Friday, March 10, 2017

Clint Eastwood Month: Your Arms Too Short to Box with God

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
“Boxing is about respect; getting it for yourself and taking it away from the other guy.” That’s a line from  Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, the narrator played Morgan Freeman in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. (If you want quick improvement for your film, have Morgan Freeman narrate it. See March of the Penguins and The Shawshank Redemption.)

Back to that remark about boxing and respect. It makes sense, because boxing could be described as the ultimate competition. One person fights another, with one winner and one loser. Million Dollar Baby is about boxing -- particularly a woman boxer, Maggie, played by Hilary Swank, with an elderly manager, Frankie played by Eastwood.

But the film’s problem for Movie Churches is the priest. He seems to view ministry as a competition, too. Brian F. O’Byrne plays Father Horvak, and he’s not a good priest. Not a bad priest, you know, relatively speaking here at Movie Churches. We’ve had molesters and murderers in the clergy here at Movie Churches, and he’s nothing like that. But he doesn’t do his job well.

Frankie, a cut man and boxing trainer, has been attending mass almost every day for 23 years, according to Father Horvak. (This is a bit puzzling, because actor O’Byrne was 37 when he made this film. Perhaps the priest began pastoring this church when he was 14?)

As viewers, we’re able to see that Frankie has a genuine faith. We see him alone in his room, kneeling by his bed to pray. He crosses himself and prays for his daughter and adds, “You know what I want, no use repeating myself.”

Later, we see Frankie coming out of church. The church sign reads, “Church of St. Mark.” (I wondered if there was if any churches have such a church name, since I’ve only seen names like, “St. Mark’s Catholic Church,” The Apostles are usually possessive when it comes to titles. But I did find a few churches with such names when I Googled around.)

Frankie approaches the priest and tells him, “Father, that was the best sermon yet, you made my week.”

The priest asks “What’s confusing you this week?”

“It’s the same one God, three God thing.”

“Frankie, most people figure out by kindergarten it’s about faith.”

“Is it sort of like Snap, Crackle, and Pop all three in one box?”

“Are you standing in front of my church comparing God to Rice Krispies?The only reason you come to church is to wind me up. There is one God.”

“What about the Holy Ghost?” Frankie asks.

“He’s an expression of God’s love.”

“And Jesus?”

“Son of God. Don’t play stupid.”

“So, he’s like a demigod?” Frankie asks.

“There are no demigods, you @#%@&ing pagan!” replies the priest.

I’m not that upset by a priest using a naughty word. What bothers me about this whole exchange is that the priest, after years, still allows himself to get involved in silly theological arguments when he knows that’s not the point. The priest admits later in the film he knows, “The only person that goes to church that much is the kind that can’t forgive himself for something.”

But instead of trying to help Frankie deal with his guilt, offering Christ’s forgiveness, the priest only adds to Frankie’s guilt. He continually asks Frankie whether he writes his daughter. And Frankie always says he does. And the priest calls him a liar, but the viewer knows Frankie does write to his daughter but gets them back, “Return to sender.” The priest is worse than useless in this counseling situation.

He’s even worse when Frankie comes to him with the greatest moral crisis of his life. (Spoiler alert! The movie’s been around for almost fifteen years, but skip to the end if you don’t want to know what happens next.)

His boxer, Maggie, has a tragic accident in the ring. Her neck is broken, and she becomes a quadriplegic. The doctors have no hope for a cure. So Maggie asks Frankie to kill her.

Frankie goes to church to pray for Maggie, and then he goes to the priest. The priest tells Frankie he can’t kill Maggie.

Frankie, obviously wrestling mightily with his conscience, says,  “I know, Father. But Maggie is so stubborn. But now she wants to die and I just want to keep her with me. And I swear to God, Father, it’s committing a sin to do it, but by keeping her alive I’d be killing her. Do you know what I mean? How do I get around that?”

“You don’t,” the priest says. “You step aside, Frankie, you leave her to God.”

“She’s not asking for God’s help. She’s asking for mine.”

‘Frankie,” the priest says, “Whatever sins you’re carrying, they’re nothing compared to this. If you do this thing, forget about God or heaven or hell. If you do this thing, you’ll be lost. Somewhere so deep you’ll never find yourself again.”

Just for starters, it’s never a good thing for a priest to say, “Forget about God,” because all the priest has to offer is God. And next, it is wrong to talk about sins, even euthanasia, as being unforgivable. I believe euthanasia is wrong, but there are many who have quite understandable reasons for committing the act. A priest can advise against it, but talking about it as something Frankie recover from is just wrong. Jesus said (in Matthew 12: 31), “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” I’ve read many explanations of what ‘blasphemy against the Spirit’ might be, but none of them have said it was euthanasia.

The worst thing about the priest in this situation is that he doesn’t even offer to visit Maggie himself. Leaving the church grounds seems to be too much of an effort for him. But he doesn’t approach anything from a positive perspective.

He could tell Frankie (and Maggie), the story of Joni Eareckson Tada, a woman who found that God can use her in mighty ways though she’s a quadriplegic. But the priest doesn’t bring up Joni and Friends, only more guilt.  

So Frankie commits euthanasia and never returns to the church -- which seems to have been Father Horvak’s goal all along.

The film Million Dollar Baby was widely lauded, winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, and Best Actress for Swank; but the Movie Church and the priest in the film are not so acclaimed. They earn only 2 Steeples.

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