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'Honk For Jesus Save Your Soul' Is a Celebration of Worship And Satire of Religion

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the new movie "Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul," pastor Lee-Curtis Childs and his wife, Trinitie, played by Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall, are trying to fight their way back to the top of the megachurch world.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL")

STERLING K BROWN: (As Lee-Curtis Childs) You married a winner, and that's all I intend to do. Hey. I'm Rocky up in this fight (laughter).

REGINA HALL: (As Trinitie Childs) Rocky didn't win.

HALL: (As Lee-Curtis Childs) How's that now?

ADAMMA EBO: Where we find them in the film is there has been, about a year ago, a gigantic scandal that has driven away the majority of their huge mega-church congregation. And they have since hired a documentary film crew to sort of record their rise from the ashes.

CHANG: That is Adamma Ebo, director of "Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul." Both she and her twin sister, Adanne Ebo, who produced the movie, grew up religious. So we wanted to know about how their upbringing as Southern Baptists influenced their film, a film which is as much of a love letter to faith as it is a satire of organized religion.

ADANNE EBO: This is Adanne. We come from a very devout Christian family. Like, you go to church every Sunday. You do Bible study on Wednesday. You do Sunday school. You do vacation Bible school in the summer. So it's like - it was very much a part of our identity.

On the flip side of that, somehow, for some reason, our parents encouraged us to ask questions. They kind of fostered this duality in us. And quite frankly, there's a duality, I think, in most of the churchgoing folks that we know and have known growing up. Yes, we were Christian, and we went to church all the time, but we also were encouraged to not just take everything as fact...

CHANG: Yeah.

ADANNE EBO: ...Or as truth.

CHANG: What kind of questions did you have as you were growing up, questions about the church's influence on your life?

ADANNE EBO: This is Adanne again. I think, truthfully, we started our questioning young, I think around age 10. We're millennials. And so we grew up with and loving "Harry Potter." And I remember hearing a sermon in church one Sunday that was dedicated - the entire sermon was dedicated to the evils of "Harry Potter."

CHANG: Wow.

ADANNE EBO: I was like, I don't understand this. Like, clearly these people haven't read the book because none of this stuff happens. The spells don't work. Trust me, I tried. It's not like - Adamma and I both were unwilling to give up "Harry Potter."

But a big one, I think, for me was, like, carte blanche, like, if you're gay, you're going to hell. And I don't identify as queer or, you know, gay or lesbian or any of that, but I distinctly remember - and I recently reread one of my old journals from elementary school. But I wrote, I think God is more open-minded than this.

CHANG: Oh, wow. Yeah.

ADANNE EBO: And I don't - and I definitely still believe that. And I - it just didn't make sense to me that people choosing to love who they love and literally minding their business and not hurting anybody, why that automatically made them go to hell. And I was a big - like, I prayed all the time. I still pray most nights and stuff like that. And so I feel like I was, like, constantly talking to God. Where my spirituality was lying or where it was at the time, even as such a young person, it felt like he was telling me, like, that's bull****.

CHANG: That is so fascinating. Like, as a kid, you were looking at all these churchgoers and thinking, wait, wait, wait, you guys got God wrong. I know what God means to say.

ADANNE EBO: Yeah. You know, as an older person, I think that I've decided that I get to define my own faith and my own spirituality. I don't have to exist within these confines. But at the time, it sort of manifested as like, y'all are wrong. There's no way.

CHANG: I am so curious about that journey that you just referenced. How religious would you say you are now? I mean, have the two of you traveled different paths on this?

ADANNE EBO: This is Adanne again. I think - Adamma, correct me if I'm wrong - I think our paths have been pretty in lockstep - yeah - in most ways, I think in life, in most ways, but definitely in this way. And I think now we feel like we are more spiritual than anything. But I think our spirituality is guided mostly by Christianity. But we, I think, separate spirituality and our relationship with God from the institution of church.

CHANG: I'm asking you all these questions about where your faith is now because even though there is a lot in this movie that's very critical of megachurches - like, the reflexive blind faith of church-goers and their leaders, and the way those leaders seem to expect that blind faith - there's also in this movie a lot of almost, like, affectionate ribbing that comes from a tender place. Like, oh, my God, that $2,000 spider silk church hat? That was hilarious. But it was so lovely.

ADAMMA EBO: There's so much about Southern Baptist Church culture that we find beautiful. I think the music is outstanding. I think gospel music is probably when I feel the closest to God. But then there are also moments - like Adanne talked about the sermon about the evils of "Harry Potter" where we were like, whoa, whoa, whoa, y'all have to slow down on this. We don't like this.

CHANG: Yeah.

ADAMMA EBO: But there are sermons that have sincerely touched me. And so it's strange, you know what I mean? Like, there's this constant back-and-forth. I think we're just at a point now in our lives where we welcome...

CHANG: Yeah.

ADAMMA EBO: ...The back-and-forth. And we realize that it doesn't necessarily mean that we're bad Christians, and it doesn't necessarily mean that we're complicit members of society letting bad stuff happen all the time.

CHANG: You can love something even as you look at it and see the good sitting alongside the not so good.

ADAMMA EBO: Definitely. I think people do that with their families all the time and just - as a family.

CHANG: Absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Well, for anyone who does watch this movie who might be questioning their faith or questioning their marriage or their sexual orientation, I'm wondering from both of you, what do you want people struggling with that to see in this film? What do you want this film to say to them?

ADANNE EBO: I think it's important to question things always and to think critically always, specifically of particular institutions that we have decided to let govern our lives and our souls, be it, you know, church or marriage as an institution, in order for them to continue to be relevant in our lives in the way that they hope to be.

ADAMMA EBO: Yeah, this is a Adamma. And I would say that I want - I would love for people to walk away and realize that, like, it can all be true, you know what I mean? Like I said previously, you can, you know, love the church and love going to church but still be very critical of it and want it to be doing better. I think you can love a person very, very deeply and not want or need to be married to them. And I think that you can love God and be queer most of all. I don't think that these are opposite ends of the spectrum at all. I think all of these things can manifest as truths and be true at the same time.

ADANNE EBO: And God loves you back. And don't let anyone tell you...

ADAMMA EBO: And God loves you back. Yeah. It's not a one-way street.

CHANG: So beautifully said. Adamma and Adanne Ebo's new film is called "Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul." It's in theaters and streaming on Peacock right now. Thank you both so much. This was so lovely to speak to you.

ADAMMA EBO: Thank you so much for having us. It was lovely to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTISTS: (Singing) Are you ready for your message? Are you ready...

CHANG: And Focus Features, the studio behind this movie, is an NPR funder. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.