A meticulous exposé of virulent fundamentalism: Tonje Hessen Schei & Michael Rowley’s Praying for Armageddon

P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.


Every year, with every shot fired, with each new human catastrophe, the relevance of Elverum’s Movies on War festival just keeps growing. As the shadow of war grows longer we need to marshal every resource for peace we can lay our hands on. Movies on War is not a bad place to start.

Here exposed by silver screen is warmongering in all its guises, and one of the most unlikely and insidious is the Christian Zionist movement. The opening film, Tonje Hessen Schei and Michael Rowley’s Praying for Armageddon (2023) shines a piercing cinematic light on the madness as well as the astonishing influence exercised by this particular brand of religious fundamentalism. Make no mistake! They will not content themselves with praying; they will do whatever it takes to hasten our collective destruction. Schei and Rowley’s documentary provides a compelling examination of the power they wield and the harm they do.

Let’s be clear from the outset: the festival could equally have been titled ‘Movies on Peace.’ You will be disappointed if it’s the action-flick ‘glories’ of war you’re after. The focus is on anguish more than action, reconciliation more than retribution. It is the kind of focus we need now more than ever – inside or outside the movie theatre.

Among the many brutalising effects of war is a curious sort of brainwashing, an insidious collective forgetting. The word – peace – may not be erased entirely from our memory banks but in the aftermath of the latest military attacks, from Ukraine to Palestine, its meaning is deformed and defiled by its dispiriting association with the new and yet familiar narrative of battlefield gains, strategy, resolve, patriotism, and revenge.

«Praying for Armageddon».

Then, as if the language of war as a necessary evil isn’t bad enough, along come the Christian Zionists (though they were there all along). In their intricate, stone-carved cosmology, war itself, at least the fast-approaching war to end all wars, is the goal. It’s the best thing they can imagine, a glorious bloodthirsty celebration, and the fulfilment of all their dearest hopes: The second coming of Christ, and their own vindication, as He smites finally (as in destroys completely) pretty much everyone else. This is the Judgement Day whose prospect they relish. This is the inevitable Armageddon they will paradoxically work so hard to bring about, by manipulating the various levers of American foreign policy, be it gaining the ear of a cynical President, or evangelising and indoctrinating the troops he sends into battle.

Schei and Rowley take us deep into the well-organised and very well-funded efforts to support Israeli settlers in Palestine, and lobby for greater and more direct military support for the state of Israel. They do this, not because they care about Jews, inside or outside Israel. On the contrary, they hope to push this country to the brink of cataclysmic war. They look forward to the destruction of all Jews, along with anyone else, Christian or non-Christian, who has failed to follow the literal word of Jesus.

A virtue of Hessen’s film is that it doesn’t content itself with an overview of the evangelical ‘movers and shakers.’ There is widespread support for this movement among ordinary Americans, so the filmmaker delves into the ranks, out in the rural hinterlands of Middle America.

«Praying for Armageddon».

The prairie steer look on implacably as the Christian motorcycle gang M25 hoists a metaphorical flag for Jesus, and rallies the militaristic vanguard of a modern-day crusade against all heathens. Their leader, Gary Burd, doesn’t have the ear of the President, but he’s a ‘spiritual advisor’ too, a leather-clad preacher on a Harley, a big burly ‘heaven’s angel.’ In the most strange and reactionary way, he is a kind of cosmological revolutionary. Time after time he repeats the mantra: Don’t try and make it! Don’t pursue success! There’s no point! On Judgement Day, as the bible tells us, ‘The Last Will be First.’ That day is close at hand, and Burd plans to be at the forefront, fighting side by side with Jesus Himself.

The film is a meticulous expose of one virulent fundamentalist thread of the forces of unreason, which seem to be growing like a cancer through the bowels of contemporary society. It’s good work, and important too, but I have one issue with the film. What I would like to see, which as a peacenik I say advisedly, is more confrontation. I found myself yearning for the ‘reporter modus’ to be set aside and more hostile questions posed, not least: How do you reconcile your bloodlust with the universal love also preached in the gospels?

For time is short. The forces of darkness are gathering and according to my cosmology these characters are the essence not the solution of the problem. Civilisation, for what it’s worth, is unravelling. We can’t afford to pull our punches anymore – pardon my figurative violence.

Movies on War 2023.

The films roll on, and we marshal our own peaceable forces, here in little Elverum. There is plenty of capacity to drag us all into the mire of violence and destruction, but the forces of human solidarity and resistance are not dead yet. They may feel a little chastened as they reel from one catalogue of genocide to another, catalogued by harrowing films like Lukasz Konopa and Emil Langballe’s Theatre of Violence (2023) and Dror Moreh’s The Corridors of Power (2023). There is nevertheless a saving grace, a countervailing power, here as elsewhere.

In Elverum it’s a remarkable synergy of film enthusiasts, senior citizens manning the ticket-checks and refreshment-stands, and streams of callow youth channelled into the festival by the local branch of that fine institution, the Folkehøgskole. Don’t underestimate the ‘youth wing’ of Movies on War, as it rises to the challenge of connecting the dots, putting the pieces back together. They joined us with some gusto, and even made a little music for peace for everyone at the opening dinner.

The forces of darkness are gathering; the world is in danger. That much the Christian Zionists got right, but all their doomsday prophesies aside, it really ain’t over till the fat lady sings!

Read next: