgment to come, is perhaps the most controversial and widely-publicized aspect of so-called premillennialism (popularized in author Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books and their film adaptations), and it is there that the filmmakers begin their probing. But the picture’s focus soon broadens with a trip to Israel where Orthodox Jews and observant Muslims share their very cynical view of the seemingly sweet and devout Americans who journey increasingly to their land. It’s a troubling segment for it reveals not only distrust and animus between adherents to the various faiths, but the tactical ways in which Jews and Christians have been willing to set aside their differences in unified opposition to the will and ambitions of Muslims. Nonbelievers may initially see the entire affair as proof of organized religion’s folly, but the interjection of more moderate, less activist Christian viewpoints suggest a more salient interpretation—one that asks whether or not this is really as much about religion as it is about culture and the fundamental human need to believe in something transcendent, something dramatic, something purposeful without having to compromise one’s sense of community and cultural identity.
The most refreshing aspect of Waiting for Armageddon is how completely non-polemical and non-judgmental it is, this is no easy task when dealing with a group whose religious and political activities lie at the very center of America’s growing divisions. Such an approach invariably presents itself as a double-edged if not triple-edged sword—what non-fundamentalists and even non-Christians will see as a horrific, terrifying exposé of a fanatical hate group, moderate Christians will see as an unrepresentative embarrassment. That the fundamentalists interviewed in the film show no discretion whatsoever in sharing views that others are certain to find abhorrent—such as the belief that the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem will eventually have to be destroyed in fulfillment of God’s prophecy—underlines just how broad the divide really is, and how daunting the challenges of the next century will continue to be.
It’s important to note that Waiting for Armageddon is meant to provoke questions more than present answers—documentaries on subjects this broad can rarely be as comprehensive as one might want. The origins of premillennialism, for instance, are never so much as mentioned, and the breakdown of core beliefs is, by any measure, a merely cursory one. The film’s final chapter on the so-called Millennium, the widespread Christian belief that Jesus will return to the earth, is given such short shrift it could just as easily have been run over the end titles. But the filmmakers never position their film as a comprehensive overview—their intent is that audiences treat it as a starting point for further inquiry, further study and greater dialogue. At a time when documentarians have increasingly become either pompous know-it-alls or self-centered carnival barkers, that’s a refreshing and very overdue return to form.
Distributor: First Run Features
Directors: Kate Davis, David Heilbroner and Franco Sacchi
Producers: David Heilbroner and Franco Sacchi
Running time: 73 min.
Release date: January 8 NY