Thursday, September 19, 2019

Christian School Month: Breakthrough

Breakthrough (2019)
It’s Christian School Month here at Movie Churches, but of course, we need to talk about church and clergy as usual, as well as schools. This week, we need to start off by talking about the NBA (National Basketball Association, if you’re acronym averse).

It's right there in the opening credits: “Executive Producer Stephen Curry.” Yes, that Stephen Curry, who plays for the Golden State Warriors.

My dad took me to my first NBA game in 1976, the year after Golden State won their first championship. Rick Barry was their star in those days. Today, Stephen Curry is their star, leading the Warriors to championships in 2015, 2017, and 2018. When we were on our bar and a church in every state tour in 2016, we watched every Warriors game we could catch as they went on to set the record for most wins in a season. (Even now, as I write, I am wearing Stephen Curry socks. I put on the socks because I knew I’d be writing this, but still…)

Anyway, Curry started a production company, Unanimous Media, and 2019’s Breakthrough is their first project. Curry said, “It’s a story about the power of prayer and perseverance and one I immediately connected to. After reading the script, I knew I wanted to be a part of bringing it to life onscreen.”

The script is the true story of John Smith, a 14-year-old boy who fell through the ice in a lake in Missouri, was declared legally dead, but revived when his mother prayed for him. John recovered fully, and his mother wrote a book about their story.

When we first see John (Marcel Ruiz) in the film, he’s talking with his dad at breakfast as John gets ready for school. His dad, Brian (Josh Lucas), talks to him about the upcoming game between the Kansas City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors. (I couldn’t help but wonder if that was in the script before Steph signed on.) His mother, Joyce (Chrissy Metz), takes John to Water of Life Christian Middle School. (Most Christian schools I know don’t have a separate middle school. Most I’ve known are K - 12 or K - 8. But such things do exist, and the real Water of Life school seems to be pretty big.)

John goes to his history class, where his teacher, Mrs. Abbott (Nancy Sorel), leads students in the Pledge of Allegiance. After that, each student is supposed to give an oral report on their family history, but when John is called on, he says he didn't have time to prepare it. He eventually presents a slap-dash report where he says that he's from Guatemala. “My mother didn’t want me.” The Smiths, who were missionaries there, adopted him and brought him back to the United States. John is obviously troubled and angry.

Basketball is important to him, but even there he’s having difficulties. He gets into fights with other players. (I was puzzled by John’s basketball schedule. He plays a game on Sunday afternoon of Martin Luther King Weekend. I’m rather surprised a Christian school would schedule Sunday games, especially on a holiday weekend.) After the game, during that holiday weekend, John and his friends play on a frozen lake, and all of the boys fall through the ice.

The other two boys are rescued pretty quickly, but John slips under the ice and spends many minutes in the freezing water. When he's found and pulled out, he's taken to the hospital and eventually declared dead. His mother prays for him, and John revives. Because he spent so long without oxygen, it's assumed he'd have brain damage and physical impairment, but he recovered fully. He was back to school in a month.

Topher Grace is the Hip, Young Pastor
When he returns to Mrs. Abbott's history class, she asks him to stay after class and asks him one of the most incredibly inappropriate questions I can imagine a teacher asking a student. “John, why does God chose to save some and not others? You see, my husband died two years ago, and…” 

Does Mrs. Abbott want John to suffer from survivor’s guilt? It seems like a lot to throw at an eighth-grader, but later, at a church worship service, he talks about his appreciation for her. He even quotes her. he does say nice things about Mrs. Abbott later at his church’s worship service, he even quotes her. 

Speaking of that church, and we do speak of churches here (it’s kind of the point of this blog), it sure has one happening pastor. Pastor Jason Noble (Topher Grace, yes, That '70's Show Topher Grace) is new, and Joyce doesn’t like him. She doesn’t like when he asks her to call him “Jason” rather than Pastor. She doesn’t like that he’s gotten rid of the organ and hymns and replaced them with choruses and a worship band. She doesn’t his haircut. She doesn’t like how he calls John, “J-Money”.

But when John is in the hospital, the pastor is there. Joyce tells him it’s not the time for him to interfere in her family's life, but he responds that it is his role to be there. He’s not leaving. He stays through that first night in the hospital. After John has had time to recover, Jason allows him to tell his story in a worship service. Firefighters, paramedics, hospital staff, and almost everyone from the school is there. The local news, which has covered his recovery, is there. Eventually, Joyce begins to appreciate Jason for his care and faithfulness (but she still hates his haircut).

As for our Movie Churches rating (which, of course, is not a rating of the film) for the church and Christian school, we’re giving them a Four Steeple Rating for the way they support of John and his family.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Back to School: Heaven Help Us

Heaven Help Us (1985)
I’m a sucker for coming of age films. I love classics like American Graffiti, The 400 Blows, Say Anything and Boyz n the Hood. In the last few years my favorites have included The Way, Way Back, Boyhood, and Sing Street.

This week’s “Back to School” film is very much a coming of age story. Set in Brooklyn in 1955, Heaven Help Us (1985) has all the elements of the genre: young love and a first kiss, learning to stand up to bullies, schoolhouse pranks, driving mishaps, and even our young hero coming to a new school. Especially good for us, that new school is a Catholic school -- which allows us to examine it here at Movie Churches.

Andrew McCarthy plays Michael Dunn, the new kid at St. Basil’s Boys Prep. He soon makes friends with the academic nerd, Caesar (Malcolm Danare), and makes an enemy of the school bully, Rooney (Kevin Dillon). And he finds love with Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson), a teen girl who manages her father’s malt shop down the street. These are all fun characters played by charming young actors but they aren’t our concern. We're here to look at their school's teachers and administrators, who are all Dominican Brothers. We’ll look at four of these clergy and see how they rate on the Movie Churches steeple scale.

Brother Timothy (John Heard) is also new to St. Basil’s. We first see him playing a game of chance with Rooney with baseball cards at stake. He takes the kid’s Mickey Mantle (but returns it later.) He hangs out in the malt shop where the boys from the school and girls from the neighborhood hang out and buy their cigarettes. (He smokes there as well. The Surgeon General’s Report on smoking came out in 1964.) It should be noted he doesn’t seem to be doing these things to be cool. He’s a young guy, and these are the things he does. And it does help kids relate to him. Michael feels comfortable even talking to him about girls. Brother Timothy encourages Michael to ask a girl to dance during a school function. Michael asks, “What if it doesn’t work?” 

Timothy responds, “Start thinking about joining a religious order.” Both of them laugh. 

All the boys seem to respect him and learn from him. He’d get at least 3 Steeples in the Movie Churches ratings.

Brother Constance (Jay Patterson) has been at the school for many years. When Caesar comes into his class chewing gum, the Brother forces him to keep the gum on his nose for the remainder of the day -- which is a minor thing compared to his treatment of Rooney. 

Rooney didn’t do an assignment, so he pretends to read from a blank sheet of paper when he's told to present his report to the class. Brother Constance pulls him to the front of the classroom by the ear, slams his head against the blackboard, and forces him to eat the blank piece of paper. Another time, when Rooney removes all the screws from Caesar's desk so it falls apart, Constance has all the students get down on their knees until “the joker comes forward.” Constance tells the students, “I’m not a man who enjoys violence, in fact I get better results with ‘Patience.’” 

He brings out a paddle with the word “Patience” burned into the wood. In a climactic moment towards the end of the film, Brother Constance punches a student. A student punches him back, bringing cheers from the whole school. Brother Constance would probably receive our lowest Steeple score of One.

Father Abruzzi (Wallace Shawn) has less time in the film. His big moment comes at the school dance, when the girls of Virgin Martyr get together with the boys of St. Basils’. He is given the assignment of giving a lecture before the fun begins. He says the purpose of the dance is to help “boys and girls grow with strong moral fiber.” He warns the students to “never confuse love with the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, lust.” Which confused me, as I’ve always thought of pride as the worst, it being Satan’s fatal flaw and all. He goes on to warn about “the deadly beast within you” that will take you “down in the farthest pits of hell… where your flesh will be ripped from your bones by hell’s serpents.” He closes this opening sermonette with, “Have a nice time, enjoy the dance.” His neglect of the grace and forgiveness found in the Cross leads to a lowly Two Steeple rating for Vizzini… Sorry, I meant Father Abruzzi.

And finally we come to Brother Thadeus (Donald Sutherland), the principal of St. Basil’s. Thadeus welcomes Michael to the school, informing him that at St. Basil’s the Mass is still in Latin, students should wear black shoes rather than brown, and that he will be addressed as “Brother Thadeus rather than sir” (to which Michael responds, “Yes, sir, Brother Thadeus, sir, I mean…” Michael seems quite intimidated.

Brother Timothy observes Brother Constance’s abuse of students and he brings his concerns to Brother Thadeus who tells him that Constance is a quite able teacher and being new, Timothy shouldn’t stir up trouble.

In the film’s conclusion, Brother Thadeus eventually demonstrates that he agrees with Brother Timothy, but this comes after many years of Brother Constance harming students. We can't do more than to also give Brother Thadeus a Two Steeple rating. And that brings St Basil's score to an average rating of Two Steeples.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Remembering Carol Lynley: Flashback to The Poseidon Adventure

Actress Carol Lynley passed away last week at the age of 77. Not that you really wanted to know, but she was a childhood crush of mine. I first saw her television, probably her guest spot on The Big Valley. I might have seen her next on The Night Stalker, a made-for-TV movie, but she was featured in movies before she did that TV work. Films like Harlow, The Shuttered Room, Bunny Lake is Missing, and The Cardinal (featured recently at Movie Churches) were among her credits. 

I first saw her on the big screen was when my brother Dale and I went to see The Poseidon Adventure. This was a big deal for us. It was the first GP rated film we saw without our parents. (Before there was PG, there was GP. Before that, it was M.) The film featured her as Nonnie, who sang the Oscar-winning "There's Got to Be a Morning After." I was in love. (The mini skirt may have had something to do with it. I know I shouldn't be admitting such things here at Movie Churches, but transparency is important.) Anyway, this seems as good a time as any to post this review that was featured first at Dean and Mindy Go to Church.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

I loved this movie as a kid. I thought it was pretty great. I watched it yesterday and it's still pretty great. It's just when I saw it as a kid I thought it was actually, you know, good; "camp" and "kitsch" most likely to be used to describe the film these days. But "entertaining" certainly still applies. The scene where the dining hall is turned upside down when the ship is hit by a tidal wave is still pretty amazing and I can't see CGI improving it. I still can't decide whether the dire circumstances used to disrobe the beautiful women in the cast are amusing or appalling. And I'm pretty sure Nonnie's brother in the band that sings the Oscar-winning "There's Got to Be a Morning After" is the first screen appearance of Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap.

But, as per usual here, I'm not writing about the film, but the clergy in the film. In The Poseidon Adventure, there are two. One of them seems like a pretty decent pastor. The other, judging him by his theology, is one of the worst pastors in screen history (and I'm including the cinematic clergy serial murderers with that).

RIP Carol Lynley
Before disaster strikes the good ship SS Poseidon, we see two clergymen in conversation. Arthur O'Connell plays Chaplain John, an old priest concerned about the young rebel, Reverend Scott (played by Gene Hackman). Reverend Scott hasn't quite been defrocked for his heretical views, but he is being shipped by his superiors to Africa. Whatever denomination he belongs to, they should probably reconsider their policy of sending heretics to the mission field.

We hear a sermon Reverend Scott delivers to his fellow passengers on the ship. In the sermon, the Reverend assures his listeners that God doesn't really care about them. He is concerned about the big picture, getting humanity to some great place beyond our comprehension. The individual is only important as a link from the past to this glorious future. (I'm sure most dictators and sociopaths are quite comfortable with this viewpoint.)

Prayer is a waste of time according to the good Reverend because God expects us to fight for ourselves. Scott talks about his childhood in the slums when you had to fight to feed yourself and keep warm and couldn't waste time on your knees. He is a man of action, which is why he fits in this category. When disaster strikes the ship, the Reverend Scott takes it upon himself to lead any passengers who will follow him to the safety of the ship's hull (you see, due to the tidal wave, down is up and up is down). He doesn't want to waste time with the weak folks who don't have the will or constitution to attempt an escape.

But Chaplain John does take time for the sick and injured. He stays behind with the weak to comfort and care for them. He dies caring for them, just as Jesus called His people to do. I'd certainly consider going to Chaplain John's church.

Though the Reverend Scott disparages prayer, he does talk to God eventually in the film. He blames God for his troubles, yelling at Him, "I don't expect you to do anything for me, but you don't have to fight against me!" He calls his companions who die on the journey through the ship "sacrifices" that God demands. He seems wholly unaware of God's sacrifice of His Son. But in the end, Scott sacrifices himself, so he's not all bad.

Still, Scott is at best a Two Steeple Pastor.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Back to School Month: Overcomer

Overcomer (2019)
As I was exiting the theater after a morning screening of Overcomer, a woman older than me (so, yeah, old) was throwing something in the trash. She said, “I’m glad I had enough tissue for that; it was so good!” She looked at me and said, “Wasn’t that good?”

I am glad to have this opportunity to confess. Atonement and all isn’t the purpose of this blog, -- we’re here to write about clergy and churches in film -- but I did lie to that woman in the theater, and lying just isn’t right. 

When she asked if the film was good, I nodded and said, “Oh,yeah, uh huh.” Which was not strictly true, because I didn’t really think it was very good. I found it tired and cliched, but I’m glad she liked it. So lady in the theater, if by some wild chance you’re reading this, I’m sorry for lying to you. I just didn’t want to offend.

But we aren’t here to apologize or review films, but rather review churches or (this month) church schools in movies.

Overcomer was written and directed by Alex Kendrick, also the star of the film. Alex and his brother Stephen are very successful independent filmmakers, first shocking Hollywood and the entertainment press back in 2006 with Facing the Giants. With little publicity, that was one of the ten top-grossing movies the weekend it debuted. Since then the Kendricks have consistently released films with a Christian message that have also achieved success at the box office. (In its debut weekend, Overcomer took in over eight million dollars, placing third on the box office chart, between #2 Good Boys and #4 Fast and the Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw.)

Overcomer tells the story of a basketball coach, John Harrison (Kendrick), at Brookshire Christian School (home of the “Cougar Nation”). We see him coaching the last game of the season, suffering a narrow defeat. In the postgame pep talk, Coach assures his team that their rivals will be losing their best players through graduation, but their team (which includes his son) will be intact in the coming season and will probably take it all.

Complications ensue when the local steel plant closes, taking with it the majority of local jobs. The school's enrollment is halved, from 580 to 240. Staff pay is cut by ten percent. Many of the staff resign, including the football coach who realizes he won’t have enough students to field a team. With all the resignations, the school’s principal, Olivia Brooks (as in Our Miss Brooks) informs Harrison he’ll have to coach cross country.

Harrison is not pleased with this decision, claiming “cross country is not a sport,” but Brooks reminds him of all the lectures he’s made as a coach about making sacrifices for the sake of the team. Harrison grudgingly agrees to coach. But when he holds tryouts, only a single student shows. That student, Hannah Scott (Aryn Wright-Thompson), comes with her inhaler in tow; she’s asthmatic.

Harrison quite sensibly goes to the principal and tells her they should cancel the cross country program because there is only one student. She tells him the program will go on because “one runner matters.” Which is true. Every person is important. But if you are running a school with quite limited resources, does it make sense to use substantial resources on one student? The hours Coach Harrison will put into cross country could be put into his history classes or another sport that had more student interest. No one seems troubled by the idea of a male coach spending hours alone with one female student. Even if there is no moral problem, the optics are horrible.

The coach could do some recruiting, but he only makes a half hearted attempt to recruit his son, Ethan (Jack Sterner). His son says he’ll run if his father trains alongside him. Coach tells his wife, Amy (Shari Rigby), that their son isn’t interested in the sport.

We later learn that Miss Brooks has a reason to have a special interest in Hannah. She was friends with Hannah’s mother who died years ago from a drug overdose. Hannah has been told that her father died, and so she lives with her grandmother. Hannah is a petty thief and was expelled from her previous schools. The principal pays for Hannah’s tuition at Brookshire to give her one last chance.

Principal Brooks probably provides the best model of Christian behavior in the film. She is the one who lets Hannah knows that God loves her and is her true Father. She explains how Hannah can place her faith in Jesus as her Lord and Savior. 

And Hannah does. Hannah’s attitude changes from sullen to joyful. She repents of her thefts, returning all she stole (including the coach’s watch.)

We don’t ever see a church in the film, but we do see Coach Harrison’s pastor. The coach accompanies his pastor to visit another member of the congregation in the hospital. Since both the pastor and the coach can't be in the hospital room at the same time, Harrison waits in the hallway while the pastor visits with the patient. The coach then somehow stumbles into the room of a blind man. 

Spoilers, people! 

Turns out the patient whose room he stumbles into is Hannah’s father’s. Ken, Hannah’s father, used to be a cross country runner (took 3rd in State), so Coach Harrison begins to visit Ken regularly to get advice on coaching the sport (it never seemed to occur to Coach Harrison to Google tips on cross country training.)

And here's where one of my biggest qualms with Harrison’s ethics comes into play. In the Cross Country Association that Brookshire Christian School belongs to, there is a debate about whether runners should be allowed to use earbuds. The argument against the proposal is that some runners will have an unfair advantage, that some coaches might talk their runners through the race. It is then suggested that the rule be amended so that runners could only use one bud (so that they could hear officials and other runners with the free ear) and that they can only listen to prerecorded material.

Originally, Harrison opposed the rule change. But then he enthusiastically campaigns for the change. Which passes. 

The reason for Harrison's change of heart is a scheme to have Hannah’s father record instructions for running the course for the Big State Championship Race (you never doubted Hannah would go to “the Big State Championship Race,” did you?)

In this way, he gives Hannah the unfair advantage that many coaches feared -- the reason for the earbud rule. It is not a spoiler at all to say that Hannah wins the big race, because in these films our heroes always win the big game, race, meet, whatever, because we want everything to be as happy as possible before the credits roll.

So what is our Movie Churches Rating for Brookshire Christian School? The principal would earn a Four Steeple Rating, Coach Harrison would earn Two, so I'm combining the two to give the school a Three Steeple Rating.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Welcome Back to School at Movie Churches

School Ties (1992)
It's strange to reach a time in life when the school year is no longer a part of my personal calendar. Even before I went to school myself, having my older brothers and sisters leave for school at the end of summer was a big deal. Every year that I went to school, the night before school started was so full of excitement and anxiety that I couldn’t sleep. During the couple of decades when I had kids of my own going off to school, my life was still shaped by the rhythm of the academic year.

Through the centuries, the Church took the lead in providing education. A major focus of the Reformation was education; Martin Luther was concerned that people should be able to read the Bible for themselves. The Catholic Church has provided education on every level for centuries.

Fortunately, most of the Christian schools depicted in film also have clergy, so these schools are fair game for Movie Churches. Sadly, some of these “Christian” schools we'll be watching this month aren’t very Christian. (We have looked at Movie Church Schools before.)

St. Matthews, the prep school that provides the location for School Ties, is an example. The film opens with students in chapel singing “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” The students are then addressed by a school official assuring them of the nobility of their school tradition. They conclude with the Lord’s prayer.

The theme of the film is anti-semitism in the 1950s, but the film was made in 1992. Not exactly cutting edge. In the movie, the school's very wealthy students treat the new star quarterback, David Greene (Brendan Fraser), as a hero until they learn he is Jewish. When Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon) accuses him of cheating, people believe the charges because, well, David’s Jewish.

The other students are angry David didn’t tell them he was Jewish. When David asks his roommate why he didn’t mention his religion, his friend says, “I’m Methodist. But Jews, everything about them is different.”

The school administrators are uneasy about having a Jewish student, but they are trying to move into the future. A priest meeting with administrators says about David, “You represent the best of what we think of as St. Matthews student.” It doesn’t seem, though, that the priest or faculty have been full-throated in speaking out against prejudice.

Christians who are prejudiced against Jews have always baffled me. The Church was all Jews when it began. All the Apostles and Paul were Jewish. And Jesus, well, as I said, it baffles me.

So St. Matthews receives a meager Two Steeples for our Movie Church rating.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Take Me Down to Vatican City: Saving Grace

Saving Grace (1986)
By my count, there have been four films and one TV show with the title Saving Grace. This post is about only one of them.

We are not looking at the 1998 New Zealand film about the woman called Grace who falls in love with a man who claims to be Christ. Nor are we watching the 2000 Craig Fergusen film about a cannabis farmer. Not the 2009 film about the Great Flood of 1951, either.

Nope, we’re looking at the 1986 film Saving Grace because it features a Pope, and I’m happy to report that this, the fifth pope movie of the month, is not deadly dull, making it unlike the others.

Tom Conti plays Pope Leo XIV, a young pope who begins to tire of his job after a year. He’s sick of going to meetings all day long. He’s discouraged by demands that he perform miracles to heal the sick and dying. He is disgusted by requests from the Vatican bank that he works to get people to open savings accounts. He misses his life as a priest, his involvement in people’s lives. Leo gets an idea when a deaf girl named Isabella (Mart Zoffoli) hitchhikes to Vatican City to tell the Pope that her village has no priest.

The Pope takes off his robes, dresses as a poor man, and makes his way toward Isabella's village. As he gets close, he discovers it's under quarantine for smallpox. He hides in the back of a truck delivering food and gets into the village. When he finds Isabella, he tells her to keep it quiet that he's the Pope. Isabella introduces him to her mother, Lucia (Patricia Mauceri), telling her Leo is a man looking for work. Though Lucia tells him there is no work to be found in the village, she agrees to let him rent a room in her home.

Undercover Pope finds some interesting things about the village. The village church has been abandoned, except for a tween-age wannabe mobster, Giuliano (Anthony Evans), who uses the sanctuary for hiding stolen goods. Leo also discovers that the quarantine is a fraud. Villagers are pretending to be sick so the government will ship in free food. The village doesn't have a good source of water for farming, but Leo also finds an unfinished aqueduct that could supply the needed water.

Leo takes on the job of completing the aqueduct and finds there are powerful opponents to the plan --particularly a man named Ciolino (Edward James Olmos) who likes the idea of living off welfare rather than working. Ciolino even gets a crew together to set the aqueduct on fire.
Someone else has noticed the construction project: a shepherd who teases Leo. Oddly, the shepherd recognizes Leo as the Pope. He also used to be a metaphorical shepherd -- the village priest. 

Leo asks why he left the priesthood, “Did you quit, or were you fired?” 

The shepherd says he was fired by God. He felt God didn’t come through for His people.

Meanwhile, back in the Vatican, officials scramble to cover for the missing Pope. To do so, they are less than honest.

Before we get on to evaluating the clergy and church (really the whole point of this blog) I want to say something about the film itself. It was fun. It was a pleasure to spend time with these characters, even the children, which isn’t always the case with child actors. After four weeks of watching Pope films that were long, pretentious, and dull, it was nice to have a film that was entertaining, as movies should be.

So what can we say in favor of Leo XIV?

First of all, nothing can be more Christlike than Leo’s choice to leave the pomp and luxury of the Vatican to go to a village as a common laborer. In Philippians 2 Paul wrote, “Being in the very nature God, [Jesus] did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
Leo’s decision to live as a commoner is a wonderful picture of the incarnation.

As a commoner, Leo has his ups and downs. He does a good job of resisting some temptations, but not others. Isabella's mother makes a pass at him, and he resists. When people mock him, he doesn’t say, “Do you know who I am?” But he does resort to violence when Giuliano is attacked. Many would have problems with a Pope who throws a punch.

As for the Church of Rome, it doesn’t come across that well. The cardinals of the Vatican seem to be petty bureaucrats who seem more concerned about appearances than ministry.

I have one other problem with Pope Leo. He returns to the Vatican for Easter Sunday. When he comes to the balcony to preach, he tells the story of his adventures in the village. It 's Easter, Papa. That's the day to tell about the Resurrection, the greatest story ever told, even if your story makes for an entertaining couple of hours.

Still, we're fans of Pope Leo XIV, giving him a Movie Churches rating of 3 out of 4 Steeples.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Take Me Down to Vatican City Month: Angels and Demons

Angels and Demons (2009)
Early in Ron Howard’s Angels and Demons, Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), accompanied by a member of the Vatican police, notices something about the statues they are passing as they walk through the Vatican. The Professor launches into a lecture (because he always launches into lectures) about “the Great Castration” performed by Pope Pius IX who had all the male statues in Vatican City “de-manned.” The officer, Inspector Olivetti, asks, “Are you anti-Catholic, Professor Langdon?” 

He responds, “No. I’m anti-vandalism.”

Both of Langdon's statements prove to be rather questionable. 

This 2009 film is a sequel to 2006's The Da Vinci Code (which we looked at earlier this year). In that film, the Catholic Church is a vile institution that employs assassins and knowingly hides the truth. If everything in the first film was true, then Langdon would have to be demented himself not to be anti-Catholic.

To make things more clear (or perhaps more murky), though the film Angels and Demons is a sequel to The Da Vinci CodeThe Da Vinci Code novel by Dan Brown is a sequel to Angels and Demons, an earlier novel by Dan Brown. It's possible for the protagonist to go through the events of Angels and Demons without hating the Catholic church, but I don’t see how anyone could go through the events of The Da Vinci Code and still have warm fuzzies about the Church.

At the beginning of the film, Langdon is approached by a representative from the Vatican. Langdon thinks it must have something to do with his request to visit the Vatican Archives. He has already written one book about the Illuminati, but his request to visit the Vatican Archives (which he needs to do to write a sequel) has been denied seven times.

Actually, Langdon is being recruited to help with a crisis at the Vatican. The pope has died and the four Cardinals who are the leading papal candidates have been kidnapped and threatened with execution. The Vatican police believe Langdon might be able to help because they believe the Illuminati may be responsible for the crimes.

This, of course, leads to one of Langdon’s impromptu lectures -- this one about the Illuminati. Langdon claims it is an organization formed in the time of Galileo. The church persecuted scientists for teaching “heretical” things, such as a heliocentric solar system, so they formed a secret organization called the Illuminati.

When Langdon arrives at Rome, he learns that someone also stole “anti-matter” from a lab and plans to blow up the Vatican after the four Cardinals are kidnapped. Langdon claims that in order to track down the fiends, he will need to do research in the Vatican Archives, but he is told that he can only do so with papal approval and there is no pope.

Langdon counters that he knows that during the “days of the empty throne,” the time before the conclave elects a pope, papal authority is invested in the “Camelengo.” Langdon goes to see the Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), who asks Langdon if he believes in God. Langdon answers, “I’m an academic. My mind tells me I will never understand God.” 

Huh. Thomas Aquinas and C.S. Lewis seemed to carry off being both theists and academics.

Anyway, the Camerlengo lets Langdon into the Archives along with the anti-matter scientist, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer). He just asks them to treat the Archives with respect. Langdon develops the theory that the Cardinals will be executed at four different cathedrals, each representing one of the Four Elements, which the Illuminati honor. (I thought that was strange; the Greek teaching on the elements had a basis in philosophy but not at all in science.)

Langdon believes one of the books in the Archives contains a clue, and he asks Vittoria to copy the information. Instead, Vittoria tears the page out of the book. Which is vandalism. 

Why don't I think Langdon is really anti-vandalism? Langdon just smirks at this. Later in the film, Langdon finds himself trapped in the Archives and to escape, he knocks down bookshelves and wildly fires a gun. He places his own life over securing the archives. He’s a vandal.

But we're not here to cite the hypocrisy of Professor Langdon. How are the church and clergy presented?

Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), the chief of the Vatican police, makes the one good defense of the Roman Catholic Church. When Langdon makes what the commander considers a disparaging remark about the church, Richter lectures, “My church comforts the sick and dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do, Professor?”

The great crowds around the Vatican as the Conclave meets to elect a new Pope indicate that the Catholic Church has a lot of fans in the film.

So how does the clergy come across in the film? We mainly see the Camerlengo. He seems like a good guy initially. He gives the professor what he needs to investigate the crimes. When it looks like the Vatican may blow up, he urges the Conclave to break and go to safely. And what appears to be his most heroic act; when the anti-matter bomb is discovered, the Camerlengo snatches the bomb and all alone takes it up in a helicopter where the bomb can safely explode, and he parachutes safely to the ground.

After that desperate act, it looks like the Camerlengo will win the Papacy by acclamation, even though he's only a priest and not a Cardinal. But then we learn the Big Twist. 

(As they say, spoilers) 

There was no resurgence of the Illuminati. There were no outside conspirators. The Camerlengo has put together the whole diabolic scheme to get himself elected pope, including murdering the previous pope, apparently, so he can oppose science. (His reasoning is never very clear.) 

This is a pretty risky plot. It doesn’t go as planned, because Langdon does manage to save one of the bishops. How could the Camerlengo be so sure he’d survive the anti-matter explosion? Since there had never been such an event before, how can he be so sure anyone could survive the antimatter explosion?

When the Camerlengo’s plan fails, he lights himself on fire (which causes white smoke to billow from the Vatican smokestack).

The Cardinal who takes the job of Pope names himself Luke, as the physician represents “science.” He seems like he might be a good guy. But that Camerlengo certainly rates our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Funny Movie Churches: Ecclesiastical Dating Game

The comedy Keeping the Faith seems to answer the question no one had been asking: "What if Starsky and Hutch had taken vows in religious orders rather than becoming cops?" Like the S & H TV show and inevitable movie adaptation, two hip young guys try to change the world for the better -- in "Starsky and Hutch," with guns and badges, and in Keeping the Faith, with clerical collars and yarmulkes.

Brian (Edward Norton) and Jake (Ben Stiller) grew up buddies along with their friend Anna (Jenna Elfman). Then Anna moved away and Brian became a priest and Jake became a Rabbi, but the two guys remained good friends.

As always, I'm here to talk about the churches in the movies, not the movies themselves. I'm also, as a Gentile, going to exempt myself from talking about Jake's temple; except for two things.

1) Jake's bringing in a Gospel choir to help the congregational singing is very cool.

2) Jake dating and having affairs with a succession of women in his congregation is not cool.

So let's look at Father Brian's church with pros and cons. When we first see Brian in the church, it's a rather sad sight. He's an awkward screw-up, creating mayhem with the incense dispenser. But with a passing time montage, we see the church grow, with great crowds coming to hear Brian preach. It's unclear whether the growth is due to people being attracted to the cool, contemporary spin Father Brian brings to his ministry or whether it's because women think he's dreamy or a combination of the two. (A concurrent montage shows the same growth in Jake's temple.)

Brian talks about his calling to the priesthood. His mother thought she couldn't have children and she prayed for God to provide. She saw Brian as a gift from God and was thrilled when he decided to go into the ministry (a story that has a Hannah and Samuel feel to it).

We see Brian taking the confession of a young Hispanic man, and I like several things about the way he handles the situation. Brian has learned enough Spanish to use it in his ministry. He's comfortable as a priest talking with the young man about sexual temptation, reminding him that his feelings are natural but need to be channeled in appropriate directions.

One of the major plotlines is Brian's unexpected temptation when Anna re-enters his life, and he feels attracted to her but talks through his feelings and priestly obligations with an older priest (played by film director Miles Foreman), which is healthy. It's really important for people in ministry to have other people who will hold them accountable.

I also like that Brian works with Jake on community projects. In the film, they're planning a karaoke-focused senior center. Though the world doesn't necessarily need more karaoke, it's good to see congregations working together to meet community needs. I believe this can be done on many projects even when congregations have doctrinal differences.

My one big problem with Father Brian is his abhorrent theology, at least as demonstrated in the one sermon we hear. He talks about what a good thing it is that so many people are coming to church because it shows they have faith. He then makes a distinction between faith and religion. "Faith is a feeling, a hunch, that there is something bigger connecting everything together and that feeling is God." There is a definite pantheistic ring to that idea, rather than Christian. God is not a feeling or a hunch but our Creator, who desires to have a loving relationship with us, as a loving Father with His children.

I do appreciate the desire of the makers of this film to show members of the clergy as real people who pursue God's work for the betterment of others rather than themselves. I just wish Father Brian, in his rush to be relevant in the 21st century, hadn't left behind the best thing about the legacy of the church, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He only earns Two Steeples.

Funny Movie Churches - "A Sexy Man of God"

Sure, this thing is called Movie Churches, but we do stretch sometimes and talk about Movie Clergy. I guess there is a church in this film, but in the film, it's only used as part of St. Barnabas Lutheran School, of which Pastor Dan Parker is the principal. Unlike the Catholic priests in so many of the churches we look at here, Pastor Dan is the love interest for the title character in Raising Helen.

Kate Hudson stars as Helen (of course), a rising young executive at a modeling agency. Her sister and brother-in-law are killed in a car wreck, and Helen is left with their children (nothing gets a romantic comedy moving like vehicular death leaving behind some orphans). Helen moves the kids to New York City, where she discovers the sad state of the public schools. She then happens upon St. Barnabas (which is often called "St. Barbara's" in the film for reasons I never discerned).

Helen and the kids meet with the school principal. Helen, under the impression that the school is only for Lutherans, assures Pastor Dan that, "Lutheranism has been in our family for a long time. We all want to be Lutherans, right kids? Lutheran education is the best, right, Father?"

Comic hijinks ensue as Pastor Dan explains he's not a Father but a Pastor. Pastor Dan jokes that Helen and the kids (Audrey, Henry, and Sarah) will need to take a blood test for Lutheranism, a joke Helen takes seriously. She says the kids are hemophiliacs and can't take the blood test. Pastor Dan reminds Helen they're in Queens and couldn't possibly keep a school going with just Lutherans.

As Pastor Dan is giving them a tour of the school, Henry asks about the Lutheran position on the afterlife, do you believe in "heaven, hell, and purgatory?" Pastor Dan says, "Yes, we're pretty old school that way." It's kind of a funny response, but Lutherans aren't Purgatorians. And Henry has just lost his parents and really does have serious questions about the afterlife, but Pastor Dan never digs more deeply into the subject with the kid.

I do appreciate Pastor Dan's sense of humor and ease with newcomers; they're good pastoral qualities. But then we get into the dating life of Pastor Dan; because Pastor Dan is interested in Helen.

Pastor Dan invites Helen and the kids to come to the zoo where he's doing a "Blessing of the Animals" (and a rather pedestrian blessing it is). After the tour (accompanied by Simon and Garfunkel's "At the Zoo"), Pastor Dan asks Helen out.

She at first refuses, because it's "weird" to date a pastor. She tells him she won't be responsible for taking him away from God and his "vows". Pastor Dan explains that Lutheran pastors can marry, have kids and watch dirty movies. ("Well, not watch dirty movies, but we're working on that.")

Pastor Dan seems like a good guy, but neither he nor anyone else seems to figure out that there are more problems with his dating Helen than the straw man that pastors, like Roman Catholic priests, shouldn't date. Here are some things Pastor Dan and Helen don't seem to think about:

1) Helen probably should be concentrating on taking care of the kids rather than her dating life.

2) The principal a school should probably be quite cautious about dating the parents of students, particularly parents or guardians of new students.

3) The religious background and spiritual life of a person a pastor dates does matter. Helen lies to Pastor Dan about being a Lutheran but never tells him what she believes about God, faith or Jesus. He does say he has had problems dating women who are intimidated or put off by his being a pastor. But it seems like he would want to be with someone who would understand and support his ministry. After all, the world of ministry can be even more all-consuming than the world of modeling.

4) The actor playing Pastor Dan, John Corbett, was born the same year I was, 1961. The actress playing Helen, Kate Hudson, was born in the year Corbett probably graduated from high school, 1979. The internet rule to avoid creepy dating is to divide your age in half and add seven. The other person should be at least that age. By that measure, their relationship is creepy, but not Gary Cooper/ Audrey Hepburn creepy. One begins to wonder why this charming, good looking pastor is single in his forties.

5) Pastor Dan and Helen get caught smooching by the kids. This happens just after Pastor Dan describes himself as "a sexy man of God".

I was a big fan of the TV show "Northern Exposure". On that show, Corbett played the local DJ. I think I'd rather have Corbett as my DJ rather than as my pastor. If he pastors a church like he runs a school, Pastor Dan's church would probably get a thumbs down from me. Two Steeples on our Movie Churches scale.

Funny Movie Churches: South of the Border Double Feature

The first of today's Movie Churches, a monastery, is in 2006's Nacho Libre (directed by Jared Hess of "Napoleon Dynamite" fame).

If you go by the text of James 1:27, that true religion is to care for orphans and remain unstained by the world, then the monks of Nacho Libre are doing pretty well. They are caring for orphans, and they seem to have no idea what's going on in the world. But maybe they don't have everything wired.

Though they feed orphans, the budget for that feeding is pretty meager. Monk Nacho (Jack Black) sticks pretty much to a menu of refried beans usually, but not always, topped with charity chips (when left outside the back door of a restaurant).

Nacho does have a fascination with at least one aspect of the world, lucha libre wrestling. He notices that while luchadores have wealth, fame and respect from the world, he isn't even respected by his fellow monks. Nacho wants to do priestly duties beyond cooking, believing he "knows a buttload about the Gospel." But those priestly duties don't come.

So Nacho goes, in disguise with a luchador mask, into the wrestling ring. He finds that even when he loses a wrestling match, he's paid. And he uses that money to up the quality of the orphans' meals, providing them with salad with their beans.

One of the orphans spies Nacho in wrestling tights and suddenly Nacho has found respect. The kids begin to wrestle and one of the nuns, Sister Encarnation, scolds them. She turns to Nacho for back-up and he says, "The Bible says do not wrestle your neighbor."

Nacho goes on living a double life until one fateful worship service in the chapel. He lights a candle and accidentally sets his robe on fire, revealing his wrestling outfit underneath. Nacho's superior tells Nacho he's "not a man of God!"

Nacho isn't too fond of himself either. He asks God in prayer, "Why did you give me a desire to wrestle yet make me such a stinky warrior?"

As usually happens in movies, it all comes down to the Big Match. Nacho trusts that "God will be with me in the ring to make money for the orphans."

The big money Nacho wins seems to make everything okay with the other monks. But more importantly, it makes life better for the orphans -- and doesn't hurt the Movie Church rating which is a thumbs up.

Three Amigos (1986) has much in common with Nacho Libre. The action in both films takes place chiefly in Mexico. And both films are about very stupid characters. Some think they're both very stupid films. Fortunately, I don't have to judge such things. I'm just here to talk about the churches in the films.

And there is a church in Three Amigos. At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to a small town named Santa Poco (Little Saint) that is terrorized by bandits. A woman from the village, Carmen, goes to a city to find help, hoping to perhaps find gunmen who will defend the village.

She goes first to a saloon where men threaten her instead of helping her. She goes out on the street and hears church bells. The church bells give her hope, and she tells her brother, "You must have faith; the Holy Mother will help us."

Inside the church, a silent film is playing, one that features the Three Amigos, western heroes. In the film, the heroes rescue a village from bandits. Carmen knows that God has answered her prayers. Though we learn that the Amigos are actors without any experience of combat, Carmen turns to them for help. And (Spoiler), in the end they do save the day.

Both films have Three Steeple Ratings.

Funny Movie Churches Everybody Sing!

I admit that I like, on occasion, to hear profanity in prayers. The occasions are when a new believers are praying with the only vocabulary they have. If a seasoned pastor, on the other hand, uses such language to show how edgy he or she is, that's really annoying.

A new believer, or even someone who doesn't believe, can be an unsettling presence in the Church. Such a person can also allow a sedate congregation to get a fresh perspective of God and his work.

The movie church in the 1992 comedy Sister Act is in great need of a fresh perspective, of shaking up. St. Katherine's is a church and a nunnery in San Francisco. The nuns stay cloistered behind their walls because their Reverend Mother is afraid for their safety. A small handful of people attend the Sunday services, which seem to be rather sad affairs.

But then the plot happens. Whoopi Goldberg is a casino lounge singer named Deloris who witnesses a gangland murder and must hide at St. Katherine's disguised as a nun (I'm pretty sure this is fairly standard law enforcement procedure). And as can happen when a new person enters a church, there is some disruption, good disruption. With the arrival of Deloris, the church and convent change in two major departments: music and outreach.

In my opinion, there are three important components to music in the church:

1) Lyrics that honor God

2) Musical quality

3) Worship from the heart.

If anyone of these components are subpar, then worship can be painful. We've visited churches that had excellent musicians, but the lyrics were insipid, and the people in front seemed to be performers rather than worshipers.

The choir of nuns pre-Deloris in "Sister Act" seem sincere-- far be it from me to complain about the lyrics to "Crown Him with Many Crowns." But they sing boring musical arrangements of classic hymns, not in harmony or even on key. One is under the impression that the torturous tunes from the choir play a part in keeping people from attending the Sunday morning services.

Deloris contributes her musical skills to the choir, taking over as director. Initially, she uses traditional hymns with more jazzy arrangements. She also demands more rehearsal time for the women and gives them proper training. People in the community hear the improvement in the music and begin to flock to the services. The Reverend Mother is upset by this "blasphemous boogie-woogie," but the Monsignor is too happy to have people at his service.

Deloris also introduces songs that are adaptations of Motown pop. "My Guy" becomes "My God," and "I Will Follow Him" capitalizes the male pronoun in the lyrics. Sadly, these lyrics are not very profound, but they do attract people to church. And the lyrics really aren't much dimmer than those found in your average song on K-Love. Overall, the music of the church is much-improved post-Deloris' arrival.

Prior to Deloris' arrival, the Reverend Mother kept the nuns "safely" within the walls of St. Katherine's. But Christ's Great Commission (found in Matthew 28) calls His disciples to go out into the world. The only true place of safety is in God's will, and it's questionable whether the nuns doing arts and crafts separate from anyone not wearing the white and black is either safe or profitable to the Kingdom of God.

Deloris sneaks off to a bar across from the nunnery and is followed by two of the nuns. The nuns are inspired by the lively atmosphere and the jukebox. Apparently, in 1992, Motown was all that could be found in jukeboxes in San Francisco bars.

Over the objections of the Reverend Mother but with the support of the Monsignor, Deloris encourages the nuns to go out and serve the community. They go out to serve, painting over graffiti and repairing vehicles with musical accompaniment (Motown, of course). The nuns' ministry to the community attracts good publicity (which is a swell thing, unless one is hiding from criminals who have access to newspapers and television news programs).

"Sister Act" is at times cute ("That nun is dancing like a teen!") at times funny ("Whoopi Goldberg in a habit? Get out!") and at times dumb (nuns chartering a plane from San Francisco to Reno is quicker and more practical than making a phone call to the Reno police). But as always, I'm not here to review the film. The church at the beginning of the film might not get a thumbs up, but St. Katherine's at the end of the film earns Three Steeples.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Take Me Down to Vatican City Month: The Cardinal

The Cardinal (1963)
I'm sad to report that though it's Pope Month here at Movie Churches, you never see the Pope (or the Popes) in the 1963 film The Cardinal, though much of the film takes place in the Vatican and the pontiff(s) is(are) referred to (but never by name and you never see them). Since the film begins toward the end of World War I (1917) and goes through the beginning of World War II (1940), three popes, Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII led the Roman Catholic Church, but we don’t hear those names in the film. It reminds me of films where “The President” is discussed -- but not by name. Or Ben Hur where Jesus is talked about, but we never see His face.

So this is a Pope film without a Pope, but we do get (as you probably guessed from the title) a Cardinal. The film opens with the Cardinal’s commissioning service, and the vast majority of the film is a flashback to events in the life of Steven Fermoyle, the man being commissioned.

The film obviously isn't relying on the suspense of who the Cardinal will be...We know it’s Steve. And there’s no suspense about what will happen to Steve...He’ll become a Cardinal.   

Since we don’t have that suspense, perhaps we’ll be drawn in by the charismatic leading performance of… Tom Tryon. From what I could find, this was Tryon’s one big starring role in a film (though he was the star of The Magical World of Disney’s mini-series about Texas John Slaughter. The theme song went, “Texas John Slaughter made ‘em do what they oughta, and if they didn’t, they died.” That's how they made kids' shows back in the day.)

What did this movie have to offer? 

Director Otto Preminger was known for making movies about bold social issues, and this film takes on a bunch of them. The flashbacks begin with Steve coming back to Boston after studying in the Vatican. He finds his sister, Mona (Carol Lynley), is dating a Jewish man (John Saxon). Through Mona's story,  we face the significant issues of premarital sex, interfaith marriage, and abortion. Dealing with these issues causes Steve to question his faith. He wants to leave the priesthood but is given a leave of absence from the ministry to consider if he wanted to remain a priest.

Then we get an intermission. (Because like the Pope films for the last two weeks, this film was designed as a Roadshow Attraction with an intermission, with intermission music. Because theaters need to sell popcorn.)

Returning from intermission we see Steve in civilian clothes as a high school teacher in Vienna. A beautiful woman, a teacher named Annemarie (Romy Schiender), falls in love with him, not knowing he is a priest. Steve must decide whether to keep his vow of celibacy, which leads Steve to return to the priesthood because God is his true love. He returns to serve in the Vatican, as a liaison for American relations.

Once back in the priesthood, Steve must face two more big issues. The first is racism. A Catholic school in Georgia won’t allow black students in. Steve goes to investigate for himself after an African-American Catholic church is burned. He confronts bigotry while coming to the aid of a young black priest (Ossie Davis). Frankly, I would have liked the film better if this was the only story. though the way it was told seemed anachronistic. The protest signs, “God’s Law is Segregation” and “Keep Our Catholic Schools White” seem to be out of the 1950s and 1960s rather than the 1930s, but I could well be wrong about that. Steve fights to get the Pope to take a stand, but he must work through the Cardinals to present the case.

The final big issue Steve must deal with is Fascism. The Vatican sends him to Vienna again, just after the Anschluss (Nazi Germany’s invasion of Austria). The Austrian Bishop welcomes the German troops with the ringing of church bells. The Austrian people must vote on a plebiscite to determine whether they want to live under German rule. The Vatican orders the Austrian Bishop to remain neutral on the issue, but instead, the Bishop publicly gives a Heil Hitler salute and encourages priests throughout the country to support the Nazis, because he believes Hitler's promise that the Catholic Church in Austria will be left alone. Hitler immediately reneges on his promise after the plebiscite is approved by the Austrian people.

With war approaching, Steve is made a Cardinal. He preaches at his commissioning ceremony, “Freedom is America’s creed and at the heart of the Gospel… Pray for me that I might not falter, and pray for our beloved country.” Steve, the Cardinal, is sent back to America, and the film concludes. So, if you are looking for pro-American clergy, Steve is your guy.

Every week, we rate the clergy and/or church in a film, examining their approach to ministry. So, to begin with, let’s look at how Cardinal Steve approaches those significant social issues tackled in the film.

Pre-marital sex - Steve condemns it as sinful.

Inter-faith marriage - Steve is okay with it, as long as the non-Catholic spouse agrees to not interfere with the faith of Catholic spouse, or have anything to do with the religious education of the children (so standard Catholic take)

Abortion - Steve, as the family member making the medical decision, doesn’t okay an abortion for his sister’s health (sister dies, baby is saved).

Celibacy for priests - He’s for it

Fascism - He’s against it.

Racism - Stands with Scripture in opposition to it.

So, Steve’s positions on these various issues are reasonably consistent with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in the first half of the 20th Century.

What I found troublesome was Steve’s take on salvation. We see him teaching a Sunday School class of middle schoolers. Two boys approach Steve, asking him to settle a bet. “Joe says only Catholics can go to heaven. Why can’t Protestants go to heaven?”

Steve asks the class what they think. Someone calls out, “Because they ain’t Catholics.” The class murmurs agreement. And Steve tells them, “You’re all wrong. The Catholic Church teaches anyone: Catholic, Protestant, Mohammedan, Jew, who does God’s will according to his conscience will go to heaven.” There is a problem with this, which comes from the Apostle Paul quoting the Psalmist in Romans 3 talking about Jews and Gentiles:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Paul goes on to say, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile.” (You could fairly replace this with ‘There is no difference between Catholic and Protestant.’) “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

So while Steve is talking about salvation through people’s conscience, Paul says that's hopeless, and salvation comes only through the grace of Jesus. This brings Steve down a full Steeple in the Movie Churches rating system. But since he's anti-Ku Klux Klan and anti-Hitler (half of which might have been bold stands in 1963), we’re giving Cardinal Steve three out of four steeples.