The Tragicomedy of “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.”

Many critics are lumping Adamma Ebo’s “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” into the comedy genre, and suggest the movie should have stuck to its lane in drawing laughs at the hypocrisy and thinly disguised greed on display with a certain kind of evangelical megachurch pastor who at best has his hands in your pocket and at worst isn’t looking only for money when he’s fishing around in there.

Yes, there are plenty of cringey laughs at the usual sendups of avaricious preachers in expensive suits and palatial homes pounding away at a “prosperity gospel” that reserves most all the prosperity for themselves.

But Ebo’s film debut, in conjunction with her twin sister Adanne as producer, is much more notable for its dark and tragic elements that underscore the dismal con job such ostensible conduits to the divine perpetrate not only on their flocks, but on themselves, too. The film was released to theaters and streaming on the Peacock platform on September 2.

Their colossal deceptiveness and salesmanship very much includes deceiving even themselves, building a case that exonerates the sins they finally acknowledge as merely ‘human’ and of course forgiven, while still convincing themselves they are doing the work of the Lord.

We watch the antics of Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs, a buffed, loquacious (it comes with the territory) and broadly grinning preacher man who has been brought low by a vaguely defined scandal that has emptied the pews of his former 25,000-member praise arena and we think, “How could any thinking person not see right through this all-too-obvious schtick and run for the nearest exits?”

After all, there is likely not an insincere person among all those ecstatic, swaying, clapping seekers lifting their arms and proclaiming “Praise Jesus!” in rhythm with the pastor’s every syllable. They are there for something that defines our very humanity: the search for meaning and connection and renewal in a community of beloveds.

Therein lies but one aspect of this tragedy: that they tell themselves they’re getting it from this bloviating scam artist writ large on stage, all puffed up from the adulation, who convinces himself he deserves every good thing the flock’s dollars can buy (cars, clothes, boats, pools, etc.).

And in Pastor Childs’ case, as in far too many others around the church firmament, his “take” does not stop with dollars, but also includes access—to his flock’s children, specifically their young men.



Sterling K. Brown, late of “This Is Us,” gives a riveting performance as Pastor Childs, supported more than ably (both in the acting and the story) by Regina Hall as his shrewd and vivacious wife Trinitie. They comprise a gorgeous, well-coiffed power couple who are not about to give up their empire as their “Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church” in Atlanta closes so the good pastor can sufficiently “repent” and the two can hatch a new scheme for a grand reopening/rebirth on, you guessed it, Easter Sunday.

But the tale veers from a simple fake redemption story in order for the con to resume because another, younger, just-as-beautiful couple, the Sumpters, former members of the Childs’ flock, have seized the opening to start their own church down the road.

On, it turns out, Easter as well. Cue the highway billboards—new soul savers have come to town.

Alarmed, Pastor Lee and “First Lady” Trinitie pay a visit to the upstart couple, ever so politely suggesting they refrain from matching the Easter Sunday gambit. The resulting scene of tightly repressed venom under a veneer of maximum politeness and faux Christian regard is violent to its core, all the more remarkable for how all four combatants seem to keep their blood pressure from inching up more than a notch.

Smooth as butter, is what that is—perhaps we should not be so surprised that such operators manage to fleece so many worshippers out of their life savings as successfully as they do.


The resulting cat-and-mouse game of the Childs moving their rebirth service up a week only to be matched by the Sumpters has strong comic elements, but again, the laughs are incidental, little eyerolls amidst the somber reality of so many lives so deeply invested in the continuance of a sham.

That includes the Childs themselves, keenly drawn portraits not only of avarice but also self-delusion. Do Pastor Lee and Trinitie truly understand the depths of their treachery and the ruined lives left in their wake? I don’t think so.

Their colossal deceptiveness and salesmanship very much includes deceiving even themselves as they build a case that exonerates the sins they finally acknowledge but dismiss as merely “human” and of course forgiven, while still convincing themselves they are doing the work of the Lord.

After all, how could those thousands of people who used to sway in the pews, drenched in the spirit, their hearts soaring to the heavens, possibly have been wrong about them? And aren’t the worshippers sinners, too, commanded by scripture to forgive the pastor’s lapse?

Critics emphasizing only the satire and chuckles to be had at the seemingly endless gullibility of certain religious seekers completely miss the dead earnestness of what the film shows is at stake. Lives are no joking affair when they are as rended as they are by such transgressions.

We see it in the starkest possible relief as one of the young men whom the pastor, in his highly repressed but leaky homosexuality has abused, accosts him on the sidewalk abutting their empty church. The Childs have landed there in all their sartorial splendor, waving signs at passing drivers in a last desperate attempt to gain their attention and attendance a couple of days hence.

The young man stares long and hard at the pastor, seeing right through him to the depths of his depravity, before a withering smirk and rage compete for expression on his face.

The moment cuts the pastor, his wife, and us as audience members to the quick, and we realize, if we hadn’t already, that this is no mere comedy, but instead a dark commentary on the endless human capacity to tell ourselves stories of comfort that suspend all our filters and ultimately turn upside down the values on which we build our very identities.

That this capacity has in recent decades carried so easily over from the religious to the political realm should perhaps not surprise us.

But that marriage has made for an even more unholy alliance than we see portrayed so devastatingly in this sly tragicomedy of all that is wrong with religion when it serves as a marketplace where money talks and talks and talks and soul walks, doomed to wander alone, bereft of a shared story that isn’t soiled with denial, deception and greed.



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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

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Swaying in the pew by Priscilla Du Preez, Alberta, Canada

Outtake and poster from the film

7 comments to The Tragicomedy of “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.”

  • David Moriah  says:

    Oh Andrew. Much as the trailer you posted intrigues me I’m afraid I probably shouldn’t feed my spiritual cynicism by watching. My wife, a faithful Democrat who still clings to the life raft of Christian faith despite the church’s appalling recent history of sex and greed scandals and its unholy marriage to vulgar and mean-spirited Trumpism, is worried about me. She may have reason to be, but I haven’t rejected Jesus. I just find the whole church thing at best a distraction and at worst an instrument of societal evil. Burn the witches and the transgender kids! I’m playing with the idea that as soon as the “church” becomes a business with budgets and paid staff and heating bills and property insurance . . . it has lost its way. Give me a living room full of faithful and questioning and wounded people meeting together and breaking bread and trying to figure out what’s real and what’s right without a paid expert (i.e., a clergyman – gender reference deliberate) telling them what Jesus meant or what the commandments were all about. Give me that, please. My tithe will go to feed the hungry and house the homeless, not to a church capital campaign for a new Christian campus with state-of-the-art multi-media resources and a sprawling staff. Just call me a lonely voice crying in the wilderness of faith. I hope you’re well.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yo David, I will refrain from turning this into the longest comment in Comment History by NOT tackling the church-as-business/what-about-living-room-church-instead? topic you raise (at least in any depth). I’ll only say that I’m sure you know that does happen in many places and it certainly does have a long history going right back to that Jesus fellow. Whether the model is capable in the aggregate of affecting societal change in the way that the church-as-institution does is an open question, although when one takes into account, as you cite here, the immense damage church-as-institution has done over time, the damage may well outweigh and cancel the good it has been able to accomplish. Huge question though, with many sides and way more history than I know about or will ever be able to learn.

      I do hear ya on the whole concern, though having led church capital campaigns that did, among other things, help directly feed the hungry and indirectly house the homeless (without the “state-of-the-art multi-media resources and sprawling staff” goals), I feel mixed about whether all that money could have been more wisely, immediately and effectively raised and spent from a living room church format. Maybe! Thanks for raising the issue here, which certainly is one of the huge points raised by the movie in the wretched excess it portrays to such devastating effect.

  • kirkthill  says:

    Here, in Costa Rica, as in many Latin countries, the government supports the Catholic Church, and only the Catholic church. There is a budget, but still very adequate. Any other denomination has to finance themselves. So no matter what, some of your taxes go to the Catholic Church. Sounds crazy!! But maybe not so much compared to the religious circus we have in the states.
    In our city we got a new Priest. He has been living rather extravagantly for the last six months. Consequently there wasn’t enough funds to cover the huge yearly fiesta. So…a lot of the staff quit. There was no outside roof over the venue as usual. So this year while we were performing our music for the crowd, a downpour soaked everybody. Maybe if we send our thoughts and prayers to the new priest, things will change.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Lord Almighty, Kirk! Really, these postcards from what truly feels like an alien land (but it’s just a plane ride away!) leave me amazed, baffled and thanks to you, highly amused. Your tale does help put into at least some perspective the slow drift to theocracy we are experiencing here with six Catholics on the Supreme Court, five of them deeply conservative, and a movement afoot from evangelicalism to make the U.S. into an overtly stated Christian nation. (Which has already accomplished the overturn of Roe, with more on the chopping block…) Framed against what you describe as your taxes going to support church padres & such, we’re still on relatively secular footing here, but eternal vigilance is certainly required.

      Hope your guitars survived the deluge, pal. If not, maybe we can launch a little crowdfunding effort on your behalf, or would much of that evaporate in the taxes going to Rome?

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Terry Gross, on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” interviewed Bruce Springsteen some time ago, and part of that exchange struck me as I viewed Honk for Jesus. After talking about Springsteen’s therapy for depression, Gross lifted this observation: “There are many people who want to be you. Given your struggles, does that seem odd to you?” Springsteen responded, saying, “they see the performer on stage. Heck, I want to be him too!” He went on to describe how so many on-stage personas mask the very human frailty, insecurity and vulnerability that is the human behind the performer. I found pastor Lee-Curtis Childs to be very much the dichotomous performer-fallible human described by Springsteen. For that reason I felt empathy for the pastor. Adulation, power and recognition are great seducters for many (most?) humans. Those who never experience it first-hand sometimes project it onto others on the stage, the playing fields, in the political office, on the big-screen, in the corner corporate office. What they don’t see is the frailty and the all too-common heartache of struggling relationships, addictions, unseemly predilections that overtake good judgement, and so on. My sense is that, like Springsteen, Pastor Childs wanted very much to “be that guy” that parishioners believed in and looked to for salvation and meaning. As you suggest in your post Andrew, humans are inherently drawn to meaning, connection, and renewal. Pastor Childs and his supportive wife hold deeply to the belief that they can fulfill these longings of others ( and of themselves) with the right mix of carefully crafted stage personae to draw and to hold their parishioners. We have, I believe, political and corporate leaders who engage in the same behaviors, get seduced by their success and continue to seek more adulation and more riches to fill the gaping holes in their sense of self. Unlike clergy, though, they don’t overtly claim to save souls and are thus given more leeway in using and abusing people for their own advancement.

    One final note: why this film is classified a comedy is beyond my comprehension. It is not a film for everyone, to be sure. Those expecting a simple and transparent satire with easy laughs will be confused and sorely disappointed. I found it thought-provoking and brilliantly executed.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Often at the core of celebrity: a great loneliness. It’s a powerful takeaway from your commentary here, Jay. So yes: even those blessed with all possible material comforts and adoration are subject to human concerns as common as dirt: Am I loved, really? Does anyone understand my deepest self and its longings? Do I?? The rich and powerful, too, have their burdens—everyone is lugging a bag of rocks up a hill (though for sure, some bags are made much heavier by simple material want—all things considered, it’s better not to be physically hungry and cold…).

      I think your view is a generous one with respect to Pastor Childs and his wife, perhaps overly generous, but you’re a nicer guy than I am! Did they think they were doing good by their flock? Like you, I think so, but the most interesting part of the movie for me was the stories they told themselves, the processing they did, to convince themselves of that notion, which to any outside observer watching their chicanery and interest in enriching themselves, would have appeared utterly absurd. But that was part of the movie’s power, I think: it explored that sense of self-entrapment, the self-hypnosis the pastor & his wife went through in trying to convince themselves they were doing God’s work, their hands in the huge cookie jar all the while.

      And I think the wife did a more convincing job of that than the pastor did, as burdened as he was not only by his duplicity in living high on the hog with churchmember funds, but also in his repressed homosexuality. Remember that scene when he was practicing his comeback speech, acknowledging his fallenness as his wife looked on and she, jaded, complained it needed more oomph, more soul? And he, somewhat jilted and sober, responded with something along the lines of, “But honey, that WAS my soul.” A moment of semi-clarity and vulnerability on his part, but all she was thinking about was performance.

      Yeah, what prompted me writing about this at all was its categorization/pigeonholing as a comedy and reading a few reviews that praised the comedic aspects of the film and disparaged as feeble the places where it went elsewhere. Sendups of fraudulent pastors is too much like shooting fish in a barrel, but this was about much more, and it deserved to be taken seriously. Good to know you shared that same sense of incredulity.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    To me, part of the tragic flaw in Pastor Childs is the extent to which he is so trapped in his celebrity identity that he must convince himself he is genuinely ministering to his flock. He desperately wishes he was truly “that guy,” yet knows that he is not and cannot stop himself from carrying on the charade (and the material goods add to the addiction to his untruth). While more capable of self-reflection and more free to doubt motive and direction, the first-lady is also entrapped in the alternate reality that they have created. (Listen-up, Melania!)

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