armchair cultural observation since 1995

Article: Radically ordinary

By Matthew Ralph

Unforgiving, homophobic, fear-mongering, intolerent, consumerism, bigotry, preachy, anti-Semitic and paternalistic are are all words associated, too often accurately so, with Christianity in North America.

But they are words that have little to do with the Jewish carpenter who 2,000 years ago urged followers, above all else, to love God and love their neighbor.

Philadelphia-based filmmaker Jamie Moffett, a self-described lapsed Catholic, knows better than to lump all Christians into stereotypes. As a co-founder and former resident of Philadelphia’s intentional community The Simple Way, Moffett spent seven years serving and living with the poor and marginalized in society.

Introducing his film “The Ordinary Radicals” on camera, Moffett, who makes it a personal story by narrating it throughout, quickly dispenses of many of the aforementioned words through stenciled and printed words on the screen to set up the framework for a story about a growing movement of people who are ditching the culture war for something more closely aligned with the call of Jesus to really love their neighbor.

Using footage from last summer’s 11,000-mile veggie oil-fueled “Jesus For President” tour by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw to move the story along, Moffett illustrates the many ways Christian activists are challenging convention and living counter-culture to the stereotype the church has too often become in the U.S. and Canada.

Whether it’s pumping used veggie oil into a bus, using the winnings from The Price Is Right to help children in Africa, living with the homeless, cultivating a community garden, working in a drug and alcohol rehab or supporting current and former soldiers, the film illustrates how people from various walks of life are living their faith out in radically ordinary ways.

Mixed in with these compelling stories are interviews with academics and evangelical leaders like Ron Sider, John Perkins, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren, who speak to the broader story surrounding the movement and various archival and news footage.

Frankly, it’s remarkable to see how many people Moffett was able to get into the film and how much ground is covered. Not to mention how much soundtrack-buying-worthy music there is. At points, the shear weight of the film starts to weigh it down, but considering the breadth of the movement, the plethora of perspectives, voices and stories is probably justified.

Answering the simple “what’s it about?” question isn’t even easy with the film because it is about so many things. It’s about a book tour, yes, but not really. It’s about a guy named Shane Claiborne and a group of rag-tag troubadors, yes, but not really. It’s about a non-believer making sense of his crazy Christian friends, yes, but not really. 

Some of the press on the film to date has contrasted it with Bill Maher’s “Religulous” because it shows the good that can come from people motivated by faith even when the filmmaker doesn’t completely agree with them. Zack Exley, who blogs about the movement at Revolution In Jesusland, kind of makes that point in the film, noting his effort to make secular liberals aware of how much they have in common with Christians of this particular stripe.

But beyond giving evangelical Christians credibility with agnostics or causing scorn and skepticism among more Christians who see nothing wrong with intolerance, consumerism and homophobia in the church, The Ordinary Radicals challenges and inspires the viewer, no matter their faith or even political persuasion, to take action.

That, besides being a technically and stylistically well-executed film, is ultimately what makes it a must-see.

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