Friday, April 28, 2017

Science Fiction Movie Churches: Left Behind, the Movie

Left Behind: The Movie (2000)
I have to admit up front that this is a questionable entry in this month of Science Fiction Movie Churches because of two things: 1) Is Left Behind: The Movie a science fiction film? 2) Does Left Behind: The Movie have a church?

Left Behind: The Movie is based on Left Behind: The Novel by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LeHaye (though the writers are not credited in the film). The book was a huge New York Times bestseller that spawned a great number of sequels and spinoffs, so many people must have enjoyed it; I could only make it through one chapter. This isn’t the first time Movie Churches has looked at a Left Behind film. (It’s kind of like Hamlet -- there’s been more than one adaptation.) Previously reviewed was the far more entertaining adaptation of the story, starring Nic Cage.

The Left Behind series is based upon a particular interpretation (known as dispensationalism) of prophetic and apocalyptic passages of Scripture. Without getting too deep in the theological weeds, most people who hold to this system (which certainly does not include all Christians) believe that before Christ returns He will gather all believers out of the earth (in an event called the Rapture), and then the people remaining on the earth will face seven years of difficulty called the Tribulation.

So, getting back to that first question, would the film best be described as belonging to the genres of “prophecy” or “apocalyptic vision” rather than science fiction? Even if you hold to the theological tenets supported by the story, the film has elements that no one would argue come from Scripture. These elements belong firmly in the realm of sci-fi.

For instance, there is something in the film called “The Eden Project” that makes barren land fruitful. An Israeli scientist in the film perfects a formula for growing plants in the desert, and he desires to use his discovery for the good of his nation (“Eden is not for sale, not for money. All I want is peace for Israel”).

So that concept alone would place the film in science fiction territory. If you throw in Kirk Cameron playing Buck Williams, a widely respected investigative reporter for a leading television news network, that just adds to the film’s science fiction cred. (If this movie still doesn’t work for you as a science fiction film, you may go back and read the post for Contact.)

As for that second question, here’s the problem. Is there actually a church to consider, since the premise of the film is that the church is taken away? Thankfully for our purposes, a bit of the film takes place before the Rapture occurs, so while you could perhaps rule out sequels for examination in Movie Churches (and I am thankful for these little favors), this film does have a bit of church. And the church building isn’t raptured, so there’s that.

Before the Rapture, we see Pastor Bruce (played by Clarence Gilyard of Walker: Texas Ranger) visiting the home of airline pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson). I’m sure we’d all feel safe if we knew our pilot’s name was “Rayford Steele,” but “Brad Johnson” is a pretty manly name as well.
Rayford’s wife and son attend church regularly*, but Rayford does not. Pastor Bruce brings up the issue saying, “Haven’t seen you for a while, Ray.”

The pilot replies, “People still have to fly, even on Sundays, Bruce.”

The Rapture takes place while Ray is flying to England. Many of his passengers vanish, leaving their clothes behind. All children are taken in the Rapture (I didn’t get the exact age cut-off), along with all true Christian believers.

Ray returns home to find his college-aged daughter Chloe, but not his wife or son. He suggests, “Maybe we should try the church. If your mom is right, there won’t be anyone there anyway.”

Chloe reminds her father that he used to say the church was just a crutch that his wife used after her mother’s death, and Ray responds that church is where his wife spent most of her time and was happiest. Which speaks well of the church in the film.
But the church is not completely empty when Ray goes there. He finds Pastor Bruce. It seems that even though Pastor Bruce taught about Christ, even taught a dispensational view of the Rapture, he didn’t really believe it himself and was Left Behind (title drop). Ray finds Pastor Bruce praying, “I knew your message, I knew your words, I stood right here and preached them. And they’re gone. Knowing and believing are two different things. I’ve been living a lie. Oh God, I am kneeling before you, asking, use me, just use me.” Ray assures him that his presence for him is an answer to the prayer.

This poses a real problem when it comes to rating the church with the appropriate number of steeples. Pastor Bruce didn’t believe what he was preaching, but he was so effective that everyone who regularly attended the church went with the Rapture.

Fortunately, the church seems to have a stock of video tapes that were apparently marked, “Play this in case of Rapture.” On them, Pastor Vern Billings of New Hope Billings Church warns viewers, “If you’re watching this, the church has been raptured,” going on to warn about the upcoming years of tribulation. Reporter Buck Williams watches one of these tapes, and he’s immediately convinced.

The film ends with many open questions, and was obviously made with sequels in mind. But they’re Churchless sequels. and therefore will not be covered here. We’re giving the Church in this film 3 Steeples for getting so many of its congregants off-planet in the Rapture.

*We know Ray’s son goes to church because when the kid talks about swords and putting people’s heads on pikes, Ray asks, “Where do you come up with this stuff?”

Sunday School,” the boy replies.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Science Fiction Movie Churches: Signs

Signs (2002)
There was a time in American history when the debut of an M. Night Shyamalan film was an exciting thing, and Mel Gibson was widely respected. I know either of these things sounds like science fiction now, but there was a time when both were true; they came together in Signs. But M. Night went from making a few brilliant films to making truly awful films, and Mel’s off screen alcohol related antics revealed a dark side of his soul. But back in 2002, it was very exciting to see these two screen legends come together.

The film is very much like The War of the Worlds (there’s an explicit reference to that film in this film), but the story is told on a much more personal scale. Instead of seeing scientists, soldiers, and government officials plotting against the aliens from outer space, we see the invasion from the perspective of one family on a farm. (We do hear reports on the alien invasion from the TV and radio. At one point a newscaster states, “Hundreds of thousands have flocked to temples, synagogues and churches. God be with us all.”)

We don’t see a Movie Church in the film, but we do see what most people in the town near the farm believe is their clergyman. It’s only the pastor who doesn’t think they have a pastor. Gibson plays that pastor, Graham Hess. Six months before the film opens, Graham’s wife was killed in a traffic accident, and Graham can’t forgive God for taking her away. So he resigned from his pastorate, but everyone in town still calls him “Father.” (Apparently he was an Episcopal priest. We see a picture of Graham with a clerical collar with his wife and two children. We are never are told explicitly that he’s of the Anglican variety of denominations, but that’s our best guess.)

When the town’s constable, Officer Paski (Cherry Jones), comes to investigate strange happenings on the farm, crop circles, she calls Graham, “Father.”  He says, “Caroline, please stop calling me ‘Father.’” Later, after more mysterious happenings, she asks Graham and his brother Merrill, “Do either of you have any grudges held against you? Maybe a church member that might not like the fact you left the church.” Graham can think of no one who would hold a grudge. As Paski leaves she says, “You take care of yourself… Graham.”

The clerk at the town drugstore still calls Graham Father, too. She says,  “Father, I need to clear my conscience. Can I tell you something?”

Graham replies, “It’s not Father anymore. Tracey, I am not a reverend anymore. I haven’t been for six months. You know this.”

Tracey tells him, “Two girls were talking about the end of the world. I’m scared. Please, I need to clear my conscience.”

Graham eventually agrees to hear her confession.  “I cursed 37 times last week I said the ‘F’ word a couple of times, but mostly… ‘s@#*s’ and ‘b#^&%#s’. Is ‘douche bag’ a curse?”  He lets her know that in the context she used it, it is. “Then it’s not 37 times, it’s 71.” (Graham tells his children, “ I don’t want any of you spending time with Tracey Abernathy alone.”)

We see one other person in town call Graham ‘Father’-- the man (played by M. Night himself) who fell asleep at the wheel, killing Graham’s wife in a traffic accident. killed Graham’s wife in a traffic accident. He says, “I wrote down the number to call you six months ago. I meant to call you then, Father. I guess this is the end of the world. I’m screwed right? People who kill Reverend’s wives aren’t exactly ushered to the front of the line in Heaven. I know what I’ve done to you. Made you question your faith. I’m truly sorry for what I’ve done to you and yours.”

Graham just responds, “Alright.”

Graham may have taken off the collar, but he has a hard time shaking off the old life in some ways. When his brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), asks him to help scaring what they think are rambunctious teens off the property, he asks Graham to yell and swear.  “I don’t sound natural when I curse,” Graham says.

Learning to curse is one thing; giving up giving up prayer is another. The family, Graham, Merrill, Graham’s son, Morgan (Rory Culkin), and daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin) gather around the table for what they fear may be their last supper before they are killed by aliens. Morgan says, “Maybe we should say a prayer.”

Graham says, “No! We’re not saying a prayer.  I am not wasting one more moment of our life on prayer.” This brings his children to tears.

But Graham does eventually pray. I doubt it’s a prayer he ever used when leading a service. When he believes his child may die he prays, “Don’t do this to me again! I hate you!” God listens.

There is theological theme that weaves its way throughout the film and can be found in the title. Merrill goes to Graham looking for comfort in trying times.

Graham says you can look at events in the world and see God speaking through signs. Or you can believe everything happens by random chance and anything that looks like a sign or miracle from God is really a coincidence.

Merrill says he’s a miracle man. Graham says he’s not and that’s why he left the ministry.

I really like this film, but (spoiler) the final twist, the great weapon against the alien invaders is really silly. I would think aliens would prepare for the contingency they face in the film.

But the battle I care about in this film -- even more than the battle for Earth -- is the battle for Graham’s soul. Can he be a father to his children? Can he be a Father to the people of the town?

I’m afraid Graham as we see him in the film is just a Two Steeple Clergyman, because he does at least seek to be honest. But like Jonah, the reluctant preacher that emerges after this story might be quite effective.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Science Fiction Movie Churches: Time Changer

Time Changer (2002)

The stakes connected with the outcome are key to a good drama. That’s why so many superhero films have a villain trying to take over/destroy the world -- because people in the audience think, “Hey, I live on the planet Earth, this matters to me.” Even a single life on the line is pretty high stakes. In A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More’s life is at stake, but even more, his integrity is at stake. People care about his choices.

What’s at stake in the Christian science fiction film Time Changer? Whether a writer can get his seminary to endorse his new book. The publisher has purchased the book and is ready to print it, but the seminary upvote could make a difference in the book’s sales. Are you riveted yet?

Rich Christiano, along with his brother, made short films for churches, but this feature is the fulfilment of his dream to bring an engaging Christian story to the movie theaters (which, in the film, he makes clear that he considers them dens of iniquity). He managed to bring together a cast of great stars of television (Gavin McLeod of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hal Linden of Barney Miller) and the screen (Jennifer O’Neil of Scanners and Paul Rodriguez of Tortilla Soup).

Russell Carlisle is a 1890 Bible scholar who has written a book about how society would profit from the teachings of Jesus, even if those teachings aren’t associated with Jesus Himself. He brings this book for an endorsement to a seminary where it is enthusiastically reviewed by everyone except one seminary professor, Norris Anderson (Captain Stubing).

Anderson argues that you can’t separate Christ from His teaching, “You cannot reform society with teaching of the Lord without the Lord of the teachings.”  To persuade Carlisle of the truth of his argument, Anderson asks the writer to travel in a time machine to the future. (You know how it was back with those Victorians, after H. G. Wells got a time machine, everyone wanted a time machine.) Carlisle scoffs at the idea of time travel, arguing that he is a man of science and doesn’t believe in such things. Anderson argues he is even more sciency and convinces him to take the trip.

Carlisle goes to the future, and we see his adventures and bafflement as he encounters cars, toy cars, and traffic signals -- with supposed hilarious results, because fish out of water stories are always funny. Unless the fish just flops on the sand and dies, which is that not funny. Humor is hard.

Anderson gave Carlisle coins and currency that prove to be very valuable, allowing him to buy clothes and lodging. (As a hotel clerk, even if someone has a lot of cash, I’m not renting them a room if they have no form of proper identification.)

Eventually, Carlisle visits a church, which we were glad to see here at Movie Churches, because that’s what we’re supposed to be writing about here. He found the church when he asked the proprietor of a laundromat (Rodriguez) where he can go to worship. “Can you recommend a Bible-believing church I can attend tomorrow morning?”

Carlisle is shocked to learn that the man doesn’t go to church, in spite of his explanation:  “Eddie Martinez is a good guy. Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you Eddie Martinez is a good guy.” (Carlisle’s shock that a man doesn’t attend church is rather bizarre, since even in 1890, the majority of people wouldn’t be in church any given Sunday.)

Carlisle finds a church that he admits has good Bible teaching, but he is again appalled that people in the church don’t have much enthusiasm in their worship, and they have a strange array of programs that fill up a week. People in the congregation seem to think nothing of spending every night of the week doing church activities. There’s sports night, outreach night, Bible study night, bowling night, and most amazingly, movie night.

The church’s movie night seemed strangest of all. People met at the church, and a van takes them to a movie theater on discount night and drops everyone off. People go to different films at the multiplex. Carlisle is again shocked and appalled that the Lord’s name is used in vain in the film, and he tries to alert the management who, for some reason, don’t take his complaints seriously.

After Monday’s film, the church group heads to a private home for what appears to be a cocktail party sans cocktails. They don’t seem to be talking about the film, until Carlisle raises the blasphemy point. Everyone else defends the film as having a moral outcome (“The man goes back to his wife”). Don’t these people have jobs? How can they all be off work in time to get something to eat, then go the movies (or whatever the evening’s church activity might be), and then have time to go to a party and mill around chatting every night of the week?

Outreach night at the church is pretty strange as well. The church sends people out to visit people who have visited the church in order to persuade them to become members. And they send Carlisle out to talk to people, even though they know nothing of his background or theological leanings. For all they know, Carlisle could be a snake handling advocate who thinks the Trinity is blasphemy, and yet they send him out as a representative of the church. (Spoiler: it doesn’t go well.)

Carlisle is shocked and appalled by much he sees in the world, such as mannequins in the department store in skimpy outfits. And somehow, he makes the illogical leap that the moral depravity in the world is due to people separating Christ’s teaching from Christ, as taught in his book. But there are so many conceivable factors that could have led to the changes in the world, it’s downright silly for him to make that leap.

But he goes back to his own time and changes his book, gaining Anderson’s approval for his revision. The seminary gives its stamp of approval to the text. Which is why we live in the world we live in today, morally pristine with everyone in church every Sunday.

We’re giving the Movie Church in the film Two Steeples, mainly because I like movie theater field trips.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Science Fiction Movie Churches: War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds (1953)
When Abraham Lincoln was asked whether God wore Northern Blue and sang along with “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (or something like that), Lincoln famously answered, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

The good news the 1953 film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel War of the Worlds is that in the battle between the Earth and Mars, God is on our side. He’s rooting for the Green Planet and not the Red. (Spoilers will follow.)

The film opens with a shot of a “meteor” passing over a small town. We clearly see a church, and then we see the crowd outside of a movie theater watching the spectacle in the sky; a clergyman is in the throng. Also watching the “meteor” are three men camping. We later learn they’re “scientists.”

The townspeople go to investigate the site where the projectile from space landed. They speculate that this could be a tourist attraction, bringing revenue to the area. The clergyman suggests they could install picnic tables but someone counters that more money could be made from a restaurant. They are joined by the campers, and we learn one of the campers is the eminent scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester (the name will sound familiar to fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000). Sylvia van Buren, another onlooker, knows the scientist by reputation and introduces him to her uncle the clergyman, the Rev. Dr. Matthew Collins of the Community Church.

The Pastor invites Forrester (Gene Barry) to come to a square dance at the town social hall (perhaps doing a little matchmaking for his niece). Everyone seems to attend the dance, except three men left behind to guard the “meteor.” Things do not go well for the guards as the “meteor” turns out to be a Martian spaceship equipped with deadly weapons.

The dance seems to be going well, but suddenly the lights go out. People look for candles, and Pastor Collins announces, “We always say ‘Good Night, Ladies’ at twelve o’clock, but hey, my watch isn’t working!” It’s good to see that even in the midst of an alien invasion, the pastor is concerned about the moral propriety of curfews. Forrester and Collins go to investigate and see the alien spaceships. The pastor says, “We better get word to the authorities.”

The scientist replies, “You better get the word to the military.”

The authorities and the military come, and they confront a deadly Martian attack. For some reason Forrester and Collins are included in the strategy meetings of officers and mucky mucks. The scientist I understand, but why include the minister?

When the military is looking for a military response to the invasion, the pastor says,  “But Colonel, shooting’s no good.”  

“It’s always been a good persuader,” the Colonel responds. I guess it’s good to see that the U.S. military is looking for moral council.

Pastor Collins says, “Shouldn’t you try to communicate first, and shoot later if you have to.” The pastor doesn’t convince.

Collins tells Sylvia what he’s thinking, “I think we should try to make them understand we mean them no harm. They are living creatures out there.”

Sylvia responds, “They’re not human. They may be more advanced than us.”

Collins tells her,  “If they’re more advanced than us, they should be nearer the Creator for that reason. No real attempt has been made to communicate with them.”

Collins decides take things into his own hands. He walks toward the space aliens, taking off his hat, quoting Psalm 23, and holding up a Bible decorated with a cross. They blow him away with heat rays. Soon, aliens have taken over most of the planet.

Sylvia is distraught about her uncle’s death, and she tells Forrester a story of her childhood. When she was small, she wandered off and got lost. Her family and friends looked for her, but it was her Uncle Matthew that found her, in a church.

The Martian news looks bad. Forrester says, “The Martians should be able to take over the earth in 7 days.”  

“The same amount of  time it took to create it,” Sylvia responds.

Sylvia and Forrester go to Los Angeles but are separated.  Forrester begins to look for her in churches, first going to a battered building where the congregation is singing “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” The pastor in a clerical collar prays for a miracle, but Sylvia is not there, so Forrester moves on. He finds people lighting candles in a Spanish language church but still no Sylvia. Finally he goes to a church with stained glass windows, lit by candles, families gathered. There he sees Sylvia, and he makes his way to her through a crowd. A Martian ship attacks the church, but suddenly crashes.

The congregation had been praying for a miracle, and a miracle occurs. Martian ships fall around the globe. Church bells ring. A narrator tells us that “Man was saved by one of the littles things God put on his Earth.”

Germs. The Martians had no resistance to Earth germs, and they all died. So apparently, God is the God of the Earthlings, but not the Martians. I guess I’m okay with that.

The good heart of the Rev. Collins, welcoming churches, and the pastoral prayers for miracles earn four steeples for the Movie Churches of The War of the Worlds.