Black Earth Rising, Ted Bundy and More: Religion is Trending on Netflix
Netflix uses a combination of analytics from its millions of members worldwide and from you personally to create its “Trending Now” row. So while my “Trending” section likely looks different than yours, the selections begin trending only after logging high volumes of viewing hours. If you’re a regular visitor to Religion Unplugged, you’ll likely enjoy the same selection. Some are outwardly religion-focused, like Wild, Wild Country, while in others, like The Ted Bundy Tapes, prayers sneak up on you like Bundy himself.
1. Black Earth Rising (Released on Netflix 2019)
This BBC drama explores the Rwandan genocide through the eyes of a British-Rwandan 28-year-old woman named Kate (played by British-Ghanaian actress Michaela Coel) rescued from the 1994 genocide as a little girl, adopted by a white human rights lawyer named Eve, and raised in London. Kate is a legal investigator working with her mother’s boss (played by John Goodman) to prosecute war crimes in Central Africa. Eve takes a case to prosecute a Tutsi war general for his murders, and Kate, a Tutsi, feels betrayed.
The Rwandan genocide began 25 years ago on April 7. The death of the president in a fiery plane crash assassination left a vacuum of opportunity in a civil war, filled by Hutu leaders with a long-planned offensive to crush the Tutsi minority, seen as wanting to enslave Hutus and reestablish a Tutsi monarchy. The Hutu government led a mass slaughter of an estimated 800,000 Tutsi people in 100 days, not distinguishing between common Tutsi people and soldiers fighting the government.
Notably, both groups had largely converted to Christianity through German and Belgian colonialism, holding onto some animist beliefs. Most of the killings took place in church sanctuaries, with some men attending mass before killing for the day. Tutsis were even portrayed as not Christian enough by military and government radio programs and other propaganda to justify their elimination.
Not surprisingly given the subject matter, Black Earth Rising seems to portray a missing, silent God that either commissions murder or passively watches it without offering relief. But it could also be seen as merely dipping a toe into the hard questions about God and suffering. The theme song by the Jewish singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker, written and performed shortly before Cohen’s death in 2016, is the most prominent example:
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame
If you are the dealer, let me out of the game
If you are the healer, I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame
You want it darker
Hineni, hineni (Hebrew for “here I am”, from the Biblical phrase in Isaiah 6:8, “Here I am, send me, Lord!” and recalling God’s command for Abraham to kill his son Isaac.)
I'm ready, my Lord
2. The Keepers (Released 2017)
What makes this true crime docuseries so different and brilliant is the focus on victims and the impacts of crime rather than the offenders and their abilities to commit evils.
Two retired grandmas star in this whodunnit to track down who murdered a beautiful, young nun, their school teacher Sister Cathy, in 1969 Baltimore. Using self-taught investigative journalism and detective techniques, they manage to get pretty close to the killers and discover a much larger story, why Sister Cathy was killed in the first place— she was going to tell police about a priest in the school who was sexually abusing female students—and how the Catholic Church subsequently covered up the abuses, facilitating a much larger network of child sexual abuse in the Baltimore area. Even the Baltimore District Attorney’s office comes into question.
But this isn’t your typical Catholic sexual abuse story. The characterization of Sister Cathy is so poignant that she comes across as a saint and a martyr. The viewer wrestles with the reality that the same Church that made rapist priests also made people like Cathy Cesnik, who pledged an eternal devotion to God that gave her the courage to pursue justice with her life on the line.
The Church also made victims, many of them. They tell their stories of abuse and confusion, of losing their faith in institutions and then God, of misunderstanding at the time of abuse and memory recollection, and of trying to put their lives back together. In one case, a man says his mother reported his sexual abuse to the Church. If true, the Church is complicit in Sister Cathy’s murder and dozens more subsequent abuses.
3. Examination of Conscience (Released 2018)
This Netflix original series, in Spanish with subtitles, explores allegations of child sexual and physical abuse in male Spanish Catholic institutions. It’s named after the Catholic practice of confession where a priest sits privately behind a screen with a confessor on the other side, a common entry point for an inappropriate priest to ask children sexually explicit questions.
Three episodes feature different victims and their stories from three Marist (Society of Mary) boys’ schools. The first episode is an introductory overview to the problem, and the second and third let victims tell their individual stories.
The stories of victims like Miguel Angel Hurtado take a different dimension than American victims, because the Catholic Church’s influence in Spain and Catalonia is so much larger than in the US.
“One of the hardest things about publicly denouncing the abuse that I suffered is that Montserrat is not only a religious pillar for Catalonia,” Hurtado says in the series. “Our Lady of Monserrat is a patron saint of Catalonia. She’s a national symbol… she represents the best aspects of our region and people. Dismantling that myth and saying that in such a sacred space, both religiously and nationally, sexual predators were shielded and protected, was a very difficult decision to make.”
Hurtado is also now an activist for other victims, and helps the film crew interview others, sometimes without identifying them.
The film’s greatest accomplishment is interviewing an abuser, managing to film the victim confronting the abuser face-to-face. Mr. Angel, the abuser, is called downstairs to the street by the victim with the cameras recording from inside a parked car. Mr. Angel, whose face is blurred, claims he doesn’t remember the victim, but the meeting is positive for at least letting the victim express how the abuse harmed him.
“After all that, my life was nothing but drugs and trouble, Mr. Angel,” the victim tells him. The victim tells him that because he also abused his brother, in dorm rooms they shared, the two don’t speak.
Though the subject matter is dark, the victims are courageous men who have achieved a lot of healing through various professionals, also featured, and can give hope to other abuse victims. They demonstrate what it means to transform from a victim to a survivor.
4. Wild, Wild Country (Released 2018)
In the ultimate test of America’s protections of religious freedom versus separation of church and state, an Indian cult with an international following built a small kingdom in the Oregon desert and took over a small town’s politics. This true story, largely forgotten until this documentary, couldn’t get more dramatic.
The population of Antelope, Oregon was 40 when the Rajneeshpuram community moved there from India in 1981. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, better known as Osho, moved to the US because the Indian government was already on to him— he was being investigated for prostitution, international drug and gold trafficking, money laundering and tax evasion. Hindu conservatives in particular hated him for his extreme liberal views on sex, the same concerns of conservative American Christians.
But it turned out that orgies and Osho himself were the least thing to worry about. Wild, Wild Country takes viewers on a six-part roller coaster ride of attempted murder, biological warfare via a salad bar, automatic weapon stockpiling, the biggest immigration fraud case in US history, thousands of homeless people bussed into town to increase the Rajneesh community’s political power, blended beaver guts, FBI raids, and more. Osho’s female secretary Ma Anand Sheela is the evil genius behind most of the action.
Watch it now before it’s gone. The series is back in the news after Osho International filed a lawsuit against Netflix for stealing a "substantial portion" of Osho's copyrighted works.
5. The Ted Bundy Tapes (Released 2019)
Christian faith is not the theme of The Ted Bundy Tapes, but it’s certainly the bookends.
Infamous American serial killer of the seventies, Ted Bundy, recorded hours of interviews with a journalist on cassette tapes from prison. Those form the basis of this series, though Bundy isn’t given full control of his story—fortunately so, because he twisted his tale into so many lies, it’s hard to believe anything he says until his last days on death row when he’s certain he will die.
His mother is portrayed as devout, even though it’s revealed she conceived Ted out of wedlock. Ted grew up with his grandparents thinking his mom was his sister for a while, until she married and Ted adopted the surname Bundy. Throughout the series, his mother emphasizes in interviews with media that Ted was raised in a good, Christian home (therefore, he couldn’t be a serial killer). She and her husband brought all their children to Sunday school every week, Mrs. Bundy says.
The docuseries tells the stories of more than 30 girls and women across the country killed by Bundy, sometimes lured by his good looks and articulate manner as a law school student at one time. Nearly all of his victims resemble one another, and his first ex-girlfriend, who was a social class above him and out of reach. The ways he murdered were brutal and shocking. Sometimes rape was involved, as well as necrophilia. One psychiatrist concluded that Bundy was manic-depressive (also called bipolar) and that a brain tumor may have prevented him from feeling empathy.
Bundy managed to escape prison a few times, and especially in the beginning of his fame, managed to fool many that he was innocent. After a move to Utah (leaving behind murder victims in Washington state), Bundy joined a Mormon community and received a card of encouragement from them while in jail.
After Bundy received the death penalty for the second time (charged separately for murders), his mother pled in court against her son’s death sentence, saying that her Christian worldview prevented her from believing the state could act as God. Her pain at accepting what her son had done was still full of love for him.
Bundy finally admitted to his crimes days away from his execution date. According to the docuseries, Bundy may have killed himself if not for the Christian ministering of an FBI agent, who told Bundy that God may forgive him for his crimes, but why push the envelope by committing another in the form of suicide. The two prayed, Bundy holding a Bible, before saying a final goodbye.