Wednesday, May 30, 2018

It's Almost Nun Month!

Nun Month
My wife, Mindy, and I are job hunting, so I’m particularly interested in employment statistics at this time. Did you know that there are 250,000 hotel employees in the United States? There are nearly 700,000 accountants and nearly 700,000 electricians. There are over three and a half million fast-food workers, but as of 2014, there were only 50,000 nuns.

Yet there seem to be many more films about nuns than accountants or electricians. Offhand, I can only think of two works of filmed fiction about night auditors (2004’s The Night Auditor and 2016’s The Night Manager) even though night auditors are fascinating people (if I do say so myself). And sure, fast food workers have been represented better, from Brad Hamilton (the Long John Silver’s-ish worker in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) to the Chickwich employees in the sexual harassment drama Compliance to Harold and Kumar’s trip to White Castle to the aptly named Good Burger to the one true classic of the genre, Better Off Dead (with its claymation adventures at Pig Burgers).

Somehow, nun films outnumber even the oeuvre of hot dogs, burgers, and chicken nuggets. A quick survey of the history of MovieChurches shows we have already looked at least a dozen films featuring nuns:

The Bells of St. Mary

The Blues Brothers

Dead Man Walking

Heaven Knows Mr. Allison

Keys of the Kingdom

Lady Bird

The Nun’s Story

Sister Act

Sister Act II

Stake Land

The Sound of Music

Two Mules for Sister Sara (not a real nun, but… I didn't even get to Agnes of God)

In spite of that, I easily found five films for June’s Nun Month, and there are still plenty of films left for future nun months. Hey, we like these nun films, but I think we can all agree that Hollywood needs to do more films about night auditors. Such interesting people.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Fight Church Month: The Masked Saint

The Masked Saint (2016)
While watching this movie, I was convinced that as a preacher, Pastor Chris was a great wrestler. We hear his first sermon to his first congregation (they seem to have hired him without hearing him preach), and it’s pretty awful. He brings note cards to the pulpit and sorts through them as stands in front of the congregation. His topic is faith. “Faith is good… Faith is great!” You need to go to go to seminary to come up with that kind of insight.

Amazingly, we find out that Pastor Chris did go to seminary, apparently during his pro-wrestling career. The film begins with what was to be Chris’ last match in the ring, defending his title belt against a new wrestler on the WFW scene, The Reaper. Chris wrestles as the Masked Saint with such signature moves as “The Flying Cross” and “The Faith Breaker.” The WFW (as opposed to the “real life” WWF, not to be confused with the World Wildlfe Fund) promoter, Nicky Stone (Roddy Piper), is disappointed the Masked Saint is leaving the “sport.”

Chris’ wife, Michelle (Lara Jean Chorostecki), and young daughter, Carrie, are watching the match, with Michelle assuring Carrie that the moves are all fake and that it’s all just a performance; her dad is an actor. But The Reaper cheats and breaks the Masked Saint’s leg, so Chris goes off defeated (and on crutches) to his first job as a pastor.

We learn that Chris (Brett Granstaff) was hired, apparently sight unseen, by the search committee of Westside Baptist, somewhere in Michigan. That search committee apparently consists of two people, the church treasurer and Mrs. Beasley, the deaf choir director, organist, and finance chairwoman. Chris was hired while Judd Lumpkin (Patrick McKenna), the chairman of the church board, was out of town. Lumpkin is also the primary financial backer of the church.

Lumpkin seems more interested in Chris’ athletic skill than in his ministry skills and asks him to play on the church basketball team. The team loses, and Lumpkin and Chris fight. When their verbal fight becomes a physical one (with Lumpkin losing badly), the law enforcement team the church has been playing against aren’t impressed with the church’s Christian witness on the court.

Like pretty much everybody in the congregation, Lumpkin is not impressed with the pastor’s preaching. In fact, half of the congregation walks out during his first sermon, not because they’re offended, but because of his quite evident incompetence. He must have missed all the homiletics (preaching) classes in seminary.

One of the few people who supports Chris is Miss Edna (Diahann Carroll), someone who knows the church and community well and happens to be a big wrestling fan. She encourages Chris to get to know the neighborhood, so he and his wife go door-to-door. Everyone slams the door in his face except a battered wife named Mindy, who invites them in (until her husband comes home and tosses them out).

The only place Chris seems to find success is in crime fighting -- not something usually found on a pastor’s job description. When Chris sees a pimp threatening a woman, presumably one of his “girls,” the pastor puts on his wrestling mask and beats the man up. He tells the woman to go to the nearby shelter for help. The prostitute, Valerie, comes to church the next Sunday, and it isn’t long before she figures out that the pastor and the masked vigilante are one and the same.

Initially, the congregation doesn’t treat Valerie well, pointing at her and whispering. Chris reprimands them and tells them to treat Valerie as Jesus would. This is really one of the pastor’s finest moments in the film. Valerie invites her friends to the church and soon the church fills with the underclass of the community.

In time, Chris becomes a better preacher. And the pews again fill up with parishioners. Unfortunately, the church faces ongoing financial woes, increased when a local gang vandalizes the church to avenge the pastor’s crime fighting. Will Pastor Chris return to the ring one more time as the Masked Saint to raise the funds for the church and avenge his loss against the Reaper? Perhaps -- if you have ever seen a motion picture -- you can make an accurate guess about these things.

The film is based on a book by Chris Whaley and claims to be based on “a true story,” though I suspect the only true thing is that a pro wrestler did indeed become a pastor. (I don’t think he actually became a masked crime fighter unless the real-life Pastor Chris/the Saint was a whole lot better at keeping secrets than the screen’s Pastor Chris/the Masked Saint. Also, the book Chris Whaley wrote was a novel.)

Usually what brings a church’s steeple rating down is moral or theological failings. At Movie Churches, we’ve reviewed pastors who were liars, adulterers, or even murderers, but that’s not Pastor Chris’ problem. He seems to be a good guy, except briefly when things are going well at the church and he gets a little full of himself. But, as mentioned before, he is a horrible, dull preacher.

He seems devoid of counseling or leadership skills. I didn’t notice many theological shortcomings, because I couldn’t discern much theological thinking. He does quote his wife frequently, and she always says, “God won’t give us more than we can handle.” That statement could use more explaining and back-up from Scripture. Perhaps the screen version of Pastor Chris should have considered a job in law enforcement.

Also bringing down the steeple rating: a church choir that can’t stay on key for a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” Your average kindergarten Sunday School class does a better job on the song. We’re giving Chris and his church a rating of Two Steeples.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Fight Month: Rocky II:

Rocky II (1976)
The ‘70’s were a good decade for movies, and the Bicentennial year was a particularly good year. Nominees for Best Picture included All the President’s Men (the Watergate scandal), Bound for Glory (Woody Guthrie during the Depression), Network (television’s descent into madness), and Taxi Driver (a homicidal cabby). These four nominees were dark stories about American corruption, but the winner that year was an optimistic story about a nobody given a shot at greatness: Rocky. Rocky Balboa was the creation of a struggling young actor, Sylvester Stallone who wrote the film's screenplay.

The story continued with sequels, including last year’s Creed. All the other films had dark, complicated characters, but Rocky Balboa is just a good guy. He loves his girl, and he loves his country. In Rocky II, the first sequel, we see his love for God as well. (Stallone not only wrote the screenplay for the sequel, he also directed it.)

In the first film, Rocky wears a cross, so we assume faith a part of his life. We see his faith more fully in this sequel. (I believe he wears a cross in all of the Rocky sequels, including Creed.)

The film opens with five minutes of flashbacks, showing the concluding minutes of the first film. (As the sequels continue, more and more time goes to flashbacks; by the time you get to Rocky V, it seems like a third of the film goes to flashbacks.)

Rocky takes Adrian (Talia Shire) to the zoo and proposes to her. She accepts, and Rocky invites one of the tigers to come to the wedding. When we see the wedding, the tiger is not in attendance, and only a handful of people in a large, beautiful Catholic church.

The priest performs the ceremony in Italian, though Rocky and Adrian respond in English. Father Carmine says “You may kiss the bride” in English when the couple doesn’t understand him in Italian. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Rocky says, “Thanks Father, you done real good. I’m proud of you.”

Father Carmine then takes a Polaroid of the couple, which he seems to be taking for himself, not the couple. On the plus side, he doesn’t sell this exclusive photo to the tabloids.

In the church, Rocky is approached by Tony, the loan shark who’d previously employed Rocky as an enforcer. Tony asks Rocky if he’s looking for work again, and Rocky says, “Hey Tony, I just got married in here.” Apparently, Balboa doesn’t think the church is an appropriate place for illegal job offers.

Rocky does make a number of bad financial decisions and can’t seem to find work. He decides to take Carl Weathers), the heavyweight champion. In a press conference, Rocky is asked what he’ll do with money from the fight. He says he’ll buy a couple of hats. He says he’ll buy some muppet toys (“What’s the frog’s name...Kermit?”) And he says he’ll buy a statue for the church.
up a lucrative offer for a rematch from Apollo Creed.

Then tragedy strikes. Adrian, pregnant with Rocky’s child, experiences complications and goes into a coma. The nurse tells Rocky he will have to leave his wife’s room because visiting hours are over (fortunately, most hospitals have changed such barbaric policies.)

So Rocky goes to a chapel. (I assume it is a hospital chapel, but it isn’t quite clear. At three in the morning, Rocky’s coach, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), finds him in the chapel, where the coach tells Rocky that in spite of his “domestic issues” he still needs to fight.

“For God’s sake, why don’t you fight this guy like you did before?” Rocky is not so sure, and Mickey adds, “I don’t want to get mad in a Biblical place like this, but I think you’re a hell of a lot more than that, kid.” But Mickey agrees to stay and pray with Rocky.

The prayers are answered, and Adrian comes out of the coma. Rocky is ready for his montage (the most effective method of training in boxing films). He even leads the children of Philadelphia up the steps of the art museum and also catches a chicken (really).

As Rocky heads for the championship fight, running late, he stops to ask for a prayer from Father Carmine. “Could you throw down a blessing, Father? So if I get beat up tonight, it won’t be too bad.”

After the blessing -- in Italian -- Rocky assures the priest he’ll “see him in church.” And when Rocky gets to the stadium, he prays by himself on his knees by the sink in his changing room.

And now for a big spoiler… Rocky wins the fight. And in his speech afterward, he says, “I want to most of all thank God!”

We don’t see much of the church and Father Carmine in the film, but the impact they have on Rocky seems pretty good, because he’s a pretty great guy, which is why we’re giving the Church and priest in Rocky II our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Fight Church Month: The Quiet Man

The Quiet Man (1952)
Should a clergyperson be part of the community or aloof from it? Should a priest be a regular guy, going out with the crowd for a beer, or cloistered away? Should he be holy and set apart or should the priest in a small Irish town join a scheme to convince a belligerent brother to allow his sister to marry the new American in town, even if the plan involves deception?

Okay, that last question is a little more specific and probably only applies to the plot of The Quiet Man, but the other questions also apply to the clergymen in the film. (And to all other clergymen. And clergywomen. But there are certainly no clergywomen in this film set in a small, Irish village in the 1920’s.)

The Quiet Man is much beloved (it’s also one of my favorites), featuring Oscar-winning direction by John Ford and Winton Hoch’s cinematography of the very green Irish locations. In 2013, the film was chosen by Congress to be on the National Film Registry. John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara star, one of the great screen couples (comparable to Bogart and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy, and Astaire and Rogers). Many people -- like my wife, Mindy -- have seen the film’s classic scene of Wayne and O’Hara’s first kiss without seeing the film because of its use in E.T.

The Quiet Man tells the story of an American boxer, Sean Thornton (Wayne), who returns to his ancestral home in Inisfree, Ireland. He falls in love with a local woman, Mary Kate Danaher (O’Hara). Mary Kate’s brother and guardian, Squire “Red” Danaher (Victor McLaglen), opposes the match. The whole town conspires to convince him to approve of the marriage, which is where we come to the clerical moral quandary. And the clergy and their moral quandaries interest us here at Movie Churches.

The town character, Michaleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald), convinces everyone in town to deceive Red into thinking that the only chance he has to marry the town’s richest widow, Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick), is to marry off his sister as well. When Red approaches the widow at his sister’s wedding, he discovers it was a ruse. He then confronts Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond), the town priest in front of the town. “All lied as part of the conspiracy. It’s bad enough for you people, but my own priest!”

Red may be presented as the villain in the film, and he doesn’t treat his sister well, but he has a point here. Shouldn’t a parishioner expect his priest to oppose deception, or at least not participate in it? And that isn’t the priest’s only deception in the film.

Another prominent clergyman in town, is a married Anglican priest named Cyril Playfair (Arthur Shields) whose worship services have only two or three attendees (and that includes his wife, Elizabeth.) His bishop is coming to observe his ministry, and Playfair fears he’ll be removed from his parish. Father Lonergan asks his parishioners to pretend to be Playfair’s, and even covers his own clerical collar to pretend to be an Anglican member of the congregation.

Both of these acts of deception seem to be done by Father Lonergan with the best of motives, and he seems to be following the lead of the town. But he isn’t making a principled stand of integrity. He certainly isn’t living out the words of Jesus, “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no.”

When Thornton and Red engage in a rather epic fist fight, one of Lonegan’s young assistants suggests they should step in and stop the fight.

“Oh, we should,” Lonegan agrees, but he does nothing because he knows the whole town has been longing for the battle and is enjoying the spectacle. (Arguably, that’s a better reaction than the example set by the Bishop and Rev. Playfair, who make a bet on the fight.)

There are good things to be said about the clergy in the film. Lonergan has served the town faithfully. He notes that he baptized both Sean and Mary Kate as infants in the same chapel where he married them.

Both Lonergan and Playfair serve as counselors in the film. Mary Kate interrupts Father Lonergan’s fishing to ask for marital advice (though the Father doesn’t actually stop fishing to talk to her). On her request, they speak in Irish Gaelic, presumably because she feels most comfortable in that language. I noticed, though, that he never refers to Scripture or even the teaching of the church -- but neither does Playfair when Sean comes to him for marital advice. (Sean goes to Playfair partly because he’s the only one in the town who knows Sean’s history as a boxer. The Reverend is a fan of sports and games, having been a boxer himself and a devotee of tiddlywinks.)

And though Red Danaher acts in ways that the entire community recognizes as harmful to his sister, the priest never confronts him.

On the other hand, the priest joins the men in the tavern for drinks and seems open to fishing with them. There is something to be said for that kind of sociability. Father Lonergan also provides the film’s narration, but because of their decisions to conform rather than be holy, we’re knocking off a Steeple and giving the clergy of this film a Three Steeple rating.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Fight Church Month: A Fighting Man

A Fighting Man (2014)
It isn’t fair to actors, but sometimes it is hard to get past a role. In the F/X show Sons of Anarchy, Kim Coates played an outlaw biker for whom no act of violence or perversity seemed outside the range of consideration. (Another thing about Coates, which says more about me than him: it took me a while to connect the name with the actor, thinking Kim was one of the women in the cast.) In A Fighting Man, Coates plays a priest who’s a long way from the biker “Tig.” It took me time to adjust and realize he wouldn’t be pulling a shiv on anyone.

Thankfully, there was plenty of time to adjust; Father Brennan (Coates) plays a major role in this boxing film. The film tells the story of Sailor O’Connor (Dominic Purcell), a boxer with a losing record who had the distinction of never going down to the mat throughout his career. As things happen in these films, the old fighter is given one last shot to go into the ring for a big payday. Promoters believe fans will pay for the opportunity to see Sailor finally go down.

Sailor decides to take the fight because his mother, Rose, is dying; he wants to on one last visit home to Ireland. What Sailor would most like to give his mother is faith, but that isn’t as easy a gift to give.

Sailor tells his mother, “Father Brennan wants to talk to you.”

“About what? And don’t say God.”

“He wants to talk to you about what’s coming. So that you’re in a state of grace.”

Rose says, “How can you still believe after what He did to you...If there is a God, He’s a monster. A doer of evil and wicked things. I won’t seek grace from a monster.”

Sailor and Rose have lived difficult lives. Sailor’s father was an abusive alcoholic who abandoned them both when Sailor was a young boy. Sailor married, but his wife and children were killed by a drunk driver’s carelessness. These events drove Rose away from the Catholic Church and bound Sailor to it.

Apparently, Father Brennan helped Sailor through the tough times (at least in his adult life). But he was also there for Dr. Diane Schuler (Famke Janssen), the woman who killed Sailor’s wife and daughter. The Father tells Sailor he is going to Diane’s parole hearing, saying “Her loss is as great as yours. I’m sorry, loss can’t be measured. Do you want her to continue to suffer?”

Sailor responds, “Yeah, I think I do.”

Brennan asks to see Rose, but Sailor says, “It won’t do any good, she’s at war with God.”

Rose says she’ll only see the priest if he, um, puts a religious icon in an uncomfortable place (we’re doing our best to run a family-friendly blog here). Brennan does go to see Rose and jokes about the discomfort he feels having an artifact in his nether regions. Rose harangues the priest about the sexual scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. He puts those things aside to discuss their mutual concern for Sailor and the danger he is putting himself in by going in the ring for one last match.

They're not the only ones opposed to Sailor fighting. Sailor goes to Brother Albright, an old boxer, for assistance. He agrees, but only to have more opportunities to persuade Sailor to back out. Rose asks Brother Albright if he’s a religious man, and when he shrugs off the question, she asks “Why do they call you brother?”

He responds that down at the harbor he helps those in need. Rose says, “That’s much better than religion.”

After Diane is released from prison, she goes to see Father Brennan at his church. She tells him, “The pain I suffer is nothing compared to the pain I caused. How much wrong can a person do before they use up all the good that’s inside them?”

Father Brennan responds with a bit of questionable theology, “Diane, God can be far worse than us. He can cause more pain and suffering, provide us with more temptation than anything in the universe and yet, we sin and He doesn’t. I’m not sure how that works.” Diane tells him she has nothing, she wonders how she can go on. The priest tells her she needs to learn to surrender.

You may have noticed that my synopsis of the film isn’t strictly linear -- nor is the structure of the film. The events leading to the big fight are interspersed with the fight itself. We also see a bit about Sailor’s opponent, King Solomon (Izaak Smith), a very young man trying to find a straight path to be a good father to his still-to-be-born child.
Before the fight, Father Brennan comes into the dressing room to pray for Sailor. Sailor reminds him to pray for King Solomon as well. Solomon’s ring man and manager (Lou Gossett Jr.) urges him to show no mercy, while Sailor’s ring men (Michael Ironside and James Caan) want him to give up. Sailor refuses. Though the fight is a brutal affair, it isn’t, perhaps, as tough for Sailor as his internal battle to forgive Diane. She comes to him shortly before the fight.

“I will spend the rest of my life trying to make up for what I did,” she tells him. “I see the hate in your eyes, I deserve it….I’m not asking for forgiveness. Contrary to the teachings of your faith, there are things that are unforgivable. But I will not have you consumed by hate. So you pray to your God for your loss, for your salvation, and for theirs. You ask Him to find a way out of your hate. But don’t you ever pray for me. I don’t deserve it.”

Eventually, Sailor comes to a kind of peace, urging Diane to forgive herself. “It's the best we can do.”

Perhaps Father Brennan’s ministry had an impact, so in spite of his questionable way of describing life’s difficulties, we’re giving Father Brennan our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Fight Church Month

Fight Church (2014)
It’s really too bad I can’t write about the movie Fight Church here, but this blog is about fictional churches, and Fight Church is a documentary. It’d be especially fun to write about it because it’d be a great introduction to Fight Church month -- movies that feature boxers and wrestlers and such. We’ve covered boxers (Million Dollar Baby and The Leather Saint) and wrestlers (Nacho Libre) already, but Hollywood has made many films about fights and fighters, priests are often at ringside in these movies.

Some of the films we’ll look at this month are based on true stories, but don’t worry. They stray very far from the truth. So, as I was saying, it’s really a shame I can’t write about 2014’s Fight Church. As the film notes, over 700 churches in the United States have an MMA (mixed martial arts) ministry.

Paul Burress and Preston Hocker, two pastors featured in the documentary, have a number of things in common, including wrestling in high school and having fathers who were pastors. After high school, both got into Mixed Martial Arts. (If you don’t know, MMA is a full-contact sport combining boxing, wrestling, kicking, and almost every other form of physical attack except eye gouging.) As adults (and pastors), both have MMA ministries in their churches. Both argue that since people (particularly men) are interested in MMA, the sport is a way to reach people with the Gospel.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Father John Duffell is a Roman Catholic priest who believes Mixed Martial Arts can’t be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus. Scott "Bam Bam" Sullivan, a former MMA fighter and instructor went on to study philosophy and Christian apologetics, and he came to believe that punching people in the face is contrary to the call of Christ to turn the other cheek.

Pastor John Renken, on the other hand, is annoyed when people bring up the “turn the other cheek” thing. Renken says that the Bible never calls us to be doormats. (He’s right, I checked. “Doormat” never appears in Scripture.) Renken never explains what he thinks Jesus was teaching, he just assures us it’s okay to respond physically if someone verbally disrespects you or your spouse.

The film even captures a big pastor vs. pastor MMA match, in which an arm is almost broken. Directors Daniel Junge (Oscar winner for the short documentary Saving Face) and Bryan Storkel (director of the documentary Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians) not only do a great job of presenting this interesting subculture of the church, but examine an age-old debate on the topic of violence in the Christian faith.

You really should seek out this film (available with an Amazon Prime subscription) but we’re not going to write about it here. As I said, we don’t do documentaries.