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) 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Thief in the Night (1973)

 In 1973, two films provided sleepless nights to very different audiences. For those old enough to see an R rated film or the under-aged with the ingenuity to sneak into an R rated film, it was "The Exorcist."  For those whose religious scruples kept them out of the movie theater, the terrifying film was "A Thief in the Night," and children were more than welcome to watch.

"A Thief in the Night" was made as an evangelistic tool, using the tropes and techniques of horror and science fiction films. Most famously, it used the device used in "Dead of Night" and "Invaders from Mars" of having the horrible things that take place be only a dream that  proves real on awakening. The horrible events in this film are caused by the Rapture, when Christ takes all Christians from the world leaving all those who remain to face the Great Tribulation.

Not surprisingly, this film that was predominately shown in churches, features churches.
We see the outdoor sign of one of the churches. It reads, "First Church of the Open Bible - Pastors Frank W. Smith & Calvin F. Archer." There is also room for a message on the sign which was unfinished due to interruption by the Rapture, "The End is Nea."

Prior to the Rapture, we see Pastor Balmer at work. He preaches at Open Bible and seems to be the senior pastor there, but for some reason his name is not on the sign. He goes to the hospital to pray for the victim of a venomous snake bite. We know that the victim, Jim, is the love of the film's heroine, Patty, and he's not a Christian. Somehow the pastor knows this also, praying, "May this boy's life be spared so he will have another chance to trust in You."

Jim is healed, and he's touched that Pastor Balmer prayed for him. He goes to the Open Bible, where Balmer is preaching on the End Times from I Thessalonians 5. One gets the feeling that most of the sermons in this church are about the End Times. Balmer says if Jesus Christ comes again in the next thirty years, then the Anti-Christ might be active in the world now. Of course, the film is over forty years old now, so...

Anyway, Pastor Balmer visits Jim, now married to Patty, at home.  To save Jim from his snake bite, doctors used a blood transfusion from another man who'd survived bites. The pastor says that just as that man gave his blood to save Jim, Christ's blood will save him if he receives it. Jim becomes a Christian, but Patty does not. She says her pastor says you don't to worry about that theology stuff.

We never learn the name of the church of Patty's pastor, Matthew Turner. We assume it's a mainline denomination because they don't preach about the End Times.

Pastor Turner preaches, "Do these so-called basic tenets of Christianity make a difference in our lives? Would I appreciate the world's beauty any less if Christ's birth wasn't a virgin birth?" (Would that question be any more of a non sequitur if zebras were green and orange?) Pastor Turner goes on, "Would I respect people less if Jesus didn't perform miracles? Could I be so gross as to be responsible for the death of the Son of God? Would I be so harsh as to condemn people to a fiery pit? Could I be more merciful than God, who is reported to be love?"
Pastor Turner is still around after the Rapture, but he feels really bad about misleading people back in the day. He can't sleep thinking of those he misled.

Pastor Balmer is raptured (as one assumes is the case for Pastors Smith and Archer). This film provides an unusual case for the good pastor NOT being there in times of crisis. The bad church and the good church in "A Thief of the Night" average out to two steeples.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Prince of Darkness (1987)

I start to worry when people start talking about proving their faith through SCIENCE! Understand, I believe all truth is God's truth, but trying to use scientific means to prove truths of the spiritual often corrupts the scientific method or the spiritual truth as we try to jam the two things together (or we end up with something really crazy like the urban legend that NASA found the missing day from the biblical account of a battle in the book of Joshua.)

The priest in John Carpenter's "Prince of Darkness" doesn't share my concerns as he rounds up a group of scientists to prove not only that Satan is real, but also that he is, not surprisingly, up to no good. The priest is played by Donald Pleasence, bringing the same crazy eyes and mad obsession that he brought to the role of Michael Myers' psychiatrist in John Carpenter's "Halloween."

The priest has been sent by His Eminence and other high-up Catholic muckety mucks to investigate the death of an old priest in downtown Los Angeles. We're told the church was built in the 1500s in a special arrangement with the Spanish government of the time, though the church really looks like a standard structure built in the early 20th century rather than one of the missions.

Apparently, this very old church was thriving in the 1950s until the (now dead) old priest joined "The Brotherhood of the Sleep." (I have to admit, there's some great marketing in that name. I'd be quite tempted to join based on the name alone. "The Fellowship of the Nap" would be similarly tempting.) The old priest shuttered the doors of the church and closed himself in, venturing out only once a week for food. It soon becomes apparent that he had what they call in the movies, "a dark secret."

The investigating priest (we'll call him "Father Donald," though he's just "the priest" in the film) contacts aleading physicist, Professor Howard Birack (and his crack team of scientists and graduate students), to prove that Satan himself is alive and living in a glowing green canister in downtown LA. (You would think Los Angeles itself would be proof enough that Satan was alive in LA). The priest and the scientist find the Can o' Glowing Evil in a basement of the church along with a mysterious book that contains the secrets of the universe. (The walls of this room are covered with crucifixes and the room is full of burning candles. The scientist are not at all interested in why this room that has been sealed off for an indefinite period of time has dozens of lit candles that never seem to go out.)

The book they found is written in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Assyrian, and numerals. A crack translator discovers that the book tells the dark story of the Brotherhood of the Sleep's intention to keep not only Satan, but also the Father of Satan, locked away on the property. Apparently, the Church has been selling a bill of goods through the years about Evil being a spiritual thing; Evil is from outer space and is now in the church basement.

The book says that Jesus was from outer space as well, from a different humanoid race, and he came to warn us of the Big Bad currently in the basement. The only source of this information is the book from the basement, but it has differential equations so it must be true. (Outside of the writings of Dan Brown, is there a more sound theological source than the book from the basement?)

Father Donald admits that really, everyone in the church already knew this stuff, but the clergy had it good telling people how they should live, and they didn't want to give up the gig. He gets pretty weepy making this confession.

But wouldn't you know it, Pure Evil gets loose, and people start to die in graphically violent ways. The scientists try to fight pure evil with science, and Father Donald prays and uses Latin incantations. Eventually, both men and women of the test tube and the man of the cloth resort to clubs and axes to fight evil in the form of zombie-like possessed people. I must admit, Father Donald is pretty good with the fire ax.

Since Father Donald claims that the church through the centuries has been a complete fraud, I can't give him or his church our highest rating. On the other hand, he helps save the world from utter destruction, so he's got that going for him. I'm giving the church in this film two steeples

(On a side note, one of the homeless zombie people in the film is played by Alice Cooper, who now claims to be a born again Christian. However, he continues to use his guillotine and devil music, including the song, "Prince of Darkness," which he wrote for this film.)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

This October, we're looking at Movie Churches in films of horror and suspense because, you know, Halloween and all. There are those who may say that "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" has no place here. After all, it's an adaptation of a classic novel by Victor Hugo and makes no more sense here than "Les Miserables." The Hunchback is just an unfortunate individual with a physical deformity; he's no monster.

With that last statement I must strenuously disagree. When I was a kid, I had a collection of models I received from my brother that had monsters from Universal films. I had Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolfman, Dracula AND the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I rest my case. Would my brother steer me wrong?

So we'll stipulate that the Hunchback is a monster, though also a really good guy. Note he shares the title with Notre Dame. It's a reference to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The story is set there. So "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is quite at home in Halloween Movie Churches. As Archbishop Walter Hampton says in one version of the film, "We extract pleasure from horror. We shrink from ugliness and then want to see it."

Because Hugo's novel has not been under copyright for a very long time there have been many film adaptations of the material. I watched the three most famous versions: the silent version starring Lon Chaney from 1923, the Charles Laughton version from 1939, and Disney's animated version from 1996. (I'm neglecting the 1956 version with Anthony Quinn, the 1982 version with Anthony Hopkins and quite a number of cheap animated knockouts that came out after the Disney version.)

That's a lot of film to cover in one post, so I'm going to focus on just two things: the clergy and the cathedral itself.

Though I said Quasimodo was the monster in the films (and the model kits back me up on this), he certainly isn't the villain. The chief villain in the novel and all the films is named Frollo. In the novel, Frollo has a scholarly position in the church and has taken vows of celibacy and is quite a complex character. He adopts Quasimodo as an infant out of compassion. But lust for the gypsy woman Esmeralda leads him to commit a number of villainous acts, including murder.An interesting thing is that the films, made at different times, seem to have varying levels of comfort in identifying Frollo as a clergyman.

In the 1923 version, "Jehan" Frollo lives in the Notre Dame cathedral, and the title cards make it clear he is a member of the clergy. But Esmeralda points out that he's taken on worldly dress rather than the dress of a priest. He does at one point in the film don a priest's robes to get past prison guards, but it seems the film makers aren't comfortable with him REALLY being a priest.

The 1939 version makes the villain "Judge Jean" Frollo. He is not a member of the clergy but a government magistrate. His brother is a clergyman (as he is in the book) and a drunkard. But his brother the priest has his heart in the right place.

The 1996 Disney version, with "Judge Claude" Frollo of the three films, presents the character most clearly as religious. Though a judge, he sings of his lust for Esmeralda in religious terms in the song "Hellfire". It's a pretty powerful indictment of religious hypocrisy (you know, for the kids).

As for the Notre Dame Cathedral itself, it's presented as a pretty wonderful place in all the films. The 1923 film describes it as, "A spiritual haven in a brutal age; a sanctuary where the persecuted could find protection, the enduring monument of a mighty faith." In the 1939 film a magistrate says of the building, "Cathedrals like this one triumphant monument to the past... Glorifying France." (The 1939 film is pretty big on progress. The Cathedral is the glory of France's past, but the printing press promises to be the glory of France's future.)

In all three films, the Cathedral is a place of great beauty, as is the actual Cathedral. The bells provide a beautiful song and the voice of the hunchback. The gargoyles are a unique architectural feature. In the animated feature, the statues sing, dance and crack wise. In the 1939 version, the rain spouts of the gargoyles are used to pour hot oil on attackers (frankly, the reason I loved this film as a kid).

But the word that best sums up the glory of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in all of the films is to be found in one word, "Sanctuary." Esmeralda finds hope in its walls. (In the latter two films, we see her pray to Mary for her people, while those around her pray for themselves.)

In the 1939 film, there is a great conflict over whether the church can stand in opposition to the government, protecting the accused within its wall. Laughton's cry of "Sanctuary" became a staple for impressionists, but it still it a powerful thing. Because one of the best things a church can do is provide hope, refreshment and safety from a corrupt and evil world.

That's why I'm giving the Cathedral of Notre Dame in all of these films Three Steeples. (It would be four if it wasn't for that darn Frollo.) 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Night of the Hunter (1955)

 Look, I don't want to be too harsh here -- "judge not lest ye be judged" and such -- but I firmly believe committing serial murders disqualifies someone from ministry. The self-proclaimed preacher, Harry Powell, in Charles Laughton's thriller, "The Night of the Hunter," is of a different opinion on the matter.

The main purpose of these posts is to examine the image of the church as presented in movies. There are plenty of people in our culture who have little experience with real churches. If people see positive images of the church and clergy in movies, they might be more likely to go to a real church, and if they see negative images of the church and clergy in movies they might be less likely to go to a church. A preacher that is a perverse killer I'm putting in the category of a negative image. Not only is Powell a killer (which again, is bad enough), but he really has a poor understanding of women and sexuality.

Early in the film we see Powell (Robert Mitchum) driving away from one of his victims, praying in his car. "Well, Lord, how many widows has it been? Six? Twelve? You send me money to go forth to preach your Word. Widows with their money in the sugar bowl. Not, Lord, that you mind the killings, your book is full of killings. But there are things you hate, Lord, perfume smelling things, lacy things with curly hair." He thinks God hates women and sex.

When he weds his next widow, he refuses to consummate the marriage saying, "a woman's body is for the making of children, not the lust of man." He doesn't seem familiar with Paul's teaching in First Corinthians that a man's body belongs to his wife and a woman's body belongs to her husband.

We do get to see one of his revival meetings, where he has his new wife debase herself, testifying about her sinfulness. There is nothing inspiring or encouraging about his preaching. And they use torches for light inside a tent, which one would think does not meet with OSHA regulations.

Is there anything good to be said about him? Well, he did tattoo the word, "HATE" on one hand and "LOVE" on the other to illustrate the battle of good and evil. Got to love the comittment to visual illustrations.

Harry Powell was an early example of what has become a cliché in films: the preacher as deranged killer. Since his appearance in this classic tale of terror, one would think seminaries offered courses in "Repressed Sexuality 101" and "Disposing of the Corpses of Your Victims 410," considering the sheer numbers of crazed clergy.

So if all we had to go by is the behavior, teaching, and ministry of Harry Powell, his ministry gets 1 steeple.

But fortunately, his isn't the only church representative presented in the film.

The children of Powell's final victim find themselves running from the killer. They find help in the home of Mrs. Cooper, a widow who takes in orphans. Rachel Cooper is played by silent movie star Lillian Gish. She's a Sunday School teacher who not only cares for her students in class, but also takes kids into her home. She knows the Scripture well, telling her kids about Moses and Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount.

And did I mention she knows how to handle a rifle? This is something we need more of: Sunday School Teachers as Action Heroes. She definitely earns her church three steeples. We could use more Mrs. Coopers in the movies and real life.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Come October, schools and churches love to throw carnivals (though public schools might do so in honor of Halloween and churches might do so in honor of "Harvest," just to keep it pure). One expects to find things like cake walks, bobbing for apples, darts at balloons, spooky organ music, ghouls dancing... Well, those last couple of things might more likely be found in "Carnival of Souls."

"Carnival of Souls" was a low budget horror film, the only feature film directed by Herk Harvey. Harvey directed a number of educational shorts such as "Why Study Industrial Arts?", "Manners in School," and "Pork: The Meal with aSqueal" as well as one segment on "Reading Rainbow." The film, initially playing as the bottom half of a drive-in double horror bill, went on to become a cult favorite counting among its fans David Lynch ("Twin Peaks") and George Romero ("Night of the Living Dead").

The movie tells the story of a woman who apparently survives a fatal car accident but begins to see ghostly apparitions; which is not, of course, why we're looking at it here in Movie Churches. "Carnival of Souls" is one of the only films that I know of that deals with the intriguing ecclesiastical issue of whether it is important for the auxiliary staff of a church to hold to the beliefs and doctrines of a church. Didn't see that coming as part of a Creature Feature, did you?

Mary Henry, the heroine of the film, has been hired as an organist in a church in Utah. We see her practicing at a factory which recently shipped off an organ to the church where Mary wants to serve. When a worker at the factory asks her about the position, Mary says, "It's just a job."

The worker responds, "That's not the attitude to have going into church work."

Mary said, "I'm not taking vows, I'm just playing the organ."

Which brings up the question: "Is leading worship in a church just a job?" Mary apparently thinks it is. And many churches seem to agree. Churches often advertise for a pianist or organist or a choir director and ask questions only about musical talent and aptitude, but nothing about the applicant's faith. Mary would agree with that process.

In further discussion at the factory, Mary admits the job doesn't pay much, "but it's a start."

The worker tells her, "It takes more than intellect to be a musician, it takes soul." See what they did there? "Soul" like in the title?

Mary is rather listless. One wonders if Mary is really alive, does she really have a soul? Can such a person worship? Should such a person be leading worship?

Mary goes to Utah and meets the pastor of the church where she'll be working. He describes their new organ as their pride and joy. He tells Mary they don't have the largest congregation in town, but it's a nice congregation. He asks Mary if she'd like a reception to be thrown in her honor so she can meet the people. "Can't we skip that?" Mary responds.

"You can't live in isolation from the human race," the pastor says. But it looks like Mary wants to give it a shot.

Initially, the minister is pleased with Mary's organ playing. He tells the congregation that "we have an organist capable of stirring souls." He tries to befriend Mary and takes her for a ride. She asks to stop when they come across an abandoned amusement park. She tries to convince him to go past the "Do Not Enter" signs, but he says "it would be unseemly of a minister to break the law."

Later we see Mary in an apartment entertaining a neighbor. He offers a flask; she says that it isn't "the recommended diet of a church organist." He is surprised a church pays someone to play the organ. "Some churches do," she says, "A church is just a place of business."

"That's a funny way to look at things," the neighbor says. Leaving he says, "See ya at church!"

Befitting a horror film, Mary begins to experience the macabre. She sees a ghostly man in various places. In her visits to stores and on the street, she finds that people go past her as if she's not there. But one of the strangest things happens to her in the church. She looks around the sanctuary and sees stained glass with writing: "Cast out the devil!" She sits at the organ to play and sees a vision of ghosts at the amusement park. She begins to play wild, strange music.
The minister comes in and puts his hand on hers. "Profane! Sacrilege! Why are you playing like this in a church? Have you no respect? No reverence? I feel sorry for you! Your lack of soul! The things in this church have significance. I assumed these things meant something to you. In conscience I must ask you to resign. I'm not abandoning you, nor do I want you to turn your back on the church. But now you must go!"

She doesn't come back. Because it turns out she's, well, you may have guessed.

It was foolish of the minister to assume spiritual things meant something to Mary without asking if they did. The minister comes a little late to see that the spiritual condition of the organist does matter.

I'm going to take a bold stand here and say I believe that anyone who leads worship in a church should be alive. At the very least, they should be physically alive, but probably spiritually as well. Mary's qualifications in those categories seem to be lacking. I do appreciate that in "Carnival of Souls" we finally have a film that deals with these important issues of church polity.

I give the church in this film Two Steeples.