By Jacob Sahms
As a child, Chris White’s trips to the cinema were imaginative and entertaining, but they also provided rich times for faith-based discussions with his father. Walking out of the theater each movie trip, White’s father would point to the connections he saw in the Bible, and ask his children to do the same. Decades later, White has written and directed his own film, Electric Jesus, that explores what a life of faith and music look like, without expecting everyone to come from the same starting point that he does or get to the same endpoint.
Before White became the writer and director that he is today, he was a kid in Columbia, SC, who wanted to act and write scripts, but there wasn’t a clear path to success. He acted in plays, and was told to lose his Southern accent, though many adults counseled him to aim for something else. “People who loved me told me to look for a job in advertising,” remembers White. “So I spent a lot of time in advertising, and then became a high school drama and film criticism teacher for four years.”
But a conversation in the late 2000s with his wife Emily led him to buy a DSLR camera from Target, and together they launched into making films. He recognized that he had grown as an artist, with a point to make and some taste in how things should work. He wasn’t just chasing his childhood dreams anymore, but rather a more mature understanding of what his story might look like.
“I set out to make a film that represented my friends growing up,” the screenwriter/director explains. “In movies, evangelical Christians are superheroes in faith-based movies, and sinister or stupid in others. I wanted to see people like my old church friends, and I wanted to see a rock’n’roll movie. That seemed like something I could do that no one else could.”
“Four years ago, we started in earnest trying to raise money for Electric Jesus. We went into meetings with private equity investors, with some self-made films to show them. They could see we could make the art and needed the money to make it happen. It took ten years from the first time I had the idea.”
The end result takes the audience on a 1980s road trip with a band of teenagers who want to make rock’n’roll music that points people to Jesus. It’s a different kind of story that requires a different kind of approach, and wasn’t always what other people were looking for. Along the way, White says he worked leading workshops, directing stage plays, acting, or writing copy, but he was never distracted from Electric Jesus. He says it wasn’t the usual path to filmmaking success, but the reality is that White isn’t a normal guy. His film is funny without being snarky, faithful without being in your face. It’s a film that elevates faith without losing White’s personality in the process, clever, heartfelt, and hilarious at times.
White explains it this way. “The comedy in Electric Jesus isn’t making fun of Christians but having fun with Christians. I remember growing up that my youth group friends and I made jokes all of the time. In the film, Brian Baumgartner’s character Skip Wick is wearing a toupee. There are a lot of reasons we have him wear a toupee; it’s an artistic choice as part of the presentation of someone who has something to hide, who may not be all that he claims to be.”
“But also, that detail is literally based on my pastor in high school in the 1980s. I loved him and he wore this toupee. When we started production, we found pictures of this pastor from back in the day, and gave it to hair and makeup. I’m not trying to diss my pastor. I’m sure he was frustrated with his receding hairline! I’m not punching down at bald guys with hairpieces, but there’s just something funny about church life when everyone knows the pastor doesn’t have the hair but he presents the hair. It’s also profoundly human.”
“We want to perform our best selves so that people will like us in a church setting or spiritual context. We’re all aware it’s fake, it’s not true, and yet we love and respect that person. There’s something beautifully circular about the lie and the forgiveness in all that’s great. In Electric Jesus, we can see Skip’s hairline is moving up and down the whole time. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking. The movie is loaded with things like that.”
The director’s own experience of youth group was “mostly charming,” he says. He recognizes that other people had less spectacular experiences in church, including abuse physically and emotionally. But he says that the people he remembers interacting with were all trying to do the right thing on some level, whether they were a charlatan or a saint. Using teenagers in a band in the 1980s to unpack some of that allows the film to discuss the church without assaulting the foundation of Christian faith.
One of the ways that White dives into evangelical culture is through the music of the band that the boys put together, 316. “When Michael sings, ‘Let’s All Go Commando for Christ!’ he’s not suggesting that we take our underwear off for Christ. The Christian culture emerging in the 1980s combating spiritual warfare. [Quoting one of 316’s songs] ‘The enemy is firing shells of sin, Stockpile grace like it’s World War Free…’ It’s a kid writing lyrics in all sincerity, going to battle for his Savior. There’s a macabre weirdness of bodies strewn and piled up, with rising darkness that appeals to fifteen-year-old testosterone.”
White’s blend of humor, music, faith, and coming of age has received different reactions from audiences, some faith-based and some not. “I’ve had people who are not Christians tell me they’re still singing the songs to ‘Let’s All Go Commando.’” With a chuckle, he says, “I tell them, ‘Well, maybe God’s trying to tell you something!’ It’s an example of how the film’s comedy works.
During a live satellite radio interview, White is asked about how he came up with the name “316” for the band. “The person was asking me, and genuinely curious,” White remembers. “I said, ‘So, John is a book in the Bible and it’s all about Jesus, like John 3:16 which Christians rally around. Jesus died for your sins and justifies you in front of God.’ The host was like, ‘Wow, you learn something new everyday.’ Isn’t that crazy? But also for Christians, isn’t that the conversation we want to have? Literally speaking the gospel to someone who hasn’t heard it. That doesn’t happen when we only talk to the people who already get it.”
Rather than just reaching out to the church audiences who already know Jesus and understand what the Gospel is for, White is more interested in talking with those people who don’t get it. “I think Christian or faith-based filmmakers have a responsibility to bring the Christian audience into a more nuanced way of sharing their ideas on film and television. Instead, they seem content to make Christian-y movies for the people who already get it.”
But audiences aren’t alone in being possible witnesses to what White has in mind. When he first met with actor Judd Nelson, who plays a pastor in the film, he found that Nelson was fascinated by religious conversations about the Old Testament, about Jesus, about Judaism. Nelson’s own understanding of his character, who has lost his wife to cancer and is trying to raise a household on his own, showed up in the way he discussed the movie’s theology. “Judd said, ‘My character is sad, he’s lost, but he’s still the pastor of the church. He misses his wife and wants to remarry but who’s he going to ask out? I don’t think he believes any more, that he’s mad, that he’s the smartest guy in his town, but he’s still the pastor. He’s God’s man in the pulpit! What if the reason he brings in the band, and doesn’t pursue his daughter, is because he wants them to go and take the fight to the devil?’ How great to see this amazing actor, one of my own teenage idols, applying his experience and wisdom to this character. Judd wasn’t going to let Pastor Wember be another Christian cliche at all. He was taking us somewhere new. And real!”
Through the ups and downs that the boys in the band experience throughout the film, White kept the focus on how their journey plays out. The journey, the experience of grace – they are important to the film because they’re important to White.
“Grace is Christianity’s most distinctive feature. We don’t deserve forgiveness, but there it is. Maddeningly, this applies to people who harm us and sin against us. It’s awesome when grace is for me, but when Jesus is offering grace for a person who lies in despicable ways, without remorse? When someone sins against me. We just want to crush that. It’s how we think about what’s right, fair, and justified. But that’s not the Gospel. We wrestle with how much should you forgive, and the Gospel offers an infinite amount of forgiveness. I’m not capable of that much forgiveness and yet that’s what Jesus is saying I need to do.”
White’s film will make you laugh, even make you cry. But if you’ve lived life considering faith of any kind, it will also challenge you to dig a little deeper, to love a little harder, to pursue more intimately the Christ we follow. Maybe that’s because he’s pursuing Jesus with wild abandon himself, and wants to invite the rest of us on that journey of grace.
Electric Jesus debuts on November 2.