This post is featured in the CAPC Magazine, October 2016: Dystopian Disillusionment issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and receive a host of other benefits, too.

Finally, a religious cult you can relate to.

Joshua Overbay’s first feature, As It Is in Heaven, follows a small religious sect as they count down to the Lord’s (supposed) return. Overbay, who shot the film with help from students at Asbury University, uses a minimalist approach to the story, slowly turning the film’s screws until the atmosphere cracks into splinters. As It Is in Heaven is an intriguing, patient, and provocative look at what drives one to substitute God’s voice for another.

Yet, as much as there are villains and victims here, the story is told in a way that’s relatable or, dare I say, sympathetic to its characters. As It Is in Heaven is about more than a doomsday cult. It’s a story about humanity’s longing for hope, acceptance, and community.

As It Is in Heaven is serene in its opening moments — most unhealthy religious environments begin with good intentions, don’t they? A tracking shot follows a woman from the inner corridors of a quintessential farmhouse, through the Kentucky woods, and down to a small river for baptism. The atmosphere is calming, relaxed. Even the floorboards of the house creak with a pastoral presence.

The verbiage of the baptism is similar to what one would find in a traditional congregation — this could be said about much of the group’s vocabulary over the course of the film’s 86 minute runtime. The group’s leader, Edward (John Lina), gives his recently immersed follower a new name, David (which means “Beloved by God”). David enters the community with a clean slate; a washed identity.

Skip ahead a year, and the idea of identity is still at the forefront of Edward’s mind. “We are the chosen people of the Lord,” he preaches. He even announces that Jesus will return in thirty days. There’s a calming nature to knowing the day and the hour. “We’re ready,” Edward tells his followers.

When an accident forces David to take on Edward’s role as group leader, the idyllic atmosphere begins to shift. The creaking of floorboards in the house shifts from peaceful to eerie. The screams of a baby echo through the walls. Overbay turns the story’s screwdriver tighter as David evokes a thirty day fast from all food. The people must suffer if they are to be ready for Judgment Day.

David, played with widened blue eyes by Chris Nelson, reviles in his role as a shepherd who wields the fear of spiritual damnation like a sword. But he’s not the monster we expect. David has a honest humanity to him. He’s genuinely concerned with hearing God’s voice and preparing his people. As much as he’s misguided, he also solicits our sympathy.

As It Is in Heaven is also exceptional in highlighting — by not highlighting — the internal makeup of the group. The audience is given little to no background information about the characters’ previous lives or the cult’s history. There’s no discussion of how Jesus’ return is calculated. We’re simply dropped into the narrative and left to wander around the old farmhouse on our own. At times, it’s difficult to distinguish who is married to who, which individuals are blood and which are not. The group has absorbed each other’s prior relationships, taking them on as their own.

I could point to a number of popular works (both fiction and nonfiction) that tell a story similar to As It Is in Heaven — powerful leaders seducing weaker brothers and sisters is certainly a thread running through the previous year’s headlines — but I am mostly reminded of the 2006 documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Jonestown also tells the story of a cult, this one culminating in the infamous death of Jim Jones and over 900 followers in 1978. In my “Introduction to Theology” class, I ask my students to write about the documentary. What, do they believe, led these individuals to follow Jones? Why would anyone choose to stay in Peoples Temple, even after experiencing abuse? To summarize the discussion, what makes an individual drink the proverbial “Kool Aid” (an adage made famous by Jones)?

While the particulars of People’s Temple and the group portrayed in As It Is in Heaven differ — for one, David is very different from Jones — they touch on many of the same questions. As It Is in Heaven, to encapsulate the plot, follows the slow trickle of spiritual degradation inspired by desperation and human longing. Their path isn’t perfect by any means, but these emotions are too real to ignore.

Even more so, the film contemplates humanity’s yearning for the spiritual qualities of forgiveness and acceptance. The group’s members find solace in knowing they are “chosen” by God. Yet they direct the source of His acceptance to their own works. This is why David calls for the fast. In desperation to hear God’s voice, the people have abandoned prior revelation (the Bible) to follow after a new word (Edward and David). This stance is all too familiar, even in my own life. God’s grace, His stamp of approval on our lives, isn’t always so readily seen. Sacrifice and suffering is. Yet, as the narrative shows, legalism never ends well.

Overbay visualizes this ideology through the film’s slowly darkening atmosphere and growing tension. The camera is constantly moving and tracking, emphasizing the drift within the group and their slow inch toward doomsday. The widescreen lenses accentuate the disunity by highlighting the space between individuals. Even the hypnotic score parallels the mesmerizing nature of the sect. As It Is in Heaven looks to be a bare bones production — it’s not as technically polished as other films with wider releases (the performances are waning at times, too) — but Overbay makes the most of what’s at his disposal to create an absorbing story that beckons us to think deeply about God and ourselves.

As It Is in Heaven serves as a poster board for the need of strong biblical authority. Yet the film is sympathetic in that it plunges into the very real emotions that often lead us astray. This portrayal of the human longing to be accepted, prized, and loved, is what makes David and his followers relatable, even to us today.

As audiences reflect on the story, may we realize that the only way to usher in God’s kingdom on earth is not through jostling for power and authority, or a works-based salvation, but by resting in the authority given us through the power of grace. May we guard our hearts and minds, even when we don’t have a solid timeline of the future. Let us remember that we are chosen not by our own suffering, but by the good and perfect leader Who suffered for us.

As It Is in Heaven will be released through VOD on February 3rd. You can find out more about the film at asitisinheaventhemovie.com.


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1 Comment

  1. As It Is in Heaven (Swedish: Så som i himmelen) is a 2004 film directed by Kay Pollak and starring Michael Nyqvist and Frida Hallgren. It was a box office hit in Sweden and several other countries. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Hollywood 77th Academy Awards.

    I just spent an hour watching this movie waiting for the choir to turn into a cult. It’s not the same movie!!!! I went ahead and finished watching the Swedish “As it is in Heaven.” It wasn’t bad.

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