Thursday, September 27, 2018

Let's Netflix and maybe feel a bit uncomfortable

I am Michael (2015) 

This week’s Netflix film, I Am Michael, deals with gritty and complex ecclesiastic issues of viewing and dealing with sexuality and gender in the church -- and those things will be discussed in this post. But first, a pet peeve: how films deal with crucifixes and crosses in film. This isn’t just a matter of aesthetics, but of theology and values.

It’s common to see characters in movies attend what are purported to be independent, fundamentalist churches, and yet the sanctuaries where they’re worshiping have crucifixes. In the real world, fundamentalist churches have empty crosses, while Catholic churches (and Lutheran and Episcopal churches, too) display crucifixes -- crosses with Jesus suffering. These different kinds of crosses are displayed because there’s a difference in emphasis. The Catholic Church focuses the perpetual suffering of Christ, which leads to a greater emphasis the sin which led to His suffering. The empty cross is said to emphasize the power of the resurrection and to focus on God’s grace rather than people’s sins.

I Am Michael, a 2015 biographical film, repeats the error of showing a crucifix in independent, fundamentalist churches, but it’s a more interesting, more plausible, mistake in this film. Michael Glatze, who in the course of the film is shown making a transition from gay activist to (Protestant) Christian pastor, seemed to be obsessed with blame and punishment in all the stages of that change, both as LGBTQ spokesperson and as a fundamentalist.  Glatze's sexuality is frankly presented, as is his spiritual struggle.

Early in the film, we see Michael (James Franco) and Bennett (Zachary Quinto), his business partner and lover, learning from news accounts about Matthew Shepard’s death. Michael believes Shepard was killed because he was homosexual and blames the churches for teaching that gays are evil. He says, “Those Christian fundamentalists should burn in hell.” (Since that time, the work of Stephen Jimenez has shown that Shepard’s killers had entirely different motives for his murder, but as they say in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.)

Michael and Bennett are particularly concerned about bullied, sometimes suicidal, gay teens. They tour the country, speaking and writing to encourage young people to accept themselves as they are. They also use their platform to advocate LGBTQ rights and causes.

While traveling, they meet a gay student at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. They ask why he’s there at a school that is not “gay friendly.” The student explains that he didn’t come out to his family and friends until he had already gone to Liberty for two years, and he wanted to complete his degree. And he is still a Christian. A gay Christian. We then see a young woman, a friend of the young man’s, in the background. Surrounded by other women, she’s crying because her mother has died. The young man leaves Bennett and Michael to pray for his friend. Michael is obviously moved by the incident.

Michael’s own mother died a few years before, and he’s still dealing with it. He wrestles with the possibility of life after death and his family history of faith (his mother was a nondenominational Christian, while his father was agnostic). He’s afraid for his health, afraid he’s dying of the same heart trouble that killed his father, but doctors find nothing wrong with him and attribute his symptoms to hypochondria. Bennett believes he is suffering a mental breakdown.

Michael begins a spiritual journey, exploring Buddhism and Mormonism. During this time he begins to question his own sexual preferences. As a gay activist, Michael speculated that there’s really no such thing as gay or straight, but that human sexuality falls on a spectrum. During his search, Michael proclaims, “I no longer identify as gay,” and he begins to write very critical things about the LGBTQ movement. He goes to a Buddhist retreat center which claims to accept anyone, but is asked to leave by the director of the center (Daryl Hannah) because she considers his anti-gay blog posts to be hateful.

Michael goes to a small fundamentalist Bible college in Wyoming, but finds himself in conflict with the faculty. He appreciates what he learns about Scripture, but believes the leadership of the school is authoritarian. Also at this school, he meets Rebekah (Emma Roberts), and falls in love with her.

They are married and go off to pastor a church in a small town in Wyoming. A sign outside identifies the church as Shepherd of the Plains, and it seems much larger, fancier, and better maintained than churches I’ve seen in small, rural towns.

Throughout the film, Michael seems to be a very troubled man. He is judgmental of Christians as a gay activist and judgemental of gays as a Christian, but he does come to see the Bible as “full of love.” From a documentary we saw earlier this month, Michael Lost and Found (also on Netflix), the real Michael Glatze seems to have come to more of a state of grace. Because of this, I have hope for the church we see Glatze pastoring at the end of the film, and I’m giving that church a Movie Churches rating of 3 Steeples.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Let's Netflix and...discuss theology?

Come Sunday (2018)
The plot summary for the Netflix film Come Sunday, the blurb that helps viewers decide whether they want to watch it, gets something crucial wrong. It reads, “A crisis of faith sets renowned fundamentalist preacher Carlton Pearson on a new spiritual path that jeopardizes everything he holds dear.” Pearson is a real person and the film purports to tell his true story, but the summary calls him a “fundamentalist” when he was, in fact, a Pentecostal. This may seem like a minor point, but the film is about a man’s change in theological belief, so points of theology are not minor. Netflix would deserve a little more grace in the descriptive error if they weren’t also the creators of the movie (in conjunction with the NPR program This American Life).

Pearson was a prominent pastor, leading a megachurch, Higher Dimensions, in Tulsa and a preacher on Trinity Broadcasting Network. He was a counselor for presidents, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He went to Oral Roberts University and was mentored by Roberts himself. He was ordained in the Church of God in Christ. The film touches on all of these facts.

Pearson came to believe that God told him that the victims of 1994 genocide in Rwanda would go to heaven without fear of hell. He came to believe that there is no hell and no need for salvation. This change in theology and the effect this change had on Pearson’s life and ministry is the subject of the film.

From watching Come Sunday, I believe Pearson (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) had some real problems in his theology and ministry long before the changes that brought down his ministry.

In the film, Pearson’s Uncle Quincy (Danny Glover), who’s in prison, says he wants to be saved. He also asks Pearson to write a letter to the parole board. Pearson questions his motives and leaves.

One of my problems with Pearson here? He should be visiting prisoners, as Jesus called us to, especially his uncle, whether or not his uncle asked to be saved. It isn’t his job to judge Quincey’s motives.

When Quincey dies, Pearson conducts his funeral, where he speaks of his uncle being in hell. His mother talks about other relatives of theirs that are in hell. I happen to believe in hell, but I have no idea who is there. It takes a certain arrogance to believe you know the eternal destiny of other individuals.

We also see a scene of Pearson meeting with Oral Roberts, who calls Pearson “his black son.” Roberts turning his back on his son when that son came out as gay. Pearson’s silence seems show agreement with Roberts’ choice. Is that how a father should treat his children? Not taking a stand here about whether homosexuality is a sin, but even if you think it is, is there a Scriptural basis for denying your child? I don’t see it.

Pearson doesn’t seem to treat his family particularly well. He doesn’t spend much time with his wife, Gina (Condola Rashad), and she makes it clear she doesn’t believe he cares about her opinions. When he talks to a woman on a plane, Pearson refers to his childrens “a pain in the a**”. And when his associate pastor, Henry (Jason Siegel), tells him he’s always put Pearson before his own family, well, Pearson seems to have no problem with that horrible decision.

What I’m saying here is, the Bishop Pearson we see at the beginning of the film does have room for change and growth. In the opinion of Movie Churches, the direction he chooses is worse.

He goes before his congregation on a Sunday morning and tells them that God told him in a vision that there is no such place as Hell, and there is no need to share the Gospel because everyone will be saved anyway. This upsets people in the congregation -- and all of Pearson’s associates in ministry.

Henry is upset and asks Pearson to clarify his message the next Sunday. Oral Roberts urges him to preach on Romans 10:9 (“If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”) But he refuses to read that Scripture and instead has Henry read I John 2:2, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but the sins of the whole world.”

He goes on to say that much of Scripture contradicts much of the rest of Scripture. He says that if the Bible passages about God’s judgement and hell are true, then God is no better than Hitler. Bishop Pearson seems surprised that Bible believing people in his congregation are bothered by this and walk during his sermon. (It is interesting that in this mixed race congregation, it is chiefly the white people who walk out.)

Pearson argues before the African American Conference of Bishops that we wouldn’t send people to hell -- “are we more merciful than God?” He doesn’t talk about justice. Jesus said, “If anyone causes a little one to stumble, it would be better if a millstone tied around his neck and thrown into the ocean.”

These questions about the balance between love and justice have been debated for centuries. I remember discussing and arguing about the justice of hell back when I was in high school youth group. Pearson seems to be thinking about these issues for the first time after decades in ministry.

In recent years there has been much discussion about whether Hell is real, particularly in the ministry of Rob Bell. I have good Christian friends who have made many of the same changes in their theology in accord with Pearson and Bell. But those who want a place of leadership in a church must realize they can’t teach doctrine that conflicts with the official doctrine of that church.

A Socialist who came to a realization that Capitalism was a good thing that led to prosperity for the greatest number of people would be foolish to expect to remain prominent in the Party. A chef wouldn’t expect to keep their job in a vegan kitchen after serving bacon to customers. The film seems to present the people who left Pearson’s church and the council of bishops who expelled him as acting outrageously and unjustly. Pearson should admitted he no longer held to the beliefs of his church and the denomination he was ordained in and resigned from it, rather than putting many people through such difficult choices.

In the end credits we see that Pearson is now a minister in the Unitarian Church, at All Souls in Tulsa. His beliefs are consistent with the teaching of that denomination and in integrity he should have made that change years sooner rather than waiting while the church he founded crumbled around him.

(Beside knowing people who’ve moved from conservative theological positions to more liberal positions, I also know people who have moved from more liberal theology to more conservative theology. I don’t expect Netflix to be making films about such people anytime soon.)

We’re giving the Bishop Carlton Pearson and his ministry as presented in the film Come Sunday a Movie Churches rating of Two Steeples.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Let's Netflix and...Save the school!

Que baje Dios y lo vea (May God Look Down and See) aka Holy Goalie (2017)
I call it “the mortgage plot.” Movies have used this one since the beginning: the ranch or the school or the camp will be lost unless rent or mortgage or roof repair money is raised. Among the most famous in the genre are the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals (Babes in Arms, Girl Crazy, Strike Up the Band) where the answer to every financial question is “Let’s put on a show!” Basically, these are films about raising money pre-Go Fund Me.

There have been plenty of Movie Church mortgage stories. In Going My Way, all Bing Crosby had to do to cure money woes was make a hit record. In Rolling Home, betting on the right horse provides the solution (you’d think that would lead to some awkward questions from the church board). In The Leather Saint, boxing money paid the rent, and wrestling money did the same in Nacho Libre.

The seminary in Holy Goalie has financial problems, too. (Holy Goalie, a Spanish film presented with English subtitles, can currently be found on Netflix, a Spanish film presented with English.) For some reason, the Vatican wants to close down St. Theodosius because it’s not earning its financial share (I don’t really understand Roman Catholic finances in films). The school is going to be merged with another nearby seminary. Who can find a solution to the problem?

Help comes in the person of Father Salvador (Alain Hernandez), a Catholic priest who worked as a teacher in Africa. When soldiers threatened to kidnap his students, he hacked into the Vatican Bank for the ransom money. The Vatican was not pleased. His superior transferred him to St. Theodosius seminary in Spain, telling him, “No more Indiana Jones, no more Africa.”

The seminary also serves as the community’s parish church. When we first see Mass served, there’s a bit of chaos. The congregants don’t line up properly for the bread and cup, and novice Ramon (El Langui), who has cerebral palsy, spills the elements he is assigned to carry.

Father Munilla (Karra Elejalde), the headmaster of the seminary, is at his wit’s end about how to save his school. The seminary has made pastries to support themselves, but that’s not doing the job anymore. Salvador brings new ideas for the seminary, what he calls a New Christianity. I’m not sure what this New Christianity is about, but a lot of it seems to revolve around soccer.

Sal insists that a soccer team, by joining the Championship League, will save the school. Ramon wants to join the team and tries to impress the coach by butting a ball with his head. Sal agrees he can use his head, makes the novice assistant coach. But they still need more help, so Sal recruits someone outside of the seminary. His “savior” is named Jesus. Jesus is a local entrepreneur selling knock off underwear (“Kelvin Klin” brand).

Jesus is an “evangelical” (which in this film seems to be synonymous with “charismatic”). He feels he must get permission from his pastor, Father Gabriel. (It is strange to have an “evangelical” pastor called Father. Jesus has a tattoo of Gabriel on his arm, which seems rather idolatrous. Father Gabriel preaches rather like a TV preacher in spite of the lack of cameras. “Give up alcohol! Give up nose candy! Hallelujah! You’re on the glorious path of the Nazarene!”)

When Sal talks to Gabriel about joining a Catholic team, he is not interested until he hears they hope to play against the Vatican team. He says, “Have you ever seen an Evangelical play against the Pope?” Gabriel only asks for a few Euros -- a bribe so he can advise Jesus to join the St. Theodius team.

As the team moves along toward “the big game” (as teams do in any standard sports film), they play church teams and secular teams, and there often isn’t good sportsmanship on either side of the field. Eventually they make it to the “big game” against the Vatican team. And, as they do in sports films, there is a big bet on the game. The fate of the seminary and Sal’s ministry is on the line.

Spoiler alert! We get to see Sal go back to his ministry in Africa, and he seems to be doing excellent work in education. So I’ll give Sal and St. Theodosius Three Steeples. (Father Gabriel would not do nearly as well, I’m afraid.)

Friday, September 7, 2018

It's Netflix and ...well, sometimes I wonder... month: In-lawfully Yours

In-Lawfully Yours (2016)
Let me get this one item out of the way right now. It’s has nothing to do with churches or clergy or film criticism. Toward the start of the Christian romantic comedy, In-Lawfully Yours, the heroine has suspicions that her husband is unfaithful, so she goes to the front desk of the hotel where he’s staying and finds out what room he’s in (by knocking over some pens and turning the computer monitor while the clerk is picking things up). She goes to his floor and tells a maid, “I left my key on the table [in the room],” and the maid lets her in. The heroine catches her husband, if not in the act (this is a Christian movie), but between acts.

I work in a hotel, and I’ve got to say the staff of the hotel in the film should be worried about their jobs. That front desk clerk should have called security. The maid should contacted the front desk before letting someone she didn’t recognize in a room. And yet somehow, as badly as the hotel staff is presented in the film, the pastor and church in the film seem even more poorly portrayed. In-Lawfully Yours did not, I believe, ever have a theatrical release (it is, after all, a product of Home Theater Films), but it can be found on Netflix, so let’s do a synopsis of the plot. Then we can bullet point the ecclesiastic problems in the film.

First of all: that woman who broke in the hotel room? Her name is Jesse (Chelsey Crisp). She was there to tell her husband, Chaz, that his father had an accident and was in coma. (Really, she could have called the front desk and said there was a family emergency.) The father dies, and though Jesse and Chaz plan to divorce, Jesse goes to the small town of Bethel Cove to help her mother-in-law, Naomi (Marilu Henner), for two weeks to help Naomi prepare for a move to Chaz’s home.

Jesse is new to small-town life, and is even more new at going to church, but she goes with Naomi, just to help her get out of the house. Ben (Joe Williamson), who was Naomi’s son-in-law until Sarah -- Naomi’s daughter and Ben’s wife -- died, is the pastor of the church.

During Jesse’s stay, she and Ben start to date (with encouragement from Naomi, once Jesse admits that she and Chaz are getting a divorce). The relationship gets him into hot water with people from the church. Meanwhile, Chaz is trying to convince his mom to sell her house, though he doesn’t tell her he is in on a big development deal to buy up her neighborhood and make a lot of money. Spoiler - in the end, Ben and Naomi end up happily ever after, bringing about the In-Lawfully Yours title.

Let’s look first at the things Pastor Ben does poorly, and then look at what’s wrong with the “church leadership.”

About Pastor Ben:
  1. False Representation - Ben introduces himself to Jesse at their father-in-law’s funeral as an “insurance agent.” You see, he “sells eternal security.” Get it? (I don’t, so if anyone would care to explain it to me in the comments section, you’d be doing me a solid.) Jesse learns Ben's real profession when he performs the funeral service. It's my opinion, as a clergy guy, that a funeral is not the best place for practical joking.
  2. Unwise Relationship - Ben begins dating Jesse, even though she is still legally married and very recently had the traumatic experience of catching her husband in a hotel room with his office assistant. Wouldn’t Ben would have had some counseling training and experience? Wouldn’t he know it wasn’t wise for Jesse -- at this time in her life -- to be dating anyone? (Especially not a pastor who is vaguely related to her). But nope, they go to the movies together.
  3. Bad Preaching - Ben stumbles through a reading James 1 as if for the first time. When he reads, “Consider it all joy, brothers and sisters, when you face trials of many kinds,” Jesse stands up in her pew and says that’s ridiculous. (It’s true Jesse has never been to church. But I assume she’s been to school, and did she stand up in class to argue with teachers? Has she never been to a lecture of any kind?) Anyway, Ben doesn’t seem to know how to respond to her interruption. He could tell her it’s not an appropriate time for interruptions but suggest they talk about it later. Or he could use her comment as an opportunity to teach in a new way. But instead he fumbles through a really lame response. 
  4. Inappropriate hiring practices - Chaz has frozen Jesse’s credit cards, so Ben hires her to work at the church to help her out. She’s supposed to do office chores and, more ridiculously, lead the youth group. Why would a pastor hire someone with literally no Biblical knowledge or theological training and put them in charge of a ministry? What pastor (especially in a church where “the church board” seems to have control over everything else) could unilaterally hire anyone? I think it’s pretty obviously not a good practice, especially if you’re hiring your girlfriend.
Church leadership:
  1. Poor organization - The church leadership seems to consist of one old biddy. This woman, Doris, is followed around by another woman and a man, but she seems to make decisions for the church on her own. These three people are “the church board.”
  2. Poor visitor treatment - Doris treats Jesse like a scarlet woman, a harlot, a strumpet, and all kinds of other out-of-date terms. I really think a woman who’s trying to care for one of the church’s long time members (who seems to be a former member of the church board) deserves better.
  3. Poor child care - Doris is upset when Jesse interrupts sermons with her questions, so she sends Jesse to be a student in the children’s Sunday School class. Putting an adult in a Sunday School class, even as a student, without first doing a background check is very irresponsible, and these days a legal liability.
  4. Inappropriate firing practices - Doris (and the board), attempt to fire Pastor Ben in the midst of a Sunday morning service. Most churches have a process for such things, but hey, if you think airing dirty laundry makes for better Sunday morning study than Scripture...
In other words, the pastor and the church leadership make many poor choices in the film, yet Jessie seems to come to faith in spite of them. In a flash forward, we see her contributing to the church as the pastor’s wife, so maybe the church is doing something right. Or maybe God finds ways to work through the weakest of vessels. Jesse, with all her flaws, saves Pastor Ben and the church in In-Lawfully Yours from our lowest rating. Thanks to her, they get Two Steeples.

(P.S. I just want to note that Corbin Bernsen makes an appearance in the film. I’m not sure if it’s even legal these days to make a Christian film without Corbin Bernsen.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Let's Netflix and um, discuss the churches and clergy in the film!

Michael Lost and Found (2017)
What exactly is a movie these days? When I started Movie Churches, I set rules for myself that I’ve broken more than a few times. I intended to only review fictional feature films that had a theatrical release. Since then, those distinctions have become increasingly murky to most people, especially for young people who take in all media through their phones.

Netflix doesn’t distinguish between a theatrical release, a made-for-TV movie, a straight-to-DVD release, or their own productions. On their screen of suggestions, a fiction film shows up next to a documentary, next to a TV series.

This month, we’re going to hang out at Netflix here at Movie Churches, so we aren’t going to look just at theatrical releases. We’re going to look only at feature films, and some of those will be “direct to video” (as they were called back in the day), and one will be a Netflix original -- but we won’t be doing documentaries, and we certainly won’t be doing documentary shorts. Even if it is something as intriguing as Michael Lost and Found.

Michael Lost and Found is about Michael Glatze, a gay activist who became a Christian and renounced his homosexuality. He went to a Christian college and married a woman. He voiced hostility against the gay agenda, and many of his former friends felt wounded by the things he said. His former lover, Benjie Nycum was particularly bothered, and he decided to seek Michael out, seven years after they broke up.

Nycum brings a documentary film crew along to record his first meeting with Michael after many years. It’s actually too bad I can’t write about this 19 minute long documentary short, because it captures a reality that will probably disturb people on all sides of the discussion of LGBT issues.

Benjie learns that Michael has fallen out with the college he attended, and he argues that the “American Christian Machine” is based on greed. He’s sorry for the hurtful things he said about his former, gay-advocate colleagues. Many in the Christian community might be offended by the things he and his wife, Rebekah, have to say about the Church in America.

I was troubled when Rebekah said, “I don’t like picking up a Bible; it’s used as a tool of shame.” I know that there are people who abuse Scripture and twist it in hurtful ways. (After all, Satan himself used Scripture to try to deceive Jesus.) But to me it sounded like someone saying, “I grew up with food being used as a tool to manipulate me, so now I don’t like to eat.”

But those in the LGBT community might be uncomfortable seeing a former gay advocate living the life of a straight man in what appears to be a loving hetrosexual relationship. That counter to the argument that when someone is gay, they were born that way and can’t change.

The people we see in Michael Lost and Found are troubled, broken people, but they are also people striving to be kind and help others in a troubled, broken world.

But as I said, I can’t write about them here, because this blog is about the church and clergy in narrative films. Fortunately, there was a narrative film made about the lives of Michael and Benjie, and it’s on Netflix, so I may write about it later this month. But first, this Friday, I must write about a dumb Christian rom-com. For some people, that’s what Netflix and chilling is all about.