Friday, May 17, 2019

Missionary Movie Month: What the Devil?

The Devil at 4 O'Clock (1961)
Yes, the priest’s drinking is worrisome. As is his violent temper. And his lack of faith. But what really bugged me was his begging.

In this 1961 film, Spencer Tracy plays Father Matthew Doonan, a missionary on the (fictional) island of Talua in French Polynesia. Directed by Mervyn Le Roy, based on a novel by Max Catto (Mister Mosesit's a disaster film with one of the most cinematic natural disasters: a volcano.

Father Doonan has been serving on the island for 16 years. His ministry began well; many of the French transplanted to the island attend his church and he wins many native converts as well. But something went wrong, and when the film begins, his ministry is no longer prospering. We see him wake in the morning and begin his day with a drink. Early in the film, we see him shoving an official. His disregard for the Mass disturbs Father Joseph (Kerwin Mathews), the priest who has come to Talua to take Father Doonan’s place.

But what really bothered me was seeing Father Doonan go from business to business, house to house, begging for things for the hospital. He asks for money, of course. But he begs a woman for clothes. And a barber for dirty magazines. He persuades some to give, but they mock and insult him along the way.

Asking for money comes up a lot when you talk to people about what bugs them about churches and ministries. Jesus received money from people for His needs and His ministry, but we don’t see him pleading for money. George Muller, a famed evangelist who ran orphanages, committed himself to ask only God for money and provisions, never people. 

Father Doonan begs because he really cares about the hospital up the mountain. We learn that the hospital led to the downfall of his ministry in town.

The hospital is for children -- children with leprosy. (The hospital's doctor clarifies that the disease, a dark secret on the island, is properly called Hansen’s disease.) Tourism is one of the island's primary sources of revenue, and leprosy isn't exactly something that draws tourists. When Father Doonan began the work at the hospital, the people in town began to shun the church. That’s when the priest began to drink. And apparently, beg. 

We hear this story about the hospital from the doctor, an atheist who used to argue faith with the priest through the night, but the priest's life has begun to fall apart. He seems to have lost his faith. The doctor says, “I had to watch a good man, not a saint, but a good man, crumple apart at the seems… Drunk, crazy, awful temper… He is a great man.”

Father Doonan tells Father Joseph, “I’ll bring you together with some of the noble Christians of the town, the loyal brethren,” but Father Joseph wasn’t alone on the plane that brought him to the island. Three convicts on their way to prison in Tahiti were on the plane, and because the pilot takes a break on the island to see his girlfriend (he has a different girlfriend on every island), the convicts are available to do work at the hospital.

Did I mention that one of the convicts, Harry, is played by Frank Sinatra? He’s the tough guy who was an altar boy when he was young, before he took to a life of crime. When someone tells Harry, “Go with God.” Harry responds, “Who’s God?” (Another convict suggests, “He’s a way to swear.”)

So what changes things around for Father Doonan? What brings him back to faith? 

All it takes is a volcanic eruption which threatens the children of the hospital. Father Doonan prays for someone to help him rescue the children, and the convicts prove to be the answer to that prayer. The priest apologizes to God for his lack of faith. The journey to save the orphans brings the convicts to faith.
What kind of Movie Churches Steeple rating should Father Doonan get? That drinking and fighting (he nearly strangles Ol' Blue Eyes to death) and begging -- especially the begging -- lose Father Doonan a steeple, but he still earns 3 out of 4 for being willing to sacrifice everything for those leper children.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Missionary Movie Church Continues with Black Robe

Black Robe (1991)
Black Robe has long been one of my white whale films. Some films are exceedingly easy to view -- Charade and Night of the Living Dead no longer have copyright protection, so you can watch them on cable or even on YouTube or pick them up at the dollar store. Some films, though, aren't available on any streaming service and have never been made available on DVD or video. Most films fall somewhere in between.

Black Robe came out in 1991 and was directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Bruce Beresford. He first reached prominence as a part of the Australian New Wave with Breaker Morantdriving, one of the greatest courtroom dramas. One of his films, Driving Miss Daisy, won the Academy Award for Best Picture, though he wasn’t nominated for Best Director. And he directed what may well be the best film ever made about the Christian experience, Tender Mercies.

Not only that, Black Robe was about a topic readers of this blog might guess would be of interest to me. (I guess you don’t really need to have read the blog, just its title.) This blog was made for stories like this film about a missionary priest, but it's taken me nearly thirty years to watch this film.

When it opened, back in the day, it didn’t play in a theater near me -- and it wasn’t in theaters for long. It hasn’t played much on TV and isn’t available on any streaming services. The DVD has been available for years, but I can only justify so many DVD purchases for this profit-free blog. But as I was getting ready for missionary movie churches month, I found Black Robe at the public library.

Brian Moore wrote the screenplay for this film, based on his own novel. The story opens in Quebec (New France) in the 17th century (1634 to be precise). Father Laforge, a Jesuit priest, came to serve in a distant Huron mission, 1500 miles from Quebec.

Laforge is to be assisted on the journey by Daniel, a lay assistant who knows the Algonquin language better than the priest. They travel with a group of Algonquins who serve as guides and canoe paddlers. Daniel is promised an opportunity to study in Europe in return for his assistance on the mission. 

Daniel says he wants to go on the journey for “the greater glory of God,” but he is unsure about the necessity of the mission. He believes the natives are already “true Christians” who live in harmony and have their own vision of the afterlife. In spite of these doubts, he joins Laforge on the journey.

Laforge is warned about what may be in store on the journey. Previous missionaries have been attacked by hostile tribes. Some were killed and some were mutilated. Traders warn the priest of the dangers. “Priests have had fingers cut off. Or they may cut off something even more useful.” (This statement was followed by lewd snickering).

Before leaving on the journey, Laforge observes some Algonquins in worship. They seem to believe the focus of worship is the clock near the altar. The natives wait anxiously for the chime. “It is alive; it talks,” one man says. We later learn the Algonquins believe the clock is the leader of the Jesuits. They believe the clock gives orders to the Jesuits, whereas the Algonquins receive their direction from their dreams.

The journey to the Huron village is hazardous, with physical and spiritual obstacles. Daniel falls in love with one of the Algonquin women, Annuka. Laforge spies the two making love in the forest. Laforge confronts Daniel and admits that he too struggles with the sin of lust. 

Laforge has wage disputes with his Algonquin guides. The weather and the elements are daunting. But the greatest danger is when the group is captured by an enemy tribe.

There is no doubting Father Laforge's courage. He is willing to put his life on the line for the sake of the Native Americans. Viewers of the film, however, must wrestle with the question of whether the Native Americans need saving. Is Daniel right? Are they already true Christians? Modern viewers are likely to be uncomfortable with the idea that people need the unique Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But if the Gospel is true, everyone needs the Gospel of Jesus. Father Laforge, at times, seems to believe that the Algonquins and Hurons need to become not only Christians but also Europeans. The Algonquins are not impressed when the priest’s description of heaven doesn’t include sex or tobacco. Frankly, his description of heaven seemed rather bland to me as well.

Father Laforge does make it to the mission. He finds one priest dead and another sick, but the Huron people are willing to listen to the new priest if he will baptize them (which they believe will heal sickness).

Father Laforge accomplishes what he set out to achieve. The novel was based on fact, and a priest did indeed reach the Huron Mission. The final title card of the film says this: “Fifteen years later, the Hurons, having accepted Christianity, were routed and killed by their enemies, the Iroquois. The Jesuit mission to the Hurons was abandoned and the Jesuits returned to Quebec.”

I was happy finally to get to see this film, but sadly, I can’t give Father Laforge our highest Movie Church rating. I admire his willingness to sacrifice everything for the natives of North America, but he doesn’t seem to be willing to truly understand them. So we’re giving Father Laforge 3 out of 4 Steeples.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Missionary Movie Churches Month Begins with: The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
“The Call" is a term used in some Christian circles. It's generally short for “the call to ministry,” particularly to the mission field. Notice that little word “to,” because it’s important.

It’s a positive word. Going “to” God’s work -- as opposed to running “from” something. People do that, too -- take up missionary work to get away from something else.

Going off to join the French Foreign Legion is an old movie cliche, and not just in films like Beau Geste. Many films and cartoons mention it as a option when a man is besieged by problems, but the Legion was never an option for people who don’t like guns and sand. For most of the institution’s history, it wasn't an option for women. So where else could a person go to get away from it all? How about the mission field?

Becoming a missionary was the escape of choice for characters in both versions of Murder on the Orient Express we watched here at Movie Churches, and it also seems to be the choice of Patricia (Anjelica Huston), the mother of grown sons, in Wes Anderson’s 2007 film, The Darjeeling Limited.

The film tells the story of Francis (Owen Wilson), a troubled man, who asks his two brothers, Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), to join him on a spiritual journey to explore the holy sites of India. He has quite the itinerary, with stops at such places as the Temple of a Thousand Bulls (“probably the most spiritual place in the world”), but Francis hasn't told his brothers his true goal: finding their mother.

He eventually tells them, “I hired a private detective to track down mom. She’s living in a convent in the foothills of the Himalayas. She became a nun, you know how she is. She’s probably suffered some kind of mental collapse.”

The brothers were quite upset when their mother didn’t attend their father's funeral after his sudden, accidental death. (The brothers didn't attend the service either, which is a story at the heart of one of the film’s flashbacks.) Peter and Jack aren't certain Francis should have tried to contact their mother once the detective found her. And they don't like that he sent her a message saying they're coming to visit her.

Their mother responds with this letter: “Dear boys: Bad timing. This morning I received the details of your travel plans in a document from a man named Brendan. Unfortunately, I cannot receive you now. A neighboring village requires our urgent assistance due to an emergency, not to mention the arrival of a man-eating tiger in the region. You should come in the spring when you’ll be safe. You must know how sad I am to experience this long separation. I hope you’ll eventually understand and forgive me. God bless and keep you with Mary’s benevolent guidance and the light of Christ’s enduring grace. All my love, your mother, Sister Patricia Whitman”

This letter seems to have many religious bells and whistles, but what seems to be lacking is genuine love and concern for her grown sons.

They come to see her anyway, finding her at a convent that also seems to serve as an orphanage. She greets her sons with these words, “Didn’t you get my letter? I told to come back in the spring. Welcome, my beautiful boys.”

We see her teaching children and even worshiping with them (as they sing “Praise Him in the Morning.”) The place is decorated with crosses (interestingly, not crucifixes.) The children play and seem to be happy.

The sons ask her why she didn’t come to their father -- her husband’s -- funeral. She answers, “I didn’t want to. I live here, these people need me.” But she tells her sons they must enjoy the time they have together (“Let’s make an agreement. We’ll enjoy ourselves and stop feeling sorry for ourselves because it’s not attractive.”) She takes their breakfast orders for the next day (actually making assumptions about what each of her sons desire), and leaves them for the night.

And the next morning, the boys find that she's gone. It's a little difficult to believe she was in India because people needed her. She runs so easily.

Paul’s instructions for the qualifications for church leadership discuss handling personal affairs well and being attentive to one's own children. That doesn’t mean having to look after grown children, particularly the annoying grown men that are Patricia's sons. But a leader should be making decisions with honesty, openness, and integrity, which doesn’t seem to be the case with this woman. Instead of being called to the mission field, it seems like she's just running from her family.

That’s why Patricia the Nun received only 2 out of 4 Steeples in our Movie Church clergy rating.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Science Fiction Church Month Goes to the Black

Serenity (2005)

Usually, on Friday we publish a new post here at Movie Churches, and on Mondays, we post on the new blog, TV Churches. This month, we’ve been looking at science fiction films here, and at TV Churches, we’ve been looking at westerns. April ends with an intersection between the two: at TV Churches today, we’re posting about the short-lived cult favorite, Firefly .  It didn’t seem right to post about the feature film, Serenity, before we posted about the show that led to it.

The TV show followed the adventures of Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew as they sought to make a living with any work they could find, legal or otherwise. They also took passengers on the Firefly class ship, Serenity, and two of those passengers provided a plot line that the show’s cancelation left unresolved. 

After Doctor Simon Tan (Sean Maher) rescues his sister, River (Summer Glau) from a government facility. The Alliance (seemingly the sole government of the universe) wants River back and seems willing to do anything to retrieve them. They were still running when the series ended.

Serenity, the film, reveals more of the reasons the government wants River and brings that hunt to a conclusion. As the film begins, a couple of series regulars aren't on the ship. Inara (Morena Baccarin) is living on a different planet, as is Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), but Book is remembered by the crew. When crewman Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) wonders why the Reivers are such savage, beastlike killers, Kaylee (Jewel Staite) quotes Shepherd Book, “They was men who just reached the edge of space, saw a vast nothingness and went bibbledy over it.” (Considering that Book is a man of education and careful speech, it is unlikely this was an exact quote.)

When Serenity is pursued by Alliance forces, the crew seeks haven at a planet called, well, "Haven." They are greeted by Shepherd Book. Mal thanks him for his hospitality. 

Book asks, “You got a plan?” 

“Hiding ain’t a plan?” Mal answers with a question. Book goes on to advise Mal about the best ways to deal with the Alliance.

Book: Only one thing going to walk you through this, Mal. Belief.

Mal: You know I always look to you for counsel, but sermons make me sleepy, Shepherd. I ain’t looking for help from on high. That’s a long wait for a train that don’t come.

Book: When I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God? They’ll come at you sideways. That’s how they think. It’s how they move. Sidle up and smile. Hit you where you’re weak. Sort of man they’re like to send believes hard. Kills and never asks why.

Mal: It’s of interest to me how much you seem to know about that world.

Book: I wasn’t born a shepherd, Mal.

Mal: You’ll have to tell me about that sometime.

Book: No, I don’t.

And Book never does. The audience is also curious about the origin of Shepherd Book, but when we see Book again in the film, he’s dying. The Alliance attacks the people of Haven for assisting the Tans.

Mal finds Book as he speaks his last words.

Mal: It should have been me.

Book: That crossed my mind. I shot him down. I killed the ship that killed us. Not very Christian of me.

Mal: You did what’s right.

Book: Coming from you, that means almost nothing. I’m long gone.

Mal: No, Doc will bring you around. I look to be bored by many more sermons before you slip. Just don’t move.

Book: You can’t order me around, boy. I’m not one of your crew.

Mal: Yes, you are.

Book: I don’t care what you believe. Just believe it. Whatever you…

And so, Book dies, urging Mal to believe… In something. This bothers me a little. Shepherd Book is presented in the show as a Christian, and yet he doesn’t urge Mal to believe in Jesus, just to believe in something.

Which is odd, because the villain of the film, the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is a man who believes quite strongly, but in the wrong things. He believes there can be a universe without sin, and he can help the Alliance bring that about. He believes in false things and is willing to sacrifice himself and kill others for those beliefs.

Perhaps though, his reasoning is not unlike that G. K. Chesterton wrote about in his novel, The Ball and the Cross. That story tells of a Christian and a rationalist who battle, and Chesterton argues that at least the rationalist has the advantage of belief and the pursuit of truth.

Book put his faith in good things: in Mal and his crew, and more importantly, in the Christian Gospel --which is why we’re giving him our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Is flashback Friday still a thing?

On Monday, TV Churches is looking at a show that led to the Movie Church we're looking at this week. We don't want to spoil the surprise, so both posts will be coming out on Monday. 

Instead, let's look back at some science fiction movie churches we talked about two years ago. 

On a related note, does anyone remember what hymn they sang in War of the Worlds? We've been asked, and we don't know.

One more semi-science fiction movie (2015 repost)

Left Behind (2014)
Last month we looked at churches in movies that were nominated for or won an Oscar for Best Picture. This film was also up for awards last month, for actor and screenplay and overall production -- but not for the Oscars. This film had multiple nominations for the Razzies, which are given for the worst achievements in filmmaking.

I can't tell you how faithful this book is to the first book in Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' bestselling series of novels, because I only made it a few pages into the reading. The book struck me as rather hackneyed, starting with the character names of airline pilot Ray Steele (Nick Cage) and news reporter Cam "Buck" Williams (Chad Michael Murray, who "Gilmore Girls" and "Agent Carter" fans may recognize as Special Agent Tristan). But from what I can tell, though the names haven't changed, the plot has been in the transition from book to film.

The film is in many ways a remake of the widely reviled disaster film "Airport 1975" (which was released, incidentally, in 1975). Both films are about a commercial jetliner that collides with a small commercial plane and the bulk of the film deals with the attempt to safely land the jet. The slight difference in the plots of the two films is that in the first film, the collision is caused by the small plane's pilot having a heart attack, wherein this film has the small plane's pilot vanish in the Rapture, God's homecoming for millions of His people.

The action, writing, and acting hit great heights of cheesiness. In one scene, Steele's daughter, Chloe, returns home from college and is greeted by her little brother, Raymie. The brother asks, "Did you buy me a present at the airport?" Because, being the son of an airline pilot, the kid knows all the best shopping deals are found at airports. She lets the kid look in her bag and he exclaims, "A new baseball mitt? That's just what I've been asking for!" I don't know which is odder: that the kid is surprised to get what he's been asking for or that Cloe managed to find a baseball mitt at an airport.

The special effects are CGI of a "Sharknado" level of excellence. We get end-of-the-world vanishings, car crashes, and fires. And there is no more special effect in films these days than Nic Cage going all manic. The whole thing is really horrible but vastly entertaining.

Fortunately, these reviews aren't about the quality of the film, which is, you may have discerned, awful, but about churches in the film. It's not even about the theology of the film; which is, if you are concerned about such things, written from a dispensational, premillennial, pre-tribulation perspective. Now I'm not at all sure that this is how God is going to do things, but I'm pretty sure the End Times won't have a Sci-Fi channel vibe to it.

No, I'm not here to review the quality of the film or its theology, but just the church in the film. After the rapture and while Ray and Buck are trying to land that plane (which also has gun-toting crazy mother Jordin Sparks on board), Chloe goes to her mother Irene's church.

Chloe's mom's to decision to become Christian had caused conflict with her husband, Ray. (Pre-rapture, Raymie told Chloe their dad said, "Pastor Barnes was washing mom's brain." What Ray probably really said was "Pastor Barnes brainwashed your mom". But the kid misstates the phrase for comic effect. The film is full of humor like that.)

Anyway, after the rapture, Chloe goes to her mom's church. It's empty, except for Pastor Barnes. Chloe asks how he could still be there since all the Christians were supposedly taken in the rapture. Pastor Barnes says that though he preached about faith in Jesus and the rapture, he'd never believed it.

Which poses an interesting question: Is a church doing worthwhile work if it preaches the Word truly, but the pastor doesn't believe it? After all, at least Irene came to faith and was raptured. Raymie was raptured as well, but it's never clear whether he came to faith or this rapture had relatively high criteria for the age of accountability.

Overall, though, I wouldn't want to go to a church where the pastor doesn't believe what he's saying. Now as for this church in a post-rapture state, it might be nice to visit for the quiet.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

In Theaters Now

Amazing Grace (2018)
Recently we were talking with a friend who sings in our church choir. She wishes people wouldn’t applaud at the conclusion of an anthem in church because it's worship rather than performance.

I have sympathy with this view. Mindy mentioned that she appreciated a church in Nashville where the musicians played off to the side of the sanctuary, where they couldn’t be seen. But this week we saw a movie that wouldn't exist if you ruled out performance in churches altogether -- a wonderful “new” concert film called Amazing Grace.

I put the quotes around the word "new" because this film now in theaters was filmed back in 1972. At that time, Aretha Franklin decided to make an album of Gospel music and to record it in a church. Director Sydney Pollack was brought in to record the event, apparently for television, but mistakes were made. 

The film crew didn’t use clapper boards to mark sequences in the film, so they lost track of which audio tracks went with the film. The Queen of Soul's performance at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church was released as an album, but the film never was. Computer technology allowed the film to finally be put together and released.

And what a performance it was.

Franklin possesses one of the greatest voices to ever sing blues, rock, pop, and soul. She was featured in the best Blues (and car crash) movie ever made. And she has an amazing voice for Gospel music. She sings classic songs such as the title tune and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but she also sings James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” as Gospel. She gives her all, sweat glistening on her brow. She is backed up by a full choir.

The choir's leader, the Rev. James Cleveland, makes it clear that this is a “religious service,” not just a performance. The name of Jesus is continually raised and praised. Aretha’s father, the Rev. Carl Franklin, came to the event as well. He mentioned how a woman had told him she hoped Aretha would come back to the church, and Franklin assured her, “Aretha has never left the church.”

The music is wonderful, and for that alone I’d urge you to see this film. But there is one more bonus to watching Amazing Grace. The choir's assistant director is named Alexander Hamilton. I don’t know if he was named after the founding father, but I do know you that Amazing Grace affords you the opportunity to tell people, honestly, “I’m going to see Hamilton at the theater” without spending $1000 for a ticket.
This is a church service I (like Mick Jagger) would very much like to have attended. This movie church earns our highest rating of 4 Steeples.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Science Fiction Month Tries Again: The Fountain

The Fountain (2006)
The Fountain opens with a verse from the very beginning of the Bible, Genesis 3: 24, “After He drove the man out, He placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way of the tree of life.” The man mentioned is, of course, Adam. After Adam and Eve rebelled against God by eating of the Tree of Knowledge, God kicked them out of the Garden of Eden and set up a guard to prevent them from eating of the Tree of Life that would make them immortal.

This 2006 film, written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, is about a search for the source of immortality, the Fountain or the Tree of Life. It is also a film that is really, really strange. There are three storylines threaded together: a contemporary story of a scientist researching a cure for the disease that is killing his wife, a mystic future time traveler seeking a source of immortality, and the story of the first character seen in the film, a conquistador named Tomas (Hugh Jackman, playing a role in all three stories) who battles two priests, one Mayan and the other, the Grand Inquisitor. Since this is a blog about Christian churches and clergy, I’m really only interested in that story set during the Spanish Inquisition.

Tomas has been commissioned by Queen Isabella (Rachel Weisz, also in all three stories) to find the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, believed to be located in the New World. But his search is opposed by the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisitor seems to believe he is doing the work of the angels commissioned in Genesis 3 -- which does provide an interesting tension. Shouldn’t we honor God’s command found there? Wouldn’t a search for the Tree of Life be opposed? Especially since God provided another source of immortality found in the Cross and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But this Inquisitor is not a person to root for. Historically, governments initiated prosecution of heretics and the church was usually less fierce in prosecuting unbelievers, seeking redemption rather than punishment, yet this Inquisitor wants to kill people. He says that he will seek confessions, then kill the confessors -- which makes no sense. He has the victims held upside down by chains, then dropped to their deaths. So this representative of the Catholic Church, the Grand Inquisitor, receives our lowest rating of One Steeple. The Inquisitors of history were more complex.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Science Fiction Month Continues! The Purge:Election Year

Aside from Jesse Jackson, I can’t think of any ordained minister who's made a credible run for President of the United States. There was Mike Huckabee, but he didn’t get very far in the process.

I got to thinking about why this might be. Traditionally, almost every President has identified as Christian -- some more convincingly than others -- but an ordained minister is generally ordained by a specific group and has to affirm specific beliefs that many people will disagree with. Also, I think a pastor who understands his or her work properly knows that proclaiming the Gospel is more important than anything a politician can do.

In 2016’s The Purge: Election Year, the leading candidate for President of the New United States is the Reverend Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), who wears his clerical collar and, in his ads, speaks with a cross in the background.

The Purge: Election Year is the third of the series of four Purge films, which imagine a future United States that has a day without consequences. One day a year, Purge Day, people can break any law without penalty including, perhaps especially, murder. This day allows people to work out their aggression, but even more importantly it brings down the cost of government social spending, welfare, Medicare, social security, etc.

In this film, a sizable portion of the American public has begun to question the wisdom of the day of lawlessness. One candidate for President wants to do away with the Purge, but it's not the minister. Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who lost her family during a Purge, is campaigning on the platform of ending the annual night of chaos. The establishment candidate supporting the 25 years of rule by the NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America) Party is the Reverend Owens.

At an electoral debate, Senator Roan and the Rev. Owens discuss their plans for the upcoming Purge night.

Senator Owens asks, “And where will you be spending Purge Night, Minister?”

Rev. Owens replies, “I will once again be presiding over my party’s Midnight Purge Mass because I still believe in it.”

Senator Owens says, “The Midnight Purge Mass? Where our great NFFA leaders gather together and slaughter innocents. Is murder our new religion?”

Rev. Owens replies, "'Murder is our new religion.' That’s snappy. No, the Midnight Purge Mass where NFFA leaders gather to celebrate the night that saved this country from economic ruin. Now, America is built on sacrifice, from the revolution all the way up to WWII. And our Lord God sacrificed His own Son. That’s why we must sacrifice every year to rid ourselves of hatred. Now, the stats are undeniable, there has been far less crime…”

It is true that the Rev spends Purge night at a church, Our Lady of Sorrows. It is a rather Catholic sounding name for a church, but Owens does seem more Protestant-y, if you can use either term for a branch of “Christianity” that advocates murder for one night a year.

How do we at Movie Churches evaluate this church and minister? The advocacy of murder, along with theft and rape, on Purge Night is a really a black mark on their record, but I do have other problems with them.

For instance, the church is much too liturgical for my tastes. We see the Purge Mass and hear the liturgy of the service. In a dark sanctuary with candles lit, the congregation chants, “May the Purge cleanse us! Purge and purify! Blessed be America, a nation reborn.” 

They chant these things, especially “Purge and purify,” again and again until the words lose any meaning. And I have a problem with that mixing national patriotism with religion. I mean, I have problems with a congregation singing “God Bless America” in a service, let alone this.

And I have real problems with Owens’ theology. He preaches, “Well, it’s been a long journey to get away from the lies and self-deception to this place of knowledge and awareness of who we really are. People of flesh, immensely flawed. It’s hard to see the ugly truth, but change can only come from acceptance. And change we must because it is our Godly duty to get rid of the fury and the hatred that poisons our souls and makes us sick. Makes us ugly. Tonight, we, the leaders of this great country, will sin, scour, sanitize, and sterilize our souls until we are free again, and this country will be better for it. We are not hypocrites. We practice what we preach. Purge and purify, say it with me.

“Jesus died for our sins, and now our modern day martyrs will die for our trespasses. Our martyr’s name is Lawrence, a lifelong drug addict.” (A bound man is brought out to be killed.) “He wants to make amends. He wants to serve his God and his country and his government. Let’s thank Lawrence for his gift.”

I have all kinds of problems with this sermon. Yes, Scripture does acknowledge our sinful nature (“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”). But Scripture never suggests we can deal with sin by indulging in sin. That’s just stupid. But even worse is the statement that additional sacrifices for sin are needed after the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Owens really needs to spend time in Hebrews 10, wherein the author of the book explains that there is no sacrifice needed after that of Jesus. And in Hebrews 10:26: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left.” So, to use technical terminology for Owens and his congregation, if they continue in their ways, they are “screwed.”

Is there anything good to be said for this church? I can only think of one thing. The church architecture is nice. We learn that this church in Washington D.C. is one of four built on this site. The first was built by George Washington. (I believe the historians used for this film also worked on the National Treasure films.) A series of tunnels were built under the church prior to the First Civil War to be used by abolitionists. Toward the film’s climax (spoilers), a gang plots to use those tunnels to enter the church and assassinate Owens and all the other leaders of the NFFA party. But, you know, tunnels are always cool.

Even with the tunnels, though, Minister Edwidge Owens and his congregation earn our lowest Movie Church ranking of 1 Steeple.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

In Theaters Now: Unplanned

Unplanned (2019)
This film was birthed, as it were, in controversy. Unplanned tells the story of Abby Johnson, the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic who became a pro-life activist. Produced by Pure Flix, a company known for Christian, family entertainment, this was their first R-rated film -- which is part of the controversy. Pure Flix hadn't expected the R rating. Radio and television stations wouldn't accept advertising for the film. Twitter temporarily suspended the film's account. TV talk show host Samantha Bee urged her viewers not to see the film.

Unplanned is based on the true story of Abby Johnson, a Planned Parenthood clinic director who was won over to the pro-life movement -- which explains the controversy. Abortion continues to be on of the most contentious issue in American society and politics, and in its opening minutes, the film portrays a very graphic depiction of abortion (the reason for the R rating and why many choose to keep a distance from this film.) I suspect that the rating and this graphic scene are why this Christian film, unlike most these days, features no fading TV or movie stars. No Lee Majors or Faye Dunaway. Not even Corbin Bernsen. There don't seem to be many Christian films these days without Bernsen.

LIke most Pure Flix products, this is not a subtle film. Johnson’s boss in the film, Cheryl (Robia Scott, who played Jenny Calendar on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and is the closest thing to a star in the film), would be twisting her mustache if she had one -- she's completely cruel and heartless. The directors of the local branch of Coalition for Life, Doug (Brooks Ryan) and Marilisa (Emma Elle Roberts), are compassionate and without guile. 

I was impressed with the depiction of Abby (Ashley Bratcher). She joins Planned Parenthood out of a concern for the good of women, and the film, based on her book, show her flaws along with strengths. She lies to her child about her work. She makes compromises when she shouldn’t and takes a hard line when it isn’t wise. And this may seem like a small thing, but we see Abby having a glass of wine with her husband and talking about seeing an R rated films. Not typical behavior in a Christian film. The film has the weaknesses inherent in most Christian films (especially from Pure Flix), but Johnson’s story is compelling and worth telling.

But we aren’t here to make a political statement at Movie Churches. We’re here to look at how churches and clergy are depicted in films. 

The film isn't a story of Abby Johnson who becomes a Christian. Johnson was raised in a Christian home and remained true to her faith. Though her first marriage (the wedding was in a church) was to a jerk who wasn't a Christian (not that Christians aren't sometimes jerks), her second husband is a Christian and a good guy. And throughout her time working in Planned Parenthood, they attend what seems to be an evangelical church where she feels comfortable. (In one church scene, though, Johnson seems uncomfortable. The pastor reads from Psalm 139 “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”) 

Abby's not the only person at the clinic who goes to church. Another woman who works there was angered when the priest at her Catholic Church preached about the evil of abortion. Both churches seem to be willing to take difficult cultural stands, and yet show compassion to those who disagree.

There is another tragic reference to a church in the film. While still a director at Planned Parenthood, Abby hears the news of the murder of Dr. George Tiller. One of the few practitioners of late-term abortions, the doctor was shot and killed while serving as an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church.

So the actual churches come across quite well in the film. And Coalition for Life, as a parachurch organization, comes across quite well too, particularly in their dedication to prayer at the gates of the clinic. But some of the pro-life protestors at Johnson’s clinic aren't in the least admirable as they yell at women who enter the clinic that they “should have kept their knees together.” Their awfulness brings our Movie Churches rating from 4 steeples down to 3.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Science Fiction Month Week #1: Codgers in Space!

Space Cowboys (2000)
Though you might not know it from listening to some militant atheists (or some isolated Christians), science and religion are not enemies. Many scientists believe in God. They manage to reconcile their faith with knowledge and believe science reinforces their faith. 

For instance, the epitome of Scientific Adventurer is the astronaut. Many are committed Christians. Jeffrey Williams, a commander of the International Space Station, talks of proof of God in space, “You see God in all the details.” Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin claims his experience on the moon led him to become serious about his faith in Christ. And John Glenn was an elder in his Presbyterian Church.

These examples of Christian astronauts in the real world lead one to hope that the astronaut pastor of Clint Eastwood’s sci-fi adventure, Space Cowboys, might be a compelling character; an advocate of both knowledge and faith. Those hopes are quickly dashed by the first appearance of James Garner's’ Rev. “Tank” Sullivan.

Space Cowboys is the story of aging astronauts who never had a chance to go into space. When the orbit of a Russian satellite begins to deteriorate, the elders are the only ones who know the technology that can fix things, and the repair can only be done onsite. Clint Eastwood plays Frank Corvin, who assembles his old team for the mission.

He goes to see Tank on a Sunday morning as he preaches to his American Baptist congregation. Garner, as Tank, begins his sermon, “Romans… I mean Chronicles. Chronicles. Ah, yes. In the 40th year, Amariah begat Zadok…Who begat Libni...The brother of Uzziah. No, that’s not it either. Just… No, uh…” He then fumbles with his notes, drops them, and as he reaches to pick them up, gazes at a Hawaiian hula dancer doll he has on a shelf behind his pulpit.

First of all, what pastor would ever confuse Romans with Chronicles? The words are nothing alike, and they're in completely different parts of the Bible. Secondly, there are two books of Chronicles. Is he talking about First Chronicles or Second Chronicles? And if a pastor is going to preaching through one of these genealogies, he’s going to practice the names. It all seems to say, “I don’t care about preaching, so sit back and be bored.” (The congregation seems to agree.)

When Tank notices Clint, though, he suddenly becomes animated as he talks about the days of youth,
“Once upon a time, four of the best pilots in the U.S. Air Force trained to fly into space. They flew at the speed of sound to the very top of the sky… cheating death and falling 20 miles out of the sky.” He seems like a completely different man when he’s talking about flying rather than about the Word of God. I saw this and thought, “This guy should not be a pastor.”

It doesn’t take long for Frank to convince Tank to join in on the mission. When Frank asks, he replies, “I have a flock, I have grandchildren. I’m going to have to pray about this.” 

Frank asks him not to pray long. Tank immediately replies, “I’m receiving a word. Why the hell not?” He doesn’t seem to take the discipline of prayer very seriously.

He doesn’t take prayer very seriously when asked to pray at the beginning of their mission either. He says he’s going to recite the Shepherd Prayer. Spoiler: it’s not Psalm 23

He quotes Alan Shepard, “Oh, Lord, please don’t let us screw up.” Many lives are at stake on this mission, but he merely prays not to be embarrassed.

But as an astronaut, Tank performs his mission well. He seems to be a good astronaut in spite of being a lousy pastor. You can glorify God in almost any kind of work, but it doesn’t seem that Tank was called to be a pastor. He could have perhaps brought God more glory working with NASA or becoming a high school science teacher, or doing any other job that used his skills and experience.
That’s why the Reverend Tank earns only two Movie Church Steeples.

(H/T to my father-in-law, Henry Date, for suggesting this film.)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Small Town Churches 5: The Last Song

The Last Song (2010)
A pastor friend of mine said a congregation should always ask the question, “If our church vanished tomorrow, would the community notice?” His point was that many churches put all their focus on meeting the needs (and whims) of their own people without thinking about the needs of those outside their walls. That isn’t how a church should operate.

So you can at least say that people notice when the church in 2010's The Last Song burns down. Everyone in Wrightsville Beach, Georgia seems to gossip about the fire, but they don’t seem particularly upset about it.

The film was written by Nicholas Sparks but isn’t exactly based on the novel of the same name. He was contracted for the novel and screenplay at the same time and finished the screenplay first. It tells the story of Ronnie (Miley Cyrus), a piano prodigy, who abandons her instrument when her father, Steve Miller (Greg Kinnear), abandons her.

When he asks Ronnie and her younger brother, Jonah, to come and live with him for a summer, Ronnie spends as little time as possible with her father. Instead, she spends her time making friends on the beach. Jonah joins his father on a project, building a stained glass window.

In time we learn that many suspect Ronnie’s father set the church fire. The film’s opening credits show the fire raging, with firefighters pulling a man -- who we later learn was Ronnie's father, Steve Miller -- from the building. Miller tells his daughter he spent much of his time in that church as a child. When he returned to his hometown, he would go to the church to play the piano.

He is suffering from an unnamed but terminal disease, and he takes a variety of drugs that at times incapacitate him. He believes that while in the church, he passed out and knocked over a lamp which started the fire. Everyone in town seems to agree that Miller was responsible for the fire.

But after her father is hospitalized, Ronnie hears another story. Ronnie’s boyfriend, Will (Liam Hemsworth), tells her that his best friend, Scott, started the fire but was afraid of getting into trouble. Ronnie urges Scott and Will to confess to her father, and they do, but her father tells them that since he's dying anyway, they don't need to confess to the police or the press. Steve might as well continue to take the blame for the fire.

As Steve lingers in the hospital, Jonah recruits Will to work on the stained glass window that we know now will replace the window that was lost in the fire. Steve does die. But at his service, the stained glass he and his son worked on is in the church where his funeral is held. The only time we see the church used is at this funeral. (There is a wedding in the film, with a minister, but that service is held in the backyard of a mansion.)

A minister conducts the funeral service, but Ronnie gives the only eulogy we hear from the service. She plays a song her father began to compose and that she completed. After the service, Ronnie has a chance to talk with Will, who she hadn’t seen for weeks, but the minister pulls her away to meet a friend of her father’s. We never see a minister in Steve’s hospital room or caring in any way for these two kids losing their father.

But the church does have fine stained glass. In the real world, stained glass windows are the work of trained artists who’ve spent years perfecting their craft  -- or, I don't know, a very ill man and his preteen son?

We’re giving the burned and rebuilt church of this film, and its nameless ministers, a fairly minimal Two Steeple Rating.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Small Town Movie Churches 4: Fried Green Tomatoes

Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
I’ve seen pastors do all kinds of stunts to tweak church attendance (or at least, Sunday School attendance). I’ve seen pastors give visitors prizes like chocolate and Starbucks coupons and movie tickets. I’ve seen pastors agree to sit in the dunk tank for hitting attendance goals. Pastors have agreed to shave a beard or even their scalps if all the seats were filled. But until I saw Fried Green Tomatoes I hadn’t seen a pastor willing to commit perjury to get someone to come to church.

Based on Fannie Flagg’s novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, this 1991 film (taking just the first three words of the book’s title) is intended to be a tale of female empowerment. The story of Kathy Bates as Evelyn, a woman trying to save her marriage to a negligent husband, bookends the film. She meets an old woman (Jessica Tandy) who begins to tell her about two young women in the small Southern town of Whistle Stop between the World Wars.

Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) was a rebel who spends time at the poker hall and speakeasy. Her friend Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker), is a good girl who leads the youth ministry at the First Baptist Church. (Spoiler: we're supposed to be very surprised at the end of the film that when we find out the old woman telling the story was Idgie. Who else would have been telling this story?)

It seems that Whistle Stop, Alabama has something in common with other small towns all over the country -- like Weed, California, and Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Years ago, I was a groomsman in a friend's wedding in rural northern California. The venue options for a bachelor party were limited, so we ended up in a Motel 6 room, and bottles were passed. I talked to a local, and she said people in the town divided into two groups, the churchgoers and the party people. People pretty much had to choose between being a part of one group or the other. This isn’t true of all small towns we’ve been to. In Texas, we heard many people talk about how you’ll see the same people in the bar Saturday night as you see in church Sunday morning. We heard the same thing at a bar in Oklahoma years later.

Whistle Stop seems to be the same kind of place. Idgie is a regular at the poker hall and Ruth can be found at the church, but their friendship draws them to the other’s territory. As Ruth teaches a Sunday School lesson on Job, Idgie listens in through the window. On Ruth’s birthday, Idgie takes her to the pool hall where she gets her friend drunk.

But the two friends are separated when Ruth leaves Alabama to marry a man named Frank and goes with him to Georgia -- but Frank is an abusive husband. Ingie visits Ruth, and with the help of friends (including George, a large black man) takes her pregnant friend back home.

Ruth has a son, and Frank goes back to Alabama to get this son. Frank goes missing, and Idgie is accused of murdering him.

During the trial, the Reverend Herbert Scroggins (Richard Riehle) is called as a witness. Idgie has known him her whole life, but that's not necessarily a good thing. As a small child, she attended a wedding the Reverend conducted and used a mirror to reflect light into the minister’s eyes. Idgie's brother died, and the Reverend conducted the funeral. And when he preached against the poker hall, Idgie shouted and mocked from the back of a truck as she rode to the poker hall, calling him a snake. Their relationship was, to say the least, testy.

So Idgie is concerned about what he'll say at her trial. He's offered a Bible to swear on, but he says he’ll swear on his own, then testifies that on the night of Frank’s disappearance, Idgie was at a church revival.

The prosecutor questions whether the revival wasn’t two days before Frank’s alleged murder. The Reverend asks, “Have you ever been to a Baptist revival? That revival went for three nights.”

Of course, Idgie wasn’t at the revival. She was at the poker hall, but she was called away because of a disturbance at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Frank had come to steal away his child. He attacked Idgie’s friend, George, and another friend, Sipsey (Cicely Tyson) hit him over the head with a frying pan. Frank was killed. Idgie came to the cafe and helped cover up the killing.

But the Reverend’s false testimony was enough to free Idgie. After the trial, she asked him why he was willing to lie after swearing on a Bible. He admitted the book wasn't a Bible --  it was a copy of Moby Dick, and he committed perjury in exchange for Ruth's promise that Idgie would regularly attend church. Idgie says she would have rather have gone to jail but apparently keeps to Ruth’s commitment.

Now, it’s swell that the Reverend Scroggins cares about Ruth and Idgie, but integrity is essential to a pastor’s call and ministry. He shouldn’t be telling lies of any kind, let alone under oath in a court of law. (And no, swearing on Melville rather than the Word of God is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.)

Still, Scroggins’ compassion does save him from out lowest Movie Church Steeple rating, so he gets a little better than our lowest rating. Two Steeples for First Baptist of Whistle Stop.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Small Town Movie Churches III: Lars and the Real GIrl

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
You wouldn’t expect a film about a sex toy to be so...well… nice. But “nice” certainly describes 2007’s Lars and the Real Girl. "Nice" is unusual for a film featuring a porn product, but films about small towns don't often do "nice" anymore, either.

Small towns used to be happy places in movies. Who wouldn’t want to live in the Bedford Falls of It’s a Wonderful Life? That used to be a fairly typical depiction of small towns in films: happy places where everyone cared for each other. Small towns in contemporary films tend to be sinister places with dark secrets -- and few small towns have secrets darker than those in another recent film, Get Out.

This change perhaps comes from changes in American demographics that filmmakers reflect. At the beginning of the 20th century, most Americans lived in rural areas. Since the mid 20th century, most Americans live in big cities or suburbs. So when George Bailey was running along Main Street, most Americans could relate. When Chris Washington (in Get Out) leaves Uber and GrubHub behind, a majority of Americans can relate to his feelings. Sure, in Hallmark movies, small towns are friendly places, but in many feature films, they’re ominous.

Even more atypical, the small town church in Lars and the Real Girl is nice as well.

Ryan Gosling plays Lars, a strange young man who has a difficult time relating to people. He's particularly awkward with women. One day he orders a life-size woman doll from an adult website and, once she arrives, introduces her to people as his new girlfriend. Taking a cue from a Dr. Dagmar, a family doctor and psychiatrist (Patricia Clarkson), people in town agree to treat “Bianca” as if she were a real girl in hopes that it will help Lars work out emotional and psychological issues.

An interesting thing about Lars’ relationship with Bianca is that it is chaste. He has his “girlfriend” stay in a spare bedroom at his brother and sister-in-law's house, saying  “She’s really religious; could she sleep at your place?” (His brother, Gus, is played by Paul Schneider -- who also played Mark Brendanawicz on Parks and Recreation, one of the great TV shows about small-town life.)

Lars introduces Bianca to people as a missionary and an orphan raised by nuns. “God made her to help people.”

The really interesting thing, for us here at Movie Churches, the local church, Holy Grace Lutheran Church. Before Bianca’s arrival, we see Lars listening to a sermon by the Reverend Bock (R.D. Reid). He’s talking about how the world is full of books and books of law. But, Reverend Bock says, “There is one law; love one another, that is the one true law.”

We see a meeting of some kind of church board that debates about how they should treat Lars and Bianca. One man at the meeting says they should have nothing to do with Bianca, but a woman on the board points out that another woman in the church is a kleptomaniac, and a man in the church dresses his cats. She says they need to treat Lars with kindness. The pastor says the important thing to consider is “what would Jesus do,” and he believes they shouldn’t judge Lars. Instead, they should treat Bianca with kindness as a way to love to Lars.

So, when the pastor welcomes visitors as a part of the Sunday morning service, he welcomes Bianca. The rest of the service seems rather conventional, with the congregation singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and a sermon on I Corinthians 13.

The church (and the whole town, for that matter) take Bianca into their lives, and their acceptance seems to help Lars move on with life. Lars informs Dr. Dagmar that Bianca is sick -- in fact, dying. The ladies of the church come to sit with Lars for the “death watch,” bringing plenty of casseroles with them. They make sure Lars eats and rests while he waits. Bianca does “die,” and the church holds a memorial service for her.

And Lars seems to be better, stronger. He even asks a woman in the church choir on a date. 

People talk about “Minnesota Nice,” but I think that "nice" crosses the border into Wisconsin, earning the Reverend Bock and his congregation our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Small Town Movie Churches 2: There Will be Blood

There Will Be Blood (2007)
The church in Southern California where I served my pastoral internship was across the street from an oil field. Most people probably don’t associate the Golden State with black gold, but in Fullerton in 1986, those little derricks were still pumping away right in the middle of Orange County.

2007’s There Will Be Blood, set in the fictional California town of Little Boston at the beginning of the 20th century, has as its central conflict the competition between the founder of an oil company and a church pastor.

Most of the critical focus on this idiosyncratic, epic classic from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has been on the character of the “oil man”, Daniel Plainview. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his performance as Plainview, a self-centered entrepreneur, a misanthrope who considers himself in competition with every other person. Day-Lewis' Plainview is often found in lists of most memorable movie characters and performances.

But this is Movie Churches, so our focus is on Plainview's foe, the Reverend Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). In the little town of Little Boston, Plainview negotiates (swindles) the locals for the oil rights to their land. When Plainview talks with Eli about his family’s land, Eli, wearing a clerical collar, asks, “What church do you belong to?”

Plainview responds, “I enjoy all faiths. I don’t belong to one church in particular. I like them all.” Eli asks for $10,000 for the oil rights to be directed to his church, Plainview counters with $5000, and Eli agrees. Plainview says, “I’ll happily be a supporter of your church for as long as I can.” That's one of many promises the man quickly breaks.

Plainview builds roads for his new project, and Eli asks for a road leading to his church, The Church of the Third Revelation. Plainview does not build that road. When Plainview christens the new oil well, Eli asks, “Is there anything the church can do for you? I will bless the well.” He asks to be introduced as “The proud son of these hills who tended his father’s flocks.”

Plainview refuses and delivers his own prayer at the ceremony.

When a catastrophe takes place at the rig, an explosion and fire, Eli believes these disasters occurred because he did not bless the well.

The film does give us a glimpse of a service in Eli Sunday’s Church of the Third Revelation. It seems to have a charismatic feel, and Eli is a shouting kind of preacher.

He claims to heal. He says to a Mrs. Hunter, “You have arthritis. You have a devil in you, and I will suck it out. Get out of her, ghost. As long as I have teeth, I will bite you, and when I have no teeth, I will gum you.” He then mimes wrestling with this demon and tosses it out the door of the church. The congregation does sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but otherwise Eli doesn’t seem to have much to say about Jesus.

Another promise to Rev. Sunday that Plainview breaks is that promise of $5000. Throughout the film, Sunday pursues Plainview for the money like the paperboy who pursued John Cusack for his $2. At one point Sunday comes to see Plainview on his oil fields, and Plainview mocks him and pushes him in the mud. Sunday is so humiliated and angered that he goes home and beats up his own father.

Reverend Eli gets a chance for revenge when Plainview needs to lay a pipeline across a piece of property that belongs to a member of Sunday’s congregation. To get what he wants, Plainview must go to a service in the Church of the Third Revelation and confess his sins before the congregation and be baptized. Sunday forces Plainview to his knees and humiliates him in front of his congregation.

Plainview remembers this moment and takes his revenge later. At the conclusion of the film, Eli Sunday has moved on, starting a radio ministry. But he's morally strayed (we are spared the details) and is financially hurting. He goes to Plainview for help.

Plainview demands, “I’d like you to tell me that you are a false prophet and God is a superstition. Say it like a sermon, 'I am a false prophet and God is a superstition.' Imagine this is a church, and this is your congregation.”

Sunday does everything Plainview asks. Plainview laughs at Sunday and tells him he will do nothing to help him. Plainview beats Sunday (in every possible sense of the word “beat.")

So Sunday denies God for money (and doesn’t get the money). In the Apostle Paul's second letter to II Timothy 2:12, Paul wrote, “If we deny Him, He will also deny us.” Eli's denial is just a mirror image of the earlier scene in the film when Sunday has Plainview baptized for money. Both actions were cynical acts of idolatry.

Which is why we’re giving the Reverend Eli Sunday and the Church of the Third Revelation our lowest Movie Churches rating of one steeple.