'Praying for Armageddon' Reveals the Motive Behind a Biblical Movement - 27 East

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‘Praying for Armageddon’ Reveals the Motive Behind a Biblical Movement

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Televangelist pastor Robert Jeffress gets ready for the camera in Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary

Televangelist pastor Robert Jeffress gets ready for the camera in Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary "Praying for Armageddon." UPNORTH FILM

Gary Burd initiates a new warrior in Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary

Gary Burd initiates a new warrior in Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary "Praying for Armageddon." UPNORTH FILM

A scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary

A scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary "Praying for Armageddon." UPNORTH FILM

Israeli police in a scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary

Israeli police in a scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary "Praying for Armageddon." UPNORTH FILM

Reporter Lee Fang in Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary

Reporter Lee Fang in Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary "Praying for Armageddon." UPNORTH FILM

Reporter Lee Fang in Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary

Reporter Lee Fang in Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary "Praying for Armageddon." UPNORTH FILM

A scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary

A scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary "Praying for Armageddon." UPNORTH FILM

A scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary

A scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary "Praying for Armageddon." UPNORTH FILM

A military patch shown in a scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary

A military patch shown in a scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary "Praying for Armageddon." UPNORTH FILM

A scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary

A scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary "Praying for Armageddon." UPNORTH FILM

A scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary

A scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary "Praying for Armageddon." UPNORTH FILM

A scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary

A scene from Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary "Praying for Armageddon." UPNORTH FILM

Director Tonje Hessen Schei. MARTE GARMANN

Director Tonje Hessen Schei. MARTE GARMANN

authorAnnette Hinkle on Oct 2, 2023

Among the hundreds of films screening at the Hamptons International Film Festival in the days ahead is one that might present a shocking reality to many viewers. Tonje Hessen Schei’s documentary “Praying for Armageddon,” which will have its U.S. premiere at the festival on October 8, explores a religious movement in this country that, while perhaps not widely known, is well-organized, well-connected, well-financed, and at this point, firmly entrenched in the highest levels of American policy and politics.

The documentary, which is co-directed by the film’s cinematographer Michael Rowley, offers an inside look at a Christian movement being driven by fundamentalist Evangelicals who have operated quietly in the United States for decades. Their goal is nothing short of Armageddon. Specifically, by supporting Israel and fueling the volatile situation between Jews and Palestinians in the region, these believers feel they will hasten the coming holy war, which is predicted in the Book of Revelations as ushering in the rapture and the Second Coming of Christ.

“For them, they interpret the Bible literally and see it as their responsibility to speed up the Armageddon,” explained Schei. “Anyone who gets in the way is their enemy.”

Though she is Norwegian and lives in Oslo, Schei, who was an exchange student in Raleigh, North Carolina, and attended the University of Texas, has lived all over the United States, and has long been acquainted with the movement.

“A Norwegian author [Dag Hoel] wrote a book about this in 2015, and he basically looked at the national movement and phenomena, because you also find fundamentalist Evangelicals in Scandinavia and internationally that belong to the same belief system and organizations,” Schei explained. “Having lived in the States for 17 years and married to an American — I married into a family where half is progressive Jewish, the other half is fundamentalist Evangelicals — I was super fascinated with this issue.

“Eight years ago, we began to look into it — before Trump and Pence,” she added. “And it’s been wild.”

When it comes to Armageddon, the signs are everywhere, if you know where to look, and in “Praying for Armageddon,” the subjects find they all point the way to end times. The film explores the topic on several fronts, including through the perspective of Gary Burd, a motorcycle evangelist from Texas who travels the country sharing Biblical prophecies while recruiting warriors to join the cause. He has even taken bikers to Israel to help spread the word.

“We met Gary Burd in 2016, as we found the story of how he shipped bikes to Israel for The Ride to The Wall, and we became close with him,” Schei explained. “In 2020, I was introduced to Michael Rowley. Michael comes from an Evangelical family, where both his parents were pastors. He comes out of that world. He and Gary became very close, and Michael traveled the country with Gary. After working with Michael for several years as our U.S. director of photography, we worked so well together it became only natural that Michael became my co-director.

“The way we treat our protagonists is with the utmost respect — maybe especially, if they come from the opposite side,” she added. “It’s important to show what they believe to understand where they are coming from. For Gary, he stepped out of the church to bring the church to the streets. He’s a street missionary in his own way.

“Most of my films look at power structures in our world. I’ve gone up against the Air Force and CIA,” she added. “I look at tech giants. We were prepared to work in different ways in this film, and it was actually important for me to get access on the grassroots level to tell the human stories of true believers.”

In the film, viewers also meet clergyman (and former basketball player) Ralph Drollinger, leader of a White House cabinet Bible study group that met during the Trump administration, and Lee Fang, a Washington, D.C.,-based reporter who covers politics and religion and is investigating how evangelical power is shaping U.S. foreign policy. Also shown in the film are pastors and televangelists who are the true movers of the movement — John Hagee of the powerful group Citizens United For Israel (CUFI) and Robert Jeffress, both of whom were supporters and allies of President Trump.

“I lived in Texas, and part of my family is from San Antonio, where Hagee has his stronghold,” Schei said. “It’s made an impact on me how the architecture they built is so established in Washington, it’s definitely scary.”

Helping to put it in perspective in the film is activist and author Frank Schaeffer, who grew up in an Evangelical household, but has since become an outspoken critic of the movement. Also weighing in is retired U.S. Army Colonel Larry Wilkerson (who was chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell) and Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, both of whom are extremely concerned about the influence of Christian nationalists in the U.S. military.

It’s a lot to take in, and Schei admits that garnering the trust needed from the various parties in order to make this film wasn’t easy.

“Getting access to the movement has taken a long time. We were hoping to get access to Hagee himself and worked throughout the process, but we got blacklisted early on,” said Schei. “Their information control is very impressive, they control the message that comes out with a strong hand.

The filmmakers didn’t limit their storytelling to what was happening in terms of the movement in the United States. They also shot in Israel, documenting rising tensions and confrontations between Jewish settlers and displaced Palestinians across east Jerusalem.

“People in Israel are well aware of this effort. In making this film, it was important for us to target the fundamental support for right wing settler organizations,” Schei explained. “In their support of the right wing, they are fueling the cycles of never ending violence in Israel and Palestine.”

The tensions have only risen since 2017, when the Trump administration switched course on seven decades of U.S. foreign policy by officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Trump also relocated the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, and when the new embassy opened in May 2018, Hagee was on hand to offer a prayer as part of the ceremony. Robert Jeffress was there as well.

“We had followed John Hagee and CUFI for some time, but weren’t sure if he was too out there or extreme,” said Schei. “When Trump came into power, we realized how important Hagee, CUFI and fundamentalist Evangelicals were in lifting Trump up to the presidency. They believe he was gifted by God to be their tool.

“I don’t think Trump could’ve won the election without them,” she added. “To see how he basically came through on all their promises of moving the Israeli embassy and seeing Jeffress and Hagee there opening the embassy in Jerusalem. We had been following them for quite a while, and it all came together.”

Of course, there’s still more of the story to come, and now that the film is being released in the U.S., Schei is hopeful that it will be seen widely by American audiences who may have no knowledge of the fervor and passion that is driving fundamentalist Evangelicals in this country and around the world toward a truly biblical ending.

“We’ve been working on this film for eight years and seeing how it becomes more and more relevant. Right now, it couldn’t be more relevant given the situation in the U.S. and in Israel and Palestine,” she said. “People are not aware how strong and powerful this movement is, including in the political system in D.C. and in the army. The timing for this film couldn’t be any better.”

Speaking of timing, Schei points to something called the Rapture Index she discovered during the making of the film that both the faithful and the curious can consult as a gauge. It’s a numerical scale that goes up and down, depending on what’s happening in the world, as it tracks the type of activity that could be considered a precursor to the rapture.

“We were keeping a close eye on this index during the production of this film,” she said.

The scale, which can be found online, is: 100 or below, slow prophetic activity; 100 to 130, moderate prophetic activity; 130 to 160, heavy prophetic activity; and above 160, fasten your seat belts.

Today, the Rapture Index sits at 187.

You’ve been warned.

“Praying for Armageddon” screens Sunday, October 8, 2:15 p.m. at Regal UA Cinema in East Hampton. For tickets, information and the complete Hamptons International Film Festival schedule, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.

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