This documentary explores the spiritual underpinnings of A.A., focusing on how people of different faiths and creeds work the 12 Steps. The purpose is to help persons in recovery who are averse to the Program by addressing claims that A.A. is a religious cult, and exploring the myriad ways in which we humans attempt to understand God.

 

The DVD contains a 58-minute documentary

divided into 12 parts, plus 19 additional segments

for a total running time of around 110 minutes.

 

The DVD includes topics of discussion for each of the 12 parts,

of the movie, making this video an excellent tool for recovery.

 

 

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This preview is just 5 minutes in length. The full length movie is 58 minutes long, plus 19 extra features

for a total running time of 110 minutes! For each part of the movie, there are topics for discussion,

making this DVD an excellent tool for recovery.

 

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Please note that this project is neither endorsed, sponsored, nor affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.,

nor with any other 12 Step organization in any way. Joshua Tree Productions is a completely independent media producer. 

 

Project Description

The purpose of this project is to address religious and spiritual issues faced by persons in recovery. Many who enter the rooms of recovery have no faith in God, others are cynical about religion, and still others believe that A.A. and other 12 Step groups are, themselves, religious cults. God as we understand Him reveals how recovering alcoholics work the Twelve Steps, regardless of their particular faith or creed.
 
Alcoholics with a wide variety of belief systems have the chance to discuss their experiences with A.A. Represented faiths include Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, Religious Science, Unitarian Universalism, Setianism, Atheism, and various forms of Agnosticism. Others reject organized religion but consider themselves spiritual in some sense, whether Pagan-Druid, Native American, or followers of various other spiritual teachings. What role do their personal understandings of God play in their recovery? How has the Twelve Step process transformed their lives and belief systems? What about A.A. members who are Agnostic or Atheist? Have they come to believe that God exists? Have they been able to work the Twelve Steps without any concept of God? If so, what concepts do they use to replace the "God" concept?
 
Note: To keep their anonymity, A.A. members are filmed from the neck down.
 
In addition to the anonymous interviews, the documentary includes interviews with prestigious historians & scholars, psychiatrists, counselors & clergy:

"Ernest Kurtz, Ph.D – author of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, arguably the most authoritative A.A. history book to date
Elizabeth Robinson, Ph.D – University of Michigan Addiction Research Center, currently conducting a study on spiritual change and sustained recovery
Mel B. – A.A. member since April 15, 1950, historian, co-author of Pass It On: Bill Wilson and the A.A. Message and other books and articles
Monsignor Ron Beshara – vice president of mission and spiritual care at the Hanley Center, author of Treasuring The Treasure: Exploring Spirituality
Victoria Sanelli, MD – (then) Medical Director of Ignatia Hall (the first hospital ward to recognize alcoholism as a disease), former Catholic nun
Colleen Ryszka, Director of Chemical Dependency Services at Edwin Shaw Rehab, worked as counselor in NY and CA, where laws on A.A. referral differ
Eric Chinchon – NY coordinator for S.O.S. (Save Our Selves, a.k.a. Secular Organizations for Sobriety)
Father Sam Ciccolini – Founder and Director of IBH Rehabilitation Center, Roman Catholic Priest
George Murphy, Lutheran pastor at historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Akron
Mohamed Ismail, Executive Director, Islamic Society of Akron & Kent
Rabbi Susan B. Stone, Temple Beth Shalom, Hudson, Ohio
Rev. Pat Barrett, founder of the Addiction Recovery in Christ (ARC) group, a Christian offshoot of theTwelve Step model
Rev. Nancy O. Arnold, Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron
Surinder Bhardwaj, Ph.D, Hindu priest
Jerry Bak, chemical dependency counselor
Fred Blevins, professional clinical counselor" 

The documentary goes back and forth between two central issues:
 
"Is A.A. religious or cult-like?
How can ‘God’ be understood from different faith perspectives?"

 

Background

A recent study by the University of Michigan’s Addiction Research Center only reinforces what A.A. has known for over 70 years: spiritual growth and an enhanced sense of purpose in life increase a person’s chances of success at long term recovery from addiction (Elizabeth Robinson, Ph.D, 2007). The Twelve Steps provide an ethical code and a way of life for around two million active Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) members in about 130 countries around the world, in addition to millions of other members of Twelve Step programs based on the same philosophy. A.A. was founded in 1935, as an outgrowth of a first century Christian spiritual movement, known then as the Oxford Group and later as Moral Rearmament. A.A.’s split from this group is reflected in their Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, which were crafted to include people of all different faiths, albeit an underlying emphasis on faith in some form of Higher Power remains a fundamental component of the Twelve Step movement.
 
The highest courts in New York, California, & other states, have ruled that compulsory attendance at A.A. meetings is a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, due to A.A.’s “religiousness.” However, there are important distinctions between "religious" and "spiritual" that the Constitution does not recognize. Are alternative "secular" programs necessary, or is A.A. flexible enough for even the most rational of humanists? In a society shared by people of different faiths and people who claim no faith at all, this documentary offers answers to the myriad doubts and concerns that block so many souls from a path to recovery.
 
Notes:
In keeping with A.A.'s 11th Tradition, interviews with members of A.A. and other Twelve Step programs are kept anonymous (no faces or names).
The objective is to present a fair and balanced account of the spiritual components of Alcoholics Anonymous. As such, every attempt is being made to present the full spectrum of viewpoints. As with any discussion involving faith and religion, this topic must be handled with sensitivity and respect for all viewpoints.
In the director's personal opinion, A.A. and other Twelve Step programs should be applauded for their invaluable contributions to society in the field of addiction recovery. Critical perspectives should be considered constructive. It is the director's hope that this documentary will be an important contribution to the body of knowledge that aids in overcoming addictive behaviors.


Topics for Discussion (corresponding to each part of the movie)
 
Part 1
• What were your first impressions of A.A. or other 12 Step meetings?

Part 2
• Let’s make a list of reasons why some of us might reject religion.
• How are the 12 Step fellowships similar or different from other religious organizations?
• How can the terms “religious” and “spiritual” be defined? What’s the difference between the two terms?
• Are A.A. and other 12 Step fellowships religious or spiritual?

Part 3
• What do they mean in the film when they talk about “praying to false gods?” Let’s discuss how our addictions might become the most important thing in our lives.
• Why might the term “powerless” be a problem for some of us? How can the realization that we are powerless be empowering?
• Is it obvious to all of us that we are not God, as Dr. Kurtz puts it?

Part 4
• For those of us who don’t believe in God, let’s think of various powers that are greater than ourselves.
• Let’s think of a source of Power on which we can rely when we’re feeling most weak and vulnerable to our addictions.

Part 5
• Let’s discuss some of our own impressions of the Big Book of A.A.
• Let’s talk about some of our own experiences within the Fellowship of A.A. or other 12 Step fellowships.
• How might our experience with individuals in A.A. differ from A.A. as a whole?

Part 6
• What are some emotional & psychological functions of faith?
• Why do people turn to God in times of weakness or crisis?
• Are there similarities between faith and other emotions, such as hope and trust?

Part 7
• What do the following have in common: ‘letting go & letting God,’ ‘dying to myself,’ and Step 3?
• What does Step 3 have in common with the concept of ‘Dharma,’ as described in the film?
• For those of us who don’t believe in God, let’s make a list of adjectives to describe that concept of God that we reject.
• Fill in the blank: Made a decision to turn my will and my life over to _______________________.

Part 8
• How can the term “cult” be defined?
• The 12 Traditions go a long way toward defining the basic organizational structure of A.A. and other 12 Step fellowships. How have the 12 Traditions helped keep A.A. from becoming a cult (in the negative sense of the word)?

Part 9
• Let’s talk about how various conceptions of God in the film may be similar or different from our own.

Part 10
• What is the purpose of praying or meditating? How might prayer & meditation help me in times of weakness or crisis?
• Let’s discuss our own experiences with prayer and meditation.

Part 11
• Let’s talk about our own experiences with sponsorship, either sponsoring others or being sponsored.
• Let’s discuss the line from Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Part 12
• What does it mean to “live and let live?”
• Are the 12 Step meeting rooms a place where we all feel accepted for who we are?

 

My spiritual journey through A.A.
written by Joshua Gippin

When I began research for this documentary film, I had practically no knowledge of A.A. other than it helps people quit drinking and stay quit. I never had a drinking problem, so I’d never been to an A.A. meeting.
 
My first task was to read the Big Book of A.A., so it didn’t take long to realize that this was fundamentally a spiritual program. Then I became completely fascinated. I was raised Jewish but had distanced myself from my religion of birth since my teen years. In my adult years, my sense of estrangement toward Judaism had practically grown into outright disgust, for political and cultural reasons.
 
Spiritually, I followed in the footsteps of my great uncle, Milton, who is a fervent agnostic. He believes with great conviction that the human mind is incapable of knowing whether or not God exists, and anyone who claimed to know was either a damned liar or a fool.
 
As a result of working on this documentary about A.A., my spiritual life has changed dramatically, though I still consider myself an agnostic of a different breed.
 
Before, I approached the question of God’s existence intellectually, rationally, philosophically. But I never gave a thought to how faith (or a lack thereof) impacted my life. I never gave a thought to the emotional and spiritual consequences of my beliefs. Never gave a thought to how my beliefs affected my actions on a daily basis, and particularly in difficult times.
 
The idea in the First Step is that I’m powerless over some things in my life. This idea is repeated in the Serenity Prayer: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.” This realization can actually cause me to alter my behavior in times of turmoil.
 
Anyone can hit bottom, not just alcoholics. When I find myself in a crisis situation, for whatever reason, questions swirl around my head: Why is this happening to me? Is this something beyond my control? Did I get myself into this situation? What can I do to get out of this jam?
 
It’s easy to point fingers, blame others, blame it on sore luck. That way I don’t have to admit fault. That way I can go on living the way I have been. The Fourth Step says we should make a fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves, and I stress the word “fearless.” We’re not making a grocery list. We’re peeling back our protective armor and revealing the worst, the ugliest aspects of ourselves. In Step Five, we tell another person all these horrible things about ourselves. Ouch! This is painful stuff, and some people would much prefer to live out their entire lives in denial, keep this stuff locked away their entire lives rather than do this work. So why do it? Simple: I come to know myself, and by having intimate knowledge of my own weaknesses, I become infinitely stronger. Because when these character defects rear their ugly heads (as they often do in difficult situations), I will recognize them and work to channel them into behavior that is positive and constructive.
 
I must pause for a moment and ask the question: Are we still talking about God? Do I need to believe in a Higher Power in order to be honest with myself? Dr. Ernest Kurtz might say I only need to realize that I’m not God. At the heart of all my problems is pride, egotism, selfishness, self importance, self-centeredness. In short, the problem is that I’m obsessed with myself. So I need to draw on something other than myself to fix it. But does that something have to be God?

I’m still an agnostic of sorts. I still believe that God cannot be known, but I also believe there is Something which cannot be known. Before, I was comfortable just shrugging my shoulders. You might even have caught me gloating over the fact that I didn’t know and, furthermore, nobody else did either, so I was gonna be damned if anybody was gonna give me a lesson on the unknowable. Not knowing was my religion, and though I claimed to never stop asking questions, I was basically set in my ways. I had stopped searching.
 
Now I believe I can get closer to God, even if I can never touch Her. Even if I can’t define or describe God, I can contemplate the ways that others have imagined: The Source, Love, Truth, Life, The Infinite. Indeed, the ways in which the human mind has imagined God are infinite. Some say God is Everything. For me, experiencing God’s grace means seeing the beauty in everything and finding the Good in every situation. The word for God in the Lakota tribe is Wakan Tanka, which sometimes translates as “Great Mystery.” Perhaps the Lakotas are agnostics like me.
 
For the atheist who believes in Science, we might imagine God as Nature. A scientist believes in the Laws of Nature: physics, chemistry, biology, etc. We are bound by these Laws. I can’t fly because of gravity, but if I have an intimate knowledge of gravity, I can build a machine that flies. Once, I nearly drowned in the ocean, because I didn’t understand currents. The ocean doesn’t care if I drown. It is up to me to learn about currents before I go swimming in the ocean. Now let’s look at the Christian Bible. God handed the Ten Commandments down to Moses. These are laws by which we live. As children, we learned not to harm others. We were taught that it was bad and we would be punished. What if we weren’t caught? Would God eventually punish us for our crimes? Perhaps God is like the ocean – doesn’t care if we sink or swim. Maybe there are simply consequences to sinning which are undeniable. Of course, the consequences aren’t immediate. If they were, we would all have learned very quickly not to sin. But the consequences come very slowly, over time. These consequences aren’t always simply punishment for breaking Commandments. In the Seven Deadly Sins we find the root causes for breaking Commandments. Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride eat away at us little by little, like a disease. So it’s not so much that God will punish us for our sins. We actually punish ourselves.
 
Alcoholics Anonymous goes in the opposite direction by teaching us virtues like humility, gratitude, honesty, unselfishness, forgiveness, acceptance, love of our fellows. We are asked to look beyond ourselves and see how our actions affect others.
 
The Third Step asks us to make an extremely important decision: to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him. For the atheist, this can be interpreted simply as living for others, living for anything or anyone but oneself. This only has meaning today, right now. Each moment of the day, I can stop and ask myself what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Am I writing this reflection for the benefit of my family, my community, my planet? Or am I just indulging myself?
 
The simple man’s spirituality: out of self and into others. If I told you this was the Law of God, you’d probably roll your eyes at me. But if I tell you that you’ll only receive as much love as you give, it might be more palatable. It doesn’t matter if you believe this is God’s Law? It doesn’t even matter if you believe in any sort of God. Just try living your life for others on a daily basis, in little and big ways, and watch what kinds of changes begin happening in your life. The proof is in the practice.

 

The making of God as we understand Him
 
Research and writing for a documentary about A.A. began in May of 2006, almost immediately after the premiere of The Grizzled Wizard of Waste Not Want Not, a motion portrait of local junk artist, P.R. Miller.
 
Research involved attending open A.A. meetings and reading the following materials: Alcoholics Anonymous (also known as “The Big Book of A.A.”), 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, Came to Believe Dr. Bob & the Good Oldtimers, and Pass It On: Bill Wilson & the A.A. Message, as well as a number of pamphlets, all published by A.A. World Services, Inc. In addition, I read Not God: A History of A.A. by Ernest Kurtz, Ph.D. From these readings, it became amply clear that A.A. diverged from a Christian fellowship called The Oxford Group. I became aware of the claims that A.A. is “religious” and “cultish” simply by doing an internet search of A.A. There exists a vast body of literature claiming that A.A. is religious, but the most authoritative source I found was the March 1997 issue of the Columbia Law Review, which outlined a number of state supreme court rulings in which A.A. was classified as a “religious organization.” Therefore, mandatory attendance at 12 Step meetings was ruled a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
 
The central question I sought to answer was how persons of non-Christian faiths could work the 12 Steps despite A.A.’s Christian roots. Most religions have some form of deity and define “God” in some manner. A.A. differs in that it does not define “God” but instead encourages its members to come to their own understanding of God. The question still remained: How would an atheist work the 12 Steps?
 
Given the sensitive nature of the topic, it was extremely difficult to gain the trust of A.A. members enough to be interviewed on film. To begin with, A.A.’s 11th Tradition states that members are to remain anonymous at the level of press, radio, and film. I had to explain that they would be filmed from the neck down and no names would be mentioned. But the really hard part was convincing them that this film would help people who suffer from addictions and, ultimately, that it would be good for A.A. Though certain perspectives are critical, we believe that they are expressed lovingly and constructively.
 
Being from Akron helped a lot. I called everyone I knew who was in A.A., and they allowed me to use them as references. Fortunately, I happened to know some pretty well-respected leaders in the A.A. community. As time went on, my circle of contacts grew. I sought to interview A.A. members of as many different faiths and creeds as possible. Between January and November of 2007, I interviewed 33 A.A. members. Represented faiths and creeds included Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, Religious Science, Unitarian Universalism, Setianism, Pagan-Druid, Atheism, and various forms of Agnosticism. Others rejected organized religion but consider themselves spiritual in some sense.
 
In addition to the anonymous interviews, the documentary includes interviews with prestigious historians & scholars, psychiatrists, counselors & clergy:
 
"Ernest Kurtz, Ph.D – author of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, arguably the most authoritative A.A. history book to date
Elizabeth Robinson, Ph.D – University of Michigan Addiction Research Center, currently conducting a study on spiritual change and sustained recovery
Mel B. – A.A. member since April 15, 1950, historian, co-author of Pass It On: Bill Wilson and the A.A. Message and other books and articles"
"Monsignor Ron Beshara – vice president of mission and spiritual care at the Hanley Center, author of Treasuring The Treasure: Exploring Spirituality
Victoria Sanelli, MD – (then) Medical Director of Ignatia Hall (the first hospital ward to recognize alcoholism as a disease), former Catholic nun
Colleen Ryszka, Director of Chemical Dependency Services at Edwin Shaw Rehab, worked as counselor in NY and CA, where laws on A.A. referral differ
Eric Chinchon – NY coordinator for S.O.S. (Save Our Selves, a.k.a. Secular Organizations for Sobriety)
Father Sam Ciccolini – Founder and Director of IBH Rehabilitation Center, Roman Catholic Priest
George Murphy, Lutheran pastor at historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Akron
Mohamed Ismail, Executive Director, Islamic Society of Akron & Kent
Rabbi Susan B. Stone, Temple Beth Shalom, Hudson, Ohio
Rev. Pat Barrett, founder of the Addiction Recovery in Christ (ARC) group, a Christian offshoot of the Twelve Step model
Rev. Nancy O. Arnold, Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron
Surinder Bhardwaj, Ph.D, Hindu priest
Jerry Bak, chemical dependency counselor
Fred Blevins, professional clinical counselor" 
We collected over 40 hours of interview footage and distilled it down to a 57-minute documentary, plus about another 50 minutes of extra features for the DVD.
 
This documentary was produced on a budget of around $10,000. Of course, this does not include labor. I worked full time on this movie for two years. During that time, my wife, Shane Wynn, paid all of our living expenses with earnings from her photography business. We kept expenses low simply by tightening our belts in our daily lives. We did most of the filming in Northeast Ohio. Our musician and graphic designer agreed to be paid if and when the movie made some money. Our web administrator donated his services for two years. Everything else, we did ourselves.
 
Making God as we understand Him has been an extremely valuable learning experience, involving research, script writing, proposal writing, drawing up contracts and release forms, preparing and conducting interviews, communicating with interviewees, supporters, collaborators, volunteers, crew, and potential sponsors, and of course shooting and editing the movie. After the movie is “in the can,” it must be promoted and distributed. Making a documentary of this sort is an extremely challenging endeavor. If we are even modestly compensated for two years of labor, we will count ourselves very fortunate.
 
Finally, I want to say that I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world. A.A. is a truly amazing fellowship that teaches such values as duty, gratitude, humility, selflessness, honesty, and compassion. My wife and I are expecting our first child in September, and I think I will be a better daddy as a result of listening to the stories of A.A. members. I’m grateful for all of it.