Thursday, December 31, 2015

Brooklyn (2015, in theaters now)

I was going to see Brooklyn anyway. It's rocking 98% fresh with critics at Rotten Tomatoes and has been discussed for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actress (for Saoirse Ronan as the young Irish immigrant, Eilis). Then friends mentioned that a priest plays a prominent role in the film, so I knew it might work for Movie Churches.  Viewing the film, I discovered it not only had a church, but a church Christmas scene, so it would fit with this month's Yuletide Theme; a big win all around.

The film opens in Ireland in the early 1950's, and one of the first scenes is set in a church worshiping with a Latin Mass. The church is full but many seem bored in the service. After Mass, a number of people go from the service to the little store where Eilis works part time. Employment options are limited in her small town, so when the opportunity arises, she decides to go to America to find work.

Eilis' immigration plans are coordinated by a priest in Ireland and a priest in Brooklyn. The priest in America sponsors the woman, arranging for her lodging and employment in her new land. Father Flood (played by Jim Broadbent) is an Irish immigrant as well, from the same town in Ireland. He remembers Eilis and knows she has potential.

When Eilis' bouts of homesickness hamper the cheerful attitude she needs to work effectively as a sales clerk at an upscale department store, her job is endangered. But instead of firing her, her intimidating boss calls in Father Flood to give her council and comfort. The priest encourages her to carry on in her work, but arranges for her to take accounting classes. He assures her that someone will pay for her school (an anonymous member of Flood's church who apparently has some atoning to do.)

Church dances provide Eilis and other new immigrants with another important service: a social life. Weekly church dances provide a wholesome atmosphere for entertainment and socializing. (It is at such a dance that Eilis meets the young man that will provide the romance and conflict for the remainder of the film.)

At the church, Eilis also finds a place to serve. While other girls in her boarding house find families to join for Christmas, Eilis helps with the Christmas meal for destitute men (most of them Irish immigrants as well). She finds the men's stories and songs from the old country almost as encouraging as the men's encouragement from her hard work and cheerful attitude. (And I, of course, found a reason to include the film in this month's Christmas theme.)

There is one other important scene in the film that takes place in a church. There is a wedding. Often I don't give much attention to church weddings at this blog because often the scene could just as well take place at any venue. But the wedding scene in this film provides the important thematic and plotting function of reminding a character of the sacredness of wedding vows.

You probably can still catch Brooklyn in a theater near you. I'm giving the Movie Church in the film Four Steeples.

So, there. The last Movie Church of 2015. Thanks to all who have read the blog through the year, especially those of you who have provided reactions and comments.

In 2016 we will be adding a couple of features. On Thursdays, we'll continue to post about a Movie Church fitting into the month's theme (among the themes next year: comedies, cops and robbers, depression, and crises) In addition, there'll be other posts related to an adventure my wife Mindy and I are taking next year.

During 2016, we plan to travel throughout America, visiting a church and a bar in each of the United States. Every week, we'll view a film related in some way to the state we are visiting, and we'll post about that. And if we go to movie theaters on our journeys, we may post that here as well.

So a Happy New Year to all, and we look forward to having you along for the ride in Movie Churches 2016!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Black Nativity (2013)

First of all, let's make one thing clear: this film must not be confused with Black Christmas. So before you pop the corn and gather the family around for a heartwarming reimagining of the Christmas story as the birth of Jesus in Harlem, be sure you have the correct film! You probably do not want to show Grandma and little Billy and Susie either Bob Clark's Black Christmas or the remake, even though Clark was the director of  A Christmas Story. Both BCs are slasher films about escaped maniacs dressed as a homicidal Santa.

More important for this site, as far as I know neither version of Black Christmas features a church. If I ever see either film and find out differently, I'll let you know.

Where was I? Oh, right, Black Nativity. The 2013 film is based on Langton Hughes' 1961 musical. Hughes was a poet, novelist, activist, and, of course, a playwright. There is a character in the film who's named Langston.

Langston is a fifteen year old boy living with his single mother (Jennifer Hudson) in Baltimore. When they receive an eviction notice just before Christmas, Langston is sent to New York City to stay with the grandparents he's never met.

Arriving in the city, Langston is mistaken for a thief and put in jail. His grandfather, a minister, comes to bail him out, though he assumes the charges are true. The Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) brings his grandson home with judgment all over his face. Fortunately, Langston's grandmother (Angela Bassett) greets the boy with warmth and love.

When the boy sits down for an eagerly awaited dinner, the Reverend's prayer is interminably long. When he's finished praying, he asks about Langston's mother and visibly flinches when told she (his daughter!) has been tending bar. Langston can only take so much and rushes away from the table to his room upstairs.

Rev. Cobbs shows Langston a watch he received from Martin Luther King. He tells Langston the watch will be his someday, when the Reverend passes away. Langston decides to take it a little early and brings it to a pawnbroker, who recognizes it as the cherished possession of the Rev. Cobbs. The pawnbroker tells the kid to return it, or he'll call the cops. Apparently everyone in Harlem, including the police, knows the Reverend Cobbs and respects him.
Langston wants to get away from his grandparents' home, but he also wants to get money for his mother, so he considers robbing the pawn store. Everything comes to a head on Christmas Eve.

The Reverend tells his grandson to come to the church service, adding, "Choose for yourself today what God you will serve, but as for me and my house we will serve the Lord."

At the service we see the Reverend in a grand robe surrounded by a full choir and glorious decorations. There is a reenactment of the nativity story. Langston falls asleep and dreams of Mary and Joseph coming to Harlem for the birth of their Child. Langston wakes up and leaves the service intending to rob the pawn shop. But instead, there is an unexpected intervention and discovery.

Back at the church, the Reverend is proclaiming that in Jesus, God entered into the world to make things right, to grant forgiveness. And that night, the Reverend, too, acknowledges his mistakes and his need for forgiveness. The Gospel is proclaimed, and the congregation sees the Good News heal the life of the Reverend and his grandson.

I do have one gripe about the Reverend Cobbs' church. On Christmas Eve, we see fundraising taking place to buy the church a new roof. Fundraising is sometimes necessary, but when guests and first time visitors come on Christmas Eve, they shouldn't be hit up for money. They need to receive before they can give.

Still, it seems like a good Movie Church, and the Reverend is a good man. I'm giving them Three Steeples.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Christmas Movie Churches: The Miracle of the Bells (1948)

Come December, cable networks begin to play films with churches in them, because Christmas time gives them freedom to be just a little spiritual, a little religious. So this film will pop up on the programming schedules -- and it does have a scene that takes place on Christmas Eve. A press agent happens to meet an acquaintance, a rising starlet, in a small town on Christmas Eve. They search for a place to eat and all they can find is Chinese restaurant. The owner of the place, Ming Gow, apparently does all the serving and cooking on his own and doesn't even charge them for their meals. As a bonus, he tells them the Christmas story. But this is not a film about Christmas. It is really about something very different indeed.

My hat's off to whoever convinced RKO Pictures to invest in a movie entirely about a man making funeral arrangements, the essential plot line of The Miracle of the Bells. There are also flashbacks that tell the story of the actress who has died, but really, this is a mortician's story.

Fred MacMurray plays a Hollywood press agent, Bill Dunnigan, who follows the dying request of an actress, Olga, who was on the brink of stardom. She had asked for a traditional Polish funeral in her hometown of Coal Town, PA. Dunnigan accompanies her body to the town and is greeted by Nick Orloff, the mortician. He charges Dunnigan for money he says is owed for Olga's father's funeral four years earlier, and immediately begins to pile up charges that will be incurred by Olga's funeral.

Among the more substantial are the fees charged by St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church. Father Spinsky from St. Leo's explains that his is an expensive church,so they must charge for their services to keep it up. When Dunnigan, the press agent, compares around town, he finds that St. Leo's charges twice as much for say, ringing their bells than other churches. (As you may guess by the title, bells play a rather important role in the plot.)

There are times when it is reasonable for a church to charge, even charge substantially for its services. A church with a lovely sanctuary or setting may get a lot of people requesting to use the grounds for weddings. If the church accepted (and didn't charge for) every request, their property would be unavailable for ministry and would soon be greatly run down. Couples can go to any number of other sites for a wedding, and that's okay.

I think memorial services and funerals in churches are very different things from weddings. I've been with families who came to a church at their greatest time of sadness to find that the church has piled some debt on top of the grief. Yes, there are expenses -- the time of an organist for instance, that it can be reasonable ask for recompense. But how much better if a church can minister in a time of need and not ask for repayment.

Dunnigan decides to hold the funeral of the woman he loved at a different church in town, St. Michael's, which is pastored by Father Paul (Frank Sinatra). St. Michael's is a poor church, and everyone agrees it looks like a barn. St. Michael's ministers to poor coal miners without expectation of anything more than meager gifts. Father Paul genuinely cares for Olga and the grief that Dunnigan is experiencing. He tells Dunnigan he has time to hear his story.

At the worst time of a person's life, after the loss of a loved one, a church should never be seen as trying to profit by that death. The compassion of Father Paul is what is needed.

During the funeral at St. Michael's, an amazing thing happens. The granite statues at the front of the church, of Michael and Mary, seem to turn toward Olga's coffin. Father Paul investigates the foundation of the church and finds that this was caused by the shifting of mine shafts. He questions whether it was truly a miracle.

I appreciate his intellectual honesty, but if the mines shift during the funeral service, that sill may be quite the miraculous thing.

I'm not giving St. Michael's the full four steeples, because I'm afraid the floor will collapse any minute, but it gets a very respectable three steeples. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Rude Christmas Comedies

A Merry Friggin' Christmas
A discussion of the best way to dispose of the body of a transient man believed dead is not what you'd expect to find in a heartwarming Christmas comedy.  A Merry Friggin' Christmas proves the validity of those low expectations; this is one awful film. Sadly, this was one of Robin Williams' final films. Williams plays Virgil Mitchler, the alcoholic patriarch of dysfunctional family meeting together at Christmas for the first time in years.

The family is brought together by a christening in a church, which is what brings me to this miserable little film. Nelson (Clark Duke), a son of Virgil, was abandoned by his wife. She returned a few months later and dropped off a baby that wasn't Nelson's. He decided to have his son, B.J., baptized at his church on Christmas Eve. As always, we are here to talk about the church in the film, rather than the film itself (which I can assure you, you want to avoid).

On Christmas Eve, the choir is leading the congregation in singing "It Came upon a Midnight Clear." Virgil makes up his own lyrics to the melody, singing, 'They didn't give lyrics to this song, so I can't sing along." It might be reasonable, perhaps, to expect the Christmas Eve congregation to know the first verses of "Joy to the World" or maybe "Silent Night" but not "Midnight Clear."

For the christening, Nelson is given a mike and allowed to tell the story of his abandonment and his child's Mexican paternity. I'm not sure all the visitors came expecting hear such a story, and there seem to be no limits on how long Nelson is free to speak. A church should always be careful with open mikes and testimonies, especially on Christmas Eve.

Now, it's always a tricky proposition to judge a church by the behavior of its parishioners, but one really would have to wonder about a church frequented by the Mitchlers, who spend their Christmas Eve in bouts of drunkenness, coarse talk, reckless driving and, as mentioned before, disposing of bodies.

A Harold and Kumar 3-D Christmas
Perhaps the Mitchlers aren't quite so bad when compared to the leads of A Harold and Kumar 3-D Christmas. In this second sequel to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, the Yuletide is celebrated with irresponsible drug use, blasphemy, gratuitous nudity and Santa getting shot in the face. The church they visit does have a very nice Christmas tree, but in order to go to the Christmas Midnight Mass, one must buy tickets months in advance. Kumar believes the priests of the church are pedophiles and the nuns are promiscuous, but there's no evidence of any truth to these beliefs. (This film does feature one supremely wonderful gadget, the Wafflebot. Yes, a robot that makes you waffles. I want one.)

Christmas with the Kranks
Christmas with the Kranks is a much more wholesome comedy than the other two films. Not funnier, mind you, but PG rather than PG-13 or R. There is no church to be seen in the film, but there is an interesting church mention. Based on the John Grisham novel "Skipping Christmas" (and not only is there no church, there's also no courtroom), the film explores the ramifications of a couples' decision to take a cruise rather than celebrate Christmas.

The Kranks decide not to spend money on the trees, presents, decorations, etc. But the husband, Luther (Tim Allen), also wants to withhold their annual donation to their church and the children's hospital. The wife, Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis), insists on giving $600. What I found vaguely interesting is that Luther surprises Nora with the news they had spent $6000 the year before on Christmas. So their gift is roughly a Christmas tithe.  Which is generous and all, but considering they spent $83 the year before on "ornament repairs", the gift pales a bit.

These films are all bad, but we're giving the churches in them a generous 3 Steeples. After all, it's Christmas.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Christmas Movie Churches: Simon Birch (1998)

I've put on many Christmas programs and so I believe I can say this with authority: "If an angel vomits in your Christmas program, things are not going well." Last year for a Yuletide Movie Church I reviewed The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and so it seems only right this year to look at a film that features one of the worst Christmas pageants ever.

Simon Birch features a very interesting writing credit: "Suggested by the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving." A Prayer for Owen Meany is a favorite novel of mine, but Irving didn't believe it could be successfully adapted, so he asked the writer/director of the film, Mark Steven Johnson, to change the names of the characters. Along with names, much of the film's story is changed from the book, but the Christmas pageant of the film, along with other scenes in the church, comes from the book.

Since this isn't Novel Churches, we'll look at the Movie Church in Simon Birch. I didn't catch its name. It seemed to be Anglican, since the pastor wears robes and is married, and the Sunday School teacher refers to Mass, which usually only happens in the Catholic or Orthodox churches. It could be the filmmakers just muffed that detail, not knowing Protestants tend not to do "Mass," but what are the odds of that?

The narrator of the film, Joe, finds the Sunday School teacher's name (Miss Leavey, played by the late Jan Hooks) to be very appropriate, since she frequently leaves the class for a smoke. Unattended, the class torments Joe's good friend, Simon Birch, who's abnormally small. (Joe is played by Joseph Mazzello, known by most of the world as the boy chased by raptors in Jurassic Park; also known in my household as Star Kid.)

Miss Leavey is in charge of the Christmas program, and the children are not pleased. One child volunteers to be Joseph, but everyone else tries to avoid being recruited. The girl chosen to be Mary doesn't look happy. The kids chosen to be Wise Men aren't happy. The kids chosen as shepherds are okay with it because they don't have speaking roles. The overweight kid chosen as the angel is very unhappy because he has lines to speak and will be suspended on a rope. The most unhappy of all is Simon Birch, a twelve year old boy assigned the role of the Baby Jesus.

The program begins with an adult choir singing "Joy to the World". It's a standard arrangement of the carol, so I don't know why the congregation doesn't sing it, but when the choir's done the curtain rises and we see a tableau of the kids enacting the manger scene. The overweight kid playing the angel is lowered toward the stage, and the audience gasps. The boy is suffering from acrophobia, and all he can say is "Fear not" -- more to himself than to the audience. The director stage whispers the next lines to him, but he can't say anything more.

Meanwhile, the girl playing Mary leans over Simon in the manger. Simon feels an attraction to the girl. In the novel this attraction is graphically described, but in both, Simon pulls the girl on top of him into the manger. The girl's boyfriend, playing one of the shepherds, tries to hit Simon, Joe intervenes; a brawl breaks out.

All the while, the angel keeps swinging, getting sick to his stomach, and he throws up all over Miss Leavey.

I don't think much in the way of spiritual truth is conveyed by the pageant, but you have to admit it's entertaining.

Also entertaining are Simon's outbursts in church. When I was a kid, at the Wikiup Evangelical Free Church, Pastor Bill Miller would, on occasion, misspeak. I, little punk that I was, would correct his mistakes. (For instance, he might refer to the comic strip "Peanuts" as "Snoopy." This could not stand in my 12 year old mind.) Pastor Miller, to his eternal credit, was always kind and gracious when I spoke I spoke up during his sermons.

The Reverend Russell (David Strathairn) in the film is not nearly so gracious. Following a rather pompous Scripture reading, the Reverend transitions to announcements (a rather incompetent order of service). The Reverend invites visitors to come downstairs after church for coffee and donuts with the Pastor and his wife. Simon pipes up with a voice that can't be ignored, "What does coffee and donuts have to do with God?"

Now, I happen to believe coffee and donuts have a good deal to do with the Kingdom of God. When Jesus came to earth He loved to eat and drink and was accused of being too much of a party guy (Luke 7:34). Simon's question should have provided the Reverend with an opportunity to instruct Simon on the importance of Christian fellowship. Instead, the Reverend sternly sends Simon off. Miss Leavey makes him wait in class alone until he apologizes to the Rev. Russell, who haughtily demands an apology. Off hand, I can't think of a time Jesus asked for an apology, though he deserved many.

When Simon refuses to apologize, the Reverend takes (and keeps) Simon's baseball cards. Miss Leavey says Simon shouldn't be allowed in church until he can act like a "normal person." I can't imagine how deserted most churches would be if only "normal people" attended. The Rev. says Simon won't be welcome at church, telling him the stern punishment is consistent with Proverbs15:10. Simon then quotes Proverbs 17:26, which the Rev recognizes. They have quite the Proverbs quoting competition, which is rather impressive.

But when Simon asks if God has a plan for his life, as Simon believes, the Reverend says he can't say. If you can't say that, you really shouldn't be in ministry. Yet, there must be something good about the church in that a very good and special kid like Simon, along with Joe and his family, want to be there. That's why I'm going to give the church in Simon Birch 2 Steeples.

A side note about something other than the Movie Church in the film: The novel A Prayer of Owen Meany begins with these words, "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice -- not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany." In the film, Jim Carrey as the narrator says those same words, except that last phrase, "I am a Christian". Talking about belief in God is pressing it, but using the word "Christian" is just too much for Hollywood, I guess

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

How Well do you Know Christmas Movie Churches?

An Advent quiz to help you find out!

It's Advent, and as long as Movie Churches has been around (about a year now), we’ve been writing about Christmas films in December. This year is no exception. Sadly, we can’t write about some of our favorite Christmas films because they don’t have churches. John McClane doesn’t stop in the airport chapel on the way to Nakatomi Plaza, and the Whos down in Whoville sing in the great, snowy outdoors rather than in the First Community Bible Church of Whoville. Buddy doesn’t accompany his newly found family to midnight Mass at St. Patricks'.

But churches and spiritual references do come up in Christmas films, as you well know. Or do you? Let’s see how well you do with the Movie Churches quiz before we start posting Christmas Movie Churches tomorrow.

1. In Home Alone, Kevin meets his neighbor in church. The old man shares a name with which character from A Christmas Carol?
 A) Cratchit, B) Scrooge, C) Marley, D) Fezziwig

2. Which Christmas movie character “wept and prayed” on V-E Day and V-J Day? A) George Bailey, B) Buddy the Elf, C) Martin Riggs, D) Scott Calvin

3. In While You Were Sleeping, Lucy (Sandra Bullock) goes with her newly adopted family to what kind of church service? A) Catholic, B) Presbyterian, C) Quaker, D) Baptist

4. In The Bishop’sWife, Dudley the Angel indulges in which recreational activity? A) Bowling, B) Building Snow Men, C) Skiing, D) Skating

5. In the musical Scrooge, the church choir is singing A) Joy to the World, B) A Christmas Carol, C) Come All Ye Faithful, D) Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

6. In The Preacher’s Wife, the actor who plays the preacher (Courtney B. Vance) appeared on a number of episodes of ER. The actor who played the angel (Denzel Washington) was a regular on which other TV hospital drama? A) St. Elsewhere, B) Medical Center, C) Chicago Hope, D) Doogie Howser MD

7. In the TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas, Linus recites the Christmas story from A) Matthew, B) Mark, C) Luke, D) John

8. The Bells of St.Mary’s is a sequel to what film? A) Holiday Inn, B) White Christmas, C) I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, D) Going My Way

9. Joyeux Noel takes place during which war? A) The Civil War, B) World War I, C) World War II, D) The Vietnam War

10. In the movie Holiday Inn, Jim (Bing Crosby) goes to church on which holiday? A) Christmas, B) Pentecost, C) Good Friday, D) Easter

Answers – 1-C, 2-A, 3-A, 4-D, 5-B, 6-A, 7-C, 8-D, 9-B, 10-D

Score (give yourself one point for each correct answer)

0         you’re an unredeemed Scrooge
1 – 2   you’re an unredeemed Grinch
3 – 4   you’re a Doris Walker (from Miracle on 34th Street)
5 – 6   you’re a redeemed Grinch (whose heart “grew three sizes that day”.)
7 – 8   you’re a Buddy the Elf
9 – 10 you’re a redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge (“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”)

What movie churches do you appreciate at Christmas time? Tell us in the comments!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

In Theaters Now: Spotlight (2015)

There is usually something exciting about seeing your hometown mentioned on TV or in a movie. Usually.

In the end credits of "Spotlight," a film about The Boston Globe’s investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, my home town of Santa Rosa is listed among hundreds of places documented with incidents of pedophilia. So, no… Not so exciting.

Of course, I knew about this. I was raised a Protestant, but I know a number of people from Santa Rosa who were young and a part of Catholic churches throughout Sonoma County when these events were occurring. I know some people who made peace with what happened and who are still part of the Catholic Church, and others who no longer go to church. The reason some give for leaving the church is the abuse in the church and the way the church dealt (or didn’t deal) with that abuse.

The film "Spotlight" deals with this difficult subject well. Yes, there are uncomfortable, graphic conversations of incidents of abuse of children by priests. But, thankfully, we are spared dramatic reenactments of such events. The reporters working on the story are not portrayed as paragons of virtue, but simply men and women doing their jobs, who realize their work has great moral consequence.

Sadly, many members of the clergy in the film fail to realize the moral consequence of their actions. We see a  Globe reporter (Rachel McAdams) interview a priest who seems mentally and emotionally unstable. He insists that though he did “molest” children, he didn’t “rape” them. He finds a great distinction here and seems to wish to be credited for making it. We hear the story of a boy who, after his father committed suicide, was taken out for ice cream by his parish priest. The ice cream melted while the boy was abused. A man tells the story of a priest being the first person who acknowledged the boy was gay -- and who promptly proposed acting on impulses that would make him “more comfortable with his body”.

As is mentioned a number of times in the film, priests “were God” to these kids. So when the priests victimized these children, they not only abused them physically but, in most cases, destroyed the children's religious faith as well.

It is hard to decide if the actions of these priests are more or less reprehensible than the church bureaucracy that covered up this abuse. A scene in a police station early in the film shows a priest brought in for abusing children. A person of authority in the church patches things up. The parents of the children will be paid off, and no record will be made of the crime. The clergymen ride off in their chauffeured town car.

The priests who committed the abuse could, at least, plead mental illness as a defense. Those who paid off victims of the crimes and shuffled abusing priests from one parish to the next were acting with cool calculation, with motives of pride and avarice. As someone in the film states, just as it takes village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child.

All the ugliness and sin point even more clearly to our need for a savior. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:8, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

We don’t see much inside the walls of a church in the film. We hear a priest preaching, making a trite comment about how the World Wide Web might provide knowledge, but the church is still needed to provide faith (most of the film is set in 2001). We hear a children’s choir singing a carol (It’s a Christmas film!). The worth of the church is only mentioned in vague references of “the good it does” and the comfort it brings to the old folks.

For me, this scandal does not shake my faith. I learn from Scripture the power of evil and the sin that dwells in every human heart. I know that spiritual leaders should be called to a higher standard (Paul in 1 Timothy 3 says overseers should be above reproach, temperate and self-controlled). I know that Jesus taught in Matthew 18:6 that if anyone should cause a child to stumble, it would be better to have a millstone tied about the neck and be thrown into the sea than face the judgment God would be handing out. But the film accurately portrays laypeople who feel the scandal robbed them of the option of worshiping in the church. (Mark Ruffalo’s reporter makes an emotional statement to this effect.)

Throughout the film, churches provide the architectural background for scenes. But though I very much recommend the film, the Movie Church of  "Spotlight" receives the minimum rating of One Steeple.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

I'm in Love with a Church Girl (2013)

A quick story before this week’s Movie Church review: when I was an intern at Fullerton Evangelical Free Church, a pastor on the staff, Gary Richmond, told a story on himself. Seems he was teaching on materialism and made the bold statement that if someone was really trying to follow Christ, that person shouldn’t be driving a Mercedes. Shortly after that, Gary’s car died. A generous person in the congregation offered Gary a replacement: a worn and battered Mercedes. Which Gary then drove.

It was a nice little lesson on judgmental attitudes which also featured God’s sense of humor. But it also reminds me of a scene in “I’m in Love with a Church Girl.” The movie tells the story of a drug dealer turned music promoter who falls for a young woman who works in a Christian “book” store (like many such places it seems to feature more t-shirts and CDs than books. She identifies it as a "faith based products store"). She eventually convinces him to come to church, where he sees a man pull into a parking lot in a shiny white Lamborghini. After church, Vanessa introduces Miles to the driver of the car, Pastor Galley. As the couple gawk at the worship leader’s car and gaudy jewelry, the pastor says, “The Bible says nothing about style being a sin.”

Now as new Lamborghinis retail at up to a quarter of million dollars, and throughout the New Testament we see examples of people selling their possessions for the poor, I must admit I have a hard time seeing how someone in ministry can own such a car. (I partly say this in light of Gary’s story, in hope that a divine, ironic twist of fate will bring such a car into my possession.)

There is a strange undercurrent of materialism throughout the film. The "church girl" of the film, Vanessa (Adrienne Bailon), is portrayed as epitome of Godliness, but she is obviously drawn by Miles's car and mansion. When Miles gives her a ride on a private jet for her birthday, shes give no thought to what the money spent on the trip could do to stock the pantry of a soup kitchen or buy goats for a destitute family in Guinea-Bissau. Perhaps part of the reason for this is her pastor's example and the wealth of those in her church Bible study.

Now I should get to writing again about the church in the film. (If you’re new to these parts, we review churches in films, not the films themselves. No need for an extensive review of this film anyway, once you see Stephen Baldwin is in the cast. If you see that particular Baldwin in the credits and the film was made in this century, the prospects are not good.)

We never hear the name of the church in the film (at least I didn’t catch it), but two San Jose churches are credited, Evergreen Valley Church and Church on the Hill. The exterior of the church featured has a bit of the appearance of a circus tent and Vanessa calls it “the best show on earth…and it’s free!”

When Vanessa enters the church with Miles (played by Ja Rule), she is instantly greeted by an usher at the door who says, “Let me take you to your parents,” abandoning his post at the door. The worship team seems to have a performance focus, and people in the congregation seem to be enjoying the show but not singing along. After the service, we see a woman from the worship team assure Pastor Galley the service was “awesome” and he says, “I had a great time…the Spirit was really moving.”

After a great deal of drama between Vanessa and Miles, including a coma for Vanessa and questioning from the police for Miles, the couple returns to church. The pastor says “Good morning, Church,” and reads about trials from James 1. He points to the example of Vanessa and her family. After a very brief sermon, the pastor has an altar call, and Miles is the sole person who comes forward.

In a montage we see Vanessa and Miles’ wedding, Miles’ baptism, and a title card tells us that three years later, Miles went into the ministry. This is not exactly a twist ending if you know that the whole film is written by Pastor Galley Molina (who played the pastor with the car) based on his own life story. (Knowing Molina based Miles on his own life makes one wonder about all the times in the film people talk about Miles’ good looks and charm.)

There is one other church talked about in the film. Miles was dragged by his mother to a Catholic church growing up. He says he was bored every Sunday, the music was horrible, the service was gloomy, and he was spooked by the statues and pictures. No mention is made about what kind of ride the priest drove back in the day.

But I will give the church we see in the film three steeples. There is something to be said for a church that makes drug kingpins welcome. (I’m not sure what that something is, but it is something, and we're looking forward to finding out this Sunday.) 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Graduate (1967)

In Movie Churches, I don't usually write about films that use a church just as a setting for a wedding. "The Princess Bride" has a hysterical wedding scene in a chapel performed by a character named in the credits as "The Impressive Clergyman." What people remember from the scene is Peter Cook's speech impediment ("Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam.") But the scene wouldn't change much at all if it took place in a throne room and was performed by a medieval justice of the peace. "Sixteen Candles" has a funny wedding scene with a bride who took too many muscle relaxants. But the scene would work as well in a country club as a church.

But I'm writing about "The Graduate" (even though the only church scene is a wedding) for a couple of reasons. One is that the church scene is iconic, replicated and referenced in other films (see the conclusion of Wayne's World II). The other reason I decided to write about it is because the scene has no spiritual or religious resonance. The film has no overt religious or spiritual themes even though it's about a young man's search for meaning.

The 1967 comedy won Mike Nichols an Oscar for Best Director and has rated high on the American Film Institute's list of 100 best films. It tells the story of Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), a college graduate who comes home and has no idea of what he wants to do next. At a party hosted by his parents, attended by his parents' friends, Ben is approached by a man who tells Ben he has one word to tell him. Just one word. "Plastics." That one word is a famous piece of dialogue. It captures the option of pursuing material wealth as something that is not real and not enough.

Ben, true to his era, isn't satisfied with the wealth, house, and goods that seem to satisfy his parents. In school he was an achiever in academics and sports, but those things fail to provide Ben with meaning. Though Ben drinks some, for whatever reason he doesn't follow the sixties path of drugs in pursuit of truth.

Ben uses another ancient path for meaning, one that goes back to Solomon and before. Sex. He is seduced by Mrs. Robinson ("Oh, no, Mrs. Robinson. I think, I think you're the most attractive of all my parents' friends.") Weeks, then months go by with Ben spending the day sleeping in late and hanging out by his parents pool, and nights in a hotel with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft).

But Ben falls in love with Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). Ben hopes, like many movie heroes before him, that romantic love will provide meaning for his life. But Elaine's parents forbid a relationship. And when Elaine hears that Mrs. Robinson slept with her mother, she tells Ben to leave her alone.

Ben can't leave it at that. He pursues Elaine when she returns to college at Berkeley, so her parents rush her into marriage with Carl, a jerk of a fraternity boy. Needless to say, Ben is not invited to the wedding.

He finds out where the wedding will take place, in Santa Barbara (the actual church is in La Verne). On his drive to the church he runs out of gas. He enters the church and sees the ceremony from the balcony. He's too late -- the minister has just declared Elaine and Carl man and wife. Ben screams to Elaine. She runs to him. People rush at Ben. He punches Elaine's dad. Elaine punches her own mom. Ben picks up a large golden cross and swings it to keep people away. He uses the cross to bar the door, locking the wedding party inside as Elaine and Ben rush out to a bus. 

They laugh together on the bus. And then stare off in the distance. Perhaps meaning won't be found in romantic love either.

The guests in the pews of the wedding seem like the same shallow, materialistic crowd that the film has mocked for the two previous hours. No one in the film mentions God or Jesus except as a curse. Ben uses the cross as a weapon. Perhaps Jesus could have given Ben the meaning he was looking for, but he's never considered.

Of course, he might have listened to the Simon and Garfunkel song on the soundtrack:
"And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know.
God bless you, please Mrs. Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray.
Hey,hey, hey.
Hey, hey, hey.

C. S. Lewis said, "Human history is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy." 

"The Graduate" is that story told as a very skilled farce. Oh, and if the Robinson family are any example of the members of the church in this film, it earns a sorry One Steeple.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

High Noon (1952)

 When Top Ten Western lists are made, 1952's High Noon usually makes the cut. In the AFI Best Film list it came in at #27. The film was chosen for preservation the first year of the National Film Registry’s existence. Those who remember this classic Western are likely to remember the climatic shoot out at the conclusion of the film. But do they remember the dramatic church congregational meeting just before that shoot out? We certainly do here at Movie Churches.

Gary Cooper won an Oscar playing Sheriff Will Kane on his wedding day. On that day he learns that a man he put away for murder is returning on the noon train to extract revenge. For most of the film we see Kane going around his small Western town seeking help to fight Frank Miller and his three brothers. Help is slow in coming.

Even his new wife, Amy (played by Grace Kelly), tells Will she'll be leaving town. She uses her Quaker faith as the reason. She became a Quaker when her father and brother were killed while fighting for a just cause. When her new husband is facing a tough fight, she decides to take the train out of town before things get bad, so it doesn't seem that Amy came to her faith through intense Biblical study and prayerful meditation, but rather through a desire to avoid pain. Bad news for Amy: as pacifists through the centuries have learned, those who refrain from violence aren't exempt from the dangers of living in a violent world (exhibit A being the Cross).
As Will scours the town for help, he comes across a young man. Will asks the kid why he isn’t in church. The kid responses, “Why aren’t you in church?” which angers Will. It’s not the last time the question is asked. Later in the film, the town’s minister asks Will why he didn’t get married in a church rather than before a Justice of the Peace. Will says it’s because his wife is a Quaker, though he admits he’s not much of a churchgoer (“Which some might say is a bad thing.”)

When Will goes to the house of his friend, Sam Fuller (played by Harry Morgan of MASH and Dragnet), Sam’s wife lies and says Sam is at church. (Sam had instructed her to lie. He's actually hiding in the house.) Will asks why she isn’t at church; she says she’ll go when she gets properly dressed. (These must be very long services.)

Will goes to a bar to ask for help and is laughed out of the place as it is pointed out to him that many in the bar are friends of Frank Miller, the man gunning for Will. An amazing number of men can be found in the local saloon on Sunday morning (you would think more of them would be sleeping off Saturday night).

Finally, Will does go to the church for help. The church is a lovely building, white with a tall steeple and a hitching post in front for horses (some attached to carriages). The congregation sings “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which doesn’t seem to be a hymn of pacifists. The minister, Dr. Mahin, reads a fiery passage from Malachi 4.

Will apologetically interrupts the service, saying he came “because there are people here.”
Dr. Mahin is initially wary, but then asks Kane to have his say. Kane points out that years ago many men in the room helped him face the outlaws. Now that those outlaws have returned, he is asking for their help again.

The men in the church immediately begin to snipe at each other, taking different sides of the argument. One man stands up and says they’re arguing like children, and they should speak like adults. He points out that children are still in the room, and they should be sent out. The children cheer as they storm out the door.

I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider the state of church child care in the Old West. It seems nonexistent.  Now during a worship service, this is somewhat understandable, as the parents and clergy want children to be a part of worship. Sadly, the cheers of the children upon their exit show that they were not thrilled to be there. But when the meeting changes into a business meeting; childcare should really be provided, rather than allowing the children to run amuck outside with their games of rope-less tug-o-war.

Some in the congregation argue for helping Kane and some argue against it. They all seem anxious to blame “those politicians up north” for not taking care of the lawlessness. But they seem more willing to argue than take action. The film captures this aspect of most church business meetings quite accurately.

The minister is asked for his thoughts, and he gives this little speech, “The commandments say, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but we hire men to go out and do it for us. The right and wrong seem pretty clear here. But if you're asking me to ask my people to go out and kill or get themselves killed, I can't do it.” To my ears, there is more than a tinge of cowardice in that speech. If he is a pacifist, he should boldly state the position. But if he is not, he should call for courage from his congregation.

So Will leaves the church without help. His only help (SPOILER ALERT) eventually comes from his Quaker wife, who shoots a bad man in the back as he's reloading his gun.

Though one would hope a church would find a way to be helpful to a good man like Will Kane in his hour of need, this church does not. So the best we can give it is Two Steeples.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

License to Wed (2007)

I have presided over a number of weddings through the years. I’ve often met with couples for premarital counseling. So I thought I had some experience with this material. But I am not familiar with the way these things are presented in this film. In fact, I am not familiar with
ministry, church or, in fact, human behavior, as it is presented in 2007’s “License to Wed.”

In the film, Ben (played by John Krasinski from NBC’s “The Office” so forgive me if I call him "Jim" at any time in this post) proposes to Sadie (played by Mandy Moore, who I will try not to call "Pam" even though she didn't play this role in the TV show), and she says “Yes” -- but insists that they get married at her family’s church, St. Augustine’s.

I wasn’t ever quite clear on what denomination St. Augustine’s was supposed to be. The senior (and apparently only) clergyman, Father Frank (played by Robin Williams) wears a clerical collar, and we see a picture of him with the Pope so one might guess he’s Roman Catholic. This is supported by a major plot point when Jim Ben discovers that Father Frank had been married and divorced, which would be a big deal in a Roman Catholic church, but not a mainline Protestant church.

On the other hand, the bit of a church service we see is nothing like a Roman Catholic mass. The gospel choir seems like it’s from a Southern Baptist Church (the only African Americans in the church seem to be in the choir loft and not in the pews). I can’t imagine a Catholic church where the priest would interrupt a prayer in order to shame latecomers as they enter through the back door, but maybe it’s a very clever church growth strategy I’ve never come across.

Father Frank casually encouraged a young man to “make his two moms proud” which seems more Episcopalian or Methodist than Catholic. And when Sadie comes to Father Frank about being married in the church he says, “You haven’t been here for ten years ever since you went off to college and had a bisexual roommate and then got a job.” He’s just kidding though, he says, even though it's true, she hasn’t been to church for ten years. But against the Catholic possibility, he says nothing about taking Sadie’s confession, and seems to have no concern at all about Jim’s (sorry) Ben’s faith or lack thereof.

Anyway, Father Frank finds a place for the wedding on the church calendar, but it is only three weeks away. He says they must pass his premarital counseling course to be wed, and he reserves the right to cancel the wedding up until the night before.

As I said, I’ve done premarital counseling and think it (along with reading, classes and testing), is really a good thing. Studies have shown they provide great benefits to marital satisfaction, and stability can be provided by good premarital counseling. But Father Frank’s methods are… um… unusual.

Now the first thing Father Frank asks of Ben and Sadie is not that unusual but it is treated as a completely foreign concept. He asks the couple not to sleep together until their honeymoon. Now this is a delicate issue, but it is strange that these two are astounded by the idea that in a church the concept of chastity would be encouraged.

What is a little more unusual is that Father Frank secretly installs surveillance equipment in Ben and Sadie’s home, one assumes to see if they are remaining chaste before the wedding. He listens in on their bedroom chats and seems pleased that Sadie does want to follow the Father’s rules. I don’t remember anything about eavesdropping as a suggested method in any of my counseling classes. (Maybe if I’d studied law enforcement the topic might have come up.)

Father Frank invites Ben and Sadie to a class to learn about “fair fighting.” Fair fighting can be a very useful tool in helping couples to learn to share their differences in a constructive manner. But Frank praises a couple whose “fair fight” includes the woman calling the man a “jackass” and the man telling the woman to “go to hell.” He draws Ben and Sadie into a mean fight and later sows seeds of hostility between Ben's and Sadie’s families.

The final exam before the wedding tests the couple’s communication skills. Sadie is to drive blindfolded and Jim Ben is to give her directions. Why not risk a little dismemberment and death to avoid something like a boring written or oral exam?

Spoiler – We learn at the end that Father Frank has a method to his madness and all turns out well. Why let a little clerical criminal and sociopathic behavior get in the way of a happy, love conquers all, ending? Still, Father Frank and St. Augustine’s get our lowest rating – One Steeple. (Though I do give kudos for using "Oh Happy Day" at the wedding scene.)

(As you might know, Robin Williams was raised an Episcopalian. He even came up with a top ten list for the denomination:
10. No snake handling.

9. You can believe in dinosaurs.

8. Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.

7. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.

6. Pew aerobics.

5. Church year is color-coded.

4. Free wine on Sunday.

3. All the pageantry – none of the guilt.

2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.

And the #1 reason to be an Episcopalian – No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.)

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Movie Churches Featured at Church and States in November

Movie Churches Return to Dean and Mindy Go To Church
Shortly after we began Church and States, about a year ago, we included a weekly feature about movies in churches. But we soon decided that the reviews of churches in movies should probably be a blog unto itself, and now we post about movie churches here. 

This month we've decided to have a blog crossover event. Our Sunday churches will all have facilities that have been featured in movies. Before we go to the church, we'll write about the movie in this blog. Then we'll go to the real church to see what it's really like. Our first church was featured in the film, "Sister Act," and I will be extremely disappointed if the church doesn't have a choir that sings adapted sixties pop songs as praise anthems -- just as I expect the church featured in "High Noon" to have horses tied up in front, and when we go the church featured in "The Graduate," I expect the service to be interrupted by a cross-wielding Dustin Hoffman.

I am preparing for the possibility the churches we visit will be nothing at all like the churches featured in the films. We might find God is doing something even better.

(Find the review of the movie church in the film "Sister Act" here)