John Marks is a lot like many who emigrate from that place naysayers sometimes dub "Jesusland"—not entirely comfortable with those who end sentences with "praise the Lord," but able to empathize with the very real people who lurk behind the stereotypes of the evangelical world. In Purple State of Mind, Marks engages in an ongoing conversation about faith with his old college roommate, Craig Detweiler. Detweiler is a minister and professor who, in college, was beginning his journey of Christian faith. Marks was simultaneously coming to grips with the loss of his Christian faith.
As filmmaking, Purple State of Mind is an attempt to make a lot of limited visual possibilities, a la Jonathan Demme's Swimming to Cambodia or Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre. It is often successful in that attempt, even if at times the methods are conspicuous, like placing giant screens in the background and circling Detweiler and Marks as they talk. Though it's clear the filmmakers (including Detweiler and Marks themselves) are up to more than documenting a conversation with raw cinema verite, the conversation is not a high art conceit. It is, rather, an earnest attempt to model the bridging of American cultural extremes, to foster a larger conversation.
Such conversation is, unfortunately, seldom possible without some rare factors: Detweiler seems to be a particularly undogmatic evangelical, and Marks, now somewhere around agnostic or atheist, speaks Detweiler's evangelical language. Those factors are perhaps not all that rare in certain, mostly Southern, places, but they are increasingly hard to find now that cultural religious faults are widened by political strategists seeking to divide and conquer. On the other hand, the extremes of the religious debate, fundamentalists and atheists, are hardly representative of the endlessly nuanced versions of faith extant in America.
That "purple" area where nuance thrives is the zone Detweiler and Marks try to reach. And reach it they do, at least part of the time. Their conversations reveal a slipperiness at the heart of personal faith. Detweiler, the evangelical, at one point answers Marks' attack on the Bible by saying anything can be justified with it, including slavery. Marks says, "Then why bother?"
An evangelical answering that question in 2008 basically faces two options. There is the fundamentalist choice, invoking the "infallibility" of the book despite contradictions. For non-fundamentalist Christians, that is an insufficient answer. Detweiler says Marks' moral code is a "pastiche," acquired "cafeteria-style," a frequent evangelical critique of less dogmatic versions of faith. But Detweiler, having claimed the Bible can justify anything, must himself construct something of a pastiche of the parts of the Bible he finds relevant. He says that he is trying to get at what Jesus really taught, not the clouded misconceptions common 2,000 years on.
It is in that searching mindset that Detweiler and Marks find commonality, and manage to overcome what is at times a deeply emotional interaction. The pair don't always manage to stay within the lines of the polite or even the fair, itself an interesting phenomenon for two old friends invading unfamiliar territory. It's even tempting to declare a winner on the basis of intellectual rigor, but not doing so is important to continuing the conversation—and both put forward flawed, if deeply felt, arguments.
At one point, Marks does an impression of Detweiler by raising the Bible in front of his eyes, and Detweiler's face reveals some real anger. It is at that point that most religious discussion ends, and it is precisely that sense of anger and insult that Republican strategists like Karl Rove have mined for years, leaving a deep divide and an anger-scarred electorate where an easier-going American plurality used to live.
It appears that only the long friendship Detweiler and Marks share enables them to move past such moments, begging the question of what might allow strangers to vault those same barriers. The kind of commonality of purpose that's required might yet reside in most Americans who care about such things, but there will no doubt always be holdouts at the extremes, those who are so hopped up on certainty they cannot indeed see past Bibles or stereotypes.
Detweiler and Marks are taking their show on the road, holding more public conversations across the country, and their brave staring into the divide may well serve as a starting point for, at least, the most purple among us. Here's hoping, anyway. Purple State of Mind, in some ways small in its scope, is an important model, an ambitious attempt at doing what often seems impossible.