A documentary about a religious controversy hardly sounds like a box-office smash.
But when “Battle for the Minds” opened at the Louisville Film Festival last fall, people had to be turned away when the showing sold out. And all the tickets for the rest of the five-day run were quickly snapped up.
The film documents the takeover by conservatives of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. Specifically, it focuses on the issue of whether women should be Baptist church pastors.
Over the past few years, several professors left the seminary or were forced out after their views conflicted with those of the school’s conservative president, the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr. Along with the seminary’s conservative trustees, Mohler believes the Bible precludes women from senior leadership roles in churches.
“If you believe that pastors can be women, then you need to go somewhere else, because we are not going to believe that,” trustee Barrett Hyman says in the film. “So you see the gauntlet is down. . . . If professors believe that, then it’s our job to get them out of here.”
Henlee Barnette, a retired professor of ethics at Southern, sums up his take on the situation.
“These people believe in thought control,” Barnette says in the film.
Los Angeles filmmaker Steven Lipscomb originally planned to make a film about his mother becoming a third-generation minister. But as he talked with her in 1995, he learned of the brewing controversy at Southern, traditionally known as a moderate institution.
Dixie Petrey told her son of meetings she was not allowed to attend because she was a woman, of not being allowed to speak out because she was a woman. So Lipscomb brought his camera to Louisville to document “things that I couldn’t believe were happening in this century.”
In a question-and-answer session after the festival screening, Lipscomb was asked how he got such extensive access to the fundamentalists, many of whom appear on camera.
“I said I was doing a documentary on the issue of women in the ministry, and I came to get the fundamentalist point of view,” Lipscomb said. The conservatives readily agreed to the access, he said.
Wayne Fallin, a PhD student in Old Testament studies, said Lipscomb included people from both sides and called it “right on target.” But he said he was glad the film depicted what he called the “patriarchal idiots” who run the seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Fallin’s sentiments were common among other members of the crowd, which hissed repeatedly when seminary leaders in the film said the Bible was against women as senior church leaders. The loudest hiss came the first time Mohler appeared on the screen, in a shot of him sitting on the podium at the 1995 Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta.
Mohler did not return a phone call from the Associated Press seeking comment. But he said previously that he had seen parts of the film and told a newspaper it was “an unfortunate and deliberate misrepresentation using classical propaganda techniques.”
John Laing, a theology and philosophy PhD student interviewed on the campus, said he had not seen the film and had no plans to pay to see it at a theater. He said he had read several books on the controversy and doubted the movie would present anything new.
“To say we’re preventing women from being ministers is a misrepresentation,” Laing said. “We’re talking about the senior pastor of a church.”
Lipscomb is taking the documentary to the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, in March, and several other regional festivals this spring. He’s also bringing it back to Louisville in June for the general assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a moderate group that split off from the Southern Baptist Convention. His film will be included in a session called “The Baptist Heritage, Women and Our Future.”
“I continue to get really powerful letters from folks who saw the film in Louisville, who tell me how it altered their life and how it affected them,” Lipscomb said.
He plans to take the documentary to Dallas to run concurrently with the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual gathering and then on a tour of Southern cities, and has been negotiating with PBS to air it nationwide.
Lipscomb’s mother, meanwhile, graduated from Southern and is the pastor and chaplain at a retirement center in Knoxville. She has been a guest preacher and is still looking for a church to call her as pastor.