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.)

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