Friday, March 30, 2018

Comedy Movie Churches 5: the Church embattled

Catch-22 and M*A*S*H (1970)
Two comedies about war were released in 1970; one, Catch-22, was about World War II, while M*A*S*H was about the Korean Conflict -- but everyone *knew* the films were *really* about the ongoing war in Vietnam. Catch-22, based on one of the most acclaimed novels of the 20th century, was directed by Mike Nichols fresh from his Best Director win for The Graduate. M*A*S*H was based on a not very acclaimed novel and directed by Robert Altman, primarily a TV director. Nonetheless, Catch-22 was considered a disappointment in its time, while M*A*S*H was the box office hit, nominated for Best Picture, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay, and perhaps most famously spawning the long-lasting sitcom of the same name.

What’s most interesting for our purposes at Movie Churches is that both films have chaplains, and both chaplains are nice doofuses. Both films deal with big questions about big issues: war, sex, class, race, the meaning of life, and especially death. Both chaplains are without answers.

Catch-22 is particularly about Yossarian (Alan Arkin), a fighter pilot in World War II who’s been told that after a certain number of missions, he’ll be able to go home. When the number of missions keeps being raised, Yossarian tries to get out by claiming to be crazy. A doctor (Jack Gifford) explains to him that trying to get out of fighting is a very sane thing. That’s the catch.

Yossarian is injured when his plane goes down, and Chaplain Tappman (Anthony Perkins) visits him in the hospital. The chaplain asks Yossarian, “How are you feeling?”

When Yossarian asks Tappman the same question, Tappman says, “I have a head cold I haven’t been able to shake.”

Yossarian makes it clear he doesn’t care how Tappman feels, but Tappman tells Yossarian he’s lucky.

“Except for the piece of shrapnel I caught in my leg,” Yossarian responds.

Tappman explains he’s a chaplain. Yossarian says, “I’ve never seen a chaplain before, I never knew a chaplain looked like that.”

Tappman says, “I could get you books,” Yossarian asks if he can get him what he really wants -- to get out of the service. Tappman says he’ll do what he can.

Tappman does try. He goes to see the Major (Bob Newhart), whose full name happens to be Major Major Major Major, but the major tries to hide from him. In the face of bureaucracy, Tappman is unable to help Yossarian.

When people call him “Father,” he repeatedly explains, “You don’t have to call me Father, I’m an Anabaptist.” Most of the brass don’t seem to have much patience for Tappman, telling him, “We need to keep our supernatural events to a minimum.”

Tappman doesn’t believe he has much to offer. “I try to stay out of the way. I find I make men uncomfortable.”

Colonel Cathcart (Martin Balsam) does try to put Tappman to work, telling him “There is a chaplain who has a service before every mission. I want you to come up with some nice snappy prayers that will make the men go out feeling good.” But Tappman isn’t much for snappy prayers.

When Yossarian is considering desertion, Tappman tells him, “I’m not here to judge people.”

Yossarian asks, “What are you here for?”

Tappman says, “I’m not sure.”

There are others in the religion business. For instance, Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight) works in the black market. Among his products, “Wrists and collar bones of the top saints blessed by the Pope.” He seems to be making a good profit, but he certainly isn’t a good man.

You may already know that M*A*S*H stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital; that’s where the film takes place. It focuses primarily on the camp’s surgeons, Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Captain “Trapper” John McIntyre (Elliott Gould), and Captain Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt). I was a little surprised when I watched the film again to see what a constant presence the chaplain, Father John Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois) is in the film. (He introduces himself as “Dago Red,” and if you think the use of the word “Dago” is an offensive ethnic slur, you might not want to hear about the anesthesiologist, or “gas passer,” Dr. Oliver “Spearchucker” Jones, played by Fred Williamson.)

Upon introducing himself to Hawkeye and Duke, Father Mulcahy says, “If you fellows have any problems, my tent is right over there…” But no one seems to bring problems to Red. In fact, he brings the problem of one of the larger subplots to Hawkeye.

Captain “Painless” Waldowski, the camp dentist, confessed to the priest that he's afraid he might be gay (or in the terms of the film, “a fairy.”) Father Mulcahy is greatly flustered by this problem, which seems to be completely outside his experience, so he brings it to Hawkeye. (Of course, he can’t break the sacrament of the confessional by giving the details, but indicates the severity of the problem when he tells Hawkeye that Painless referred to poker as “only a game.” Serious stuff, that.)

The idea that priests know nothing about sin and/or the human condition is a strange one. As G.K. Chesterton often pointed out in his Father Brown stories, priests hear far more about the depravity of people in the confessional than the average person can even imagine. But Dago Red ends up helping out with the plan to fake Painless’s suicide in order to save him.

Dago Red never seems really useful at following his calling except as an assistant to the true healers, the doctors. When the priest is giving a man last rites in the surgical theater, Duke calls him over to help with an operation saying, “I’m sorry, Dago, but this man is still alive, and that other man is dead, and that’s a fact. Can you hold it with two fingers, Dago?”

When the guys are eavesdropping on Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) making love, Father Mulcahy bumbles in -- mistaking the event for a radio program. “Is this The Battling Bickersons? I love them.”

When he finally understands what’s going on, he apologetically makes his exit. He doesn’t recognize the need to condemn this morally reprehensible invasion of privacy.

There is one other overtly Christian character in the film: Frank Burns the hypocrite. The character prays like a Pharisee and blames God and others (but never himself) for the death of his patients, his one good act in the film is mocked by Hawkeye and Duke. Burns is teaching a young Korean boy to read, using the Bible. The friends snicker and give Ho Jon a Playboy magazine to “read” instead. It's baffling to see the film’s “heroes” discouraging the act of teaching reading. Was literacy not cool in the ‘70’s?

The chaplains in the two films have much in common. They are kind, humble men, but both films treat gentleness as weakness, innocence as ignorance, and piety as pathetic. Sadly, both men seem to view themselves as men who have nothing to give.

I’ll be posting this on Good Friday, the day we remember that a gentle, humble, innocent Man died, and His death brought hope for the world. Chaplains Tappman and Mulcahy have the Power of the Resurrection to offer those facing death, but instead, they wallow in impotence.

Though they’re nice guys, I’m only giving these chaplains 2 out of 4 Steeples.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Now In Theaters: I Can Only Imagine

I Can Only Imagine, (2018)
Last month, the big movie business news was the success of Black Panther, which broke box office records and may continue to be the biggest story for the rest of the year. Part of the interest in that story is diversity, a celebration of the primarily black cast and crew making a Marvel action movie. This month, though, the new news story is I Can Only Imagine.

This new film was predicted to make $2 - $5 million on its opening weekend. Instead, it took in $17 million and had Cinemascore rating of A+ with 79% of the audience saying they’d pay to see the film in a theater again. The film even has a “Fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which is a rare thing for a Christian film. Sure, it couldn’t beat Black Panther and Tomb Raider at the box office, but it did beat other big studio productions (A Wrinkle in Time; Game Night; Love, Simon). As for diversity, it presents a Christian message, which -- in Hollywood -- is a diversity of thought that may be even rarer than racial diversity.

People who’ve seen it seem to love the film, which has some interesting and odd elements. It is the first time lead actor J. Michael Finley (as songwriter Bart Millard) has appeared on the screen (he appeared on Broadway in Les Miserables and Hair). It’s hard to decide if it’s odder to see Finley in his late 20’s (guessing) as a high school student or Dennis Quaid (in his mid-sixties) as the father of a ten-year-old. The film also features 91-year-old Cloris Leachman as “Memaw" (she played "Maw Maw" on the sitcom Raising Hope), who provides the name of Millard’s band, Mercy Me, and the inspiration for the title song (by urging Millard at a funeral to “imagine”).

I thought the film was okay. Of course, I think the song is just okay, but with sales of two and a half million copies, “I Can Only Imagine” is the best selling Christian song of all time. It swept the Dove Awards (the Christian Grammys). It also crossed over into the top 40 of the secular contemporary market. For some reason, the song is on the Christmas playlists of many radio stations.

The real Bart with Mercy Me
More importantly, many people have said the film brought them hope and encouragement, bringing them through difficult times in their lives.

But, as you know, this blog isn’t here to examine box office numbers -- or even the quality -- of films. We’re here to rate churches and clergy in film, and while churches and clergy play a small part in I Can Only Imagine, they do come out looking pretty good.

Bart Millard had a very tough childhood. His father was an alcoholic who beat Bart and his mother. His mother abandoned them both when Bart was ten years old, leaving him at the mercy of his belligerent father. Something else very important happened when Bart was ten years old, he went to a Christian summer camp in Texas.

Bart was nervous and scared when he arrived, but he was soon befriended by other campers. He enjoyed the food, scenery, and recreation. He even enjoyed a couple of the best things about summer camp that aren’t found in brochures: getting into trouble and first love.

The camp speaker, a youth pastor named Rusty from Greenville First Baptist Church, effectively communicates God’s love and the need for forgiveness. When he gets back home, Bart attends that church, which is in his hometown.

As Bart grows up, he discovers a talent for singing. The pastor of the Baptist Church asks Bart to sing in church (something viewers hear about, but never see). We see teenaged Bart in a coat and tie headed to church on a Sunday morning. His father asks him to stay for breakfast, but Bart explains he needs to go to church to sing, and he asks his father to come along. When his father says he “doesn’t belong there,” Bart asks him to listen to the church service on the radio, telling him the time and call letters.

We later learn that Bart’s father, Arthur (Quaid), did listen to the radio broadcast, and he kept listening week after week. He starts listening to other Christian radio broadcasts and begins to read the Bible for himself. After Bart leaves to pursue his musical dream, God changes Arthur’s life.

Churches don’t usually have camp or media as their primary ministry, but sometimes they do these things very well, bringing hope to -- among others -- a battered little boy and a lost alcoholic. And that’s why Greenville First Baptist, the church in this film, our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Comedy Movie Churches 4: Except for the Twist

Keeping Mum (2005)
Many of us first encountered Rowan Atkinson as a vicar. In 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral he was the officiant at half of the film’s more cheerful ceremonies -- he was the one with a tendency toward malaprops (“in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spigot,” for example). Many others already knew Atkinson from his television roles as the Blackadder and Mr. Bean, but Father Gerald was the first time he stood out on the big screen.

He was back to being a vicar again in 2005’s Keeping Mum, playing the Rev. Walter Goodfellow, pastor of a rural, English parish. He’s not very good at his work. His sermons bore the small congregation, which seems to be mostly a bickering assortment of old biddies.

He may be worse as husband and father. His wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) feels neglected and is considering having an affair. He seems oblivious to his daughter’s promiscuous behavior and that his son is the target of bullies.

Until a housekeeper turns his life around.

You may be thinking, “A housekeeper turns his life around? Kind of like Mary Poppins and Mr. Banks?” Well, yeah, sort of. Except the housekeeper, Grace Hawkins (Maggie Smith) isn’t magical, and she’s a murderess recently escaped from a mental health facility. We soon see that she wasn’t “cured.”

Grace helps the Reverend in some very positive ways. She encourages him to put humor in his sermons, directing him to an MSN search of religious jokes websites, particularly, “Giggling with God.” (I want to point out that putting “humor” in sermons is not always a good thing. I grew up in a church pastored by a very good, humble man, Bill Miller, who preached the Word in truth and sincerity. To liven up his sermons, he added jokes, usually opening with a Reader’s Digest gem I had read in the restroom the previous month. Even as a grade schooler, I found the humor lame.

Grace’s advice helps the vicar to do more than tell jokes, though. He learns to truly incorporate humor into his sermons, shining a different light on Biblical truth. In this way, he becomes a better pastor.

Grace points out that the Bible is “full of sex.” I found it baffling that a minister who received any kind of Biblical training wouldn’t realize this as a fact, but Goodfellow seems to have been oblivious. Grace points him to the Song of Solomon, which he’d thought of as “a declaration of a devout man’s love for God.” She (rightly) points out that it’s about a man’s love for a woman, expressed in erotic poetry.

Walter reads this passage of Scripture, silently and aloud. And it changes his relationship with his wife. He once again begins to give full attention to his wife, Gloria, showing love, affection, and passion. She returns his affection and ends her affair with her golf instructor (Patrick Swayze) before it is consummated.

Another problem with the Reverend Goodfellow and his ministry is that he gives too much attention to things that are of no consequence. Mrs. Parker (Liz Smith) is the chairman of the Flower Arranging Committee, and she’s constantly demanding attention. Pretty decorations in the front of the church are swell, but they’re a minor concern compared to say, feeding the hungry, addressing injustice, reaching the lost… You know, stuff Jesus cared about. (He made it quite clear in Matthew 6: 28 that God takes care of the flowers.)

But Grace, um, takes care of Mrs. Parker in another way. And at Mrs. Parker’s funeral, the Reverend introduces his convention lecture on “God Works in Mysterious Ways” in a rather tacky fashion. Still, God does seem to use Grace to change the vicar’s life and ministry in good ways. In fact, his ministry is changed in such a positive way that though I’d rate his ministry with 2 Steeples at the beginning of the film, by the end of the film, it’s reached a 3 Steeple rating.

(Actually, that 3 Steeple rating holds if you exclude the twist in the last couple of minutes of the film which was utterly gratuitous. I’m never in favor of making murder a part of a ministry.)

Friday, March 16, 2018

Comedy Movie Churches 3: Funny Foreign Church

Adam’s Apples (2005)
I know the Movie Churches readership: a number of you have been asking, “Why doesn’t Dean review more Danish films?”

I understand your frustration, but you need to realize other readers are asking, “What’s the deal with all the Danish films? We want more reviews of Hollywood products.”

Well, I have good news for that first group, and the second group can rest assured that we’ll be back to films from the good old U. S. of A. soon enough (most likely next week).

Adam’s Apples is a 2005 black comedy made in Denmark, and it’s a fully Danish language film (except for snatches of “How Deep is Your Love” but by Take That rather than the Bee Gees). It tells the story of a pastor (certainly Protestant, probably Lutheran) who runs a halfway house for released prisoners. As the film opens, the Reverend Ivan Fjeldsted is at a bus stop to greet a newly released prisoner, Adam Pederson, a neo-Nazi. (The actors playing Ivan and Adam may be familiar to American audiences. Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the pastor, was a Bond villain in Casino Royale, the creator of the Death Star in Rogue One, and the title cannibal in the TV series Hannibal. Ulrich Thomsen, playing the released convict, has played bad guys on the TV series Banshee and The Blacklist and the new Starz series, Counterpart.)

Rev. Ivan
Adam soon meets the other residents of the home, which is made up of rooms within a country church. There is Gunnar, an alcoholic, a kleptomaniac, and a rapist. Khalid is a Pakistani who robbed gas stations and remains well armed.

Ivan gives Adam a kind of entrance interview along with a bit of his philosophy. “It says here you’re a Neo-Nazi. It says you’re evil. I don’t think that’s a polite thing to write in someone’s CV (report)... We believe there are no evil people. If you need to look for evil, this is an evil world. But you can try to focus on the silver lining as we do here.”

Ivan tells Adam everyone in the home needs a goal and asks him what his goal would be, mentioning that Gunnar has given up drink and now is pursuing theological training, and Khalid has also turned his life around. Adam jokes that his goal would be to make an apple pie.

The pastor takes him seriously and assures him of help toward his goal. The church has an apple tree on its property, and Pastor Ivan tells Adam the tree’s care will be his responsibility.

Life is ruff in the film
Adam attends a worship service (it seems to be required) where Ivan preaches about how we must battle against the devil. Ivan wears an odd starched ruff, like you see in old paintings, over the top of a full clerical collar. When an old man stands up during the sermon and heads for the door, the pastor asks, “What’s wrong? Are you bored by the Word of God?”

The man explains he has to go to the bathroom. So the pastor wraps things up early. (Gunnar says to Adam after the service, “It was a good sermon today, shorter than usual. Don’t worry about Ivan, he’s a good guy.”)

A woman named Sarah comes to Ivan for counseling. She’s terribly upset because she’s pregnant with the child of a man who’s abandoned her; worse, doctors have said there’s a 60% chance her child will be severely handicapped. Ivan tells her the doctors said the same thing about his child before birth, but he turned out splendidly and is a healthy, active boy.

Adam soon realizes that Ivan does not have a precisely accurate view of the world.

Ivan’s son Christoff isn’t healthy. He seems to be in his early teens, and he has cerebral palsy. He’s in a wheelchair and seems unresponsive to most outside stimulus. Adam hears that Ivan’s wife committed suicide and asks about that. Ivan assures him that his wife died from an accidental overdose when she mistook poison for M&M's.

Adam, Khalid, Gunnar and his cat
It doesn’t take Adam long to discover that Gunnar and Khalid are not the reformed citizens Ivan proclaims them to be. Gunnar continues to drink and steal, brazenly coming into Adam’s room to take things. Khalid carries guns at all times and will draw with minor provocation. Ivan will not even acknowledge the photograph of Hitler Adam hangs in his room, replacing a crucifix. (Ivan does ask about the dapper man on the wall.)

Exasperated by Ivan’s continuing cheerfulness in the midst of suffering, Adam talks to the local physician. The doctor tells says Ivan “may be weird, but he’s a good boy.” The doctor goes on to explain that Ivan has a large tumor in his brain and is coping with “Ravashi syndrome,” which allows him to see the world as he wishes it were.

Adam makes it his goal to make Ivan see the world as it is, even though Ivan might die from it -- or perhaps because it will kill Ivan. Adam strikes Ivan (a number of times), but Ivan is always ready to turn the other cheek.

There are many references to the Book of Job in the film (whenever Adam drops the Bible Ivan gave him, it opens to that book.) Ivan sees his struggles as being with the devil. Adam asks him whether they come from God, and the question lingers whether everything happens due to chance and blind luck.

There are even more dark turns in the film, but ultimately, Ivan continues to serve God to the best of his mentally ill abilities. And those he serves may well be the better for it, which earns Ivan and the church of Adam’s Apples Three Steeples.

(This film is currently available and Amazon Prime)

Friday, March 9, 2018

Comedy Movie Churches 2

Cold Turkey (1971)
Smoking used to be an emblem of glamour. Bogart lighting up was cool, Bette Davis’ cigarette was almost as important to her image as her eyes. From the twenties through the sixties in American pop culture, tobacco was essential in the life of the elite, but during this period of American history, not everyone was celebrating smoking. In the church, particularly in fundamentalist churches, smoking was considered sinful. Some lived by the motto, “Don’t smoke, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls who do.”

The Surgeon General’s 1964 report on smoking and tobacco use demonstrating demonstrated links to cancer and heart disease. It led to a very different view of smoking in popular culture. The change sparked by the report led to smoking being frowned upon in much of American popular culture.

A movie often receives a harsher MPAA rating for smoking (a PG rating changing to PG-13, PG-13 to R). City ordinances and state law in much of the country forbid smokers from smoking anywhere except in private residences (and laws prohibiting that are being considered in some locations).

More smoking the darker the state
It’s interesting that while in recent history, only the church seemed to frown on smoking, in current culture, smoking and religion may no longer have an inverse correlation. For instance, statistically, Kentucky has one of the highest percentages of smokers, and it is also statistically one of the most religious states. California, on the other hand, is one of the least religious states statistically, but a great many people are quite judgemental of smoking.

Not all churches even take a stand on the matter any longer. In fact, we visited Scum of the Earth Church in Denver, Colorado, which employed a pastor who, as one of his duties, smoked with people on a porch. The goal was to make people comfortable visiting the church.

All that explains why the film Cold Turkey is culturally interesting. It was made right in the midst of those changes in America. Written and directed by Norman Lear (the film came out the same year his groundbreaking television series, All in the Family, debuted), the movie tells the story of a tobacco company offering any city or town in the United States 25 million dollars if residents refrain from smoking for 30 days. The film features some of the best comics from the era, including Bob Newhart as the public relations executive who comes up with the scheme and the comedy team of Bob and Ray mimicking a variety of newscasters of the era.

The one city in America that gets all of its citizens to sign a pledge not to smoke for a month is a depressed little Iowa town, Eagle Rock (population 4006). The camera roams that small town during the credits accompanied by Randy Newman singing “He Gives Us All His Love.” A billboard at the city limits proclaims a welcome to visitors from quite a lot of churches, but the camera zooms in on a service at Eagle Rock Community Church. (In spite of the nondescript name, it seems to be a Methodist church, guessing by worship style and organizational government.)

The sign in front of the church announces the sermon title for the week, “Is God in Eagle Rock’s Corner?” The camera goes into the church, and we hear the choir singing, “I Love the Lord.” When the choir finishes, the church’s pastor, The Reverend Clayton Brooks (played by Dick van Dyke) begins his sermon. “God had not abandoned us, but He has a plan for His people… We have been chosen… Let us leave with His plan and purpose… We will battle the powers of darkness.” It isn’t clear whether he is addressing the congregation or the citizens of Eagle Rock in general. Unfortunately for him, the sermon then slips into a description of the beauty and wonders of Lima, Peru.

When the sermon (abruptly) ends, the pastor severely reprimands a woman for letting her eyes wander while typing his sermon with “Holiday Magazine” next to her. I wondered if the woman was his secretary, but in moments we discover she's his wife, Natalie, when a woman (Jean Stapleton of All in the Family fame) tells Natalie she’s married to a saint. Natalie’s expression suggests that she doesn’t agree.

We later see the Rev. Brooks trying to convince his bishop to send him to Dearborn, Michigan, to minister to the wealthy executives of General Motors. The bishop admonishes him that such a move would never be possible unless he turns things around in his current position in Eagle Rock.

As soon as the Reverend hears about the offer from Valiant Tobacco Company, he seizes the opportunity. Some in the town argue that the Reverend, a nonsmoker, is in no position to ask people to give up smoking. Brooks assures the townspeople that even though he and his wife no longer smoke (Natalie, unknown to him, has not given up smoking; she hides it from him), he would be willing to take it up again to give it up when the town does.

He successfully persuades all the citizens of the town to sign the pledge except for one, Mr. Stopworth (Tom Poston), who agrees to leave town for the duration after the Reverend threatens him with physical violence (while bragging about his boxing prowess in college).

As the smoke-free days proceed, people become increasingly irritable and even violent. After a radio announcer suggests that the “act of physical love” may help with the cravings of smoking, the Reverend and his wife take the suggestion, but we see little apparent affection (and visible reluctance on Natalie’s part).Others act on the radio advice by frequenting a prostitute that sets up shop downtown.

The no-smoking competition quickly attracts national attention, and Eagle Rock begins to thrive financially. The government courts the town to become the home of a missile manufacturing plant. A television network asks to televise one of Eagle Rock Community Church’s Sunday services, and we see the TV director giving instructions to the congregation, “You dig the hymn and the words the Reverend is laying on you.”)

Rev. Brooks begins to wonder if perhaps this competition has brought a dangerous portion of greed and avarice to the community. Natalie has the same concerns to as her husband, asking him, “What good would it do if the town gained the whole world but loses its soul?”

The Reverend responds, “How dare you throw my own words back at me?”

When she tells him she was quoting the Bible, he argues she’s resorting to semantics.

The relationship between the Reverend and his wife is one of the uglier perspectives into the life of this clergyman. He says it is important that they talk, but he always talks over her and never listens. When she asks to leave a light off, he turns it on.

Natalie is right, of course. The pursuit of wealth by the town brings out the worst in all concerned, not excluding her husband. When Brooks is featured on the cover of Time Magazine, his bishop tells him that is the zenith of their profession. (Silly me, I thought hearing, “Well done, good and faithful servant” was a Christian’s dearest hope.)

The film is a dark satire, and it doesn’t leave the church unscathed. Rev. Brooks and Eagle Rock Community Church, therefore, receive our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Comedy Movie Churches

Car Wash (1976) and Fletch Lives (1989)

In our blog about bars, we ask people about churches, and a leading gripe we hear is that churches and clergy are money grubbing. I don’t think that’s actually true about most churches, but it’s sadly true of some, and that makes greedy preachers a favorite comedy trope.

Car Wash is an ensemble comedy, following the employees of a, well, car wash in a neighborhood that’s not the best in Los Angeles. Music legends (Otis Day, the Pointer Sisters) join with TV personalities (Starsky and Hutch’s Huggy Bear, Antonio Fargas; original Saturday Night Live cast member Garrett Morris; Hogan’s HeroesIvan Dixon), and comedians (George Carlin, Professor Irwin Corey) round out the cast. Richard Pryor’s Daddy Rich is surprisingly likable in spite of his obvious character flaws.

DJs at a local radio station form a Greek Chorus for the mostly comic episodic action of the film. (The station plays such public service announcements as “Cancer cures smoking.”) Before Daddy Rich makes his appearance, we hear about his upcoming services on the radio and see his picture on a Wall of Fame inside the car wash, between JFK and MLK Jr.

The Reverend, with his white suit and gold-topped cane, eventually drops by the carwash in his gold limousine with a license plate reading “TITHE.” When he emerges from his car with three stylishly dressed (well, stylishly dressed for the ‘70’s) women (the Pointer Sisters), one of the workers asks who he is.

His coworker says, “It’s Daddy Rich! Don’t you know him from TV?”

Someone asks the Reverend his secret, and he responds, “The secret is there are no secrets! Believe in the Lord and believe in yourself! And most of all, believe in that federal green because money talks and [bovine excrement] walks!”

Some of the workers offer him money (though he obviously has much more than they do) and he gladly accepts it, “I take what is given to me.”

The workers clean the entire car, even though there’s really only a speck on the trunk. One of them asked what the interior of the limo is like, says, “Like being in church with Burt Reynolds!”

Almost everyone at the car wash seems to admire Daddy Rich, except for a Black Muslim named Abdullah (formerly Duane, played by Bill Duke). When Abdullah challenges Daddy Rich, they have this interchange:

Rev.: “Guess you don’t believe in my church - the Church of the Divine Economic Spirituality? You don’t believe in God?”

Abdullah: “I don’t believe in your god.”

The Reverend: “My God’s done alright by me. Why don’t you climb on board, and for a small fee, I’ll set you free, nearer thy God to thee.”

Abdullah calls the Reverend a pimp and they nearly come to blows, but Rich refrains -- as he is “a Christian man.” He passes around an offering plate, and then leaves, waving from the limo sunroof.

In 1989’s Fletch Lives, the Reverend Jimmy Lee Farnsworth (R. Lee Ermey) is nearly as popular in his small southern town as Daddy Rich was at the carwash. (The film is a sequel to the 1985 film, Fletchwhich was also directed by Michael Ritchie; both star Chevy Chase as the title character.)

Fletch, a Los Angeles reporter, inherits a Louisiana mansion and moves there to start a new life. Representatives of Farnsworth Ministries soon approach him to buy the property. (Fletch mentions that his aunt almost left it to the ministry. He says, “the Reverend must have touched her, but not deeply enough.”)

Farnsworth Ministries doesn’t just have a church. They also have Bible Land, an amusement park that Rev. Farnsworth claims is “the most important event since the crucifixion.” It has rides, of course, including a hell ride (which we see treated by visitors as a Tunnel of Love) and a Noah’s Ark ride. (The Flood scheduled every ten minutes looks remarkably like floods I’ve seen on the Universal Studio Tour).

On his nightly television program, which is syndicated throughout the country, the Reverend Farnsworth is not at all shy about asking for money. He also provides a show, with tap dancers and a performing monkey, Mr. Coco.

He astounds the audience when he calls individuals on stage and tells them personal facts about their lives. (He does this with the help of an earpiece connected to a computer room where a great deal of personal information about audience members is stored. The computer itself is one of those room-filling machines with reel to reel tapes.) Rev. Farnsworth encourages people to confess their sins before the television cameras (one woman wants to go into great detail about her sexual misadventures), after which he assures them of God’s forgiveness -- and then asks for money. As each audience member is carried offstage, the Reverend always proclaims, “Another soul saved by Jimmy Lee Farnsworth.”

We eventually learn the Reverend was once a used car salesman and convicted embezzler before he went into ministry.

Fletch doesn’t think much of Farnsworth’s ministry. ( “I believe in a God that doesn’t need heavy financing.“) But Fletch himself doesn’t come off too well in the film. Soon after arriving at his plantation, he sleeps with his attractive realtor. While he sleeps, the woman is murdered. When Fletch discovers she’s dead, he smirks at the camera and makes a cheap joke. Throughout the rest of film, he jokes about her death being a result of his sexual prowess. Nothing Farnsworth does is that tacky.

Nonetheless, because of the great damage that the prosperity gospel does to the reputation and work of the true gospel of Jesus Christ, I’m giving the Reverends Daddy Rich and Jimmy Lee Farnsworth our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.