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'Come Sunday' puts 'This American Life' story of Bishop Carlton Pearson on screen

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Carlton Pearson in
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Carlton Pearson in "Come Sunday."
Photo credit: Tina Rowden

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The story of Bishop Carlton Pearson – his rise as the leader of a Pentecostal megachurch in Tulsa Oklahoma and the epiphany that upended his life – was first told on a 2005 episode of "This American Life" called "Heretics."

Now it's a Netflix film – produced by "This American Life" – called "Come Sunday," starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Pearson and Martin Sheen as Pearson's mentor, Oral Roberts.

The film hones in on the time in 1994, when Pearson has an epiphany that there is no hell – and that people did not have to accept Jesus Christ and be "saved" to get into heaven. It was a direct repudiation of the fundamental teachings of the Pentecostal church. And it alienated Pearson from his mentor, his followers, and those in the hierarchy of the church at large.

"Come Sunday" screenwriter Marcus Hinchey tells The Frame that, early on, he knew this would be very hard for everyone to accept, but that he felt it was a natural outgrowth of what Roberts had already done.

Oral Roberts had transformed the church from, in the 1950s, being the traveling tent revivals to bringing it to television. But one of the largest things that he brought to the expression was racial inclusion. And so, that clearly connects to his relationship with Carlton, who he saw as his spiritual son. But I think there was a time, at the very beginning in all this, that Carlton believed that he was only taking inclusion the natural step further, which was from racial inclusion to complete inclusion.

Much of the movie deals with the fallout of Pearson's naiveté. Below are some highlights from John Horn's conversation with Hinchey and director Joshua Marston.

Interview Highlights

On researching and experiencing Pentecostal churches:

Marston: I was raised Jewish in Los Angeles – very reformed Jewish. And Judaism does not believe in hell and does not believe in the afterlife – depending on who you’re talking to. And so I think I was looking at this story from more of an outsider perspective. Saying, Why do these folks so cling to the idea of hell? Why is it so important to them? That was one of the animating questions for me intellectually. And, What does it mean when you take hell away? But it meant that I knew very little about Pentecostalism. And as we got into it, I did a lot of reading, a lot of conversations with Carlton [Pearson] ... And then at a certain point I just started going to church. And for three or four months before filming, wherever I was, whatever city I found myself in, I would send Carlton a text message and say, Can you recommend a pentecostal church in D.C.? Or Atlanta? And so I would go to church.

Director Joshua Marston with Chiwetel Ejiofor (playing Bishop Carlton Pearson) on the set of the Netflix movie
Director Joshua Marston with Chiwetel Ejiofor (playing Bishop Carlton Pearson) on the set of the Netflix movie "Come Sunday."
Photo credit: Tina Rowden

On what ignited Pearson's epiphany in 1994:

Hinchey: One night after he’s back from one of his tours he is putting his child to sleep. Every night Carlton used to watch the 6 o'clock news and on this particular broadcast there was a special on the Hutus returning from Uganda to Rwanda, and the images of Muslims and Catholics who were dying of malnutrition, dying of cholera, in over-crowded camps. It really touched something inside of him and led to a conversation with God.  Very simply that conversation was, How can you call yourself a loving and sovereign God and let these people suffer like this, then suck them all into hell? That was his crisis, and then the movie goes from there.

On the challenge of filming Pearson's internal struggle and epiphany:

Marston: I knew that I didn’t want, in that scene where he’s having an epiphany, to suddenly turn the camera upward and show the ceiling opening up and clouds parting and the hand of God [coming] down and touching his face. You could do that, that would be a cinematic choice. Maybe because I am fairly secular, I simply filmed him tousling, sort of muttering and writhing and a little bit of crying. And we get a sense that something has happened. In the edit room I have to tell you that I came to question that a lot. That’s a very specific film-making choice …What does it look like to have a conversation with God? The first few takes I was like, Well, I know it’s not that. We finally found it and then in the edit room it was yet another level of how [to] use music and editing, all in the service of understanding what is going on inside his head.

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