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Film review: Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done

"Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done" couldn't be more timely, billed as it is as a documentary about TV evangelism. But that's only a portion of its subject, and the screaming adline on its poster, "Banned By PBS!" is only partially correct (it will be shown on PBS sometime this spring).

Rather amateurishly split into two parts, "Thy Kingdom Come" attempts to offer an overview of Christian Fundamentalism with a decidedly biased point of view.

British filmmaker Antony Thomas has set out to expose what he perceives as the hypocrisies within Fundamentalist Christian churches, and his interviewees fall fully into the traps he sets.

What makes this particularly uncomfortable and distressing is that it is so unnecessary. In between Thomas' own comments and questions, edited in a manner that perpetuates his thesis, those he interviews fall victim to their own strange outlook. His subjects could easily hang themselves, and as such Thomas' approach amounts to overkill.

Despite that, and despite the fragmented approach Thomas uses in this film, "Thy Kingdom Come" is fascinating cinema, largely because it gives us a view, however superficial, of a type of evangelism that is rather far removed from most of mainstream America.

The 90-minute 16mm film's first half hour or so concentrates on testimonies of "Born-Again Christians" who express their literal belief in every word of the Bible and tell heart-wrenching stories about their lives before their conversions lifestyles that included abuse, alcoholism and other sad conditions.

In direct contrast to these people's "simple faith" is the world of the TV evangelists who so zealously solicit their money. Much of the focus of this second half hour is on Jim Bakker's PTL Club.

Bakker himself is interviewed, and though this film was made before the sex scandal that rocked his ministry more than a year ago, "Thy Kingdom Come" has been briefly updated to put this film's discussion in the past tense.

Most fascinating in the Bakker section is an examination of Heritage U.S.A., a theme park that is part Disneyland, part old-time Americana and part shopping mall, with merchandise that cashes in on religion from dolls that talk, encouraging Christian values for children, to books that retell fairy tales in Christian terms (Goldilocks is saved, etc.).

And most disturbing is the sequence that shows handicapped Kevin Whittum, who acknowledges his being exploited by PTL as a fundraising device.

The last half hour examines a huge Baptist church in Dallas, with some 26,000 members, operated by the Rev. W.A. Criswell, who is astonishing in his views on segregation. His Dallas congregations keep separate races separate and he expresses his bigoted views quite openly.

Also in this section are interviews with wealthy Fundamentalists who equate their material success with their religious beliefs, as well as interviews with Skid Row bums who must reluctantly endure three hours of fire-and-brimstone preaching before being fed in mission homes.

All of this material could certainly be better pieced together to make a more satisfying and powerful documentary on Fundamentalism in America, yet as it stands the material is so inherently mesmerizing "Thy Kingdom Come" still stands out as a film experience unlike any other. And it's sure to ignite arguments on both sides.