Friday, August 18, 2017

Fraudulent Movie Churches: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

Imagine you had an opportunity to see a production of Othello with the title role played by Jaleel White (Urkel of Family Matters). Or King Lear with the title role played by Danny Bonaduce (Danny of The Partridge Family).  I know, it’s too much artistic excellence, more than we could hope for in the real world. But in the film The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, we get a glimpse of what such a thing might be like.

Gavin Stone was a child star in a popular sitcom. His catchphrase was, “Don’t look at me!” (This is not a phrase that would rank up there with “What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” from Diff’rent Strokes or “You got it, Dude!” from Full House, but maybe it was better in context.) Like many child stars, Gavin grew up to have a troubled life, partying his way into the headlines and then into court.

The premise of the film is that a judge sentences Gavin to perform 200 hours of community service, and he decides to do those hours in a church. (When offered a choice between working in a church or with a sewage crew, Gavin asks, “What’s the difference?”) I did wonder about a judge assigning community service hours in a church. Surely this would be a questionable matter, raising issues of boundaries between church and state. It seems like it would be one thing if a defendant offered to work at a church to fulfill the hours, but a judge assigning someone to work at a church seems rather bizarre.

Anyway, Gavin (Brett Dalton) goes to do janitorial work at the Masonville Bible Church. Which made me wonder about who usually cleans up at the church. Did they lay off the usual janitor to make budget? Does a chain gang from the local prison do their lawn care and shrubberies? Why not use the court appointed help to feed the poor? Perhaps build a playground in the neighborhood? But no, the church is taking advantage of the penal system to keep their floors mopped and waste cans empty.

It is rather odd that when Gavin arrives on the campus of this large church in Masonville, Illinois, he says to himself, “Toto, we’re not in Los Angeles anymore.” There are a whole lot of megachurches in Los Angeles. I’ve been to churches in Southern California that are much larger, more elaborate, much more other-worldly than the church shown in this film.

Still, Gavin isn’t thrilled about doing janitorial work. When he discovers that the church is doing a play, a life of Christ called “Crown of Thorns,” he watches the auditions only to see acting that’s more wooden than the average oak flooring. Gavin wonders if he can act in the play to cover his community service hours.  (See the recent review of A Walk to Remember, from Romantic Movie Churches month, for another example of drama as punishment.) Pastor Allan Richardson (D.B. Sweeney) tells Gavin that because the play is considered a ministry, only Christians are allowed to be a part of their dramas.

Here’s where the  fraud come in… Gavin lies to get in the play. He says he’s a Christian, but he’s not. (See the recent review of Christian Mingle for another of example of a fraudulent Christian.) He even signs a form that affirms he is a Christian.

The director asks why Gavin is there, and he replies, “I’m here for Jesus.” He means he’s there for the role of Jesus, but she takes it as a statement of his commitment to Christ. Gavin is asked to give his testimony, so he gives this little speech, “What you probably didn’t know is I’m a Christian. I had a God shaped hole in my heart. I decided to climb the stairway to Heaven and let Jesus take the wheel, let go and let God.”

Gavin auditions for the play using a Hamlet soliloquy and astounds everyone with his talent and professionalism. So the director casts him in the lead role of Jesus. The director is Kelly Richardson (Anjelah Johnson-Reyes), the pastor’s daughter and apparently the only other staff member of this big church. She runs the children’s program and directs the church plays. I assume she was the person who choose the play, and wonder why she picked a play knowing that she didn’t have the cast available to pull it off.

Kelly goes to her father to ask whether she should cast Gavin as Jesus. The pastor says, “Casting is your call. I think he needs us, as much as we need him. This is why we do this.”

And even with Gavin, she doesn’t have that great of an actor for the role of Jesus. Gavin’s portrayal of Jesus in the rehearsals is hammy to extreme. His performance is almost as bad as what you’d see in family sitcoms from the 1990’s. Kelly complains that Gavin doesn’t capture the humility of Jesus because he doesn’t have humility himself. There is truth to that, but really, that’s just one of many problems with his performance.

The film does raise an interesting question. Should a church only allow people to serve the church who believe in God and the ministry of the church? Obviously, a pastor should believe the things he preaches (though this month in Fraudulent Movie Churches we see even phony pastors, on occasion, do good). But must the choir director of a church be a Christian? How about the organist? The secretary? The janitor?

And if you put on a church play, should the actors go to the church? Is it important whether or not they believe in Jesus?

I watched the extras on the DVD that made it clear that the people involved in making the film didn’t make being a Christian a requirement for acting in the film. A pastor who helped in the production of the film interviewed Brett Dalton, acknowledging that Dalton isn’t a Christian. (The interviews with Dalton and other actors were painful to watch. The pastor doesn’t allow anyone to speak, but continually interrupts and talks over people.)  

In the film, the people of the church treat Gavin with civility and kindness, even though he makes numerous missteps in the church culture. But I had to wonder, do they treat him kindly because they think he’s a new Christian just learning his way around or because he’s a minor league celebrity whose name and face on the poster will sell a lot of tickets for the Easter pageant?

In the church pageant spirit, I’m going to give the church the benefit of the doubt, and a Movie Churches rating of Three Steeples.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Fraudulent Movie Churches: Don Verdean

Don Verdean (2015) One night when I was working at a hotel, a guest was reading the Bible in the lobby. We ended up chatting. She told me about an article she’d read that claimed that NASA calculations were  evidence of a “missing day” and were baffled until one of the scientists brought out a Bible and pointed to Joshua 10 -- which speaks of the sun standing still to allow Joshua time to win a battle.

I told her I was a Christian, but expressed my doubts about the story. First of all I had no idea how such calculations would be made, and a quick internet search showed that no one at NASA had ever made these calculations or made these claims. The story was a fraud.

It made me wonder why someone would invent such a story. Did they think that making up lies would strengthen people’s faith? To me, it shows a lack of faith in the truth of Scripture, and a lack of faith in the scientific method to find truth. Traditionally, the church has taught that God speaks through the Bible and Creation. Being dishonest about either goes against the methods God uses to speak to us.

Don Verdean is a 2015 film written and directed by Jared Hess (the creator of Napoleon Dynamite). Sam Rockwell plays the title character, Don, an amatuer archeologist who claims to have made great discoveries which prove the truth of Scripture. (“Finding treasure on earth would be meaningless if it did not lead someone to heaven.”) He believes that he has found the burial site of Samson, confirmed by iron shears used on the big guy’s hair, and it’s dated 3000 B.C.  But Verdean is running low on funds.

Help comes in the form of financial support from a pastor of a modern megachurch, Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), a man who claims that God raised him from the dead. Lazarus argues that the great decline in church attendance in the United States is due to lack of scientific arguments for the faith. (“The scientists are saying we evolved from sea monkeys. Young people need evidence in these dark days.”) Lazarus is almost as upset about people going to churches other than his own, and he’s in competition with another megachurch pastor, Dennis Fontaine (Will Forte), a former high priest in the Church of Satan.

Verdean learns that someone in the Mideast has a great find, and he convinces Lazarus to purchase what purports to be the Lot’s wife from the time of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. (“I believe I have a solid lead on the location of Lot’s wife (97% sodium chloride,” Verdean tells Lazarus.) If you remember the story from Genesis 19, Lot and his wife were fleeing the cities as sulfur and fire rained down. They were forbidden to look back, but Lot’s wife did turn, and she was turned into a pillar of salt.

So at Lazarus’ church, they unveil what looks like a statue of a woman made of salt. It would be a real stretch to believe that a salt figure wouldn’t decay over the years, but Verdean, at least, seems to believe the figure is authentic.

As pressure mounts for Verdean to keep bringing forward new discoveries (such as the Holy Grail, and it’s noted that “the Holy Grail is the Holy Grail of archeology.”) He finally sinks to creating a completely phony artifact. He does some grave robbing and takes a skull, reburying it, then trying to excavate it as Goliath’s skull. He even makes a dent in the skull to fake it as a wound from the rock of David’s sling.

If someone does bad science while trying to do good science, that’s sad. Fraud is another thing altogether. Pressure from Pastor Lazarus and his church leads to that fraud.

As bad as Pastor Lazarus is, it could be that Pastor Fontaine is even worse. We hear one of his sermons arguing that the Devil is trying to reach people through breakfast cereals. Cereals like Lucky Charms are trying to bring people in the world of magic and the occult. Some cereals are sexually suggestive such as Grape Nuts and Banana Nut Crunch. Obviously the film is playing this all as comedy, but I’ve heard preachers with concerns about popular culture (such as Jerry Falwell attacking Teletubbies back in the day) that were just as crazy.

At the end of the film, Verdean rightly goes to prison. There he reaches out to a friend’s son who’s in prison too.  It seem that he finally is getting back to genuinely doing real ministry.

I should say that the work of real archeologists have done much to confirm the historicity of Scripture. The recent discovery of the Pool of Siloam by archeologists (which was described in John 9) affirms the firsthand knowledge of the Gospel writer. True archaeologists must reveal what they find, whether it confirms or seems to go against Scripture.

So, while Don Verdean isn’t clergy, his backing by a church earns that church one measly steeple. (Which is also the rating earned by his rival church.)

Friday, August 4, 2017

Fraudulent Movie Churches Month: Leap of Faith

Leap of Faith (1992)

Steve Martin, in his early years, was a busker. A busker is a street performer who does anything he can to entertain people so they’ll throw money in the donation cup. Martin learned to juggle, to play the banjo, and to do magic tricks. He brought his tools to Knotts Berry Farm and Disneyland and delighted in delighting others.

In 1992’s Leap of Faith, Martin plays evangelist Jonas Nightengale as a busker. His prime goal is to entertain the crowd so they’ll put money in the offering plate. His preaching a mash-up of all kinds of Scriptures put together with the most positive of spins. His crew brings a trailer full of crutches and wheelchairs to allow for spectacular fake healings. And he brings a black gospel choir to provide amazing music. (When they sing “Jesus on the Mainline” he asks “Am I in white boy heaven or what?”)

More than anything he provides the illusion of the supernatural. He and his assistant Jane (Debra Winger) use early 1990’s internet technology to research people in order to pretend to have second sight. They use “mind reading tools”, such as word codes to convey information (I remember reading about the technique in the kids’ book The Great Brain at the Academy.)

He does have a bit of integrity. If anyone asks, he admits he’s just a showman. But while he’s performing, he commits to the role.

In the film, Jonas and his troop get stranded in a small town when their bus breaks down. Since they’re there, they decide to put on a show. Their signs claim “Miracles and Wonders,”  “Angels of Mercy,” and “Come and Be Saved - Every Night at Sundown.”

And the people of the town do come, because the town is troubled. It’s a farm town, and there is an ongoing drought. People are out of work and suffering. The sheriff is not pleased with the new show in town. He says, “This town can’t afford a revival!”

In fact, the sheriff (Liam Neeson) becomes so angry with Jonas that he interrupts one of the tent meetings. He goes before the crowd and announces that Jonas is using a false name and has a criminal record. Jonas responds (to the crowd as much as to the sheriff) that all the sheriff said is true. God has made him a new man. And the people love Jonas for it.

But there are two people in town who stand out from the crowd. There is a waitress in town, Marva (Lolita Davidovich) who has a crippled younger brother, Boyd (Lukas Haas).  After Boyd was in an accident which injured his leg (and killed their parents), his grandparents took him to a faith healer. The faith healer blamed Boyd, saying his lack of faith was preventing the healing.

Jonas comes to like the kid. He warns Boyd that his show is just for suckers.
But Boyd does have faith. The boy says he believes God has a purpose in all things, whereas Marva has given up on God and faith. That’s too much even for Jonas.

He tells her, “Without faith, every person you meet is just another sinner, and every place you go is just another hell.”

But then something happens that Jonas isn’t ready for: there’s a real healing. When that happens, things are no longer under his control. He can’t leave town soon enough. And as he’s leaving town, it begins to rain -- even though he just wanted to put on a show.

In show biz, they talk about the dangers of kids and animals stealing the show, but Jonas finds out there’s no show stealer like God.

Jonas is a fraud, but he doesn’t get too much in God’s way, so I’m giving him and his revival meetings a very generous two steeples.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Fraudulent Movie Churches Month

It used to be exciting when tents were set up outside of small towns. It could be anything. It might be a frivolous show depending on music, lights, and illusions to dupe the gullible, or it might be the circus.  

Everyone knows P. T.  Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute” -- but even that is a hoax. The phrase probably came from banker David Hannum, referring to Barnum’s fraudulent exhibit of the Cardiff Giant. Frauds have often been associated with the circus, but the stakes are low there. Does it really matter whether the Nonesuch of Huckleberry Finn is real or not, as long as it’s a good show?

Fraud in the church is a different thing. The 1972 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, Marjoe, involved cameras following an evangelist -- who admitted behind the scenes that it was all a show and he was just in it for the money. Marjoe had started on the Gospel circuit at the age of four when his parents put him on the stage to preach. Before he was grown, Marjoe’s father ran off with the money (over three million dollars) and left Marjoe and his mother with nothing. He eventually returned to the circuit, working six months, living the hippie lifestyle the other half of the year. And in his late twenties he agree to make the documentary that unveiled the fraud. Marjoe Gortner went on to an acting career, appearing in such classics as Earthquake!, Food of the Gods, Viva Knievel, and Starcrash (featured on MST3K).

Watching the film, I noticed that some of the things Marjoe said were true. I wondered, can truth told by someone who thinks they’re telling a lie? The Apostle Paul wrestled with the problem of impure motives for preachers while he was in prison.

Some people were preaching to spite Paul, hoping to make him jealous. Paul’s reaction was different. In Philippians chapter 1: 15 - 18 he wrote, “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the Gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

This month we’ll look at films with people who preach Christ from false motive, and we’ll see if any of them would have done some good (if they weren’t fictional, of course). We’ll still award Steeples, but don’t expect any of these frauds to get our highest, Four Steeple, rating.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Romantic Movie Churches Month: A Walk to Remember

A Walk to Remember (2002)
In some ways, A Walk to Remember is an inverse version of Footloose. Instead of the boy teaching the girl to dance, the girl teaches the boy. Instead of the boy being the outsider who comes into town from the big city, the girl is the outsider who has always lived in the same small town where the story takes place. Though both films begin with high school hijinks going wrong, one film begins with death and the other ends in death. Both films, though, have a minister who is the father of a beautiful teen daughter, and in both films the minister is a judgmental and fearful man.

A Walk to Remember (based on the novel by Nicolas Sparks) begins with a group of rowdy teenagers getting into all kinds of shenanigans. But things get real when Landon (Shane West, Tom Sawyer from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), as a prank, pushes a friend into water from a great height, nearly killing him. This incident is discussed at the local church (like the town in Footloose, there seems to be only one church -- of no particular denomination -- in town. Landon squirms in his seat as Reverend Sullivan (Peter Coyote, who wore the spacesuit in E.T.) states from the pulpit, “Let us be thankful today that a life was saved by our Lord. And let us pray for the lives of the others involved who are clearly not on the path of righteousness.” The tone of the preaching is smug and condescending, and Landon doesn’t seem to be a fan.

Though there is no evidence to convict Landon of hurting his friend, he is caught drinking on school grounds and is punished by being forced to star in the school play. (This is a recurring device in movies and TV: drama as punishment. Maybe my experience was strange; I was in plays in high school by my own choice. And I wanted the lead roles. If I auditioned for a play and lost out on a role to, say, a lineman from the football team was being punished for punching a teacher, I would not be pleased. What makes all this even stranger is that because these actors in the movie are portraying acting as punishment.) Anyway, because he’s in the play, Landon must spend time with Jamie (pop singer Mandy Moore from Saved!), the minister’s daughter who wrote the music and lyrics for the songs on the play. (It seems to be a musical with only solos for Jamie, which is fine because there only seem to be about four or five people in the cast.)

Jamie agrees to help Landon learn his lines if he promises not to fall in love with her. He agrees, but (spoiler) does eventually fall for Jamie. There are initial obstacles to their relationship, such as Landon mocking Jamie in front of his old friends. There also is the obstacle of Rev. Sullivan having a rule against his daughter dating (this may sound Old Fashioned but that’s another film altogether). Jamie’s father wasn’t even too thrilled about Landon coming over to the house to work on lines for the play. He is greeted by the Rev with these words, “Let’s get one thing straight, Mr. Carter. You think on Sundays I can’t see you where you’re sitting. But I see you.  I’ll be in my office just here.”

Landon goes to see Jamie’s father while the Reverend Sullivan is practicing his sermon from the pulpit. It’s an odd rehearsal for the sermon, because he just seems to be reading Scripture (Galatians 6:7:  “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked, A man reaps what he sows”) but he’s also taking notes, as if he’s marking what words to emphasize.  

But Landon interrupts and asks the Reverend if he can take Jamie out on a date. “That’s not possible,” the minister replies.

Landon: “I’d like you to reconsider.”

Rev. Sullivan: “With all due respect, Mr. Carter, I have made my decision. You can exit the way you entered.”

Landon: “I’m just asking for the same thing you ask of everyone in the church. That’s faith.”

Though asking people to put their faith in God and putting faith in a particular person to do a particular thing are vastly different, this argument seems to win the Reverend over.

And so the romance of Landon and Jamie begins in earnest.

(Bigger spoilers upcoming)

Jamie tells Landon she has lymphoma which is not responding to treatment. Landon eventually asks Jamie to marry him. They are married in her father’s church. Rev. Sullivan walks his daughter down the aisle and performs the ceremony. He reads from I Corinthians 13, the oft- quoted Love Chapter.

Jamie and Landon have a summer together, but then she dies. Landon goes to Rev. Sullivan and expresses sorrow about Jamie not getting her miracle (the miracle of healing). The Reverend assures him that Jamie got a miracle: Landon, her “angel.” This, one of the final scenes of the film, is the only time we see the Reverend treat Landon with any portion of compassion. It would have been nice if something besides his daughter’s death could have brought that out of him.

how many steeples for this movie church?
As for the Steeple ratings, the church seemed nice enough. The building was your standard white wooden country church with the steeple and stained glass. There was a nice, interracial choir that sang a nice song about Jesus as a Lighthouse. But because of the Rev. Sullivan’s difficulties reaching out to the lost, I’m only giving it Two Steeples.

(It probably should be noted I didn’t see the film as it was originally presented. I watched a DVD from the Fresno library with the film “formatted to fit your television.” It was also a “Family Edited Version” for protection from the swears found in this film, which was rated PG when it played in theaters.)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Romantic Movie Churches Month: Christian Mingle

Christian Mingle, 2014
The 2014 film Christian Mingle has something very much in common with the Transformers film series. Not because it’s a romantic comedy populated by giant robots, though that would be awesome, but because both films have product placement right there in the title. Transformers was promoting the toys that turn from robots to cars (among other things) and Christian Mingle refers to a dating website of that same name -- and the film actually has television commercials.

I’m sure this all made the financing of Christian Mingle quite interesting, but the very premise of the film, what keeps it from being merely product placement, an utter shill, is that the website is an easy vehicle for fraud. It’s about a woman named Gwyneth (Lacey Chabert, Gretchen of Mean Girls who tried to make the term “fetch” happen), the last single woman in a group of friends, who in desperation turns to a Christian online dating site even though she isn’t a Christian.

If someone can lie so easily about their faith on a dating website, surely worse forms of fraud (and adulterers and predators) can’t be far behind. But, since this is a romantic comedy, we simply have Gwyneth (“Don’t call me Gwennie!”) trying to convince unsuspecting born-again suitor Paul Wood (Jonathan Patrick Wood) that she is a Believer.

Director Bernsen & Lacey Chabert at film's premiere
The movie was written and directed by Corbin Bernsen and has enough cameos from TV and film to fill a modern day Love Boat. David Keith (An Officer and a Gentleman) and Morgan Fairchild (Falcon Crest) are Paul’s parents! Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day’s Ned Ryerson) and John O’Hurley (Seinfeld’s J. Peterman) are Gwyneth’s employers! And Bernsen himself (L.A. Law) is the bicycle repairman.

Of course, this blog is all about how churches and clergy are presented in films, and though Christian Mingle includes no clergy, we do see not one, not two, but three churches in the film! Though none of the churches are named in the film, they are each quite distinct.

The first is the church Paul’s family attends. Inside the church we see statuary and a crucifix which would suggest a Catholic or at least a very liturgical congregation, but we never see any clergy or any of the worship service, just the exterior of the church before the service and the interior. Still, the Bible study Paul attends with people from the church seems to be quite Evangelical, and when Gwyneth attends lunch with the Wood family at “Steak and Cake” after church, they seem practically Fundamentalist. They seem scandalized when Gwyneth doesn’t end grace with “in Jesus’ name.”

The oddest thing about the church seems to be the way they handle missions trips. Paul, his family, and everyone in his Bible study go off on a trip to Mexico to repair a church that was damaged in a great storm. Gwyneth doesn’t learn about the trip until the day before they depart. She’s angry at Paul, who she’s just started to date, for not telling her earlier that he’s be gone for a month. So Paul calls Gwyneth from Mexico and asks her to come on down and join the group.

Now I’ve been on missions trips; I’ve been a counselor on missions trips; I’ve even planned, organized, and led missions trips. On all of those trips, there was some degree of training for the group to prepare for ministry and cross cultural interaction. People were not invited to join the group just before departure, let alone once the trip has begun. (And another thing, how does Paul think Gwyneth is going to get off work? I guess since he works for his father’s construction company he doesn’t have to worry about such things. Gwyneth has her friend at work lie for her, the friend who later claims to be a Christian.)

Another strange thing about this Mexico missions trip is that the church group hangs banners throughout the town with Scripture verses -- all in English. When they lead a worship service with villagers, Paul’s father sings in English (without translation). Fortunately, there is translation to Spanish in a Bible study led by Lacie, Paul’s mother. Unfortunately, there is something else truly horrible in that Bible study.

Lacie has begun to suspect that Gwyneth is not a Christian, so when a young Mexican woman asks a question in Spanish, she directs the question to Gwyneth, who doesn’t speak Spanish. Eventually, Lacie (who does speak Spanish) translates the question, “Why would a loving God allow the destruction that happened to our village in the storm?” Somehow, Gwyneth not having a ready answer to this question shows she is not a Christian. I would have a different take. Answering such a difficult question quickly and glibly shows a rather shallow understanding of the Scripture and the Christian faith.

Even worse, the Bible study has centered on I John 4: 7 - 8, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Because Lacie’s goal is to humiliate Gwyneth, according to this Scripture, Lacie is the one who seems to be failing the Christian test.

Another church in the film is the Mexican church which the mission team comes to repair. The priority seems to be get the bell up and working again. There seems to be a school in the church, and an odd thing about that school is that they bring in a teacher that doesn’t speak Spanish (only English). But the people in the church seem nice.

There is one other church. When Gwyneth is exposed as not a Christian (at least not the kind of  Christian who know the proper formulas for praying and answering Bible study questions), Paul breaks up with her.

Gwyneth finds a storefront church where she’s greeted with love and friendship. There is great Gospel music at the church and good teaching. (Gwyneth learns she needs to receive Jesus as her Lord and Savior at the church.) And the church serves meals to the poor, and Gwyneth joins in on serving.

Gwyneth compares her church to Paul’s church, “I like this church I’m going to. This church is totally chill and laid back.  Does that make it less Christian than this (Paul’s) church? No. But it does make it more me. It doesn’t make it right or wrong, but it’s how I relate to God.”

So I’m giving Gwyneth’s church Four Steeples. The other two churches only get Two Steeples each.