Thursday, August 31, 2017

Introduction to School Movie Month

Appleton Memorial Chapel at Harvard University
Some of the more militant atheists say the world would be a better place if there was no religion. Perhaps they should consider that many of the world’s most prestigious schools and universities were founded by churches or religious orders.

The Puritans, among the most educated people of their day, founded Harvard. Yale was founded in 1701 by Christians who were concerned that the spiritual climate of Harvard wasn’t what it had been (they thought Harvard has also gotten too pricey). Princeton’s roots are found in the First Great Awakening. Dartmouth was founded with a goal of training men to reach Native Americans with the Gospel. And Notre Dame is pretty Catholic, if you hadn’t noticed. Can you imagine a world without these elitist institutions? Okay, maybe the militant atheists have a point.

Historically, the church has been a major proponent and provider of education through the centuries.Through the dark ages, knowledge was preserved in the monasteries of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Reformation, people were encouraged to read the Scriptures for themselves,which was a great inspiration for literacy.

Even today, some of the best schools at every level, from preschools to universities, are still run by churches. This month in Movie Churches we’ll be looking at films with schools run by clergy. Some people, though, think faith and knowledge -- particularly scientific knowledge -- are at odds. We’ll also be looking at films where there is conflict between ecclesiastical and educational forces.

Three of the five Movie Church schools we’ll be looking at this month are Catholic Parochial Schools. I could have done many more.

Filmmakers, for some reason, love to put nuns and priests at the front of the classroom. I can’t even use my favorite film from last year, Sing Street.

I loved that coming of age story; it was charming, heartbreaking and funny. The music was great. But the Christian Brothers, the priests who ran the school in the film, were awful. Brother Baxter torments young Conor in the film for wearing brown shoes rather than black. Things get worse when Conor takes to wearing makeup for his band, Baxter shoves the boy’s head into a sink to wash it off. We only see Baxter being physically abusive, but there are implications he may also be also be sexually abusive with students.

If I was rating films with stars, I’d give Sing Street four (if that was the maximum). But if I was rating Brother Baxter with this blog’s Church Steeples, he’d only get one.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Fraudulent Movie Churches Month: Fake Preacher

Fake Preacher (2005)
I have to admit upfront that I’m really not sure whether the “movie” we’re looking at this week, Fake Preacher, is a real movie. I watched it on Amazon Prime, where it was listed under “Movies,” and you can buy the DVD on Amazon as well. But at IMDb, Fake Preacher is listed as  (video) with no release date listed.  It’s listed as a Comedy, because it’s one of those funny films with multiple homicides. Though the actors are listed, many of the roles are not. I guess it’s just as well to finish up Movie Church Fraud Month with what seems to be a fraudulent film.

Fake Preacher was written and directed by Juney Smith, who had small roles in Lethal Weapon II and Good Morning Vietnam.This film is not like those films -- which had movie stars and a budgets. Fake Preacher is the story of a con man who goes by Reverend Unique (played by Eddie Goines). I’m guessing at the spelling, because I couldn’t find any list of credits with character names.

The Reverend isn’t really a Reverend, but he does have a television show that he calls his church. On the show he tells the audience, “I command you by God’s Word, who speaks through me, to send me money.”

He doesn’t depend on solely on the TV show, though. He also runs traditional cons. He and another man, Luke (John Flecha), go to see a woman, Sister Green. Luke claims he has an inheritance coming his way worth a half a million dollars, but before he can get what is rightfully his, he needs $5,000 for legal fees. It’s an old con, not unlike the Nigerian princes that contact you now and again. But the Rev. puts a twist on the campaign by saying, “I’m a man of God, and everything must be on the table.” He questions whether Luke’s request is legitimate, and in thanks, Sister Green donates $5,000 to the “church.”

Sister Green asks about the Reverend’s church, but he says his TV audience is his church. He tells Sister Green that he could use her help selling Section 8 (public housing), and she brings in other women for the project.

As a result of their help, Rev. Unique sees some potential in a brick and mortar church. He tells Luke that he has genuinely seen the light, and wants to start a real church. Luke agrees to leave the criminal life behind and become a deacon. We know this is actually a continuation of the scam, because the Rev tells his wife, Shaina, about it.

She tells him she’s supportive of his fraud, but not to get involved with women in his new “church.” She’s also busy a scam to rob automated teller machines.

The Rev. rents a building, which he identifies by putting the word “Church” on the doors. He asks Sister Green and the other women she’s brought along to recruit people for the church by asking, “Do you have time for God?”

We hear from Deacon Luke that the church is thriving and the finances are great, but we never see a worship service. Just a guess here, but I’m thinking there wasn’t money in the movie’s budget for all those extras.

At a meeting of the women and the Rev, Sister Nell (Tanya Ruiz) says aloud, “I love you, Reverend Unique.” The Rev. and the other women tell Nell she can’t say such a thing, and she doesn’t understand why. They tell her to say, “I love your message.” But she won’t stop.

Nell stalks the Rev. and he eventually agrees to meet her alone at the park, and then the two sleep together.

Then he goes to Sister Green and asks for more donations to the church. She agrees, but only if he’ll sleep with her. He does.

Yet another women in the church, Sister Angela, says to him, “What are you worried about Reverend? You aren’t married. I know you’re my spiritual guide but you’re also my kind of man.” So Rev. Unique sleeps with her as well.

He tries to use these women to sell fraudulent real estate for him, but they seem more interested in sex. I should note that there is no nudity or explicit sexual activity in the film. We just get many shots of the Rev in bed with these women with sheets up to their necks. Which made me wonder about the intended audience for the film. This certainly wouldn’t be shown in most churches I know. But it wasn’t made for a more prurient viewers.

Things really start going downhill when Nell goes to see the Rev. in the church sanctuary. Deacon Luke is there, and Sister Nell wants to speak with Pastor alone, and he has no problem. (It should be noted here that there is real wisdom in pastors using discretion about being alone with members of the opposite sex).  Deacon Luke leaves.

“I just want to hold you and kiss you for one second,” Nell says.

“I’m taking care of church business,”  the Rev says.

“Give me one little kiss.”

“I said no.”

“If you don’t give me a kiss, I’ll tell the whole congregation what we did yesterday.” He gives the kiss and she laughs like a villain.

Then she goes rather crazy. She follows the Rev. home and finds out he is married. She sneaks into his house with a knife and, as he takes a shower, goes all Norman Bates on him. She stabs him in the arm, but he subdues her. He calls the police. The police don’t seem to think it’s necessary to talk with the Rev. or his wife, they just take Nell off in cuffs.

But the craziness goes on. Nell is let out almost immediately, and she murders the Rev’s other lovers, Sister Green and Sister Angela. She tries to murder Shaina, the Rev’s wife, but he stops her. Shaina wants to stab Nell, but the Rev., for some reason, lets Nell go -- and then calls the police.

When the police come, they come with Deacon Luke who we learn (from out of nowhere) is an FBI agent. Why this FBI agent did nothing to stop a crazy woman from murdering people is not explained. Luke arrests the  Rev. and Shaina, having gathered information about both of their criminal schemes.  

Then we then get a short scene to end the film, introduced with, “TEN YEARS LATER.” The Rev. and Shaina have both become Christians in prison and lead Bible studies and thriving ministries. It doesn’t even seem to be a con, because they are telling each other these things. Unless the Rev. is conning Shaina now.

All I know for sure is I’m giving the church in Fake Preacher just one steeple because I can’t give less.

(Though I should say the gospel song that plays in the credits, “He’s Watching” by Kyle Jason, is pretty good.)

Friday, August 18, 2017

Fraudulent Movie Churches: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

Imagine you had an opportunity to see a production of Othello with the title role played by Jaleel White (Urkel of Family Matters). Or King Lear with the title role played by Danny Bonaduce (Danny of The Partridge Family).  I know, it’s too much artistic excellence, more than we could hope for in the real world. But in the film The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, we get a glimpse of what such a thing might be like.

Gavin Stone was a child star in a popular sitcom. His catchphrase was, “Don’t look at me!” (This is not a phrase that would rank up there with “What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” from Diff’rent Strokes or “You got it, Dude!” from Full House, but maybe it was better in context.) Like many child stars, Gavin grew up to have a troubled life, partying his way into the headlines and then into court.

The premise of the film is that a judge sentences Gavin to perform 200 hours of community service, and he decides to do those hours in a church. (When offered a choice between working in a church or with a sewage crew, Gavin asks, “What’s the difference?”) I did wonder about a judge assigning community service hours in a church. Surely this would be a questionable matter, raising issues of boundaries between church and state. It seems like it would be one thing if a defendant offered to work at a church to fulfill the hours, but a judge assigning someone to work at a church seems rather bizarre.

Anyway, Gavin (Brett Dalton) goes to do janitorial work at the Masonville Bible Church. Which made me wonder about who usually cleans up at the church. Did they lay off the usual janitor to make budget? Does a chain gang from the local prison do their lawn care and shrubberies? Why not use the court appointed help to feed the poor? Perhaps build a playground in the neighborhood? But no, the church is taking advantage of the penal system to keep their floors mopped and waste cans empty.

It is rather odd that when Gavin arrives on the campus of this large church in Masonville, Illinois, he says to himself, “Toto, we’re not in Los Angeles anymore.” There are a whole lot of megachurches in Los Angeles. I’ve been to churches in Southern California that are much larger, more elaborate, much more other-worldly than the church shown in this film.

Still, Gavin isn’t thrilled about doing janitorial work. When he discovers that the church is doing a play, a life of Christ called “Crown of Thorns,” he watches the auditions only to see acting that’s more wooden than the average oak flooring. Gavin wonders if he can act in the play to cover his community service hours.  (See the recent review of A Walk to Remember, from Romantic Movie Churches month, for another example of drama as punishment.) Pastor Allan Richardson (D.B. Sweeney) tells Gavin that because the play is considered a ministry, only Christians are allowed to be a part of their dramas.

Here’s where the  fraud come in… Gavin lies to get in the play. He says he’s a Christian, but he’s not. (See the recent review of Christian Mingle for another of example of a fraudulent Christian.) He even signs a form that affirms he is a Christian.

The director asks why Gavin is there, and he replies, “I’m here for Jesus.” He means he’s there for the role of Jesus, but she takes it as a statement of his commitment to Christ. Gavin is asked to give his testimony, so he gives this little speech, “What you probably didn’t know is I’m a Christian. I had a God shaped hole in my heart. I decided to climb the stairway to Heaven and let Jesus take the wheel, let go and let God.”

Gavin auditions for the play using a Hamlet soliloquy and astounds everyone with his talent and professionalism. So the director casts him in the lead role of Jesus. The director is Kelly Richardson (Anjelah Johnson-Reyes), the pastor’s daughter and apparently the only other staff member of this big church. She runs the children’s program and directs the church plays. I assume she was the person who choose the play, and wonder why she picked a play knowing that she didn’t have the cast available to pull it off.

Kelly goes to her father to ask whether she should cast Gavin as Jesus. The pastor says, “Casting is your call. I think he needs us, as much as we need him. This is why we do this.”

And even with Gavin, she doesn’t have that great of an actor for the role of Jesus. Gavin’s portrayal of Jesus in the rehearsals is hammy to extreme. His performance is almost as bad as what you’d see in family sitcoms from the 1990’s. Kelly complains that Gavin doesn’t capture the humility of Jesus because he doesn’t have humility himself. There is truth to that, but really, that’s just one of many problems with his performance.

The film does raise an interesting question. Should a church only allow people to serve the church who believe in God and the ministry of the church? Obviously, a pastor should believe the things he preaches (though this month in Fraudulent Movie Churches we see even phony pastors, on occasion, do good). But must the choir director of a church be a Christian? How about the organist? The secretary? The janitor?

And if you put on a church play, should the actors go to the church? Is it important whether or not they believe in Jesus?

I watched the extras on the DVD that made it clear that the people involved in making the film didn’t make being a Christian a requirement for acting in the film. A pastor who helped in the production of the film interviewed Brett Dalton, acknowledging that Dalton isn’t a Christian. (The interviews with Dalton and other actors were painful to watch. The pastor doesn’t allow anyone to speak, but continually interrupts and talks over people.)  

In the film, the people of the church treat Gavin with civility and kindness, even though he makes numerous missteps in the church culture. But I had to wonder, do they treat him kindly because they think he’s a new Christian just learning his way around or because he’s a minor league celebrity whose name and face on the poster will sell a lot of tickets for the Easter pageant?

In the church pageant spirit, I’m going to give the church the benefit of the doubt, and a Movie Churches rating of Three Steeples.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Fraudulent Movie Churches: Don Verdean

Don Verdean (2015) One night when I was working at a hotel, a guest was reading the Bible in the lobby. We ended up chatting. She told me about an article she’d read that claimed that NASA calculations were  evidence of a “missing day” and were baffled until one of the scientists brought out a Bible and pointed to Joshua 10 -- which speaks of the sun standing still to allow Joshua time to win a battle.

I told her I was a Christian, but expressed my doubts about the story. First of all I had no idea how such calculations would be made, and a quick internet search showed that no one at NASA had ever made these calculations or made these claims. The story was a fraud.

It made me wonder why someone would invent such a story. Did they think that making up lies would strengthen people’s faith? To me, it shows a lack of faith in the truth of Scripture, and a lack of faith in the scientific method to find truth. Traditionally, the church has taught that God speaks through the Bible and Creation. Being dishonest about either goes against the methods God uses to speak to us.

Don Verdean is a 2015 film written and directed by Jared Hess (the creator of Napoleon Dynamite). Sam Rockwell plays the title character, Don, an amatuer archeologist who claims to have made great discoveries which prove the truth of Scripture. (“Finding treasure on earth would be meaningless if it did not lead someone to heaven.”) He believes that he has found the burial site of Samson, confirmed by iron shears used on the big guy’s hair, and it’s dated 3000 B.C.  But Verdean is running low on funds.

Help comes in the form of financial support from a pastor of a modern megachurch, Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), a man who claims that God raised him from the dead. Lazarus argues that the great decline in church attendance in the United States is due to lack of scientific arguments for the faith. (“The scientists are saying we evolved from sea monkeys. Young people need evidence in these dark days.”) Lazarus is almost as upset about people going to churches other than his own, and he’s in competition with another megachurch pastor, Dennis Fontaine (Will Forte), a former high priest in the Church of Satan.

Verdean learns that someone in the Mideast has a great find, and he convinces Lazarus to purchase what purports to be the Lot’s wife from the time of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. (“I believe I have a solid lead on the location of Lot’s wife (97% sodium chloride,” Verdean tells Lazarus.) If you remember the story from Genesis 19, Lot and his wife were fleeing the cities as sulfur and fire rained down. They were forbidden to look back, but Lot’s wife did turn, and she was turned into a pillar of salt.

So at Lazarus’ church, they unveil what looks like a statue of a woman made of salt. It would be a real stretch to believe that a salt figure wouldn’t decay over the years, but Verdean, at least, seems to believe the figure is authentic.

As pressure mounts for Verdean to keep bringing forward new discoveries (such as the Holy Grail, and it’s noted that “the Holy Grail is the Holy Grail of archeology.”) He finally sinks to creating a completely phony artifact. He does some grave robbing and takes a skull, reburying it, then trying to excavate it as Goliath’s skull. He even makes a dent in the skull to fake it as a wound from the rock of David’s sling.

If someone does bad science while trying to do good science, that’s sad. Fraud is another thing altogether. Pressure from Pastor Lazarus and his church leads to that fraud.

As bad as Pastor Lazarus is, it could be that Pastor Fontaine is even worse. We hear one of his sermons arguing that the Devil is trying to reach people through breakfast cereals. Cereals like Lucky Charms are trying to bring people in the world of magic and the occult. Some cereals are sexually suggestive such as Grape Nuts and Banana Nut Crunch. Obviously the film is playing this all as comedy, but I’ve heard preachers with concerns about popular culture (such as Jerry Falwell attacking Teletubbies back in the day) that were just as crazy.

At the end of the film, Verdean rightly goes to prison. There he reaches out to a friend’s son who’s in prison too.  It seem that he finally is getting back to genuinely doing real ministry.

I should say that the work of real archeologists have done much to confirm the historicity of Scripture. The recent discovery of the Pool of Siloam by archeologists (which was described in John 9) affirms the firsthand knowledge of the Gospel writer. True archaeologists must reveal what they find, whether it confirms or seems to go against Scripture.

So, while Don Verdean isn’t clergy, his backing by a church earns that church one measly steeple. (Which is also the rating earned by his rival church.)

Friday, August 4, 2017

Fraudulent Movie Churches Month: Leap of Faith

Leap of Faith (1992)

Steve Martin, in his early years, was a busker. A busker is a street performer who does anything he can to entertain people so they’ll throw money in the donation cup. Martin learned to juggle, to play the banjo, and to do magic tricks. He brought his tools to Knotts Berry Farm and Disneyland and delighted in delighting others.

In 1992’s Leap of Faith, Martin plays evangelist Jonas Nightengale as a busker. His prime goal is to entertain the crowd so they’ll put money in the offering plate. His preaching a mash-up of all kinds of Scriptures put together with the most positive of spins. His crew brings a trailer full of crutches and wheelchairs to allow for spectacular fake healings. And he brings a black gospel choir to provide amazing music. (When they sing “Jesus on the Mainline” he asks “Am I in white boy heaven or what?”)

More than anything he provides the illusion of the supernatural. He and his assistant Jane (Debra Winger) use early 1990’s internet technology to research people in order to pretend to have second sight. They use “mind reading tools”, such as word codes to convey information (I remember reading about the technique in the kids’ book The Great Brain at the Academy.)

He does have a bit of integrity. If anyone asks, he admits he’s just a showman. But while he’s performing, he commits to the role.

In the film, Jonas and his troop get stranded in a small town when their bus breaks down. Since they’re there, they decide to put on a show. Their signs claim “Miracles and Wonders,”  “Angels of Mercy,” and “Come and Be Saved - Every Night at Sundown.”

And the people of the town do come, because the town is troubled. It’s a farm town, and there is an ongoing drought. People are out of work and suffering. The sheriff is not pleased with the new show in town. He says, “This town can’t afford a revival!”

In fact, the sheriff (Liam Neeson) becomes so angry with Jonas that he interrupts one of the tent meetings. He goes before the crowd and announces that Jonas is using a false name and has a criminal record. Jonas responds (to the crowd as much as to the sheriff) that all the sheriff said is true. God has made him a new man. And the people love Jonas for it.

But there are two people in town who stand out from the crowd. There is a waitress in town, Marva (Lolita Davidovich) who has a crippled younger brother, Boyd (Lukas Haas).  After Boyd was in an accident which injured his leg (and killed their parents), his grandparents took him to a faith healer. The faith healer blamed Boyd, saying his lack of faith was preventing the healing.

Jonas comes to like the kid. He warns Boyd that his show is just for suckers.
But Boyd does have faith. The boy says he believes God has a purpose in all things, whereas Marva has given up on God and faith. That’s too much even for Jonas.

He tells her, “Without faith, every person you meet is just another sinner, and every place you go is just another hell.”

But then something happens that Jonas isn’t ready for: there’s a real healing. When that happens, things are no longer under his control. He can’t leave town soon enough. And as he’s leaving town, it begins to rain -- even though he just wanted to put on a show.

In show biz, they talk about the dangers of kids and animals stealing the show, but Jonas finds out there’s no show stealer like God.

Jonas is a fraud, but he doesn’t get too much in God’s way, so I’m giving him and his revival meetings a very generous two steeples.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Fraudulent Movie Churches Month

It used to be exciting when tents were set up outside of small towns. It could be anything. It might be a frivolous show depending on music, lights, and illusions to dupe the gullible, or it might be the circus.  

Everyone knows P. T.  Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute” -- but even that is a hoax. The phrase probably came from banker David Hannum, referring to Barnum’s fraudulent exhibit of the Cardiff Giant. Frauds have often been associated with the circus, but the stakes are low there. Does it really matter whether the Nonesuch of Huckleberry Finn is real or not, as long as it’s a good show?

Fraud in the church is a different thing. The 1972 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, Marjoe, involved cameras following an evangelist -- who admitted behind the scenes that it was all a show and he was just in it for the money. Marjoe had started on the Gospel circuit at the age of four when his parents put him on the stage to preach. Before he was grown, Marjoe’s father ran off with the money (over three million dollars) and left Marjoe and his mother with nothing. He eventually returned to the circuit, working six months, living the hippie lifestyle the other half of the year. And in his late twenties he agree to make the documentary that unveiled the fraud. Marjoe Gortner went on to an acting career, appearing in such classics as Earthquake!, Food of the Gods, Viva Knievel, and Starcrash (featured on MST3K).

Watching the film, I noticed that some of the things Marjoe said were true. I wondered, can truth told by someone who thinks they’re telling a lie? The Apostle Paul wrestled with the problem of impure motives for preachers while he was in prison.

Some people were preaching to spite Paul, hoping to make him jealous. Paul’s reaction was different. In Philippians chapter 1: 15 - 18 he wrote, “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the Gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

This month we’ll look at films with people who preach Christ from false motive, and we’ll see if any of them would have done some good (if they weren’t fictional, of course). We’ll still award Steeples, but don’t expect any of these frauds to get our highest, Four Steeple, rating.