Friday, October 13, 2017

Vampire Movie Month: Priest

Priest (2011)
“Remember, to go against the Church is to go against God,” is a lesson repeated incessantly by clergy and public address systems in the 2011 film Priest (not to be confused with the 1994’s Priest, which is entirely vampire free).

You can look at this concept from a couple of perspectives. In Scripture, the Church is the Body of Christ, and so that teaching is true -- but we also know that individuals in the Church, even (sometimes especially) clergy in the church, do very unChristlike things. Opposing those actions and those people isn’t just okay; it’s the right thing to do.

Throughout history, clergy have said and done things that were wrong. Misogyny and racism have been preached. Right now people in some churches teach diametrically opposed things about sexuality from people in other churches. Someone must be getting things wrong. In this film, the church hierarchy is teaching false things about vampires.

It says 2010, but it came out 2011
The film (based on a graphic novel) lays out its cosmology in an animated preface, “This is what is known: there has always been man, and there have always been vampires. Since the beginning, they have have always been in conflict. Vampires were quicker and stronger, but man had the sun -- but it was not enough. The two races threatened to destroy not only each other, but the world itself.

Facing extinction, mankind withdrew behind walled cities under the protection of the Church. Then the ultimate weapon was found: the Priests. They alone could turn the tide for man.  Warriors with extraordinary powers trained by the Church in the art of vampire combat.”

The Priest Warriors were drafted from families while young and trained in combat. The Sign of the Cross was tattooed on Priests’ faces, and they took vows -- like other Catholic priests -- of poverty and chastity. (Another distinction separating Catholic seminaries of this world from our own is the recruitment of female priests.)

But when the vampires seem to be under control, these Priest Warriors are driven from ministry into obscurity. The Church hierarchy wants people to remain in the Cities under their control, but when the Priest with No Name (Paul Bettany taking the role because Clint Eastwood inexplicably passed on it) learns there have been vampire attacks in colonies outside the Cities, he urges action.

The Church Hierarchy claims they weren’t really vampire attacks and forbids the Priest from investigating the attacks. When the Priest says that he won’t obey those orders, the Church sends men to restrain him, but they are no match for the combat ability of the Priest. Soon he is out in the Wastelands.

The vampires are supposed to stay on Reservations, and the Priest goes to one of those, only to find that the vampires have overcome their guards and are on the loose. The danger to the humankind, and the Cities is real. Nonetheless, the bishops send out a team of four priests to capture the Priest. There is even a priestess in the priest posse (played by Maggie Q). Three of the male priests are killed by vampires. Not surprisingly, the Priestess teams up with the Priest.

One of the things I really liked about the Priests in the film is that before any of them go into battle, they quote from the Psalms (usually Psalm 23, a favorite in films). The Priests are obviously going out trusting the power of God.

But the Priest must eventually face the Big Bad, a fallen priest, Blackhat (Karl Urban), a former comrade of the Priest’s who was turned into a vampire. When Blackhat plans an attack on the Cities, the Church hierarchy must admit they were wrong and support the Priest in his return to battle (in a sequel that was not to be).

So, is it right to oppose the Church when it is wrong? Of course, because one of the ways we support the Church is to help it do the right thing. If you’re a Christian, you aren’t just in the Church, you are the Church -- so we should never “go against the Church.” We should always, however, strive to make the Church act as the Body of Christ. And fight vampires.

The Good Fight of Priests and the Head in the Sand Attitude of the Bishops averages the Church rating in Priest to 3 Steeples.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Guest Post! A TV Church for Vampire Month

(People have asked if we’ll ever review TV churches at this blog. This is the first. Our son, Bret, offered to review the churches in the Netflix series, Castlevania. As we always do here, he didn’t review the series, but the church and clergy in the series.)

Castlevania (Netflix original series)
Typically, there are three times you can expect a crowded parking lot at a local church: Christmas, Easter, and when Dracula releases a plague of the undead on the world. Whatever its faults, most people find their local house of God a more than reasonable alternative to bloodsucking enemies of all that is good.

Unfortunately, there’s an exception to almost every rule, and Netflix’s Castlevania shows that, sometimes, going to the local church is not ideal in the event of an invasion from Hell.

The clergy puts up an exceptionally poor showing for most of the four episode miniseries. Not content with being merely incompetent or morally bankrupt, they enthusiastically manage both. We first see a bishop burning a saintly doctor as a witch while she pleads that her persecutors be spared, for they know not what they are doing.

It turns out that burning her was even more of a mistake than you’d expect: she was pleading to her husband, Dracula, who immediately declares war on humanity… after they’ve had a year to clean up and get their affairs in order.

The Bishop
The local archbishop (who, following the well known principle of Peter, has risen to the highest level of incompetence) spends the year doing nothing useful, talking about how Dracula is incapable of threatening the children of God -- he even holds a ceremony mocking Dracula’s late wife on the day Dracula had promised to begin slaughtering all and sundry. Needless to say, it does not go well for the archbishop.

Before the show is over, we’ve seen the corrupt bishop who killed the doctor excommunicate a vampire hunter, plot the murder of an order of charity-minded knowledge seekers, and drive a whole town into a reign of terror even beyond the expected background horror of having demons regularly eat their babies. It is not, needless to say, the Church’s finest hour, or particularly good fodder for any later literary historian to make theories that the writer was secretly a Catholic.

All that said, what’s most interesting in the show’s depiction isn’t what it says, but what it doesn’t say. It’s not unknown for horror films to show priests as deeply corrupt, or the Church as more of a hinderance than a help. However, most films in that vein go further, showing that the God they worship is non-existent, or is another monster as horrible as the supposed enemy.

Not true here. It’s made very clear that the villains have fallen away from their faith. The archbishop indulges in the pleasures of the flesh; the bishop wants to remain on Earth, clinging to power rather than move on to the presence of God; and in a rather memorable scene late in the series, a demon declares that the church the bishop hides in is no defense, an empty box, because the man has rejected God in his heart. His monstrous actions stink to heaven, leaving the God of love with nothing but disgust for the man who claims to speak for him. (The demon, on the other hand, claims to love the bishop. The demon loves him enough to give him a kiss/bite his head off.)

In the end, a priest who hadn’t been a participant in any of the most questionable actions was even able to prepare holy water against the demons, aiding hero Trevor Belmont in his attempts to save the city. In the end, God is good. It’s just his people who are awful.

I wouldn’t say that Castlevania is anywhere close to a theologically guidepost (honestly, I’d say the church portion of the plot is the least interesting part of the show, with the villains being much less interesting characters than Dracula OR any of the heroes), but it is a decent reminder of Matthew 7:21. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”

It’s vital that those who claim to follow Christ live up to it -- even when there aren’t any signs of Draculas. The church in Castlevania earns our lowest rating of One Steeple.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Vampire Movie Month: Van Helsing and John Carpenter's Vampires

Van Helsing (2004), John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998)
I’m signed up for a couple of services that alert me to positions that churches are trying to fill. I see jobs for senior pastors, youth pastor, small group coordinators… but I’ve never seen the job of vampire hunter come up. It’s odd, because you’d think that position would have a lot of turnover. Perhaps, like me, you’d been unaware that vampire hunters were church employees, but I’ve seen this confirmed by not just one but two films this week: Van Helsing and John Carpenter’s Vampires.

Doctor Abraham van Helsing was a character in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula. In the book, he’s an aged Dutch scholar whose knowledge is invaluable when a vampire attacks England. In the film Van Helsing, Hugh Jackman plays a stylishly dressed soldier hired by the Vatican to fight evil. He goes to Transylvania ten years before Stoker’s novel was written, accompanied by a friar named Carl who serves as a 19th century Q to the church’s James Bond, supplying Van with rapid fire crossbows (among other things).

It’s a mess of a film, and we don’t get much clergy or church in the battles involving not just Dracula and other vampires but also werewolves and Frankenstein’s monster. Friar Carl curses and sleeps with a woman, explaining “I’m a friar, not a monk” when his actions are questioned. I don’t think the Roman Catholic Church has behavioral distinctions between the two.

John Carpenter’s Vampires has more church and clergy in the plot of the film. (John Carpenter was the director of the film. I suppose his name was added because of the generic nature of the title.) Again, vampire hunters are employees of the Roman Catholic Church. We see a priest with a crew of fighters before they attack a vampire nest in a small town. Father Giovanni prays for the slayers and blesses their weapons, all in Latin. He helps where he can, but mainly asks, “What’s going on?” He does bless the vampires after they are killed, asking God to give peace to their souls.

But the evening after the slayers do their vampire killing, they have a party at night with a lot of alcohol and prostitutes. And the priest joins in the drinking, with apparent approval of all the activities. Jack Crow (James Woods), the leader of the slayers, tells the drinking priest, “You better slow down, Padre.”

“I’m fine,” he responds. He also makes arrangements for the slayers’ payment from Rome.

But the slayers didn’t get the vampires’ Master, and he attacks the party. The Master beheads the priest and kills all of the slayers but two: Crow and his right hand man, Anthony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin). One of the prostitutes, Katrina (Sheryl Lee), also survives the attack, but she is bitten by a vampire, changing her into a vampire.

Crow then goes to see Cardinal Alba (Maximilian Schell). Crow wants to quit, but the Cardinal insists he must continue his work. He assigns him a new priest, Father Adam Guiteau (Tim Guinee) who worked in the Vatican vampire archives and is familiar with Crow’s work. Crow asks the Cardinal if he knows anything about the particular Master who attacked the slayers.

The Cardinal tells Crow that the Master used to go by the name of Jan Valek. He was a priest who turned against the church in the 1300’s and led a rebellion. He was captured and tried for heresy. A botched exorcism led to Jan’s bodily death, but his soul lived on; he became one of the undead, a vampire.

Crow is taken aback by the information, saying, “So the first vampire was created by the Church.” Which I guess explains why the church feels obligated to hire vampire slayers. We learn that Crow was raised by the Church after his parents were killed by vampires, and he had been trained by them for his work.

Crow, Montoya, and Father Adam go out in search of the Master. They get a clue when they learn that the Master attacked a church in the Southwest. The priest of the church, Father Molina, was a scholar of Church history in the United States, but he was kidnapped and killed. And artifact, the Cross of Belize, was stolen from the church (in this film, crosses don’t harm vampires).

This Cross can, instead, be used to make vampires invulnerable to sunlight), but a priest must perform that occult ritual to give the invulnerability to the Master. Where, oh where, can the Master find a priest who would help him with this ritual?

The slayers track the Master down to a ghost town. We learn that the crew has been betrayed by Cardinal Alba, who has stopped believing in God and wants the eternal(ish) life that the vampires offers.

Fortunately, Father Adam stays true to his calling and rescues Crow in the end. Father Adam shows Crow his crucifix and assures the vampire hunter, “He was always with us.”

So Father Adam raises the Steeple rating for the church in this film, but Cardinal Alba drags it down. The average for the clergy in both films comes to Two Steeples.

(It should be noted Vampires is rated R and well deserves the rating. Van Helsing is rated PG-13 -- which in this case means it should never be watched by anyone ever again.)

Thursday, October 5, 2017

It's Vampire Movie Month!

Nowadays, if you’re making a vampire movie, you have to decide what you’re going to do with the Cross. This was not the case when vampires first appeared in fiction.

The first great vampire literary sensation was Varney the Vampire by James Malcolm Rymer, which appeared first appeared in penny dreadfuls and then in proper book form in 1847. Varney had no problem with crosses -- or sunlight or garlic, for that matter.

Fictional vampires had to start worrying about crosses when Bram Stoker came along with the novel Dracula in 1897. The idea of the cross as a weapon against vampires really took root in the public consciousness in Universal Studios’ 1931 adaptation of the novel. The image of a vampire cowering at the upheld cross became a staple throughout Universal’s horror franchises in the ‘30’s and 40’s and continued in the Hammer Studio horror films of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.

The trope was challenged in Roman Polanski’s 1967 film, The Fearless Vampire Killers (aka Dance of the Vampires and Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck). In that film, a Jewish man who turns into a vampire scoffs when a cross is held before him.

Since then, writers have had to choose whether crosses harm their vampires.  In Joss Whedon’s televised vampire world (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), the cross is injurious to vamps, but no explanation is given. In the world of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, her glittery creatures aren’t harmed by crosses (or sunlight).. but to be fair, those aren’t real vampires any more than her books are real literature.

Anyway, this month in Movie Churches, you can find out how the Church and members of the clergy are presented in vampire films. It’s been said that the horror genre can be more religious than other genres because it takes the supernatural as a given -- and the vampire subgenre has to deal, somehow, with the Christian faith. Even the few science fiction vampires which are presented with a non-supernatural explanation, but they still end up dealing with the Cross, if only to say that crosses won’t work against them as a weapon.

Crosses do work in some of the films we’ll be watching in the weeks to come (for example Van Helsing and From Dusk to Dawn) and others they don’t (John Carpenter's Vampires). But creators of vampire literature aren’t the only ones who need to figure out what to do with the Cross. We all do.

As the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 1:18, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” You might not have to decide whether the cross will destroy vampires, but we all need to decide whether the cross will save us.

Friday, September 29, 2017

School Movie Month: Au Revoir, les Enfants

Au Revoir les Enfants (1987)
The students of the school mock the teachers as “Monkeys” and marvel at the faculty’s stupidity and cluelessness -- pretty much like high school students everywhere -- but these particular students live during a strange and dangerous time. The school in Au Revoir les Enfants (1987), is in France during World War II when the French government collaborated with Nazi Germany. The boys are in a boarding school run by Carmelite Brothers. As often is the case, there is much more to the teachers than the students know.

Au Revoir les Enfants is an autobiographical film written and directed by Louis Malle, one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century. Though the names were changed, Malle said this was a true story of what happened when he was a boarding student at the Petit College as a child in France.

Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) takes the place of Malle, as a young boy from a well to do French family (which is true of most of the students in the school). Julien would rather stay with his family, but his mother says, “You know I can’t keep you in Paris with me.” He’s still young enough to respect the Brothers and their teachings, but his older brother is cynical about the priests (he, like many of the older students, calls the Monks “Monkeys”).

Julien becomes friends with Jean Bonnet, a new student brought into the school by the priests. Jean is Jewish, but the priests keep this quiet, of course. Jean claims to be Protestant which explains why he doesn’t participate in communion or confirmation. But Jean must still go to religion classes and chapel.

The boys still have some fun at the school -- we see boys acting out battles from the Crusades on stilts, and even one of the priests joins the fun. The school stages an elaborate capture the flag type game in the woods, but Julien and Jean get lost and are out after curfew. They are picked up by German soldiers, which obviously frightens Jean, but they are safely returned. The students even get to watch movies; no one laughs harder than the priests when they watch Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant.

Still, some things are forbidden in the school. Jean and Julien share and love books, particularly old novels like The Three Musketeers and Robinson Crusoe.  But Francois, Julien’s brother, gives Jean a forbidden novel, Arabian Nights, which is rich in naughty bits that the boys read quietly by flashlight at night. Francois won’t take communion, claiming to have moved on from the superstitions of religion. The school teaches Thomas Aquinas’ evidences for the existence of God, which Francois disdains, saying, “They really don’t hold water.” He expresses his desire to join the Resistance, but he doesn’t.

Of course, while Francois talks about resisting the Nazis, the priests are actually doing so by taking Jewish students into the boarding school. Francois mocks materialism, while the priests actually speak out against it to the rich and powerful.

When the parents are at the school along with the students, Father Jean preaches at a special chapel: “My message today is especially for the youngest among you, who will be confirmed in a few weeks. My children, we live in a time of discord and hatred. Christians kill one another. Those who should guide us betray us. More than ever, we must beware of selfishness and indifference. You’re all from wealthy families, some very wealthy. Because you’ve been given much, much will be asked of you. Remember the Bible’s stern lesson -- It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Saint James says, ‘Now, you rich, weep and wail for the woes awaiting you. Your wealth has rotted and your garments are eaten by worms.’ Worldly wealth corrupts souls and withers hearts. It makes men contemptuous, unjust, pitiless in their egotism. I understand the anger of those who have nothing when the rich feast so arrogantly.”

So, the Father Jean isn’t exactly timid in speaking to donors, and he does get some walk-outs.

He concludes by saying, “I don’t mean to shock you, but only to remind you that charity is a Christian’s first duty.”

The food is scarce in war times, so the priests insist that students share the food they receive from home with other students. Julien and Francois are among the students disciplined for not sharing, but a poor kid who works in the kitchen is disciplined much more severely for stealing food. He is fired. In vengeance, he tells the Nazis about the Jewish students.

Soldiers come and arrest not only the Jewish students, but some of the priests, including Father Jean. Francois realizes that the priests have been taking action against the regime all along, while he just talked about taking action.

As Father Jean is led off by the soldiers, he calls out the title, “Au revoir les enfants” (Goodbye, children). The real Father Jean was imprisoned and died in Mauthausen. No greater love can be shown, which is why the brothers of St. John of the Cross receive the highest rating of 4 Steeples.

(Of course, we don’t review films at this site, we review the clergy and churches in films. That said, this is a great film well worth seeking out.)

Friday, September 22, 2017

School Movie Month: God's Club

God’s Club,2015
At Movie Churches, we often note that we don’t review movies but rather the churches in movies. So I don’t need to mention that it may well be one of the worst Christian films I’ve ever seen. I should, as usual, be writing about the clergy and the churches in the film, but there are no churches in God’s Club. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about it at all, but this annoying piece of socalled film took 90 minutes of my life that could have gone to, say, three episodes of 30 Rock before it leaves Netflix. I want to get something out of the unhappy experience.

Besides, the reason there is no church in the film is so strange, it provides the one compelling reason to write.

God’s Club opens with a childish argument between a husband and wife. The wife wants the husband to go with her to a meeting she says is very important to her. He whines about not feeling like going until she tells him they can get dessert on the way home. Sadly, their teenage daughter witnesses this sorry display. Stephen Baldwin plays the husband, Mike Evens, in the film. (He’s the Christian Baldwin brother, not the 30 Rock Baldwin.)

I didn't catch Mrs. Evens first name - she's gone quickly
They’re headed for a school board meeting that will be discussing whether Mrs. Evens should be allowed to have a Bible Club -- a Christian club called “God’s Club” -- at the high school. Both Mr. and Mrs. Evens are teachers at the high school, and everyone on the school board agrees there is no legal way to prevent the club. But the debate in this incredibly badly run meeting continues anyway. (The actual law about Christian clubs on public school campuses is a little more complex than the movie portrays it. In the last few years, the Christian organization InterVarsity was barred from California State and UC system campuses because they had the audacity to require Christian leadership for a Christian organization.) Back to the movie, where many parents are vocal about their disapproval of religion in any form having a place on school grounds.

On the drive home, the Evenses talk about the club, with Mike still saying it isn’t “my thing.” Mrs. Evens argues it’s the only way to help the troubled youth in the school. They joke and laugh and then unfortunately decide to smooch while driving. This leads to a deadly accident, and (spoiler) Mrs. Evens doesn’t survive long after the crash.

So, after three months of mourning at home, MIke returns to school and starts God’s Club on his own. I’ve been involved in Christian clubs at schools from my own high school years through my years as a pastor, so I’m familiar with some of the laws and regulations involved. One of those stipulations -- mentioned in the film -- is that the school can not be seen as sponsoring or endorsing the club. This has usually been interpreted as barring faculty from leading such a club. School staff can provide some supervision, being present in a classroom during club meetings, but usually not formal leadership. In this film Mike leads the club (and does it remarkably badly, especially considering he’s a teacher by profession).

During an event when students are encouraged to sign up for clubs, Mike and his daughter, Rebecca (Bridget Albaugh), sit behind a sign-up table for God’s Club (there are also tables for drama, chess, and hiking clubs). A couple of students sign up for the club, supposedly to sabotage it, but they make no serious attempt to do so. We were disappointed.

During Mike’s first club meeting, he rambles about how people have worshiped God since the paleolithic era. He rambles in response to questions that touch on other religions, the Bible, and the Resurrection. Talk of resurrection leads to talk of zombies, and the boys get sidetracked into a discussion of what was the best zombie movie. (This is the one part of the film that felt real.)

During that meeting, one of the boys makes a truly astounding statement. He says that there are no churches in the town where they live. This is just bizarre. From our travels, and even actual research, I can state quite confidently that any town large enough in the United States to have a high school, has at least one church, and most probably several churches. In 1880, George Walser founded a town, Liberal, Missouri,  that was supposed to be an Atheist Utopia, which would be church free. But that dream didn’t hold long. Christian missionaries soon came to plant churches in the outskirts of town, and soon there were churches in the town itself.

We’re are supposed to believe that the California city of Echo Grove is church-free, and the only religious organization of any kind is God’s Club at the high school. So within the reality of the movie, God’s Club can be seen as the only church in town, and Mike is the only clergy.  (Another interesting demographic oddity of Echo Grove - everyone in town seems to be white.)

At the next meeting of the club, Mike hands out rather ugly t-shirts emblazoned with a “God’s Club” logo and illustrated Bibles. (“Sick! A comic book!” one of the boys exclaims. “No, it’s a graphic novel,” says another.) But again, Mike presents an incoherent message.

Mike and his daughter don’t seem to know Scripture very well, except for citing the occasional verse. They don’t even seem to be familiar with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek. Both father and daughter are egged into throwing the first punch in fights. Hardly the example that is going to win over a school and town.

The worst bit of theology is expressed by the daughter toward the end of the film. Vic is a troubled kid, who has been prescribed Prozac and other drugs to deal with his depression and suicidal tendencies. He begins a friendship with Rebecca and begins to read the Bible. He talks about these things with his therapist. His therapist tells his “studies show many people have been helped by reading the Bible” but also warns him that “Christian girls wait for marriage”.

At the climax of the film, Vic is considering suicide and Vic’s father (Lorenzo Lamas) blames Rebecca for discouraging his son from taking his meds (she didn’t). Vic runs off, and Rebecca finds him about to jump off a bridge, and Rebecca tells him, “If you kill yourself, you can’t go to heaven. It says so in the Bible!” Now the Bible says no such thing. There has been debate about the eternal fate of suicides for centuries in the church, and the reason there has been debate is because there is no handy verse to point to with a clear cut answer. Rebecca’s proclamation is bad theology and even worse counseling.

Mike creates controversy in the town and wrecks much havoc by insisting on starting a Christian club on campus when he could accomplish what he wants to accomplish by starting a Bible study in his home. What Echo Grove really needs is a good church, but I’m giving God’s Club on the high school campus just one steeple.