Questioning Faith: Confessions of a Seminarian
Directed by Macky Alston
Cinemax (premieres June 27)
In Questioning Faith, director Macky Alston tells his story of struggling with the loss of his seminary classmate, Alan Smith, to AIDS. Alston and Smith became friends while studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York and working together in a soup kitchen.
Alston announces in the first scene, over video of him and Smith singing along campily to the theme song from The Patty Duke Show, that he is homosexual, and that Smith was as well. While homosexuality is a persistent backdrop in this story, Alston is more concerned with something all people have in common: suffering.
Alston began his studies at Union in 1989, but by 1991 he had dropped out to make films. Smith's death prompted Alston to resume studies at Union and to face his own issues with suffering and death. Throughout the film, which premieres this month on cable television's Cinemax Reel Life series, Alston is nagged by the question of why God would "take" Smith. In wrestling with his own doubts, Alston talks with others who have suffered (some of whom emerged stronger, and others embittered).
Alston's theology is the broadest sort of liberal Protestantism, and he never considers the answer that we live in a fallen world. Instead, he nearly stays stuck in the choice between God being all-powerful but not always good, or all good but not omnipotent.
From Atheists to Believers
Alston is occasionally sidetracked by people who offer little insight. Liza "Baba" Gottlieb, the feisty grandmother of Alston's partner, proudly declares her atheism. We soon discover that she rejected the Jewish faith of her childhood because of her grief at losing her brothers, her parents, and her husband to death. Decades later, Gottlieb sobs as she remembers her beloved family.
Oddly, though, Gottlieb says she would feel no interest in seeing her husband in an afterlife. She considers the very idea illogical and "unnatural," asking what age he would be. Ah, the bitter triumph of Enlightenment thought over the pathetic wish fulfillment of traditional theism! Alston also visits briefly with Hugo Hamburger, who lost his family in the death camps at Dachau. But this quiet, dignified man, who greets visitors at the main entrance to Union Seminary, doesn't receive enough camera time to explain what gave him the strength to build a new life among the ruins.
The film's most powerful testimonies come from two Muslim women—Jamilla Abdul-Rahman, a hospital chaplain stricken with brain cancer, and her daughter Latifah, who loses premature twins—and from the Rev. Annie Ruth Powell, the chaplain at Union Seminary, who also fights cancer during the film.
Powell dances exuberantly to a gospel song about Jesus' return to Earth. She raises her arms in praise, even as she walks toward her next chemotherapy treatment. She talks about being angry with God and "having it out" with him. She beams with confidence, peace, and strength.
Alston asks her why she praises God so often. "Because I have so much to be thankful for, and I give credit to God for all things," she tells him calmly. "I know my physical life is not the end."
Powell's example helps Alston himself to "let God have it," and the results are moving: "I feel held and heard," Alston says in his narration. "I feel like God can handle my anger, and I can handle God's mystery, and I feel so relieved."
Alston eventually gathers his interview subjects in a circle on Union Seminary's lawn. His sermon consists of raising questions and then allowing his congregation to describe their own journeys of faith (or away from faith).
It's fairly thin gruel, as sermons go. Nevertheless, Alston's clear affection for the people he films (he's often shown holding their hands), and the various ways in which they cope with pain, make Questioning Faith a worthwhile film.
Alston, who grew up Presbyterian, says he plans to become an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. "I'll probably do film work out of [my church's] basement, because I love it and because I can," he told CT. His work will bear watching in a decade that's already off to a brutal start.
Douglas LeBlanc edits The CT Review.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
For more information on Questioning Faith, see the site of River Films.
See last September's Reflections on Suffering.
Another Christianity Today sister publication, Today's Christian Woman, detailed five ways to convey God's comfort in a crisis.
Within a three-month period, Marshall and Susan Shelley saw two of their children die. Marshall, Leadership's senior editor, reflects on how these losses have affected his relationship with God in "My New View of God."
Christianity Today sister publication Books and Culture reviewed a book that argues "at its core spiritual life involves being overwhelmed, by both the good and the bad." CT reviewed Yet Will I Trust Him, in which John Mark Hicks describes his own crucible and refines his own faith and the theological debate on suffering.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, America was a nation suffering. Christianity Today articles on coping after the tragedy included:
Where Was God on 9/11?Philip Yancey's reflections from Ground Zero and beyond. (Oct. 23, 2001)
To Embrace the EnemyIs reconciliation possible in the wake of such evil? (Sept. 21, 2001)
After the Grave in the AirTrue reconciliation comes not by ignoring justice nor by putting justice first, but by unconditional embrace. (Sept. 21, 2001)
Taking It PersonallyWhat do we do with all this anger? (Sept. 14, 2001)
Fear and HateIn times like this, as in all other times, Christians have a responsibility to love above all else. (Sept. 11, 2001)
Experts Say Spiritual Roots Will Aid in Coping With Catastrophe | Pray and connect with others, advise nation's chaplains. (Sept. 11, 2001)
God's Message in the Language of EventsIn the face of evil, we must focus on keeping our hearts right. (Sept. 11, 2001)
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