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.)