Believe It or Not
- By Katelyn Beaty Copyright Christianity Today International
- Updated Nov 24, 2009
When 32-year-old Darren Wilson began taking his camera to Pentecost-flavored conferences and worship services in 2006, he was driven less by blockbuster aspirations or hard-hitting journalism than wanting answers to personal questions, like, "Should I believe my Aunt Patsy and Uncle Bob?"
The two said they had received gold molars ex nihilo during a prayer meeting in which jewels the size of Oreos fell from the ceiling and gold dust randomly began showing up on people's clothing. Moreover, Aunt Patsy and Uncle Bob claimed the unexpected gold gift was the single event that led to their marriage's restoration. While Wilson had no reason not to trust his aunt and uncle, the report just didn't fit his "grid." Sure, he had been a Christian his whole life, attending American Baptist churches while growing up in Monroe, Michigan—just not that kind of Christian.
"I come out of academia, where everything is thought-based," says Wilson, a film professor for nine years at Baptist-affiliated Judson University in eastern Illinois, and founder of Wanderlust Productions. "My faith was all in my head. I was firmly in the camp of those who have to understand why God does everything he does."
Still, because Wilson believed God could give Christians gold teeth if he really wanted to, Wilson kept filming—first at other suburban Chicago services, then at larger, well-known U.S. churches, and finally all the way to Mozambique and Bulgaria. What Wilson meant to be a 15-minute video for use in churches became Finger of God, his first full-length feature film. Finger is in many ways the story of Wilson's journey from "unbelieving Christian" to chaser of the supernatural around the world. In a nutshell, Wilson says, making the film "changed my DNA."
Finger of God first released in spring 2008, then re-released as a 5-disc deluxe edition last November, and has now been shown worldwide since being picked up by Trinity Broadcasting Network. With a barebones budget, no film crew, and no premeditated story arch, Finger serves as an unadulterated glimpse into some of the most dynamic ministries of the global charismatic movement. Most of the film centers on that movement's celebrities, interspersed with footage of healings, prayer, and impoverished people in places Wilson visited. There's Canon Andrew White, bishop of the only Anglican church in Iraq, who matter-of-factly talks about manna appearing in the hands of Pentagon staff; Bill Johnson and his Bethel Church in Redding, California, which sends teens out on Friday nights to talk to whomever the Holy Spirit directs them to; and Heidi and Rolland Baker, a missionary couple in Mozambique, where exorcisms and healings of deafness are all in a day's work. All of this is set to the gorgeous, mystical violin music of Georgian Banov, an evangelist who works with gypsies in his native Bulgaria.
The title of Wilson's film echoes the scene in Luke 11 where Jesus is accused of doing exorcisms using Satan's power. "If I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your followers drive them out?" Jesus asks the crowd. "But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you" (v. 19-20). Wilson himself gets the accusation that what he filmed is actually of the Devil. "I've had a couple people tell me, 'Have a good time in hell,'" says Wilson, laughing. "But most of the time they're not that aggressive. Everyone quotes 2 Corinthians 11:14, 'for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.'"
The first 15 minutes of Finger of God, which focus on the gold teeth, jewel, and manna appearances, are the most challenging, since the miracles don't seem to bear any practical ministry fruit, and are the most targeted when Christians talk about the "excesses of the charismatic movement." Wilson's prescreening audiences reacted to them negatively, so these scenes were almost left out entirely. Wilson's wrestling came to a head with his dad. "My dad asked me, 'Look, do you believe that this is God doing this?' I said, 'Absolutely.' 'Then you have to leave it in,' he said. 'It's not your job to decide what God is or is not allowed to do. It's your job to report what you saw, and let God deal with people who are having real issues with it.'
?"This stuff still weirds me out," admits Wilson, who grew up in churches where gold teeth don't make regular appearances. "And do people abuse it? Of course. But I look at the fruit—are people being set free? Are people being drawn closer to Christ, or are they being pushed away from him? If good fruit is coming out of it, then people just have to deal with it, and I just have to deal with it. When I look at my aunt and uncle, and how the gold teeth showed them their identity in Christ and how much he loves them, I think, That's fruit. That's not the Devil."
If Wilson's critics aren't attributing his work to Satan, then they are questioning whether Wilson isn't just a great magician—or at least videotaping ones. When Wilson gets the question of why he didn't verify the miracles in the film, his answer is one part theological, one part practical. While he doesn't believe wrestling with the film's stranger material is sinful, he wouldn't call skepticism a fruit of the Spirit.
"I have found that for the truly skeptical, no amount of 'documentation' is going to be enough," he writes on his website's FAQ page. "The only instance of skepticism accounted in the Bible (Thomas) wasn't deemed very 'healthy' by Jesus. Are there wolves in sheep's clothing? Of course. But there are also many, many sheep in God's clothing."
The other reason came down to money: "I had a $20,000 budget. So I didn't have the money to invest in doctors' appointments to verify the healings or jewelers [to verify the jewels]. We were doing whirlwind tours in remote villages. Plus, I was comfortable making a film where there were lots of questions left."
While there are indeed many questions at the end of Finger (like, "Why would God give someone gold teeth anyway?" "How come God doesn't heal all cases of deafness?" "How do we know these ministries aren't fake?"), one major factor Wilson could not deny was that the miracles were all somehow expressions of the love of God. And based on the hundreds of testimonial e-mails Wilson's received, that's been the takeaway for the majority of his audience. "God is using this film to motivate people to love," he says. "This movie turns people on to the extravagance of God. People are being challenged to their core with, 'Do I really love people?'"
Love, in fact, is the single theme of Wilson's next major film, due out this winter. With Furious Love, the sequel to Finger, Wilson wants to show audiences—which he hopes will include as many non-Christians as Christians this time—that miracles are not ends in themselves, but are meant to reveal the heart of the living God. Now with a film crew, a $300,000-and-counting budget, and a posh, state-of-the-art studio at Judson, Wilson is traveling everywhere from Thailand's sex trade industry to ministries for heroin addicts in Madrid to the controversial XXX Church in Las Vegas to an occult festival in Salem, Massachusetts. Wilson's company Wanderlust—meaning "an innate desire to travel or wander"—is living up to its name, as Wilson tracks God's love emerging in the unlikeliest locations.
Just because Wilson's next film is about love, however, doesn't mean it will be any easier to take than Finger's stranger moments. The first three minutes of Furious Love are shot at a crusade in Tanzania, where American evangelist Jeff Jansen is leading a six-day revival. Off to the side of the field where the crowd gathers is a small, white tent, which Wilson assumed was a food station or follow-up ministry. What he soon began to realize is that it's called the "demon tent" for a reason: this is where Tanzanians at the crusade come when they are possessed by demons and are in need of deliverance. Wilson was able to film some of the exorcisms up close, and, whether audiences see them as actual demons or mere hysteria, they certainly pack an emotional punch, especially when they involve children. "This film has a two-part message," says Wilson after we've watched this clip. "One, to show there is a war between darkness and light—that's always what it comes down to. And two, the way Christians can win that war is through the love of God."?
Wilson believes Western Christians in particular need this message. "The American church is really good at loving God with their minds," he says. "I don't know if we're as good at loving him with our hearts and souls. If the American church truly loved the Lord with all of these, this world would be transformed in probably three days."
Now that he has the attention of the largest Christian television network in the world and has made connections with major players in the charismatic church, Wilson is likely to have his hands full with projects in coming years. One new project includes an HBO-style documentary about WWF wrestler and Ultimate Fighting Champion Ken Shamrock and his 2006 conversion to Christianity.
In the meantime, Wilson says the upcoming Furious Love "is the reason I was put on this earth. There's nothing more important that I will do—this is about the heart of it all, the heart of what I love and believe."
The rest is left to the hand of God.