Oct 16, 2014

Granting Dignity to Overlooked Angels: Eliot Rausch

Eliot Rausch is an Orthodox filmmaker from Los Angeles, California. In this article, Matthew Aughtry discusses the uniqueness and spiritual power of Eliot’s work.

By Matthew Aughtry 
Date: October 01, 2014
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My best friend first introduced me to Eliot Rausch while we were both working as videographers for a large church in Arkansas. Our jobs primarily consisted of capturing testimonies and creating promotional videos for upcoming sermon series, but every once in a while we were given the chance to make something more cinematic and creative. These were always our favorite projects to do because although making videos paid the bills, making films was our passion. One day, while he was scouring the Internet for inspiration for one of our creative ideas, my friend came across a video that has stuck with me ever since; it was called “Sermon on the Mound,” and its director was a guy named Eliot Rausch. 

The video (or should I say “film?”) is just over two and a half minutes, but its length in no way limits its powerful effect. In fact, it’s part of the beauty of the piece. The film begins with a man sitting in his car, lighting what I can only assume is a crack pipe. He then looks at the camera and says something about putting his life back together but that he can’t do it in a place like this. Actually he uses a word to describe this place that many people find offensive but which carries a punch that a phrase like “messed up” just doesn’t. After the man finishes speaking there’s no more dialogue. The sound fades out, and music fades up, accompanied by a voiceover quoting the words of Jesus commonly known as “the Beatitudes.”

As the camera makes its way across an ugly urban landscape, we are shown a myriad of individuals that occupy this space. As we listen to this famous passage from Matthew’s gospel, we see glimpses of men and women in situations that seem to embody these words.  Here is where the brevity of the film becomes one of its greatest strengths. In these momentary glances into the lives of individuals, we’re given the chance to create our own story for them. We’re able to see ourselves in the momentary sketches of despair. As we look out of the car window and see people that many of us would likely ignore, we find our own indifference met with the power of that one word: “blessed.”

Years later, after making my way out to the West Coast, I came to recognize the landscape of Eliot’s movies as none other than Los Angeles. Having grown up on a steady stream of popular American films, I haven’t been conditioned to see L.A. the way that Eliot chooses to show it. On television, it’s all beaches and Beverly Hills but not in Eliot’s work. I don’t know how he does it but the sky in his movies always seems grey and full of clouds. This isn’t the land of fun, sun, and excess; it’s the land of the broken, the forgotten, and the rejected. Yet, as the film cries out, it’s also the land of the blessed. As we drive by the people of Los Angeles, the angels that call this city home, we do something that is a foreign concept for most of us to live here; we look at the people. We take notice of the man pushing his bike across the bridge and the woman holding flowers to sell on the side of the road. We see the others around us as human beings instead of obstacles, inconveniences, or dangers to be avoided. We see them as blessed.

When we contacted Eliot about coming to Fuller for a night of dialogue around his films, I was unsure of what his response would be. After all, he’s a busy guy. His email back made me smile. Not only did he say that he’d love to come, he said he’s even given thought to becoming a pastor and that Fuller would be his school of choice since so many of the spiritual mentors who have affected his life personally are graduates of Fuller Seminary. When I heard Eliot talk about his desire to be pastor, I decided to reach out to him and see if we could meet up. After all, my whole life has been a battle between filmmaking and the pastorate. We met up one evening for dinner and talked for almost two hours.  I was a little nervous at first, but after a few minutes in I knew that I had no reason to be. Eliot was not the lofty artist who demanded reverence but was instead a humble friend who offered acceptance. He listened more than he spoke, and he smiled a lot.

As we talked, I told Eliot that he may very well be called to be a pastor in the traditional sense, but I also told him that I felt he was, in fact, already pastoring through his work. The kinds of places he shows through his lens are places that many Christians in America avoid. The people he shows are those most of us would deem as too dangerous to acknowledge. The stories he tells are not ones most of us hear in our churches every Sunday.

Yet, the places he shows are the places where I have no doubt Jesus would go. More than that, I believe that they are the places where Jesus is. Some may say that Eliot gives a dignity to his subjects that they don’t often receive in the media or in life, but I think it’s more true to say that his films simply show the dignity that is already there, a dignity that is overwhelming for those of us who ignore such people on a daily basis. The stories he tells aren’t ones most of us hear in church on Sunday, but they’re ones that we need to hear. Eliot told me that sometimes churches will ask to use his videos but often request that he edit out some of the bits that make them uncomfortable (cursing, drug use, etc.). He always refuses these requests. 

I’m sure that there were many people who liked Jesus’ parables, minus one or two bits that made them squirm. Yet, if we allow ourselves to edit stories and people who make us uncomfortable then we make no room for God. If everything is nice and clean, if the world is basically all right, then there is no need for the cross. If we alter the parts of the story that seem disagreeable then we lose the message of grace, the very thing that makes the Christian story so beautiful. I’m glad that Eliot refuses such changes. In a church culture that asks us to clean up before being welcomed, Eliot shows us a world where God’s grace pervades the worst parts of the world. More than that, his work seems to suggest that God is more active, more present, and more at home in the people and places at the fringes of our society. That may seem like a crazy idea, but it doesn’t take a bible scholar to know that this is at the heart of the Gospel. 

As we spoke, Eliot asked me for my opinion on the popularity of his videos. What draws millions of people to watch these short films? I told him that I didn’t know for sure, but I could venture a guess. Perhaps, I said, it has something to do with Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he says, “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). 

Clay pots are not very strong. In fact, that’s the point. The vessel itself is so fragile, so thin, that the power of God shines through more clearly. When we hear addicts, homeless people, and ex-convicts speaking about the gospel, we know that they believe it. More than that, we can hear that they are wholly reliant upon it because they have no illusion of self-sufficiency. Unlike so many church members who do their best to pretend that everything in their life is really okay, these people remind us of our daily need for God. When we hear them speak we know that we should sound more like them. Blessed are the poor in spirit, indeed. I often hide behind my education, my savings account, and my marketable skills, but people like this show me that I’m not just trying to cover up my flaws or insecurities, I’m hiding the power of God that is at work within me. Eliot’s films are not only encouraging, they are convicting.

After meeting Eliot in person, I came to see that he not only makes films about people like this, he is one of these people. Being around someone who is so honest about his own fears and shortcomings is shocking at first, uncomfortable even. But after a few moments it has this crazy effect: it makes you honest about these things, too. I sat and talked for hours with Eliot about his struggle with an addiction to success, about being wholly reliant on Christ in the midst of an industry that rewards ego and self-reliance, and about making movies out of an overflow of joy from God instead of a need to be filled up with praise of people. It was honestly one of the best conversations I’ve had in years, and I don’t just mean about filmmaking. I had come to meet this artist that I admired, and I left encouraged not to go and be a better artist myself but to be a better person, a better Christian.

While working at the church, my friend and I made many films that were inspired in no small part by Eliot’s movies; we even flat-out stole a few of his shots. I didn’t know the guy behind these movies, but his talent blew me away. I thought that Eliot’s greatest gifts were the films he made and the talent he used to make them. As I’ve gradually come to know Eliot, though, it’s become clear to me that real gift is Eliot himself. He’s a filmmaker who uses his gifts to show us a world and a people that the church ignores too readily but which is the key to its existence. He’s a pastor who uses a camera to give us a new way of hearing Jesus’ words about those who are blessed. He’s a dear brother in Christ who desperately doesn’t want to be known for his own efforts but for the power of God at work in his weakness.

So I’m so excited that Eliot is coming to Fuller Theological Seminary. Not because of the great conversations that the event is sure to generate or the power of his films which are sure to inspire us but because Eliot Rausch lives his life as a tool in the hands of another artist. Because as he works hard telling the stories of people that are disregarded, he’s simultaneously telling another story. This story takes up his whole life, his work and words exude with its joy, and it is, according to him and so many who came before him, the greatest story ever told.


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