Conspiracy theories sell books and make compelling viewing - usually. But the latest offering from Netflix, The Family is an anaemic attempt to discredit the work of some very fine Christians whose motto is to bring Jesus - plus nothing - to people in places of influence and power worldwide.
The docudrama about the group, known as ‘The Fellowship’ - suggests that a shadowy Christian society is busily at work, one that shrouds itself in secrecy. One of the episodes is even titled, ‘A New World Order’. From the start, the agenda of the film maker is obvious, because the suggestion is that the Trump administration has come about because of the furtive activities of this alleged band of plotting believers. The group organizes and hosts the National Prayer Breakfast, an invitation only event that occurs annually in Washington DC. World leaders gather around one topic of interest: Jesus.
Spooky music and guilt by association
Here I declare an interest. One of my closest friends has spent years of his life working with the Fellowship. Because of him, I have been to the Cedars, the headquarters house of the group where ambassadors, members of Congress and business leaders gather weekly for Bible study, prayer and conversation. I attended the National Prayer breakfast in 2017, where the President of the United States began his address to the gathered throng by celebrating his historical ratings on The Apprentice, which was embarrassing. The work of the Fellowship involves supporting those who walk the slippery tightrope of being Christian and in politics, as well as reaching out with the love of Jesus to leaders around the world. As for the Prayer Breakfast, no agenda was shared that might lead to world domination; we ate eggs and bacon, met some interesting people, and….prayed.
So how do you attack a group for showing love and support? First of all, cue spooky music throughout the docudrama, a cheap stunt. Put a frightening stanza as a background to shots of Julie Andrews running up a hill declaring that those hills are alive, and you can easily give the impression that that singing nun might be a serial killer and a member of the illuminati. The haunting chords create a conspiratorial atmosphere, which colours everything that is said.
But then in this series, not much is said. The notion seems to be that all influence is conspiratorial, and collaboration is criminal, a laughable notion not only in DC, but in any political arena, which is all about impact and partnership. And in this gospel according to Netflix, Christian influence is especially evil.
Members of the Fellowship have reached out to some rather nasty characters, including Colonel Gaddafi and a whole lot of African dictators who have much blood on their hands. One minute the documentary shows a senator meeting with some of these highly questionable types and declaring the love of Christ, and then we cut to gory images of the Lockerbie bombing and even Hitler, together with some African firing squads. One is suddenly guilty by association, a charge frequently thrown at Jesus with his penchant for dining with the wrong people.
The criticism is that these despots are not told to repent of their crimes; but we don’t now what actual conversations have taken place, and anyway, the strategy of walking into a dictators lair and then immediate showing them the "repent" card is unlikely to succeed.
A man whose wife had an affair with one of the politicians who was involved with the Fellowship is hauled out repeatedly to indict the group. That’s disappointing, heartbreaking even, but the group shouldn’t be judged by the actions of one: if that were the case, every church, club and yes, political group would need to close down tomorrow. And then a neighbor who lives close to the Cedars gives evidence that she attended some prayers meetings with the group, which were cancelled after a while, certain evidence, she says, that they were trying to shake her off. Or maybe they just changed their schedule.
Secret or private?
Members of the Fellowship often talk about wanting to work invisibly. I see this as a refreshing lack of self promotion and empire building, but their relational and organic approach implies stealth and conspiracy, according to the filmmakers.
True friendship creates a secure environment where we can be honest and vulnerable, but in this film privacy is tagged as secrecy.
As expected, the series ends with the suggestion that this group got Trump into the White House - but there is no explanation as to how they might have done this. Then they throw in photos of some people praying for the President, which is what we are commanded to do, regardless of how much we might wrinkle our noses at his historical approach to women, his current rhetorical style or his political agenda.
This series undergirds the unfortunate truth that Christians can be attacked and blamed even when they are simply trying to show love
What is rather marvelous is the way that the Fellowship have responded to the attack, which is with constraint and kindness. They said: "Though the Netflix docudrama series mischaracterizes the work of the Fellowship and attempts to portray people of faith in a bad light, we are encouraged by how often viewers are introduced to, and challenged by, the person and principles of Jesus, which are at the core of our mission and message. Perhaps they will also better understand the integrity and transformational impact of this informal network to encourage everyone in a spirit of friendship and reconciliation to love God with all their heart, soul and mind, and to love their neighbor as themselves."
Ultimately, the series creates a yawn rather than a murmur of alarm, but it does undergird the unfortunate truth that Christians can be attacked and blamed even when they are simply trying to show love.
So pray for those who find themselves so criticised. And while you’re at it, watch out for that singing nun - cue spooky music - because, well, you never know, do you?
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