Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Scary Movie Churches in October

A couple of Halloweens ago, when I was working in youth ministry at a church, I organized a zombie night. Everyone dressed like the walking dead, and we played games with that theme. It all led up to a lesson from Ephesians 2 -- we were dead in our sins but now are alive in Christ. It was a fun night, and some kids posted pictures on FaceBook.

A very well intentioned (I'm sure) woman sent an email to the church warning us of the dangerous supernatural evil we were exposing the kids to by dealing with dark forces and evil concepts. I sent her a message that we were indeed looking at evil things: sin, wrath, and the cravings of the flesh that Scripture warns us about. Zombies just provided an apt illustration of those concepts. I didn't hear from her again.

Historically, there are three topics in films that have engendered outrage from the church and religious groups: sexuality, blasphemy, and horror. The funny thing about the third topic is that horror films often have something closer to a Christian world view than much of Hollywood's other fantasies.

In horror films, evil is real. The supernatural is real. The devil might be real, and if the devil is real, one expects to find that God is real. If there are demons, there are angels; and if evil, then good. In many of Hollywood's comedies, dramas, and even science fiction, God is irrelevant. In many horror films, God is the only hope. The only thing between our hero and a vampire might well be the Cross. In real life, the Cross is the only thing between me and evil as well.

So October is about horror films. Some have monsters of a supernatural variety, some have monsters of the human variety. All of the films, of course, have churches. And they all are, in the words of Count Floyd, "scary stuff, kids." Because "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."*
-- Dean

*Psalm 111:10a NIV

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Grace Unplugged (2013)

Every father can agree that one of the greatest movies of this century is Liam Neeson's "Taken" because it teaches the important lesson that Dad was right all along. I'm not saying "Grace Unbroken" is in that class of cinema as it doesn't have shootings, electrocutions, or car chases but it still has that important theme. The reason I'm writing about it here is the film has a church, while, sadly, "Taken" does not.

"Grace Unplugged" tells the story of a one-hit-wonder rock star, Johnny Trey, (think Barry McGuire) who hit the skids and is now the worship leader in a small church. His daughter, Grace, plays with him on the church's worship team, but they fight and she leaves home for Hollywood to become a rock star. It's sort of like the Miley Cyrus story with a happier ending.

Early in the film we see father and daughter together in a church worship service performing the song, "Never Let Go". Though there are other singers and musicians, the two are standing up front -- both thinking they're the primary worship leader. The minor clash in styles is obviously not a small thing for them. After the service we see a friend of Grace's full of compliments which Grace swats away with disgust.

At home, we see father and daughter argue about the worship service. Johnny wanted Grace to play the piano, as she had in rehearsal, but she played the guitar.

He also wasn't pleased with her singing style, which leads to the memorable quote, "The rest of us are doing Chris Tomlin and you act like it's a Renae Taylor concert!" You probably don't know who Renae Taylor is, because she's a fictional rock star character in the film. She things like this: "In this business, your body is your main source of capital and sometimes you have to spend it." You might not know who Chris Tomlin is, but he is a real Christian musician.

And you know one thing for certain when you hear his name mentioned: he will make a cameo appearance in the film. Yes, it happens.

What I loved about this was it does capture something that I have seen happen far too often -- squabbling on the worship team. Yeah, usually it's brothers and sisters in Christ squabbling rather than a father and daughter, but it still is something that happens. A lot. Which always gets explained as "You know how those creative types are."

Something that baffled me in the film was the size of the church. All the pews seem full in the worship service we see, but even the most generous ushers' count would place it at about 120 people. Yet the church somehow seems to be able to afford a full time teaching pastor AND a full time worship pastor, Johnny Trey. The only possible explanation is he is living off the royalties of his hit, "Misunderstood," and at the church he's working for all the coffee he can drink.

We never see the pastor, Pastor Tim, preach, but we do see him socialize with the Trey family and providing counsel to Johnny. When the Trey family fights, Tim and his wife also bicker, and he chuckles sympathetically. When Grace runs away, Pastor Tim does offer sound advice. He says that Grace might not listen to Johnny's advice anymore, but he can trust her in God's hand.
In the end, Grace sees the moral depravity of Hollywood and returns home. Obviously, the church is what brings Grace back, with Pastor Tim mediating her return.  So we're giving the church (and Pastor Tim) 3 steeples.

(And though we usually don't review the film itself, I give the film two big thumbs up for the moment Grace says, "You were right, Dad."  I was touched.)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972)

Just so you know, I prefer the church with the more naked Jesus. There are three churches in director Franco Zeffirelli's film about St. Francis, if you include the Vatican. And as I said, the less clothing encumbered church is definitely the best.

"Brother Sun, Sister Moon" was released in 1972, which puts it in the heart of the sixties (which, of course, are best calculated as beginning in 1963 at JFK's assassination to Nixon's resignation in 1974), the hippie era. The story of Francis of Assisi returning from war and renouncing his father's materialism for a life of nature, peace and spirituality certainly was tailor made for the Flower and Jesus People. From what I can tell, Zeffirelli doesn't stray too far from the story of the saint who was born in 1181 (or 1182) and died at the age of 44 in 1226. Francis' life also fits well in this month's theme of Rebel Youths (even if his rebellion was of a more positive brand than most).

As always though, we are here to evaluate the churches found in the film, not the film itself.

The first church we encounter in the film is the church of Assisi, attended by Francis' father, Pietro. Pietro is quite distressed that Francis doesn't initially return to church when he returns from the war. Pietro has a chummy relationship with the priests in the church, apparently supplying the clergy with silk for their fine robes from his prosperous textile works.

The crucifix above the altar in the church depicts Jesus wearing a crown of jewels and fine robes. This is a little off from the Biblical testimony that has Jesus on the cross wearing a crown of thorns and no clothes at all, but I'm sure if you're wearing a really sweet silk robe as a member of the clergy, having your wall Jesus with an equally sweet robe makes for more comfortable worship.

Also in this church, the clergy and the rich have the good seats in the front of the sanctuary and the poor stand in the back. All of this is in direct contradiction of James 2 which says the rich should not be shown favoritism. Francis, upon returning to the church, recognizes its hypocrisy. He renounces his father's wealth, ridding himself of everything from his earthly father including the clothes he was wearing (this streaking was the main thing I remembered from seeing the film as a teen). The naked Francis says he is born again. A priest tries to cover him with a fine robe, but Francis shares the robe with a poor man.

Francis begins a new order of brothers who take vows of poverty and chastity and seek to serve the poor. They rebuild a church in ruins, St. Mary of the Angels. This church ministers to the poor, who are given honor and affection. The crucifix in this church displays a Jesus whose garb is more Biblically accurate.

When Francis and his brothers encounter persecution, they decide to go to Rome to seek the blessing of Pope Innocent III for their order. On entering the Vatican, Francis encounters wealth more opulent than even his rich father possessed, but Francis doesn't judge, at this time being submissive to the authority of the church.

When Francis first approaches the Pope, he reads from a formal, legal request for recognition of his order that has been prepared for him. He abandons the reading and then goes to reciting the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is greeted by cries of "Blasphemy!" by some in the room.

But the Pope is moved by the words of Christ spoken through Francis, giving him blessing and even kissing his feet. (One should have expected the Pope to do the right thing, as he is played by Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Ratings for the three Movie Churches:
Francis' father's church - one steeple

The Holy Father's church - two steeples

Francis's church - four steeples

Thursday, September 10, 2015

"Saved!" (2004) and "Boys Town" (1938)

Though both "Boys Town" and "Saved!" have only brief scenes in churches, they're both about institutions run by clergymen (schools in both, though "Boys Town" is a school and more). Both provide interesting glimpses of how the church is viewed in their times.

It's impossible to imagine "Saved!" (the story of a high school girl impregnated when she tries to "cure" her gay boyfriend) being made in 1938. But it's almost as difficult to imagine "Boys Town" (the earnest story of a Catholic priest who founds a ministry to care for abandoned  and troubled boys) being made in the 21st century.

American Eagles Christian High School in "Saved!" is run by Pastor Skip. Pastor Skip makes a great effort to be hip and happening for the kids of his school. We see him at the opening assembly of the school year being introduced by Mandy Moore's Christian Jewels worship band. He encourages the kids to "Get our Christ on... Kick it Jesus style" and to follow "Jesus the ultimate rebel and God, the universe's CEO."  The school's board worries that the Christian bands he brings to the school might sound too much like secular rock bands, but he says that's the point, looking to lure kids in with the music and then convert them.

But all is not well in the minister's private life. Pastor Skip is married, but his wife has been off in the mission field for an extended time (their son spent the summer with her, but returns for his senior year at Skip's school). Pastor Skip has regular "counseling" sessions with a student's widowed mother -- which morph into an affair. So perhaps he isn't the best person to be teaching the students sex education.

The film is almost a remake of "Mean Girls," but in this film the mean girls call themselves Christians. Christians in the film all are trying to imitate the world but baptize it at the same time. The Christians are hypocrites, all trying to gather other people's eye lumber with optic log cabins of their own aplenty (this awful sentence is a reworking of Matthew 7: 1 - 5).

This satire of Christians as sexually obsessed, culturally clueless and at times downright mean might not be fair or accurate, but it's good for Christians to see how others see them.

Father Flanagan in "Boys Town" runs a quite different kind of institution. He establishes a school for boys who are orphaned or are in trouble with the law. The film opens with the priest visiting a man on death row who says everything might been different if someone had cared for him when he was a young boy.

Boys Town is, of course, a real institution. The real Father Flanagan, portrayed in the film by Spencer Tracy, borrowed $90.00 to rent a house for a few boys. This eventually became a number of institutions that housed and schooled thousands of boys (and now girls too). Father Flanagan in the film fights for his school, insisting that "there is no such thing as a bad boy." (For believers in original sin or for parents who have observed their own children, this is a very questionable statement but that doesn't take away from the fact that Boys Town has done very valuable work through the years.)

Not atypical for films of the era, there are moments we'd consider racist or anti-Semitic, but there is a surprising scene in the film where we see Father Flanagan explaining that the boys do not need to become Catholic but are free to honor the "supreme being" however they wish. The school encourages hard work, cleanliness and unabashed patriotism for these United States.
It's hard to imagine that a film about Father Flanagan's good work would make it to the big screen these days (perhaps it could be a made-for-TV feature on Hallmark or the Lifetime Channel). At the time it was made, studios assumed their audiences appreciated the Church and its work.

Perceptions of the church have changed quite a bit in the last three quarters of a century; probably for the worse. At the end of "Saved!" the teen Mary (with child, but not a virgin) says we're all still trying to figure out what Jesus would do. We do know that Jesus wanted the little children brought to Him so he could bless them. Let's keep doing that.

"Boys Town" 3 steeples

"Saved!" 1 steeple

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Footloose (2011)

A fiery car crash and the death of five teenagers isn't intuitively the way to begin a movie musical, but it was a wise choice to open the 2011 remake of 1984's "Footloose." The original version opens with a preacher ranting about how we are being "tested" by the world's evils and especially by rock and roll music.

After we see the car crash in the remake, the film makers cut to Dennis Quaid as Pastor Shaw Moore preaching that "we are being tested." The death of young people in their prime (including the pastor's own son) certainly is a more relatable and devastating trial than facing the risk of hearing Men at Work playing on the radio. Moore goes on to say that though children have been lost, they still have children to protect.

Like the preacher in the first film, his sermon is Scripture free, but it is at least understandable on an emotional level for the viewer. In the first film, there was also a car crash killing teens including the minister's son, but the audience doesn't see it. In that film it's something that happened six years before, which keeps the audience from sympathizing with the human impulses that would lead to parents taking drastic measures to keep their kids safe.

Pastor Moore is on the city council, and laws are passed to "keep children safe," including a curfew for those under the age of 18. Dancing is not outlawed, but teens are forbidden from staging dances on their own. In the world of this film, schools and churches can stage dances. The schools won't stage dances anymore because of liability issues. The churches stage dances but the kids don't want to go to "church dances."

This does sort of undercut the basic conflict of the first film. Dancing and even rock music are not banned. They're just regulated. How many teens throw a senior prom for themselves? But teens being teens, if they're told they can't do something, they'll want to do it. Perhaps at the church dances they didn't let them play the anti-Christian theme song, "Footloose," with lyrics such as "Kick off your Sunday shoes" and "Pull me off my knees."

The next sermon we hear from the Rev. Moore is about the evils of progress. He bemoans the use of ATMs (he's probably the kind of guy would call them "ATM machines") instead of going inside to see Old Banker Brown who would give the kids a piece of Bazooka Joe. He chastises his congregation for staring at screens rather than the faces of their families and friends. Many might see value in that sentiment, but again the Rev. Moore uses no Scripture to back up his points. (We do see him practice preaching on the text where the disciples are unable to cast out the demon because of their lack of faith. But we never see him use Scripture in the pulpit.)

The final sermon the Rev. Moore preaches in the film is the same sermon preached towards the end of the first film. He "allows" the dance to go on, because he reasons that parents need to eventually let kids make their own choices. Not a bad sentiment, really, but a sermon should be about God's Word rather than the pastor's opinions.

There is another interesting scene set in a church. After Ariel, the pastor's daughter, is beaten by her boyfriend (not our hero, Ren), she finds her parents in church. Her parents are concerned, but also upset with her. Ariel says "Isn't church where we're supposed to bring our troubles?" If that is true of this church, that people bring their troubles there, that's a good thing. (Also, this is an interesting change from the earlier film, where Ariel says, "Isn't church where we confess our sins?")

During this scene, Ariel confesses to her parents that she isn't a virgin. In both films, the father says, "Don't use that kind of language in this place!" If the word "virgin" isn't welcome in the church, it does make one wonder what euphemism they use at Christmas time.

I have to admit, in spite of the always awesome Kevin Bacon factor, I preferred the remake of "Footloose" to the original; perhaps because I'd take pyrotechnic school bus demolition derbies over tractor chicken competitions. I even prefer the movie church in the "Footloose" remake to the one from the original, if only because it falls into fewer fundamentalist clich├ęs. I'm giving it 2 steeples.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Rebel Youths

Thomas Jefferson said, "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing," and fortunately, the world has youth to take up the cause. Young people look at the world as it is and wonder why it isn't better.

Some rebellion begins in innocence. A youth does what comes naturally and finds out society frowns on such things. The civil rights movement was rebellion founded on the crazy idea that equality and liberty should be lived out in a country that extoled those values.

Of course, some rebellion is stupid, reckless and dangerous; and though I love "Animal House" as well as the next guy, we won't be looking at it this month in Movie Churches. Because, you know, it has no church.

There's a famous line from "The Wild One," when someone asked Marlon Brando's motorcycle gang member, "What are you rebelling against?" And Brando answered, "Whadda ya got?" It' one of the most concise summaries of pointless rebellion to be found in film; but sadly, no church is to be found in that movie either.

Among the more common targets for youthful rebellion are parents, school, society, the church, and God. Of course, the latter two are not the same thing. We'll be looking at films this month where youth rebel against the church due to their sinful nature, nihilism or hedonism. And we'll be looking at films where youth rebel against the church because of their love for God.

So this month we'll be inviting all kinds of Young Rebels; the Wild Ones and the Godly Ones, to join us on our metaphorical movie lawn.