Grappling with what he calls "a deep theological and moral crisis," an evangelical minister undergoes a profound conversion in "The Armor of Light." It's not that the Rev. Rob Schenck turns away from his faith. If anything, he connects more powerfully with the Gospel as he tackles the question at the heart of Abigail Disney's provocative documentary: How do you reconcile the anti-abortion and pro-gun stances that have come to define much of American evangelical Christianity? Schenck's conclusion is that you can't.
Disney set out to unpack the conflation of Jesus and the 2nd Amendment — a philosophical switch from Christian pacifism that anti-abortion activist Schenck, a self-described conservative, traces to Ronald Reagan's shrewd coalition-building in his quest for the White House.
Searching and earnest, Schenck rights the film when it stumbles. As someone who's fully present and in the moment, he's the antithesis of the shouting heads who dominate public debate and a fascinating film subject.
Before Disney's cameras, he tests the waters with his colleagues and parishioners, challenging gun culture's place in the church. The response he receives is sometimes an uncomfortable silence, sometimes a party line, with more than one person pointing out that "guns don't kill people" and insisting that only "a good guy with a gun" can keep us safe.
The reverend can cut through easy assumptions and argue with analytic rigor. By film's end, he's using his pulpit to remind people that "Fox News and the NRA are not spiritual authorities."
He's also an openhearted listener. When Schenck recalls ministering to the parents of children killed in a school shooting, he's visibly affected. And when he meets gun-control activist Lucy McBath, the other key figure in the film, her words shake him to the core.
Though "Armor" lingers too long on McBath's unspeakable grief, it puts her lucidity and passion on the topic of gun violence into urgent focus. Her teenage son, Jordan Davis, was killed in a widely reported "stand your ground" incident in Florida (a case that was explored in the restrained but potent "31/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets," released this year). When McBath speaks to Schenck, it's a call to action. Whether viewers accept the spiritual terms of the conversation or not, the unlikely allies shine a burning light on questions that go to the essence of who we are and what it means to value life.
A producer of dozens of documentaries — including such essential viewing as "She's Beautiful When She's Angry" — Disney makes some unfortunate choices in her directing debut. She tries too hard, indulging in pointed setups and newsmagazine-style flourishes, all of it underlined by a constantly prodding score. Yet her film is compelling nonetheless. It's a vital colloquy on whether we shape our lives through fear or with love.
'The Armor of Light'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic content and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes