Making of the Documentary

 

My spiritual journey through A.A.   •   The making of God as we understand Him

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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