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

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