Is your mind made up about hell? (Needless to say, this question is directed at Christians. Non-believers, like yours truly, put zero stock in a place that no living human being has seen and for which there's no evidence of its existence). More importantly, and this emerges as the real thrust of Kevin Miller's Hellbound?, are you reconciled to the fact that your vision of hell reflects and determines the kind of God -- unpitying or ever-available -- you embrace?
We've jumped straight into the deep end of the pool, haven't we? That's a bit how I felt watching Miller's fervent and occasionally irreverent documentary, as if I had parachuted into the middle of an ongoing debate in which all the players knew all the positions. Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Robin Parry, an exorcist by the name of Bob Larson -- perhaps you are familiar with these and the other erudite writers, thinkers and ministers whom Miller sought out all over Canada, the U.S. and even Israel.
On one level, Hellbound? is a theological round-robin in which the 40-year-old filmmaker (who affects the look of a laid-back surfer but is well-versed in the New Testament and the New York Times) invites his subjects to explain and occasionally defend their view of hell. The three dominant contemporary versions, I gather, are eternal torment (which I like to think of as extra crispy), annihilation, and universalism (the kindest, gentlest interpretation, which some dismiss as weak tea for soft, spoiled contemporary folks).
There's a great deal of talk of Christian scripture, ancient history and man's flawed nature, most of it pretty interesting. But the problem with a film about hell, and Miller recognizes it, is that it's essentially an inquiry into an abstraction. Putting aside the problem of finding visuals to break up the litany of talking heads, Miller's central challenge is finding a way to invoke the real-world evil that hell ostensibly functions not only to punish but to deter.
He finds it, or at least evokes the unfathomable mystery of evil, at the 9/11 memorial 10 years on. The filmmaker doesn't strain for meaning, choosing instead to debate the hardline fringers of the Westboro Baptist Church on a Manhattan sidewalk. Miller is sharp and tough enough to face them down, which gives the film one of its most resonant moments. He also scores a nice bit outside one of those now-common fundamentalist shows designed to instill the fear of sin. "Can you imagine Jesus running a hell house?" he asks one fellow, who ponders the concept but can't say anything more than, "Um, that's tricky."
It's important to make it clear, in case I haven't, that the filmmaker is a Christian. He is someone who not only has a knowledgeable, insider's perspective but is deeply invested in hell's purpose in Christian faith. (The personal stakes couldn't be higher, in other words.) But he's plainly a liberal on the theological spectrum, unaccepting of the everyone-must-burn attitude of the Westboro Baptists and more inclined toward universalist Robin Parry.
It strikes me that any change in a viewer's attitude, when confronted with the logic, wit and wisdom compiled in Hellbound?, involves nothing less than a recalibration of one's faith. That's pretty heady territory for a documentary. Kevin Miller's filmmaking may be undeniably prosaic, but his grasp of his subject is impeccable.
Should he feel the need for a sequel, I'd encourage him to make a musical. Can't you hear the chorus of Perdition!? The lyrics practically write themselves.
Hellbound? screens Thursday - Sunday, January 17 - 20, 2013 at Yerba Buena For the Arts Screening Room, 701 Mission St., in San Francisco. Director Kevin Miller will be present for the January 17 show. For more information, visit www.ybca.org/hellbound.