Card Counting Christians: How post-evangelicalism comes across on the big screen

holy rollersTwo days ago I saw a documentary on Netflix about a group of young post-evangelical Christian pastors who played Blackjack to support themselves. Holy Rollers: The true story of card counting Christians is a painful view for an ex-evangelical like myself.

The Seattle based group was run by church-planting pastors and members of Seattle bands. Their conversation, and especially their justification for playing Blackjack was peppered with post-evangelical, emerging-church lingo that grated on my nerves just as badly as evangelical-ese (and the lingo my old sect I grew up in uses). Phrases like: “living in the gray”, “Christians think that if they just make up that extra rule it will make living by the book easier”, and “God spoke to me”, all the while learning how to fool the casinos into giving up some of their money to them, felt like sandpaper on an already irritated soul.

casinoThere were a few moments in the documentary that were beautiful portrayals of the evangelical subculture. When they were hauled into the back rooms and questioned, the casino security could not believe how they could be paid by the hour, when they could skim so easily without getting caught. They explained  they were all Christian, which made sense to the casino operators.

Another beautiful thing was that most of the players (all male) were married with kids, as is not the case with most postmodern hipster youth in Seattle or anywhere hipsterish. Many in the hipster community are experimenting with pansexualism, gender bending, and open relationships, and eschew having children because this world is so ruined and overpopulated, not to mention collapsing ecologically.

But the faith expressed in the documentary, although discussed and fretted over, and modified somewhat, still was the result of having been raised evangelical, one’s parents being the most important factor in one’s faith. They were speaking more to their own subculture than to the community at large.

It was refreshing that they were willing to consider impacting the community at large, though beyond music, most of their involvement in the larger community was window dressing: tattoos, beards, and rolled-up skinny jeans. Their time was spent almost exclusively with their own subculture.

God spoke to meWhat one reviewer pointed out was that the arrogance of the Christians was particularly grating. Especially when “God spoke to” three of the men and they decided to kick out the only non-Christian member of their team.

One thing that was refreshing was that they were aware that their subculture was not impacting the community at large, and that troubled them. They were flirting with change, but clearly had not figured it out.

One disappointing portrayal of post-evangelical emerging-church culture was the sameness of the worship services. If you’ve visited one emerging church you’ve visited almost all of them. No differences at all. For all their talk of rebellion and change, they are followers wearing a uniform and raising money by the corporate outline in a ring binder.

One interesting thing that I experienced while watching the documentary was the Hopeful Child in me wanting to win at Blackjack. The psychiatrist Fairbairn posited that abused or neglected children develop a large Hopeful Child in adulthood that is taken in by big promises. I wondered how many of those in the card-counting group were raised in harsh evangelical and fundamentalist homes, and thus had developed a big Hopeful Child, just waiting to believe in a big promise that wouldn’t deliver.


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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4 Responses to Card Counting Christians: How post-evangelicalism comes across on the big screen

  1. garycummings says:

    That is an interesting story about these guys. I can not relate really, as playing cards should be a pastime and not a way to make a living. I was raised to work with my hands. My father was a mechanic. I then became a medical professional, working with my hands. In any religious group, there is a structure and history of some sort, some of it bad, some of it benign, and some goodness thrown in.I try to ignore the bad, don’t mess with the benign (just let it be)m and try to go with what pieces or sprinklings of goodness I find, The modern church, as you say, is focused on rebellion against the old church rules. Yet they are all the same: loud drums, giant video screens, and insipid sermons (Gospel de Jour).

  2. SteveA says:

    Very interesting. I’ve visited 13 churches since moving to the Memphis area a little over a year ago. Some conservative CofC, some CofC’s indistinguishable from generic evangelicals except for lack of instrumental music, mainly. Have been to liberal churches like the Unitarians too. I’d like to find an Emergent Church in order to find out what it is like. The chronicler of the Emergent Church, Emerging Church, New Expressions, the New Monastics, etc is Phyllis Tickle. She attends Calvary Episcopal downtown but that is about a forty minute drive from where I am. I was raised in the CofC of the 50’s and 60’s, When at 22 I lost my confidence in much of our narrative I still did not identify with evangelicals, after all, they couldn’t even parse Acts 2:38 properly. Neither C. S. Lewis or Francis Schaeffer could answer my questions. I spent the next 30 years as a cynic and skeptic on the inside, but on the outside I continued church attendance and song leading and even occasionally class teaching. At first out of recognition that I was young with much to learn. And later from habit and existing relationships . All this time I was hoping that somehow I would learn things that would answer my uncertainties. It seemed to me only two choices: Conservative religion which takes things too literally and rejects science and the modern world or a reductive skepticism with no hope. I finally found a fruitful alternative path to explore: the postmodern turn. I’ve found hope and meaning from the writings of Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, Peter Rollins, Leonard Sweet, John Caputo, Michael Polanyi, and Rene Girard and others. Inasmuch as they have also been exposed to these, I’m intrigued by the post evangelicals as, and this may just be my perception, they seem to not have to cling to inerrancy, a certain kind of politics, and penal substitution, and are open to universalism, marriage equality, wisdom from medieval mystics, paradox, other religions and science. However, it bugs me to no end when people say God spoke to them so that they got that parking space, he healed their transmission, or told them to stop at McDonalds to give them a witness opportunity.

    • DoOrDoNot says:

      SteveA, your story bears some resemblance to my own. My husband and I attend a coc in memphis that feels like a generic evangelical church in many ways. I struggle to make myself attend. I hope you can find a meaningful place to land.

      • SteveA says:

        Hi there DoOrDoNOt. Just now saw your post. We have been going to Highland CofC lately. We like the singing, the upbeat feel to it, and actually some good sermons. I used to be a song leader. My wife and I met through their Memphis State CofC ministry in the 70’s. But, still, I wonder what they would think of what I wrote above?

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