Holy Rollers showed twice at the Tulsa United Film Festival 2011. We’ll talk about it here, because it’s a film, fundamentally, about work. ‘Rollers is about a large network of fundamentalist evangelicals that are professional black jack card counters. They have investors, managers, and players, and they take casinos for a lot of money. Now casinos aren’t anyone’s contributors to social wellbeing or a better society, but it’s interesting the justifications that reign among these groups. This will be less of a film review to focus on those – so that’s fine, it’s not really a review – we’ll talk about willfully deluding oneself first, then how it relates to work.
First, most of them talk of funding their ministries with card counting, and so furthering ‘god’s work’ (a classic pragmatic utilitarianism that ill fits with any ethos related to the actual words of Jesus). A lot of them are minister of some sort – albeit, that may mean they rent a room, put out folding chairs, and get 15 people to show up while they play guitar and talk. Thing is, card counting looks more like a way for most of them to not have to work in a normal job, which is also what being a minister seems to be about in those cases . It seems more about self-indulgence guided by an inner personality deity that shows them its “will” by finding ways to make them more comfortable or alleviate responsibility (ethical, personal, etc.). Likewise, some of them are into internet companies that do nothing but mark up existing products or sell nebulously helpful overpriced vitamin supplements. We’ve all met the person selling the miracle herb – it’s always about his need to have a comfortable income. In that way, for these people in general, the rest of us come off like their support structure to ensure, once again, their personal comfort.
They talk of taking money out of casinos, and how casinos are parasites and hurt people – taking their last dime or their life’s savings. They never bring up the fact, of course, that they don’t return that money to the original owners, so they profit directly as a result of casino’s profits. In that sense, they actually need casinos to keep bilking people, so they can keep skimming off the top. These are not Robin Hood types. Using their own logic, they’re parasites on the backs of parasites, making money from suffering every bit as much as the casinos. It’s just that the casinos are up front about it. These kids sound more like megachurch prosperevangelist Joel Osteen (‘God wants you to be comfortable, have a nice car and a nice house and nice things. It takes a lot of money to have that.”) The stuff about doing “god’s work” and saving the world from evildoers is flimsy if not ridiculous. Like cheating at cards, they’re cheating at logic and ethics as well.
They focus on a lot of straw man arguments. They point out that card counting is not illegal. Granted. They point out that it’s just doing math. Granted. Where they go astray is in making out that anyone who doesn’t agree with them doesn’t understand card counting or the law. No, there are plenty of reasons to disagree. One of their rank in the film eventually leaves, pointing out that, while it may not be wrong, it also makes nothing, contributes nothing, means nothing. He is saying that vocation – that work -is meant to be more than that. You can see him reaching for what we talk about here – that one’s work is supposed to be a font of meaning.
Holy Rollers represents a really good thought experiment in how distant people can become from the true nature of what they’re doing (cheating/deceiving) while justifying it with army of god type constructs (god wants us to take money from bad people who take money from other people doing bad things – god wants us to have money – god wants us to have money, because we use the money for what god wants). To listen to these guys, god has his own personal shopping force and covert fraud squad. Personally, I’ve no problem with counting cards, and competing with casinos, as much as possible, on their own turf at their own fixed game. I have a problem with the pretense that it’s somehow a service to god or is being sponsored by the almighty. Raid the raiders, if you like. Just understand you’re taking blood money, and living by it, and it does garbage up your soul. It’s also interesting for elucidating how convenient a religious network is for running the equivalent of an organized crime ring or other illicit trade. Fundamentalist networks are like cell groups – they can start from anything, exist anywhere, and end up sponsoring anything they need or want to keep going. And “god” can justify anything – robbing banks, pillaging, or whatever, as long as it’s with your religious network in there doing it with you.
I thought the film had one weakness: after doing a splendid job creating an extended sense of absurdity, irony, and the agony of watching willful self-deception, it left us without a single participant who acknowledged that ‘yeah, we’re really just justifying fooling these guys’. Technically, I know, I know, it isn’t even cheating. I get it. But it’s tricking the casinos. No one expressed real ethical realization that we’re lying to ourselves, this isn’t even remotely how Jesus Christ handled things, and it’s dishonest. Again, not disagreeing with it per se – just saying that if you have to wear a disguise, it’s dishonest. But perhaps the filmmaker had no access to such a person, because these guys really believe their rhetoric that much, and not a single such person exists – or at least the ones that do never wake up. But then I’d have liked to see the film say that – that they could find no one who had done it for a while and decided it was not ethically compatible with an honest ‘christianity’.
So, the part about work: These guys are ecstatic at times to bring in 4-5000 dollars for 3 weeks work. Sure, the investors gets 35% return, sometimes – sometimes they lose big – but the players make about what they’d make just getting a job. They talk about winning 55% of the time and losing 45% of the time. It’s far from the ‘blessed’ triumph of the ‘armies of god’ you would expect. OK, seriously… $4000 for 3 weeks work? That’s it? I don’t care if you did only work 30hrs that week or 20. A consultant would say that if you take half my day, you’ve taken it all, just from the standpoint of planning and logistics and other lost opportunities – so you have to bill enough per hour to compensate. That’s one day I won’t get a tent set up before dark in the forest – it’s not like the other half of the day is really fully yours. 4000/3weeks is $68,000/year. THAT is the overwhelming salary these guys are making living the dream? No wonder they get kids to do it. And you have to fund your health care out of that. Again, good thing they’re young. Taxes are never mentioned. Cash sits under sofa cushions. This is living the dream? A 68K salary? And they’re not computing all their practice time, planning, meetings, briefings, debriefings, etc. All those hours, they conveniently ignore. No self-respecting self-employed person or contractor would overlook that. These guys could pick any number of professions and do better. Cable installer is about that good, once you hit 3 tiers. Plumber? Beats it. These guys talk about not working a normal 9-5 job, then they talk about how much like a regular job this is. In fact, they’re paid hourly plus bonus, just like a telemarketer. In typical fundamentalist fashion, they’re living someone else’s dream – it’s always someone else who benefits most off the tool-like deployment of their lives.
In short, these guys are working for less, on average, than many of us can live on, and they’re the equivalent of religious drug mules. They can’t derive real significance from their work because, to do that, you have to contribute something, not just take it. As an illustration of what it looks like to give up a sense of vocation, of one’s work as a primary bringer of meaning, and to replace it with ideology, philosophy, pretense, and hucksterism, the film gets works. You could say that it makes no judgments at all about what it’s portraying, though again, I’d like to have seen a little more challenging of it. It’s also an illustration of the pathetic and a film about despair and self-delusion. The one guy, again, who talked about work as an engine of transcendent meaning, finally left to go looking for it. The rest are now just looking for the next group to train, or selling lousy vitamins out of their kitchens. Most of the talk in the film is centered on how much money can be made. But that’s just it – if that’s the central theme of your chosen profession, you’ve already indicated you’re willing to trade – meaning for a raise – substance for affluence. Whether it’s a trade that ultimately delivers transcendent value is not just for these guy to judge for themselves – we too can determine that, by asking what they have contributed to the world to make it better. The film does a good job of leaving us with a bleak ‘meh’ – a gray feeling that, while these guys go on reproducing themselves, the contribution is sorely lacking.
Holy Rollers: imdb,