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

No comments:

Post a Comment