Thursday, May 12, 2016

Science & Church: Inherit the Wind (1960)

1960's Inherit the Wind is a highly fictionalized retelling of the Scopes Monkey Trial (more properly "The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes"), and I sincerely hope that among the many things director Stanley Kramer and writers Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee got wrong was the portrayal of the church.

I know for sure the portrayal of the defendant in the trial is far from accurate. In the film, a high school biology teacher is going about an average teaching day when a pastor and a town official enter his classroom. Nonplussed, he carries on with the day’s lesson, the beginning of life as presented by Darwin’s book, The Origin of the Species. The teacher, Bert Cates (played by Dick York, TV’s first Darrin from the television show Bewitched) is arrested and sent to jail. The town is rocked, particularly Cates’ devoted students and his fiance (the daughter of the Rev. Jeremiah Brown, one of the parties to Cates’ arrest).

The situation of the real defendant, Scopes, was nothing like this. He was a substitute teacher recruited to test the state law against the teaching of evolution. The whole trial was a staged publicity stunt that religious fundamentalists and people termed “Modernists” used to promote their respective causes.

Understandably, the film would rather present the drama of individual lives at stake rather than just ideas at stake. Cates is presented as the hero, and if there is a villain in the piece, it's the Rev. Jeremiah Brown.

In the historical case, William Jennings Bryan, the great populist hero of the Democratic Party, represented the defense. In the film, his place is taken by Matthew Harrison Brady, who also ran for president three times and served as an advisor to Woodrow Wilson.

When Brady arrives in town, he asks in a public meeting, “Who is the town’s spiritual leader?” That is a strange question to ask in a moderately sized town like Hillsboro (subbing for Dayton,Tennessee), where there would surely be a number of churches representing a number of denominations. But one gets the feeling there is only one church in town. It is never named, but it is run by the Rev. Brown, who is presented to Brady as the town’s spiritual leader.

At the conclusion of the first day of the trial, the judge announces an evening prayer meeting in the park to be led by the Rev. Brown (the defense quite rightly objects to the announcement).  At the park prayer meeting, Brown preaches through the creation account of Genesis (and includes a baffling section about God scowling and being extremely unhappy with His creation prior to the creation of man.)

Brown goes on to pray for God’s judgment to come on the heretics who teach creation. Brown curses to hell the defendant of the trial. He seems to be asking for Cates to receive a much stricter sentence than a Tennessee jury could grant. One would think Brown would pray for Cates to come to repentance, but that’s not his style. Brown’s daughter, Cates’ fiance, doesn’t take this well. It’s too much for Brady as well, but he blames the radical, judgmental attitude of Brown on the terrible pressure the modern world puts on simple religious folks.
During the trial we learn that Cates quit going to Brown’s church because of a particular incident. A twelve year old boy drowned in a local swimming hole. At the boy’s funeral, Brown preached that the boy was experiencing the fires of hell because the kid was never baptized.

When I preach a funeral sermon, I try not to assume that I know what was going on in the heart and mind of the deceased, and especially not what is going on in the heart of God, but Brown is apparently much more perceptive of eternal truths than I am.

Brown is apparently also behind town demonstrations that hang Cates in effigy and change the lyrics of The Battle Hymn of the Republic into a lynching song.

As I said, I do hope that Lawrence and Lee were as inaccurate in their representation of the Reverend Brown as they were in the character of Cates, because I’m giving Brown and his church our lowest rating, One Steeple. 

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