Friday, November 24, 2017

Legal Month: Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
MIracle on 34th Street is not only one of my favorite Christmas films, it is also one of my favorite films, but you might wonder what it’s doing here at Movie Churches. Admittedly, there are no churches in the film, except perhaps fleetingly as the cameras pan the streets of New York circa 1947, but the film does fit right in with this month’s theme of Legal Films. It contains one of the great court cases in the movies, and the film takes on an important spiritual and theological issue that is worth investigating (even if, strictly speaking, it has no church or clergy).

The centerpiece of the film is a legal hearing to decide whether the man who calls himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) is in fact the one and only true Santa Claus. Kringle was hired as Macy’s department store Santa, but he also takes on the store’s director of events, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), and her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) as a project to teach them the meaning of Christmas.

But when the HR director of Macy’s tricks Kringle into being institutionalized at Bellevue, Fred Gailey, attorney at law, steps in to take Kringle’s case. The legal maneuvers and trial politics are witty, but stay within a realistic legal framework. Valentine Davies’ screenplay deservedly won an Oscar for Best Original Story and director George Seaton won an Oscar for Best Screenplay (the Academy did things differently those days).

There are so many things to commend about the film. Natalie Wood gives one of the most winning child performances in film history. It is said she really believed Edmund Gwenn was Santa Claus; when you see the film, you may believe it as well. O’Hara is a capable executive, a good mother, and, of course, beautiful. And John Payne as the lawyer is such a likable guy. I get to getting a little misty eyed at the film’s (maybe) miraculous conclusion.

Still, I have a great problem with one definition given in the film. When Fred urges Doris to have faith, he describes faith in this way: “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see? It’s not just Kris that’s on trial, it’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.”

This is very different than the definition given in Scripture. Hebrews 11: 1 says, “Now faith the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith isn’t opposed to common sense. We reasonably exercise faith all the time. We have faith a chair will be able to hold our weight. We have faith we can safely drive on the freeway and other motorists will drive safely (not always a well placed faith). It is especially important to place faith in other people, but I’d urge anyone considering marriage to also use common sense in making that choice.

As the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 13:13, “There are three things that remain: Faith, Hope, and Love, but the greatest of these is Love.” And I do love Miracle on 34th Street.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Legal Movie Churches Month: Primal Fear

Primal Fear (1996)

There's only one idealist in this film. He’s a defense attorney, because if anyone would see the world through rose colored glasses, it’d be a man who spends every work day being lied to by criminals, right? Everyone else -- the police, those in government, and especially those in the church -- are cynical, if not outright evil.

Richard Gere plays Martin Vail, a prominent Chicago attorney who previously worked for the Cook County District Attorney. The film begins as Vail is interviewed by a journalist for the cover story of a newspaper supplement. He tells the reporter that every client, even a guilty one, deserves the best possible defense. When the reporter suggests that the important thing is getting to the truth, Martin responds, “Truth? How do you mean? My version, the one I create, the illusion of truth.”  

Later, we see Vail drop by the Chicago Bar Association and Catholic Charities Ball. Really, what better tie-in could we have for Movie Churches Legal Month than that? Archbishop Rushman (Stanley Anderson) is speaking at the event, telling a lame joke, “I haven’t seen so many lawyers and politicians gathered together since confession this morning.”

The next day, Vail sees a TV story about Archbishop Rushman’s grisly murder and an altar boy’s arrest for the crime. Vail goes to the jail to defend the “boy,” Aaron (played by Edward Norton, who also appeared in The People Vs. Larry Flynt, a film made the same year as this one.) Aaron had been homeless, but was taken in by the Archbishop and allowed to serve in the church beyond the usual altar boy age limitations.

Vail decides to defend Aaron, believing in his innocence when no one else does. In his investigation, he discovers political corruption in the District Attorney’s office. He also finds that financial corruption is linked to the local Catholic diocese.

But the greatest corruption is found when Vail uncovers a video tape in the crime scene, the Archbishop’s apartment. It is a pornographic tape the Archbishop made of Aaron and another young man and a young woman. The Archbishop would practice his sermon before the young people, and then have them perform sex for the camera.

This is, of course, considered Aaron’s motive for killing the Archbishop, but Vail doesn’t believe it. He alone seems to have any idealism, in spite of his cynical bluster, but that idealism will be shattered.

I don’t want to give away more of the mystery of this dark legal drama. There are good things to its credit, especially the cast, full of familiar faces from TV and films: John Mahoney (Frasier), Terry O’Quinn (Lost), Andre Braugher (Brooklyn 99), Alfre Woodard (Luke Cage), Joe Spano (Hill Street Blues), Maura Tierney (NewsRadio), John Seda (Homicide), and more.

But this film’s view of the Catholic Church manages to be darker than the true stories found in the film Spotlight. Therefore, the church in Primal Fear, along with the Archbishop, receives our lowest rating of One Steeple.

(This was scheduled to be the final film of our November Legal Church Month, but it was a little too grim and discouraging to post on the day after Thanksgiving. Expect a much more festive film will take its place!)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Legal Month Continues (with Paul Newman!)

The Verdict (1982)
“What is the truth?” Bishop Brophy (Edward Binns) asks in Sidney Lumet’s 1982 film, The Verdict.

The question is a little different than Pontius Pilate’s in John 18:38, “What is truth?”  In David Mamet’s script, Bishop Brophy uses a definite article in his question, making his question more practical than philosophical. But really, does any member of the Christian clergy want to be compared to the man who turned Jesus over to be crucified?

In the movie, the bishop is talking to a lawyer, Frank Galvin (Best Actor Nominee Paul Newman), about a court case. They’re discussing settling a legal case against St. Catherine’s Hospital, which is owned by the New York Catholic Diocese. Galvin represents a woman who, during a Caesarean at the hospital, lost the child, her sight, hearing, and slipped into a coma from which she is unlikely to awaken. He wants the case to go to court, but Brophy points out that “nothing we can do can make the woman well.”

Galvin then points out that without a trial, “no one will know the truth.”

That’s when the Bishop asks, “What is the truth?”

Certain organizations are devoted to the search for truth. Academia and journalism are supposed to be about the search for truth. The legal system and the church are also both supposed to be in the business of finding the truth.

When the Church (or a university or a newspaper or a judge) thinks a piece of truth should be covered up for “the greater good,” it’s a problem. The bishop argues that they shouldn’t make too much of a fuss about this one woman. “It’s a question of continuing values. For St. Catherine’s to continue to do good in the community, she must maintain the position she holds in the community. So...we have a question of balance. On the one hand, a hospital and its effectiveness and that of two of its important doctors; and on the other hand the rights of your client, a young woman in her prime deprived of her life, her sight, her family. It’s tragic. A tragic accident. Nothing, of course, can begin to make that right. But we must do what we can. We must do all that we can. Yes, we must try to make it right.” They’re doing all they can, except for admitting guilt.

So the church doesn’t come across well in the film, but there is a bit of truth is what the bishop says. These days I hear people, particularly evangelical atheists, who say that the world would be better off without churches or organized religion. Do those people realize how many hospitals and medical facilities in this country, let alone worldwide, were founded by churches and continue to run because of the service and finances of churches?

Catholic hospitals in particular do much good. The world is a better place because they exist, but if something wrong is done in a church or a church-run institution, it shouldn’t be covered up. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

Instead, in the film, we hear of a priest who tries to defend the Catholic hospital’s mistake when he’s talking to the coma victim’s sister. She tells Galvin,  “Father Loughlin, he said it was God’s will.”

In the film, the truth is pursued in court. At the beginning of the film, Frank Galvin doesn’t seem to be an ideal advocate of truth. We see him bribing funeral directors to gain access to families at memorial services. He is the lowest of ambulance chasers, but when confronted with this case, he resolves to finally do something just because it is the right thing to do.

As he tells the jury, “You know, so much of the time we’re just lost. We say, ‘Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true.’” Even when the judge seems to be trying to suppress the truth, the truth comes out. Christians believe in the God of Truth -- not just the truth of Scripture, but any truth, even legal truth, is God’s truth.

So I’m not going to give the church in this film our lowest rating of one steeple, because, in theory, the hospital owned by the church in this film does much good. In this case, though, they did much wrong, so we give Bishop Brophy and the church in this film Two Steeples.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Legal Month Guest Post: Daredevil

(Movie Churches again leaves its theater comfort zone to visit the world of churches on television. Again, Bret Anderson pitches in to review a Netflix series which features this month's theme.)

Daredevil (TV series 2015 - )
Daredevil’s first trailer (and the second scene of the series proper) starts with a shot that was once one of the grand cliches: a man in a confessional booth, admitting to the priest that it’s been too long since his last confession, then going into exposition about his past. Matt Murdock, our protagonist, talks about his family’s history of violence and Catholicism, the two counterweights in his life, leading into the grim, almost noir setup dialog that promises the viewer that things are not going to be restricted exclusively to people talking in dimly lit rooms.

“I’m not seeking penance for what I’ve done. I’m seeking forgiveness for what I’m about to do.”

It’s a big, flashy moment, showing us our protagonist is plotting something not exactly upright. In a lesser show, the scene would end there, but the first season of Daredevil isn’t stupid.

What matters just as much is the next line, from the priest:

“That’s not how this works.”

The show, with surprising religious literacy, remembers that the confessional is for past sins, and, that while saying what you’re going to do may sound cool, it’s not what the booth is for.

Daredevil season 1 cares about the act of confession beyond its role for exposition. Matt Murdock is a Catholic, however lapsed, and that means something about him as a person.

In Matt’s case, it means that he feels really guilty about how much he likes smashing people’s skulls into the pavement. He simultaneously feels that Hell’s Kitchen needs someone to act outside the law to protect its people, and that taking that such action is wrong. He believes that his actions should remain in the law (he’s a lawyer) and that the law isn’t enough (he’s also a vigilante).

The struggle could have been kept internal easily enough, but Daredevil goes a step further by not only having Matt go to a priest, but making the priest an actual, ongoing character. As the show progresses, the priest provides a confidant to Matt -- not just a generic “religious” figure, but a specific person, with his own opinions and history. The show nods at the more modern convention of open air confessions, where the parishioner can see the priest across the table rather than dealing with a distant voice of authority, and gives the main priest a past, complete with doubting doctrine, and later doubting his doubts.

The Church in Daredevil, while not able to solve all problems, is a place where people trying to be better seek to glorify God, and where people on the edge of falling can catch their last handhold.

It’s not perfect, but overall, it’s a much more positive depiction of Christianity than most drama shows, with care and consideration for the details.

Well worth the watching. Four steeples for the church and its priest.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Legal Month Continues! The People vs. Larry Flynt

In 1996, a major Hollywood film celebrated a man who described himself as a “smut peddler” and a “pervert.” In the film, he brags about sleeping with every woman working in the business he owns. He also publishes a magazine that objectifies women in degrading stories, cartoons, and especially photos. The film shows him hitting his girlfriend Althea (played by Courtney Love).

Some might argue that the film wasn’t made to celebrate Larry Flynt, it was merely telling his story. If that was the case, I doubt Flynt would have been willing to play a judge in the film.

This film was celebrated by the Academy, earning Oscar nominations for Best Director (Milos Forman) and Best Actor (Woody Harrelson as Flynt). It also Golden Globes (awarded by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) for direction and writing.

So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the headlines about Harvey Weinstein -- this is the industry that celebrated the founder of Hustler Magazine and “barely legal” strip clubs.

My real concern, though, is (as always here at Movie Churches) is with the movie’s portrayal of churches and clergy -- and this month, particularly with the legal system and the Church. Most of the film deals with Flynt’s court battles regarding accusations of obscenity and libel.

The film covers Flynt’s life starting with his career as a boy moonshiner in 1952 Kentucky, then jumps twenty years to when Flynt with his brother founded a chain of strip clubs in Cincinnati. (This is the business where he bragged about sleeping with all of his dancers, saying, “it was sort of a prerequisite.”)

Christians protested outside of the strip club with signs reading “God will punish the sinners!”

Flynt's cameo as judge in film
Flynt responded, “Remember, we welcome Christians inside the club as well!” I thought it was too bad no Christians took him up on his offer. A friend of ours, a former prostitute, does go into sex clubs to minister to the women, but I’m not sure Flynt would really have been pleased with that.

Flynt’s clubs weren’t doing well, so he decided to advertise them with a newsletter. That newsletter became Hustler Magazine. Whereas Playboy tried to present their photospreads in an “artistic” manner, Hustler presented nude women as graphically as possible. Magazines were confiscated, and Flynt was arrested.

Richard Paul as Rev. Falwell
The film shows one prosecution after another for violation of local and state obscenity laws. Flynt repeatedly lost in the lower courts, then those verdicts were overturned in the appellate courts.

Larry Flynt began to celebrate himself as a civil rights hero. He sponsored an award ceremony for himself from a made up 1st Amendment society; part of the ceremony was the playing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

During these years, while he built his press empire, Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover portraying President Jimmy Carter’s sister, a Christian evangelist) contacted Flynt. At first, he didn’t believe the call was from her. She said, “Praise the Lord I found you. Are you free to get together? We can. People like you and me can do anything we want.”

Donna Hanover as Ruth Carter Stapleton
Ruth invited Larry and his wife Althea to dinner at her home. She asked Larry, “Do you go to church?”

He said, “Well, I go for the major holidays, Christmas, Easter, New Year’s. Oh, who am I fooling, I never go.”

Ruth said, “That’s okay, Larry, church is just a ritual, I go straight to the teachings of Jesus.” Then she told him, “You and I have something in common. We are both trying to help people overcome their sexual repressions.” (I think encouraging Pentecostal women to use makeup is a very different thing than asking women to strip for a photograph that is intended to be viewed by millions. Maybe that’s just me.)

Flynt listened to Ruth. He claimed he’d become a Christian, and he was baptized. He even changed the magazine for a time. Instead of vulgar jokes about the Wizard of Oz or Santa Claus, he had a pictorial nude spread portraying the Garden of Eden from Genesis. He tried to do “Christian pornography.”

I wonder about Ruth going along with that. Her response feels as if Jesus said to the Rich Young Ruler, “You don’t want to do what I said about giving all your wealth to the poor? That’s cool. Actions don’t matter.”

But someone tried to assassinate Larry Flynt. Larry survived, but he was paralyzed. He said,, “There is no God.” He reminded me of Jesus’ parable of The Sower and the Seed, where some of the seeds began to grow, but when hard times came, the plants withered and died. Larry’s friendship with Ruth ended, but another member of the Christian clergy became important in his life.  

From his pulpit, Jerry Falwell spoke out against the evil of pornography. Flynt took this personally and decided to attack Falwell in his magazine. He created and published a mock ad using Falwell as a celebrity spokesman for whiskey -- who also tells the story of losing his virginity to his mother in an outhouse.

Falwell was understandably upset and sued Flynt. Initially, Flynt was fined for the “emotional distress” he’d caused Falwell. Flynt fought back, taking the case to the Supreme Court, which overturned the decision. In a unanimous ruling, the court declared that the First Amendment provides for making outrageous statements about public figures to mock them.
I certainly think the Supreme Court made the correct ruling. First Amendment rights to speech and worship must allow for unpopular things to be said. We live a time when free speech is under attack, when unpopular speech on campuses is attacked as hate speech. It’s hard to imagine something more hateful being said, than what Hustler wrote about Falwell.

However, though I think the ruling was correct, but I also think Falwell was a man who lived a far better life than Flynt has lived. I don’t agree with everything Falwell did in his ministry. His founding of the Moral Majority too closely associated Republican politics with Evangelical Christianity, but Falwell was right to condemn Flynt’s work as dehumanizing to women and harmful to marriages.

Though both Jerry Falwell and Ruth Stapleton Carter made mistakes in their ministries, they worked well in light of what God would have them do. So I’m giving both the clergy in this film a Three Steeple rating.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Movie Churches Goes to Court!

November Movie Churches
By definition, an introductory post should be posted before other posts, but sadly, we posted about The Case for Christ even before introducing the month’s theme --  so sue me. That would be appropriate, because this November we’ll be watching movies that feature both churches and the legal system. We’ve had this kind of movies before, but they’ve come up in different categories.

During Science and the Church month, we watched Inherit the Wind (1960), a fictionalized look at the the “Monkey Trial” (The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes). There are Christians on both sides of the evolution debate, so it shouldn’t be surprising that this topic continues to be argued in churches, or that it continues to come up in court cases.

During Women in Ministry Month, we examined one of my favorite presentations of clergy in film, Dead Man Walking. The film follows Sister Helen Prejean as she walks with a convicted murderer through the legal process of death and the spiritual process of life.

In Clint Eastwood Month, we looked at True Crime, another film about a man facing execution for murder, though it’s a fictional story that dealt with issues of the church and faith more tangentially.

And while it was still in the theaters, we watched God’s Not Dead II (surely a finalist in worst titles ever), a Christian film which had one of the most preposterous takes on the American legal system I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen Legally Blonde, Liar Liar, and Woody Allen’s Bananas.)

Still, I thought it worth officially declaring court is in session. Though the Apostle Paul (in I Corinthians 6) wrote that believers should not take one another to court, don’t worry. I’ll still be very judgmental about the church and clergy found in these films that bring judicial and ecclesiastical issues together.

Friday, November 3, 2017

It's Legal Month at Movie Churches! The Case for Christ

The Case for Christ (2017)
Some might argue with beginning Legal Movie Churches Month with a film about journalist, but I feel the blame for that is squarely on the shoulders of Lee Strobel, the real life protagonist of the film. The title, The Case for Christ, sure sounds like it takes place in the courthouse -- and a bit of the film actually does.

The film is based on a nonfiction book well described by its title, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. The film itself is a biographic look at the time in Strobel’s life when he decided to investigate the case for the divinity of Christ and went from being an atheist to a believer.

The film begins with Strobel (Mike Vogel) joining the staff of the Chicago Tribune. His investigations into car safety (the Ford Pinto) won awards. He was able to publish a book on the subject. His marriage was happy, but his young daughter, Alison, chokes in a restaurant, a nurse is comes to her rescue. Though the Stobels comment that luck saved their daughter, the nurse, Alfie (L. Scott Caldwell), says, “It’s not luck - it’s Jesus.”

At bedtime that night, Alison asks about Jesus. Lee tells her that they’re atheists, and Alison says, “I guess I’m an atheist too.”  

Lee’s wife, Leslie (Erika Christensen), seems troubled by this statement. As a couple they’d decided to let Alison choose her faith path, but she feels Lee is pressuring their daughter to follow his. She asks about their unbelief, “How can we be so sure?”

The real Bill Hybels back in the day
Alfie invites Leslie to her church, Willow Creek Community Church. She goes to a Wednesday night service (in those days, the church met in a movie theater). Leslie hears Pastor Bill Hybels (Jordan Cox) say, “God is patient. When you’re ready, He’ll be waiting for you.” And he quotes from the Gospel of John, “As many as received Him, to them he gave the right to be children of God.”

Leslie grew up in church and remembers her mother singing her hymns as a child. he says her mother sang her hymns as a child and took her to church. When she tells Lee, “She invited me to her church, so I went. Are you interested in hearing from me or are you done condescending?”

He listens as she says, “I went to church, and I felt something. I prayed. I talked to Jesus and asked Him in my life...I know it’s a good thing for me, for us.”

Lee says, “Not us.”

Lee is quite upset by his wife’s decision to follow Jesus. He goes to his mentor, another atheist, saying, “I think I can get through to her before she gets too deep. It comes down to facts and truth.” Lee believes truth can drive out superstition, and he believes in the old journalist’s motto, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Lee decides to pursue the evidence about Jesus Christ in hopes of showing Leslie that Christianity is a fraud.

He goes to see an array of experts. He goes to talk to Father Jose Maria Marquez (Miguel Perez), one of the world’s leading experts in archaeology, who went from the life of an academic to the life of a priest. While there, Stobel scoff as the money that goes into building such elaborate buildings as the large Catholic church where Father Marquez serves.

But the priest gives convincing evidence for the reliability of the Gospels as historical documents. He points out that there is a gap of over a hundred years between extant copies of the Iliad and the original document, whereas with the Gospels it is a matter of decades.

Movie Lee with Real Lee
Lee continues to conflict with Leslie, accusing her of “cheating on me with Jesus.” He abuses alcohol, even drinking and driving.

Leslie eventually convinces Lee to go to Willow Creek with her.  They sing the Keith Green song, “You Put This Love in My Heart”.  Hybels preaches, “Churches aren’t perfect, but God is.” The people at the church seem happy and are of mixed ethnicity, but Lee is not happy, and asks Alfie to stop interfering in their lives.

Lee goes to see a psychologist, Dr. Roberta Waters (Faye Dunaway), to talk about whether the Apostles and authors of the New Testament are reliable. She says they are, and asks Lee about his father issues. His relationship with his father (Robert Forster) is not healthy.

While all of this is going on, Lee is covering a major story from the legal affairs desk about a gang member accused of shooting a cop. Lee goes to court to cover the gang member’s sentencing. He condemns the defendant in his stories for the Tribune, but he eventually finds out that it was a dirty cop who framed the gang member. Strobel realizes he sometimes gets things wrong -- which helps him to understand he might have gotten things wrong about God.

He also realizes that just as a court case is rarely ever an ironclad case, but usually a judge or jury must use an element of faith, he will never have an ironclad case for or against Christ. He must choose with an element of faith. One of the most weighty pieces of evidence is the love and faithfulness of his wife following her Christian conversion.

He talks to Leslie about following Jesus, “What is the protocol? Should I go to church?”

They are alone at their home, but she says, “This is church.”  And he prays to ask Christ into his life.

An on screen epilogue informs the audience that Strobel eventually left the Tribune and became a pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in 1987. He is currently is a pastor at Woodlands Church and teaches at Woodlands Seminary, both in Woodlands, Texas.

This blog is about churches in movies, usually, but because the church in this film, Willow Creek Community Church, is real, I have to look at it differently. I’ve worshiped at Willow Creek a couple of times, and I’ve even gone to a conference there. The church is not without its problems, but as the church is presented in the film, I’m giving it our highest rating of Four Steeples. (As for the other prominent clergy in the film, Father Marquez; I’d give him Four Steeples as well.)