I started watching Louis Theroux documentaries several years ago when I lived in England. In case you don’t know who Louis is, he’s a journalist, documentary filmmaker and presenter from the BBC who travels the world interviewing unlikely people—people, in fact, who most of us would shy away from. He has interviewed white nationalists, black nationalists, neo Nazis, religious fanatics (including the folks from Westboro Baptist Church who hate pretty much everyone), swingers in Los Angeles, extreme wrestlers, gangsta rappers, survivalists in North America, the criminally insane (or those perhaps pretending to be so they can live in lush hospitals rather than in hardcore prisons) and many others.
What makes Louis unique is his ability to win the trust and friendship of diverse people whether he agrees with their views and lifestyles or not. He most often doesn’t seem to agree with them yet seems to have a morbid fascination with them and a way of pushing the limit in terms of his disarming inquisitiveness.
After watching Louis, I often go away thinking, “Man, he’s so much like Jesus!”
Here’s why I think that:
He meets people where they are. He doesn’t come in trying to change them, at least not overtly. He shows up, is courteous and exudes the best of manners. He doesn’t talk down to people, but he also doesn’t shy away from confronting people’s narcissism and duplicity. When he has a contention with someone, he mentions his disagreement so politely and hesitantly that it would be hard to imagine anyone getting upset with him. Although some do…
Those who end up disliking him (rare as it is) are those most entrenched in a worldview that brings with it self-righteousness and exclusivism. Much like Jesus dealing with the Pharisees of his day, the people who get the most irate with Louis are those who are so convinced that their thinking is right that they become volatile and sometimes even threatening when contradicted. They tend to fall under the category of religious or racial extremism. Those who have become most angry with him have been white separatists, some of the Westboro Baptist members, and neo Nazis.
His sense of horror over people’s behavior seems always couched in seeing people as human and not evil. Though it seems hard for him to hide his sense of revulsion at the lifestyles of some of the people he visits, he still treats them as human beings. Even when he asked probing questions of the young man who raped and tried to kill his own mother, he managed to ask him accountability questions while at the same time treating him with dignity and respect.
He hangs out with “sinners.” And not the garden variety type. Not people who feel bad for saying the F word, or who yelled at their kids today and feel guilty about it. Not the pastor who committed adultery. Or the nursery school teacher who commits credit card fraud. No, that stuff is small potatoes. Louis goes to the murderers, the prostitutes, the pimps, the porn industry and…judges them? No, he just hangs out, talks with them, tries to understand where they’re coming from. In other words, he extends friendship and grace.
He’s fun to be with. When you watch one of his films, you see that the people he interviews genuinely enjoy his company. They laugh with him at his silliness, at his awkward and often uncomfortable questions, at his willingness to participate to whatever degree he’s able to—either physically or psychologically. He enters their world and goes where few dare to tread and because of this, he often wins people’s trust.
His gentleness belies his courage. Although he is clearly nervous at some of the situations he gets into, he doesn’t let it stop him. He’s no coward. You couldn’t be a coward and confront neo Nazis who suddenly ask you if you have Jewish blood or show up to train with extreme wrestlers with a drill sergeant for a coach. (In the wrestling documentary, the coach pushed Louis so hard that he had to throw up.) The guy’s got moxie.
He’s got heart. “Extreme Love” is possibly his most moving documentary in which he befriends families of autistic children, gaining the trust and love of both the families and the kids. They include and welcome him because he included and welcomed them first. Sound familiar?
Louis could teach all of us a thing or two about how to treat people we differ from with more love and respect.
I hope you get a chance to watch one of his films. Like me, you may wonder if Louis Theroux is sometimes Jesus in disguise.
Image credits: BBC & Banksy