Friday, June 30, 2017

Movie Missionary Month: Silence

Silence (2016)
I wonder if Martin Scorsese considered using this quote from Julie Roys (from her editorial in The Christian Post) for a promotional blurb for his film, Silence: “Though the film certainly has important redeeming is deeply disturbing -- and potentially hazardous to one’s spiritual health.” Too wordy for a poster of course, so perhaps he could use just use “Hazardous to One’s Spiritual Health!”

I’m not about to discount the idea that films can have a negative effect on people. I’m always amused by people in the film industry who proudly proclaim that their pet project will make great inroads in social justice, further the causes of tolerance, justice, and truth -- and then deny that, say, a violent act might have been motivated by a film, because, after all, “It’s just a movie.”  Film, like all other art, can have an impact on the way we think, feel and, yes, our “spiritual health.”

Roys’ problem with Silence is that it presents a seemingly impossible moral and theological dilemma and doesn’t offer a solution (at least not, she writes, “a biblically viable one.”)

So I’m going to write about that dilemma; in order to do so, I’m going to have to reveal much of the plot of the film (based on historical events), so if you don’t want the film “spoiled” for you, read no further.

Silence is based on the 1966 novel by Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo, which he based on historical events in 17th century Japan. The Catholic Church sent many Jesuit missionaries to Japan, and it is estimated that at one time there were as many as 300,000 Christians there. The government was not pleased with this and began a widespread persecution of the church.

The film opens with two young priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) being sent on a mission with a dual purpose: to minister to the persecuted faithful and to search for the missionary priest (and the young priests’ former mentor), Father Ferreira, who was no longer in communication with the Church.

Arriving in Japan, the priests are greeted warmly by faithful Catholics in a small village.  They hide the priests in a remote cabin and urge them to only come out at night. The village believers are thankful to have the priests to perform the sacraments, and they share with their scarce food and provisions with the priests.   

The authorities learn there are priests in the area, and thay take three villagers as hostages, threatening their lives unless the priests are turned over. The authorities also force those in the village to renounce their Christian faith, asking all to step on an image of Christ and some to spit on a cross.

Rodrigues and Garupe disagree on how believers should deal with such persecution. Garupe argues the believers should not compromise in their faith in any way, whereas Rodrigues argues it’s not worth losing one’s life for not desecrating something that is, after all, just an image. “Trample, trample,” he urges believers asked to step on the image of Christ.

The priest flee in hope of bringing relief to the village, but the persecution continues.

The priests split up, but eventually Rodrigues is captured and turned over to the Inquisitor. Rodrigues tells the man that even if he is tortured and killed, he will not renounce his faith. The Inquisitor agrees with Rodrigues that this is probably true, he probably could endure much torture for himself. They tried that on priests before, “but we have learned from our mistakes.”
He tells the Rodrigues that instead, he must watch other Christian believers tortured for their faith.

The Inquisitor tells Rodrigues that if he is a good priest, he will renounce his faith to save his flock from further persecution. He argues that if the priest clings to his faith to the detriment of his people, he is a bad priest. This is the impossible moral quandary that Roys bemoaned. It reminded me of Paul’s desire to save the Jewish people (“For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race.”)

Rodrigues learns that Garupe has been captured as well and given the same options. But Garupe chooses to die, seeking to rescue a believer being drown in the sea, he drowns himself.
The film presents many images of Christians dying courageous deaths, at times singing praise to God in their deaths. (The authorities of the time practiced a wide variety of creative means for torture and death and many of these gruesome means are portrayed in the film.)

Rodrigues is then presented with a special visitor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has indeed turned apostate, renouncing his faith after many sessions of torture and after watching scores of others tortured and killed for their Christian faith. (It’s worth noting that often the Japanese believers were tortured and killed even after they renounced their faith.) Ferreira has even gone so far as to write a scholarly work (in Japanese) to present the Christian Gospel as  a wicked deception.

Eventually, Rodrigues too renounces his faith. He takes a Japanese wife, the widow of a Christian martyred for his fatih. He joins Ferreira in the work of examining imports to Japan to prevent Christian words or images from entering the country. He is regularly required to renounce the Christian faith. And eventually he dies, the last Christian priest in Japan at a time when it seems the church itself in Japan is dead.

This is certainly a different kind of story than what is typically presented by Christian filmmakers where not only does everyone become a Christian, but the Christians win “the big game” at the end.

So does it harm a Christian’s faith to consider the choices faced by believers of other times and places? Especially to consider those who choose to deny Christ when Jesus said in Matthew 10:33 “whoever disowns Me before men, I will disown before the father in heaven?”

I don’t think so. My favorite character in the film is the man who serves as a guide for the priests at the beginning of their journey. Kichijiro is a drunk and a traitor. He at times denies he is a Christian and at other times admits that he believes. We learn that he betrayed his own family of Christian believers, and, in time, he betrays the priests.  But he also continually returns to the priests asking for an opportunity for confession and forgiveness. I don’t know if Kichijiro ever reaches the 7 times 70 limit of requests for forgiveness, but he seems to press it.

At one point in the film, he says, “Why couldn’t I have been born in a time without persecution?” Those of us who live in times and places of great freedom should consider the blessings we have and consider how we make compromises under much less pressure.

And we should consider what I think Endo ultimately suggests in his work, that God is not silent, He suffers alongside both the martyrs and the apostates.

Scorsese dedicates his film “For the Japanese Christians and their pastors,” adding the words “Ad majorem Dei gloriam” which is the motto of the Jesuits, “For the greater glory of God.” Though the Inquisitor in the film argues that Japan is a swamp in which the Christian Gospel can never take root, the church in Japan endures.

So giving a Steeple rating is difficult for this film. The Apostate Priests probably would rather not be given any steeples. But for the martyrs of the Church in Japan, we give Four Steeples.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Movie Missionary Month: Shanghai Surprise

I was sure I knew what the surprise would be. It would turn out that Miss Tatlock, who claims to be a missionary, really isn’t a missionary -- especially since Miss Tatlock was played by Madonna. Surely she couldn’t really be a missionary. And yet she was.

The film is set in 1937 Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. The film was made five years after Raiders of the Lost Ark and two years after the first Indy sequel. It’s obvious the makers were trying to capture the sense of adventure found in those period films. Sean Penn plays a character who’s supposed to be a lovable rogue, Glendon Wasey. He’s unshaven like Indy, but any resemblance pretty much ends there.

Miss Tatlock works for the The Helping Hand Mission along with another missionary, Mr. Burns.  We first see Tatlock and Burns walking the streets of Shanghai soliciting funds for their mission, calling out, “help a weary traveler!” It’s rather bizarre to see Western missionaries begging for funds on the mission field. Though neither of them apparently have any medical skills, theirs is a medical mission. All they need for their medical mission, apparently, is opium.

There is a legend of Faraday's Flowers, a secret stash of opium, and the missionaries are in search of this “treasure.” Sadly, they can’t speak the native tongue (or as Mr. Burns refers to it, “that Chinese gibberish”), which hampers their inquiries. So they hire Wasey as their translator. Wasey is not an archaeologist nor a mercenary nor any traditional kind of adventurer. He is a tie salesman.
Wasey is also a sinner, a foul mouthed, drinking fornacator; and Tatlock is quick to judge him for his vices. She tells him, “I do not approve of drinking.” When she gives Wasey money for food and he buys a drink, she says, “I do not intend to be made a fool of.”

Wasey says of Tetlock, “Now I know why cannibals like to barbeque missionaries.”

When Burns and Tatlock first hire Wasey, they lie, saying they need his help to locate the father of a wounded soldier. That lie falls apart fairly quickly.

When Wasey learns they’re actually looking for opium, he says they should give up on that and go back to “saving souls,”  but neither Burns or Tatlock ever talks about saving souls. We never hear them mention prayer or salvation or God or Jesus. The closest Tatlock ever comes to talking about her calling is when she says, “I could have married an Ivy League banker, but I wanted to be something useful.”

They come upon a clue, information about the opium, they learn that the smuggler Faraday had a mistress named China Doll. Tatlock arranges for Wasey to meet her. Wasey learns that China Doll is working as a prostitute and he partakes of her services -- which never seems to bother Tatlock in the least.

And when Wasey returns from China Doll, unsure whether he wants to help Miss Tetlock (who Wasey calls “Reverend Lady) anymore, Miss Tetlock strips down and sleeps with Wasey. She says she does so to make him “obligated” to her. After going to bed with Wasey, Tetlock takes a good stiff drink That’s when I felt sure we’d find out that Miss Tetlock was actually a drug runner or working for an intelligence agency or a reporter investigating a story. But no, she really was a missionary.

And Wasey agrees to continue working for Tetlock to find the opium. He calls her an “angel.” She asks how he can call her that. “Angel? I just blackmailed you shamelessly.” But he forgives her. And they go on with their adventure. She justifies her hunt for opium by explaining, “Guns cause pain, opium eases pain.” Quite the sophisticated understanding of the workings of opiates.
Spoilers follow for those who might want to watch this film -- which was nominated for six Razzie Awards (Worst Film, Worst Actor, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst Song, and “winning” for Worst Actress).

It turns out, in quite the Shanghai surprise, that Burns is not really a missionary but is Faraday the drug runner in disguise, trying to track down his lost treasure of opium. The real Missionary Burns turns up and seems to be a hopeless doofus, but at least he doesn’t call the Chinese language gibberish.

In end, Miss Tetlock shares her first name with Wasey, Gloria. They decide to stay together. And they get the opium, which I hope will be used for needy patients. And that it doesn’t make them addicts.

End spoilers.

Tetlock is a missionary who seems to have no interest in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no evidence she knows anything about theology or Scripture. At one point in the film, Wasley says to her,  “I wish you’d give up on this opium business and go back to saving souls. This is no church picnic.”  

She responds, “You’ve never been to a church picnic in all you life!” It does seem that one church picnic may be the extent of her church experience.

But since she really seems to want to help people, even though there’s no evidence she ever does, I’m giving missionary Gloria Tetlock the Movie Church rating of Two Steeples.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Missionary Movie Churches: Of Gods and Men

Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men),2010
Can Christians and Muslims get along? According to that COEXIST bumper sticker, this should be easy, but one does wonder whether it is really possible. In this French film, based on real events from the 1996 Algerian Civil War, we do see Trappist Monks living peaceably, happily, with Muslim locals; sadly, they are not left alone. The film opens with a passage of Scripture, Psalm 82: 6 - 7: “I said, ‘You are ‘gods’; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.” It’s those rulers, the men who think they’re gods, that are the problem.

The film shows us the monks caring for the local people, providing for educational and medical needs. The monks are invited to parties and celebrations in the community. The monks help the locals with bureaucratic issues, like getting passports. The film shows a tender scene when a young Muslim woman comes to a monk asking how one can know when you’re in love. The monk answers, “I was in love, several times, but then I encountered another, greater love and gave over to it. That was over fifty years ago.”

But the Civil War comes to Atlas Abbey of Tibhirine near Médéa, Algeria. Someone tells the monks about a granddaughter who was killed for reading. They promise to pray for the family. At a nearby construction site, Muslim rebels kill all the Croatians, letting other locals, Muslims, go free.

The military offers the monastery protection from the terrorists, but the monks refuse protection. They do not want soldiers with guns on the grounds.  “In this time of violence… Let us turn to the man of sorrows.” When the military leaves, the monks celebrate Mass.

The local authorities suggest they should leave and Christian, the leader of the monastery concurs.

One of the monks responds, “Christian, we didn’t hire you to make decisions on your own.”

Another says, “We were called to live here.” So they remain.

Soon after that, Muslim terrorists do come to the monastery. One of the terrorists asks, “Where is the Pope?”

“There is no pope here.”

“Your leader?”

They meet Brother Christian, who won’t allow them to bring guns into the monastery (“This is a house of peace”) and amazingly, they comply. The terrorists have a wounded compatriot who needs medical attention. And the monks provide it.

Word of the incident reaches the authorities. “You’re very indulgent with the terrorists. Rumor has it you are shielding them in the monastery.” The Trappists refuse to take sides.

Violence increases in the area. One of the monks suggests, “We could go to a safer place in Africa.”

Christian responds, “And leave the villagers to terrorists? A shepherd does not leave his sheep. Help will come from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

The monks discuss the increasing dangers among themselves. “Dying for my faith shouldn’t keep me up all night.”  

“Staying here is as mad as becoming a monk.”

“Why be martyrs? Out of love. But in the end, we try to avoid it. But after is eternal hope.”

The monks take a vote about whether to stay or leave. Christian says, “Our mission here is not finished. God set his table here for His friends and his enemies.” All vote to remain.

In the end, terrorists abduct the monks. It is not known who, exactly took the men away in a midnight raid. They face death, believing they have chosen eternal life.

four steeples for these movie monks
Like last week’s film, The Mission, Of Gods and Men competed at the Cannes Film Festival, taking home the Grand Prix (second place prize). But for their devotion to God and their neighbors, Movie Churches is awarding the Trappist monks of this film Four Steeples.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Missionary Movie Churches: The Mission

The Mission (1986)
One of the great iconic images of English literature is from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: the protagonist, Christian, finally drops his great burden at the Cross. That image is reimagined in the 1986 film, The Mission. The film is set the 1740’s in the jungles of South America, and in the role of Christian is Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), a mercenary working for slavers.

When Rodrigo kills his brother but isn’t criminally prosecuted, he is wracked with guilt. (His brother is played by Adrian Quinn, so apparently killing the star of Reckless is not considered a crime.) Rodrigo’s suicidal guilt leads him to Jesuit missionary priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons). Gabriel loads Rodrigo’s own armor and weapons onto the man’s back and, with him, hikes into the jungles. They eventually climb up the Iguazu Falls (on the border between Argentina and Brazil). Other Jesuit priests argue it is too much, but Rodrigo doesn’t think so -- so neither does Gabriel (“How long must he carry the burden?” a priest asks. “God knows,” Gabriel replies). No one is allowed to cut off the burden, until Rodrigo reaches the top of the falls. And then, the indigenous people whom Rodrigo had enslaved are the ones who cut the burden from his back.

It’s a powerful scene, encapsulating together repentance and grace.

The film is full of beautiful images and thoughtful dialogue that deal with complex issues of religion, politics, and culture. The film took the highest prize (the Palme d'Or) at the Cannes Film Festival and the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Some of the credit goes to the director, Roland Joffé, but even more credit goes to the great screenwriter Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons and Lawrence of Arabia) for the original story as well.

Bolt takes complex issues and allows them to be complex, allows different positions to be argued well. For instance, he takes on the issue of pacifism and allows for two different Christian perspectives on the issue, as Jesus did when he said both to both to turn the other cheek and to bring a sword.

Many spoilers ahead

In the third act of the film, the abolitionist government cedes land to the Portuguese, who still profit from making the native South Americans into slaves. The Catholic missionaries are caught in the middle of the political intrigue, and (spoiler) the Catholic hierarchy orders the Jesuits to withdraw from their missions. Neither Rodrigo (now a member of the order) or Father Gabriel are willing to do so.

Gabriel decides to stay with the Guarani, the people he’s been working and living among, in their mission, on their land, and with them, to face the Portuguese armies and mercenaries without resistance. Rodrigo decides to resist violently. Rodrigo asks for Father Gabriel’s blessing before he goes to battle. Gabriel refuses, saying, “If you’re right you’ll have God’s blessing. If you’re wrong, my blessing won’t mean anything.” So Rodrigo leads an army and Gabriel leads a choir. From an earthly perspective, both men lose. But perhaps from a heavenly perspective, both men are victorious.

After the mission is destroyed and the people are again enslaved, two church bureaucrats discuss the tragedy. One says, “We must work in the world as it is, and the world is thus.”  The other responds, “No, thus we have made the world.”

The Mission is a four steeple film at
If, for this movie, I were rating men like these representatives of the Vatican, I’d have a much lower Steeple rating, but I’m giving Father Gabriel, Rodrigo, the men of the Jesuit order at the mission, and the people of their congregation Four Steeples.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Missionary Movie Churches: Keys of the Kingdom

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)
I should admit a prejudice of mine before I talk about this film. I really don’t care much for the star of the film, Gregory Peck. He was an Oscar winner and starred in many films counted as classics (some of which I like very much, such as Roman Holiday and To Kill a Mockingbird).  But sometimes he was greatly miscast (as in Moby Dick, where he played Captain Ahab) and he was a part of what made The Paradine Case one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most boring films. Peck always seems to be sanctimonious.

That self-righteous quality comes through in spades as Peck portrays a Catholic missionary priest in 1944’s The Keys of the Kingdom. The film is based on a 1941 novel by A. J. Cronin with a screenplay by Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve) and Nunnally Johnson (The Three Faces of Eve). It tells the story of a Scottish priest, Father Francis Chisholm, who spends decades as a missionary in China in the first half of the 20th Century.

The film opens with Chisholm (Peck in not very convincing old age make-up) returning to Scotland after decades of service overseas. His ministry is under scrutiny for remarks he’s made in sermons such as; “All atheists are not godless men, I know one I hope, maybe, to be in heaven,”  “The good Christian is a good man, but I have found the good Confucianist has a better sense of humor,” and “Eat less, the gates of paradise are narrow.”

Then we see flashbacks of his life. He was raised in Tweedside, Scotland by a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. (Roddy McDowall plays Chisholm as a boy.) His father was once beaten by townspeople for his Catholic faith. Chisholm went to a Catholic school and admired the priests, but he also develops a relationship with a woman, Nora, and they consider a future together. Nora, though, discerns he has a different future. “You’re going to become a priest, aren’t you, Francis?”

He responds, “Of course not, Nora, I love you.”

Chisholm has questions about his faith, wondering, for instance, whether his faith is not simply an accident of birth. But a priest, Father McNabb (Edmund Gwynne), takes him fishing and discusses issues of faith. Chisholm decides to go to seminary, leaving a distraught Nora behind.

After seminary, Chisholm pastors a church in Scotland. There he commits very controversial acts such as establishing a Community Dance Hall and befriending an atheist. These things come to the attention of the church hierarchy, who determine that he might not be suitable as a parish priest. Even Chisholm says of himself, “I’ve tried so hard, but failed so miserably as a priest.” So he is sent to be a missionary in China. (In ways, it’s a quite amazing choice. The challenges of cross cultural ministry can be seen as much greater than serving in one’s homeland. Still, it’s a sad truth in many denominations that sometimes ministers with lesser gifts were that ones sent to the mission field.)

When Chisholm arrives at his mission, St. Andrews, in China, he finds it in disrepair. The only people attending the church were paid to serve at the church. (These people are referred to as “rice Christians” because they only attend to be fed.) The priest says, “I can not pay you any money. I have no interest in rice Christians.” Chisholm drives them off with indignation (which Peck does quite convincingly because of that sanctimony I mentioned earlier).

He befriends a Mandarin, the man with greatest influence in the area. Mr. Chia comes to him and asks about joining the church, thinking that will help Chisholm gain acceptance in the area. Chisholm flatly refuses, because he believes Chia’s motive are wrong. He doesn’t say anything like, “Let’s take time to meet together and talk through issues of faith,” he just says, “My acceptance of you would be forgery for God.” But when Chia offers land and workman to rebuild the mission, Chia accepts that.

Things turn around for Chisholm when a gift of medical supplies arrive from his atheist doctor friend in Scotland. He opens a clinic and cares for people (“It’s amazing how religious you can make people feel by curing their belly ache”). A group of nuns come to the mission and open a school. (Chisholm has a difficult time getting along with the mother superior. She’s offended when the priest first greets her wearing dirty work boots.)

After decades of service in China, Chisholm returns to Scotland and wants to serve in the church in his hometown of Tweedside.  But the Bishop (Vincent Price) is concerned that Chisholm is not orthodox enough for the job, concerned he “went native” in China. After the Bishop reads Chisholm’s diary through the night, he gives him another chance.

I guess Father Chisholm does do worthwhile things as a missionary -- if he just wasn’t so smug about it most of the time! I’m giving Father Chisholm and St. Andrew’s Mission Three Steeples.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Missionary Month

It’s Missionary Month at Movie Churches
One of the most ubiquitous images of missionaries in popular culture is a man in a cannibal’s stew pot -- though the image is less common now because many see the image as, well, racist. It used to be acceptable to portray the missionary as the civilized Westerner going out to live with savages, but modern audiences are much less comfortable with Kipling’s idea of “the White Man’s Burden.”

There was a time when missionaries were portrayed as heroes. Dr. David Livingstone, missionary to Africa in the 1860’s, was revered in America and England, and reporter Henry Stanley’s search for him was the stuff of legend. (The two men were portrayed by Spencer Tracy and Cedric Hardwicke in a 1939 film.) “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” was a catchphrase before anyone talked about catchphrases. A person who braved the jungles to save the natives who lived there was universally admired.

But the image of the missionary has changed greatly in popular culture. 1998’s bestselling novel The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver portrayed missionaries as less admirable than the people they went to serve. The Price family left Georgia for the Congo to bring not the hope of the Gospel but judgment, sanctimony, and perhaps even madness and evil.

The missionary is no longer assumed to be a hero. A Westerner bringing hang-ups from civilization to the free residents of nature is assumed to be a villain.

But the life of a missionary is a fascinating one, and missionaries continue to be the subject of films, so this month we’ll look at films about missionaries -- starting tomorrow with an MGM film the Golden Age of cinema, 1941’s Keys of the Kingdom. We’ll finish the month with a film released last year from one of our greatest filmmakers, Martin Scorsese -- Silence. There’ll be some very interesting films in between, too!