Friday, July 28, 2017

Romantic Movie Churches Month: A Walk to Remember

A Walk to Remember (2002)
In some ways, A Walk to Remember is an inverse version of Footloose. Instead of the boy teaching the girl to dance, the girl teaches the boy. Instead of the boy being the outsider who comes into town from the big city, the girl is the outsider who has always lived in the same small town where the story takes place. Though both films begin with high school hijinks going wrong, one film begins with death and the other ends in death. Both films, though, have a minister who is the father of a beautiful teen daughter, and in both films the minister is a judgmental and fearful man.

A Walk to Remember (based on the novel by Nicolas Sparks) begins with a group of rowdy teenagers getting into all kinds of shenanigans. But things get real when Landon (Shane West, Tom Sawyer from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), as a prank, pushes a friend into water from a great height, nearly killing him. This incident is discussed at the local church (like the town in Footloose, there seems to be only one church -- of no particular denomination -- in town. Landon squirms in his seat as Reverend Sullivan (Peter Coyote, who wore the spacesuit in E.T.) states from the pulpit, “Let us be thankful today that a life was saved by our Lord. And let us pray for the lives of the others involved who are clearly not on the path of righteousness.” The tone of the preaching is smug and condescending, and Landon doesn’t seem to be a fan.

Though there is no evidence to convict Landon of hurting his friend, he is caught drinking on school grounds and is punished by being forced to star in the school play. (This is a recurring device in movies and TV: drama as punishment. Maybe my experience was strange; I was in plays in high school by my own choice. And I wanted the lead roles. If I auditioned for a play and lost out on a role to, say, a lineman from the football team was being punished for punching a teacher, I would not be pleased. What makes all this even stranger is that because these actors in the movie are portraying acting as punishment.) Anyway, because he’s in the play, Landon must spend time with Jamie (pop singer Mandy Moore from Saved!), the minister’s daughter who wrote the music and lyrics for the songs on the play. (It seems to be a musical with only solos for Jamie, which is fine because there only seem to be about four or five people in the cast.)

Jamie agrees to help Landon learn his lines if he promises not to fall in love with her. He agrees, but (spoiler) does eventually fall for Jamie. There are initial obstacles to their relationship, such as Landon mocking Jamie in front of his old friends. There also is the obstacle of Rev. Sullivan having a rule against his daughter dating (this may sound Old Fashioned but that’s another film altogether). Jamie’s father wasn’t even too thrilled about Landon coming over to the house to work on lines for the play. He is greeted by the Rev with these words, “Let’s get one thing straight, Mr. Carter. You think on Sundays I can’t see you where you’re sitting. But I see you.  I’ll be in my office just here.”

Landon goes to see Jamie’s father while the Reverend Sullivan is practicing his sermon from the pulpit. It’s an odd rehearsal for the sermon, because he just seems to be reading Scripture (Galatians 6:7:  “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked, A man reaps what he sows”) but he’s also taking notes, as if he’s marking what words to emphasize.  

But Landon interrupts and asks the Reverend if he can take Jamie out on a date. “That’s not possible,” the minister replies.

Landon: “I’d like you to reconsider.”

Rev. Sullivan: “With all due respect, Mr. Carter, I have made my decision. You can exit the way you entered.”

Landon: “I’m just asking for the same thing you ask of everyone in the church. That’s faith.”

Though asking people to put their faith in God and putting faith in a particular person to do a particular thing are vastly different, this argument seems to win the Reverend over.

And so the romance of Landon and Jamie begins in earnest.

(Bigger spoilers upcoming)

Jamie tells Landon she has lymphoma which is not responding to treatment. Landon eventually asks Jamie to marry him. They are married in her father’s church. Rev. Sullivan walks his daughter down the aisle and performs the ceremony. He reads from I Corinthians 13, the oft- quoted Love Chapter.

Jamie and Landon have a summer together, but then she dies. Landon goes to Rev. Sullivan and expresses sorrow about Jamie not getting her miracle (the miracle of healing). The Reverend assures him that Jamie got a miracle: Landon, her “angel.” This, one of the final scenes of the film, is the only time we see the Reverend treat Landon with any portion of compassion. It would have been nice if something besides his daughter’s death could have brought that out of him.

how many steeples for this movie church?
As for the Steeple ratings, the church seemed nice enough. The building was your standard white wooden country church with the steeple and stained glass. There was a nice, interracial choir that sang a nice song about Jesus as a Lighthouse. But because of the Rev. Sullivan’s difficulties reaching out to the lost, I’m only giving it Two Steeples.

(It probably should be noted I didn’t see the film as it was originally presented. I watched a DVD from the Fresno library with the film “formatted to fit your television.” It was also a “Family Edited Version” for protection from the swears found in this film, which was rated PG when it played in theaters.)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Romantic Movie Churches Month: Christian Mingle

Christian Mingle, 2014
The 2014 film Christian Mingle has something very much in common with the Transformers film series. Not because it’s a romantic comedy populated by giant robots, though that would be awesome, but because both films have product placement right there in the title. Transformers was promoting the toys that turn from robots to cars (among other things) and Christian Mingle refers to a dating website of that same name -- and the film actually has television commercials.

I’m sure this all made the financing of Christian Mingle quite interesting, but the very premise of the film, what keeps it from being merely product placement, an utter shill, is that the website is an easy vehicle for fraud. It’s about a woman named Gwyneth (Lacey Chabert, Gretchen of Mean Girls who tried to make the term “fetch” happen), the last single woman in a group of friends, who in desperation turns to a Christian online dating site even though she isn’t a Christian.

If someone can lie so easily about their faith on a dating website, surely worse forms of fraud (and adulterers and predators) can’t be far behind. But, since this is a romantic comedy, we simply have Gwyneth (“Don’t call me Gwennie!”) trying to convince unsuspecting born-again suitor Paul Wood (Jonathan Patrick Wood) that she is a Believer.

Director Bernsen & Lacey Chabert at film's premiere
The movie was written and directed by Corbin Bernsen and has enough cameos from TV and film to fill a modern day Love Boat. David Keith (An Officer and a Gentleman) and Morgan Fairchild (Falcon Crest) are Paul’s parents! Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day’s Ned Ryerson) and John O’Hurley (Seinfeld’s J. Peterman) are Gwyneth’s employers! And Bernsen himself (L.A. Law) is the bicycle repairman.

Of course, this blog is all about how churches and clergy are presented in films, and though Christian Mingle includes no clergy, we do see not one, not two, but three churches in the film! Though none of the churches are named in the film, they are each quite distinct.

The first is the church Paul’s family attends. Inside the church we see statuary and a crucifix which would suggest a Catholic or at least a very liturgical congregation, but we never see any clergy or any of the worship service, just the exterior of the church before the service and the interior. Still, the Bible study Paul attends with people from the church seems to be quite Evangelical, and when Gwyneth attends lunch with the Wood family at “Steak and Cake” after church, they seem practically Fundamentalist. They seem scandalized when Gwyneth doesn’t end grace with “in Jesus’ name.”

The oddest thing about the church seems to be the way they handle missions trips. Paul, his family, and everyone in his Bible study go off on a trip to Mexico to repair a church that was damaged in a great storm. Gwyneth doesn’t learn about the trip until the day before they depart. She’s angry at Paul, who she’s just started to date, for not telling her earlier that he’s be gone for a month. So Paul calls Gwyneth from Mexico and asks her to come on down and join the group.

Now I’ve been on missions trips; I’ve been a counselor on missions trips; I’ve even planned, organized, and led missions trips. On all of those trips, there was some degree of training for the group to prepare for ministry and cross cultural interaction. People were not invited to join the group just before departure, let alone once the trip has begun. (And another thing, how does Paul think Gwyneth is going to get off work? I guess since he works for his father’s construction company he doesn’t have to worry about such things. Gwyneth has her friend at work lie for her, the friend who later claims to be a Christian.)

Another strange thing about this Mexico missions trip is that the church group hangs banners throughout the town with Scripture verses -- all in English. When they lead a worship service with villagers, Paul’s father sings in English (without translation). Fortunately, there is translation to Spanish in a Bible study led by Lacie, Paul’s mother. Unfortunately, there is something else truly horrible in that Bible study.

Lacie has begun to suspect that Gwyneth is not a Christian, so when a young Mexican woman asks a question in Spanish, she directs the question to Gwyneth, who doesn’t speak Spanish. Eventually, Lacie (who does speak Spanish) translates the question, “Why would a loving God allow the destruction that happened to our village in the storm?” Somehow, Gwyneth not having a ready answer to this question shows she is not a Christian. I would have a different take. Answering such a difficult question quickly and glibly shows a rather shallow understanding of the Scripture and the Christian faith.

Even worse, the Bible study has centered on I John 4: 7 - 8, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Because Lacie’s goal is to humiliate Gwyneth, according to this Scripture, Lacie is the one who seems to be failing the Christian test.

Another church in the film is the Mexican church which the mission team comes to repair. The priority seems to be get the bell up and working again. There seems to be a school in the church, and an odd thing about that school is that they bring in a teacher that doesn’t speak Spanish (only English). But the people in the church seem nice.

There is one other church. When Gwyneth is exposed as not a Christian (at least not the kind of  Christian who know the proper formulas for praying and answering Bible study questions), Paul breaks up with her.

Gwyneth finds a storefront church where she’s greeted with love and friendship. There is great Gospel music at the church and good teaching. (Gwyneth learns she needs to receive Jesus as her Lord and Savior at the church.) And the church serves meals to the poor, and Gwyneth joins in on serving.

Gwyneth compares her church to Paul’s church, “I like this church I’m going to. This church is totally chill and laid back.  Does that make it less Christian than this (Paul’s) church? No. But it does make it more me. It doesn’t make it right or wrong, but it’s how I relate to God.”

So I’m giving Gwyneth’s church Four Steeples. The other two churches only get Two Steeples each.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Romantic Movie Churches Month: The Sound of Music

Author in Santa Rosa Players 1979 Production
The Sound of Music (1965)
Let me get my bias out of the way up front. When I was in high school, I played Herr Zeller the Nazi, so I tried to arrest Captain and Mrs. Von Trapp, the romantic leads of this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. I will try to remain neutral in my evaluation of the characters in the film, and especially the presentation of the Church in this film version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical, The Sound of Music.

The Catholic Church plays a crucial role in this classic film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, ranks in the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Best Films of all time, and -- accounting for inflation -- is financially the third most successful film of all time.

The story is based on true events which took place in Austria in the late 1930’s. A young woman, Maria, who had been training to be a nun, took the job of governess for a Captain with seven children. In the film, Maria and the Captain fall in love and marry and then must flee the Nazis as they take over Austria. (If you haven’t seen the film and you feel I spoiled it for you, I am SOOOOO sorry. You’ve had over fifty years to see it.)

The main church presented in the film is the Convent’s Abbey. Beside the Abbey, there are minor, random allusions to other churches. In the opening credits, the cameras pass what looks like a Protestant church and an Orthodox church. There are several mentions of the Kloppman Monastery Choir. And the title song includes the lyrics, “My heart wants to sigh like a chime that flies, From a church on a breeze.” (I have no idea what those lyrics mean.)

If I had to judge the Abbey in the film just by the theological education Maria seemed to receive, the church would be greatly lacking. She sings a duet with the Captain, “Something Good” (it’s a song that wasn’t in the original Broadway score). Here are some of the lyrics, “Nothing comes from nothing, Nothing ever could, so somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” She seems to be completely ignorant of the concept of Grace. God does good things for us all the time based on His love and kindness rather than on what we’ve done. She really should have learned that in the Abbey.

Maria’s Abbey training shines through a bit when she reminds the Captain to thank God for the food before their first meal together. I also like that Maria learned something from the Abbey about giving. (She has only one dress because her clothes were given to the poor when she entered the convent. When the Captain asks about the dress she has on, she responds, “The poor didn’t want this one.”)

But in the convent, they don’t seem to refer to Scripture very much. I think the nuns in the Abbey come off worst of all when Maria is off in the hills, providing director Robert Wise with one of the most beautiful and intoxicating film opens of all times as a helicopter captures Julie Andrews dancing and singing in the Alps. Meanwhile the nuns are all gossiping about Maria in the song, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” Yes, some of the nuns sing positive things about the young woman, but still it seems the worst kind of gossip to describe a person as a “problem.” Bizarrely, the song is used for the processional at Maria’s wedding. (You have a problem, woman? Get married, that’ll take care of it.)

And sadly, the Reverend Mother tends to counsel in cliches and bromides rather than with Scripture. When Maria comes to the Reverend Mother in her greatest moment of conflict, the Abbess instructs Maria to “Climb Every Mountain” until she finds her dream. While it is common in musicals to be instructed to “follow your dreams” (in Disney films as well), in Scripture we are usually instructed to, you know, follow God.

Fortunately, the Reverend Mother and Maria do at one point acknowledge that truth. The Abbess asks Maria, “What is the most important lesson you have learned here, my child?”

Maria responds, “To find out the will of God and do it wholeheartedly.” That’s better, theologically, than that follow your dream business.

Toward the conclusion of the films, when the Nazis are in pursuit of the von Trapps, the nuns really come through. The Reverend Mother even quotes Scripture for the Captain, “I lift my eyes to the hills from whence my help comes from” (Psalm 121:1). But even better is the moment when a couple of the Sisters confess a sin.

They have sabotaged the cars of the Nazis pursuing the Von Trapps.

For the sake of those convent mechanics, I’m giving the Abbey from Sound of Music Three Steeples.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Our Church Post was a Movie Post this week

You'll find it here. In the 20th Century, pundits often wondered whether the Movie Palaces were the New Churches. It seems more often these days, theaters are becoming churches.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Romantic Movie Churches Month: Old Fashioned

Old Fashioned (2014)
There was a mini-scandal in the last year when Vice President Mike Pence mentioned he chose not to dine or have drinks alone with a woman other than his wife. There was much consternation about the sexism of such an action, but I was sympathetic to his stance. During John McCain’s unsuccessful run for president, The New York Times ran a front page story suggesting he was having an affair with a female lobbyist when they were spied in a restaurant. It occurs to me that the headache could have been avoided if McCain had the Pence policy in place. Billy Graham famously made a policy of never being with a woman alone, other than a family member, throughout his ministry.

Reasonable arguments can be made for and against such a policy for a married person in the public eye, but I find it much more difficult to see the rationale for the policy the character Clay (Rik Swartzwelder) set for himself in the 2014 film Old Fashioned.

There has been a trend for the last twenty years in some church circles (since the 1997 publication of Joshua Harris’ book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye) to abandon “dating” in favor of an idealized idea of “courtship.” The main difference between the two practices is that in courtship, the time the couple spends together is chaperoned, usually by family. Clay shares these values. A single man in his thirties, he has decided he will never be in a room alone with a woman.

The characters call such a policy “old fashioned,” but I’m not sure when this was ever the social norm in western society. I recently read Charles DickensBleak House, and there are a number of scenes in that novel, set in the Victorian age, wherein the virtuous heroine, Esther, is alone with a man in a room. Biblically speaking, the Book of Ruth, a great romance, would not lead one to the policy that a man and a woman can’t ever be alone together outside of marriage.  

Which is all swell. Viewers see flashbacks to his college days when as a frat boy he treated women horribly. As a result, he set up a policy for himself of never being alone with a woman aside from a family member. Many Muslims (and Orthodox Jews) live by an even more stringent set of standards.

The problem (or, in the romantic comedy setting of the film, “wacky misunderstandings”) begin when Clay rents a room to a young single woman, Amber (Elizabeth Roberts). His initial dealings with her all take place outside. But when Amber needs repairs for her apartment, a clogged sink for example, Clay makes Amber stand outside her own apartment while he works. On a chilly night when her furnace needs repairs, he sends her out with a blanket. With such self imposed limits, Clay should only rent to men.

Thankfully, it is never implied in the film that Clay’s standards for dealing with women are Biblical or taught by the church, merely that this how things used to be.

Because this is a romantic comedy, Clay and Amber eventually do begin to dat… I mean, “court.”  They go to Clay’s aunt’s house for dinner. Clay’s parents are deceased, but he has a close relationship with his aunt. She suggests where they should go for their next, um, courting experience.  “Why don’t you ask her to go to church?” his aunt says.

Clay is a Christian, but we learn from his aunt that he’s not a regular church goer. She tells Amber, “He quit going to church because people weren’t perfect like him.” It seems people in the church don’t live up to his standards of conduct. Amber isn’t a Christian, but agrees to go to with Clay to church. It’s an old fashioned looking structure, red brick with a white steeple.

We don’t see or hear much of the worship service, but we do hear a children’s choir singing endearingly but off-key. During the service, Clay and Amber hold hands.

Though we as viewers don’t get to hear the pastor of the church preach, we do see his office. Clay and Amber visit the pastor. He says, “I’m so glad to see a couple serious about pre-marital counseling.” They tell him, “We’re not getting married.”  Though he is puzzled, he gives them a premarital counseling book with questions for engaged couples to ask each other. Clay and Amber spend more time together in public, asking each other questions from the book supplied by the pastor.

Because this is a romantic comedy, Clay and Amber do face a number of misunderstandings, yet overcome their difficulties to theoretically live happily ever after. They may well get married in that red brick church and the wedding may be officiated by that unnamed pastor.

I do hope that they start to attending that church or another good Bible teaching church because God is better at coming up with rules for us to live by than most of us -- especially Clay -- can come up with for ourselves.

Though we don’t see much of the church in the film, I’m giving it three steeples in honor of the cute though offkey kids’ choir.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

July is Romance Month

Since I came up with the idea of Movie Churches and I choose the topics each month, I usually get to watch things I’d like to watch anyway. For instance this year started with Mob Churches. I love gangster films, so no great sacrifice there.  March was Eastwood month and who doesn’t love Clint? April was Science Fiction Month and as someone who early in life knew the name of every episode of Star Trek (TOS) and could identify which episode I was watching within two minutes, well…

But sometimes for the sake of you, valued reader, I must watch films that would not normally be of my choosing. July is Romance Month here at Movie Churches. Yes, love is in the air and not just the Love of God, but the love of a man for a woman and a woman for a man. (Yup, all straight love stories, because those are the cinematic love stories I found which also have churches and/or clergy as part of the story.)

In the Old Testament, God’s love for Israel is depicted as the love between a man and a woman in such books as Hosea and the Song of Solomon. In the New Testament, the Church is called the Bride of Christ. So there certainly is a place for Romance in Movie Churches. And  I can’t think, offhand, of any reason I why would watch a Nicholas Sparks film. So this month I’ll take one (actually, four) for the team.