Monday, April 29, 2019

Science Fiction Church Month Goes to the Black

Serenity (2005)

Usually, on Friday we publish a new post here at Movie Churches, and on Mondays, we post on the new blog, TV Churches. This month, we’ve been looking at science fiction films here, and at TV Churches, we’ve been looking at westerns. April ends with an intersection between the two: at TV Churches today, we’re posting about the short-lived cult favorite, Firefly .  It didn’t seem right to post about the feature film, Serenity, before we posted about the show that led to it.

The TV show followed the adventures of Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew as they sought to make a living with any work they could find, legal or otherwise. They also took passengers on the Firefly class ship, Serenity, and two of those passengers provided a plot line that the show’s cancelation left unresolved. 

After Doctor Simon Tan (Sean Maher) rescues his sister, River (Summer Glau) from a government facility. The Alliance (seemingly the sole government of the universe) wants River back and seems willing to do anything to retrieve them. They were still running when the series ended.

Serenity, the film, reveals more of the reasons the government wants River and brings that hunt to a conclusion. As the film begins, a couple of series regulars aren't on the ship. Inara (Morena Baccarin) is living on a different planet, as is Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), but Book is remembered by the crew. When crewman Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) wonders why the Reivers are such savage, beastlike killers, Kaylee (Jewel Staite) quotes Shepherd Book, “They was men who just reached the edge of space, saw a vast nothingness and went bibbledy over it.” (Considering that Book is a man of education and careful speech, it is unlikely this was an exact quote.)

When Serenity is pursued by Alliance forces, the crew seeks haven at a planet called, well, "Haven." They are greeted by Shepherd Book. Mal thanks him for his hospitality. 

Book asks, “You got a plan?” 

“Hiding ain’t a plan?” Mal answers with a question. Book goes on to advise Mal about the best ways to deal with the Alliance.

Book: Only one thing going to walk you through this, Mal. Belief.

Mal: You know I always look to you for counsel, but sermons make me sleepy, Shepherd. I ain’t looking for help from on high. That’s a long wait for a train that don’t come.

Book: When I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God? They’ll come at you sideways. That’s how they think. It’s how they move. Sidle up and smile. Hit you where you’re weak. Sort of man they’re like to send believes hard. Kills and never asks why.

Mal: It’s of interest to me how much you seem to know about that world.

Book: I wasn’t born a shepherd, Mal.

Mal: You’ll have to tell me about that sometime.

Book: No, I don’t.

And Book never does. The audience is also curious about the origin of Shepherd Book, but when we see Book again in the film, he’s dying. The Alliance attacks the people of Haven for assisting the Tans.

Mal finds Book as he speaks his last words.

Mal: It should have been me.

Book: That crossed my mind. I shot him down. I killed the ship that killed us. Not very Christian of me.

Mal: You did what’s right.

Book: Coming from you, that means almost nothing. I’m long gone.

Mal: No, Doc will bring you around. I look to be bored by many more sermons before you slip. Just don’t move.

Book: You can’t order me around, boy. I’m not one of your crew.

Mal: Yes, you are.

Book: I don’t care what you believe. Just believe it. Whatever you…

And so, Book dies, urging Mal to believe… In something. This bothers me a little. Shepherd Book is presented in the show as a Christian, and yet he doesn’t urge Mal to believe in Jesus, just to believe in something.

Which is odd, because the villain of the film, the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is a man who believes quite strongly, but in the wrong things. He believes there can be a universe without sin, and he can help the Alliance bring that about. He believes in false things and is willing to sacrifice himself and kill others for those beliefs.

Perhaps though, his reasoning is not unlike that G. K. Chesterton wrote about in his novel, The Ball and the Cross. That story tells of a Christian and a rationalist who battle, and Chesterton argues that at least the rationalist has the advantage of belief and the pursuit of truth.

Book put his faith in good things: in Mal and his crew, and more importantly, in the Christian Gospel --which is why we’re giving him our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Is flashback Friday still a thing?

On Monday, TV Churches is looking at a show that led to the Movie Church we're looking at this week. We don't want to spoil the surprise, so both posts will be coming out on Monday. 

Instead, let's look back at some science fiction movie churches we talked about two years ago. 

On a related note, does anyone remember what hymn they sang in War of the Worlds? We've been asked, and we don't know.

One more semi-science fiction movie (2015 repost)

Left Behind (2014)
Last month we looked at churches in movies that were nominated for or won an Oscar for Best Picture. This film was also up for awards last month, for actor and screenplay and overall production -- but not for the Oscars. This film had multiple nominations for the Razzies, which are given for the worst achievements in filmmaking.

I can't tell you how faithful this book is to the first book in Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' bestselling series of novels, because I only made it a few pages into the reading. The book struck me as rather hackneyed, starting with the character names of airline pilot Ray Steele (Nick Cage) and news reporter Cam "Buck" Williams (Chad Michael Murray, who "Gilmore Girls" and "Agent Carter" fans may recognize as Special Agent Tristan). But from what I can tell, though the names haven't changed, the plot has been in the transition from book to film.

The film is in many ways a remake of the widely reviled disaster film "Airport 1975" (which was released, incidentally, in 1975). Both films are about a commercial jetliner that collides with a small commercial plane and the bulk of the film deals with the attempt to safely land the jet. The slight difference in the plots of the two films is that in the first film, the collision is caused by the small plane's pilot having a heart attack, wherein this film has the small plane's pilot vanish in the Rapture, God's homecoming for millions of His people.

The action, writing, and acting hit great heights of cheesiness. In one scene, Steele's daughter, Chloe, returns home from college and is greeted by her little brother, Raymie. The brother asks, "Did you buy me a present at the airport?" Because, being the son of an airline pilot, the kid knows all the best shopping deals are found at airports. She lets the kid look in her bag and he exclaims, "A new baseball mitt? That's just what I've been asking for!" I don't know which is odder: that the kid is surprised to get what he's been asking for or that Cloe managed to find a baseball mitt at an airport.

The special effects are CGI of a "Sharknado" level of excellence. We get end-of-the-world vanishings, car crashes, and fires. And there is no more special effect in films these days than Nic Cage going all manic. The whole thing is really horrible but vastly entertaining.

Fortunately, these reviews aren't about the quality of the film, which is, you may have discerned, awful, but about churches in the film. It's not even about the theology of the film; which is, if you are concerned about such things, written from a dispensational, premillennial, pre-tribulation perspective. Now I'm not at all sure that this is how God is going to do things, but I'm pretty sure the End Times won't have a Sci-Fi channel vibe to it.

No, I'm not here to review the quality of the film or its theology, but just the church in the film. After the rapture and while Ray and Buck are trying to land that plane (which also has gun-toting crazy mother Jordin Sparks on board), Chloe goes to her mother Irene's church.

Chloe's mom's to decision to become Christian had caused conflict with her husband, Ray. (Pre-rapture, Raymie told Chloe their dad said, "Pastor Barnes was washing mom's brain." What Ray probably really said was "Pastor Barnes brainwashed your mom". But the kid misstates the phrase for comic effect. The film is full of humor like that.)

Anyway, after the rapture, Chloe goes to her mom's church. It's empty, except for Pastor Barnes. Chloe asks how he could still be there since all the Christians were supposedly taken in the rapture. Pastor Barnes says that though he preached about faith in Jesus and the rapture, he'd never believed it.

Which poses an interesting question: Is a church doing worthwhile work if it preaches the Word truly, but the pastor doesn't believe it? After all, at least Irene came to faith and was raptured. Raymie was raptured as well, but it's never clear whether he came to faith or this rapture had relatively high criteria for the age of accountability.

Overall, though, I wouldn't want to go to a church where the pastor doesn't believe what he's saying. Now as for this church in a post-rapture state, it might be nice to visit for the quiet.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

In Theaters Now

Amazing Grace (2018)
Recently we were talking with a friend who sings in our church choir. She wishes people wouldn’t applaud at the conclusion of an anthem in church because it's worship rather than performance.

I have sympathy with this view. Mindy mentioned that she appreciated a church in Nashville where the musicians played off to the side of the sanctuary, where they couldn’t be seen. But this week we saw a movie that wouldn't exist if you ruled out performance in churches altogether -- a wonderful “new” concert film called Amazing Grace.

I put the quotes around the word "new" because this film now in theaters was filmed back in 1972. At that time, Aretha Franklin decided to make an album of Gospel music and to record it in a church. Director Sydney Pollack was brought in to record the event, apparently for television, but mistakes were made. 

The film crew didn’t use clapper boards to mark sequences in the film, so they lost track of which audio tracks went with the film. The Queen of Soul's performance at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church was released as an album, but the film never was. Computer technology allowed the film to finally be put together and released.

And what a performance it was.

Franklin possesses one of the greatest voices to ever sing blues, rock, pop, and soul. She was featured in the best Blues (and car crash) movie ever made. And she has an amazing voice for Gospel music. She sings classic songs such as the title tune and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but she also sings James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” as Gospel. She gives her all, sweat glistening on her brow. She is backed up by a full choir.

The choir's leader, the Rev. James Cleveland, makes it clear that this is a “religious service,” not just a performance. The name of Jesus is continually raised and praised. Aretha’s father, the Rev. Carl Franklin, came to the event as well. He mentioned how a woman had told him she hoped Aretha would come back to the church, and Franklin assured her, “Aretha has never left the church.”

The music is wonderful, and for that alone I’d urge you to see this film. But there is one more bonus to watching Amazing Grace. The choir's assistant director is named Alexander Hamilton. I don’t know if he was named after the founding father, but I do know you that Amazing Grace affords you the opportunity to tell people, honestly, “I’m going to see Hamilton at the theater” without spending $1000 for a ticket.
This is a church service I (like Mick Jagger) would very much like to have attended. This movie church earns our highest rating of 4 Steeples.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Science Fiction Month Tries Again: The Fountain

The Fountain (2006)
The Fountain opens with a verse from the very beginning of the Bible, Genesis 3: 24, “After He drove the man out, He placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way of the tree of life.” The man mentioned is, of course, Adam. After Adam and Eve rebelled against God by eating of the Tree of Knowledge, God kicked them out of the Garden of Eden and set up a guard to prevent them from eating of the Tree of Life that would make them immortal.

This 2006 film, written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, is about a search for the source of immortality, the Fountain or the Tree of Life. It is also a film that is really, really strange. There are three storylines threaded together: a contemporary story of a scientist researching a cure for the disease that is killing his wife, a mystic future time traveler seeking a source of immortality, and the story of the first character seen in the film, a conquistador named Tomas (Hugh Jackman, playing a role in all three stories) who battles two priests, one Mayan and the other, the Grand Inquisitor. Since this is a blog about Christian churches and clergy, I’m really only interested in that story set during the Spanish Inquisition.

Tomas has been commissioned by Queen Isabella (Rachel Weisz, also in all three stories) to find the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, believed to be located in the New World. But his search is opposed by the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisitor seems to believe he is doing the work of the angels commissioned in Genesis 3 -- which does provide an interesting tension. Shouldn’t we honor God’s command found there? Wouldn’t a search for the Tree of Life be opposed? Especially since God provided another source of immortality found in the Cross and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But this Inquisitor is not a person to root for. Historically, governments initiated prosecution of heretics and the church was usually less fierce in prosecuting unbelievers, seeking redemption rather than punishment, yet this Inquisitor wants to kill people. He says that he will seek confessions, then kill the confessors -- which makes no sense. He has the victims held upside down by chains, then dropped to their deaths. So this representative of the Catholic Church, the Grand Inquisitor, receives our lowest rating of One Steeple. The Inquisitors of history were more complex.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Science Fiction Month Continues! The Purge:Election Year

Aside from Jesse Jackson, I can’t think of any ordained minister who's made a credible run for President of the United States. There was Mike Huckabee, but he didn’t get very far in the process.

I got to thinking about why this might be. Traditionally, almost every President has identified as Christian -- some more convincingly than others -- but an ordained minister is generally ordained by a specific group and has to affirm specific beliefs that many people will disagree with. Also, I think a pastor who understands his or her work properly knows that proclaiming the Gospel is more important than anything a politician can do.

In 2016’s The Purge: Election Year, the leading candidate for President of the New United States is the Reverend Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), who wears his clerical collar and, in his ads, speaks with a cross in the background.

The Purge: Election Year is the third of the series of four Purge films, which imagine a future United States that has a day without consequences. One day a year, Purge Day, people can break any law without penalty including, perhaps especially, murder. This day allows people to work out their aggression, but even more importantly it brings down the cost of government social spending, welfare, Medicare, social security, etc.

In this film, a sizable portion of the American public has begun to question the wisdom of the day of lawlessness. One candidate for President wants to do away with the Purge, but it's not the minister. Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who lost her family during a Purge, is campaigning on the platform of ending the annual night of chaos. The establishment candidate supporting the 25 years of rule by the NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America) Party is the Reverend Owens.

At an electoral debate, Senator Roan and the Rev. Owens discuss their plans for the upcoming Purge night.

Senator Owens asks, “And where will you be spending Purge Night, Minister?”

Rev. Owens replies, “I will once again be presiding over my party’s Midnight Purge Mass because I still believe in it.”

Senator Owens says, “The Midnight Purge Mass? Where our great NFFA leaders gather together and slaughter innocents. Is murder our new religion?”

Rev. Owens replies, "'Murder is our new religion.' That’s snappy. No, the Midnight Purge Mass where NFFA leaders gather to celebrate the night that saved this country from economic ruin. Now, America is built on sacrifice, from the revolution all the way up to WWII. And our Lord God sacrificed His own Son. That’s why we must sacrifice every year to rid ourselves of hatred. Now, the stats are undeniable, there has been far less crime…”

It is true that the Rev spends Purge night at a church, Our Lady of Sorrows. It is a rather Catholic sounding name for a church, but Owens does seem more Protestant-y, if you can use either term for a branch of “Christianity” that advocates murder for one night a year.

How do we at Movie Churches evaluate this church and minister? The advocacy of murder, along with theft and rape, on Purge Night is a really a black mark on their record, but I do have other problems with them.

For instance, the church is much too liturgical for my tastes. We see the Purge Mass and hear the liturgy of the service. In a dark sanctuary with candles lit, the congregation chants, “May the Purge cleanse us! Purge and purify! Blessed be America, a nation reborn.” 

They chant these things, especially “Purge and purify,” again and again until the words lose any meaning. And I have a problem with that mixing national patriotism with religion. I mean, I have problems with a congregation singing “God Bless America” in a service, let alone this.

And I have real problems with Owens’ theology. He preaches, “Well, it’s been a long journey to get away from the lies and self-deception to this place of knowledge and awareness of who we really are. People of flesh, immensely flawed. It’s hard to see the ugly truth, but change can only come from acceptance. And change we must because it is our Godly duty to get rid of the fury and the hatred that poisons our souls and makes us sick. Makes us ugly. Tonight, we, the leaders of this great country, will sin, scour, sanitize, and sterilize our souls until we are free again, and this country will be better for it. We are not hypocrites. We practice what we preach. Purge and purify, say it with me.

“Jesus died for our sins, and now our modern day martyrs will die for our trespasses. Our martyr’s name is Lawrence, a lifelong drug addict.” (A bound man is brought out to be killed.) “He wants to make amends. He wants to serve his God and his country and his government. Let’s thank Lawrence for his gift.”

I have all kinds of problems with this sermon. Yes, Scripture does acknowledge our sinful nature (“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”). But Scripture never suggests we can deal with sin by indulging in sin. That’s just stupid. But even worse is the statement that additional sacrifices for sin are needed after the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Owens really needs to spend time in Hebrews 10, wherein the author of the book explains that there is no sacrifice needed after that of Jesus. And in Hebrews 10:26: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left.” So, to use technical terminology for Owens and his congregation, if they continue in their ways, they are “screwed.”

Is there anything good to be said for this church? I can only think of one thing. The church architecture is nice. We learn that this church in Washington D.C. is one of four built on this site. The first was built by George Washington. (I believe the historians used for this film also worked on the National Treasure films.) A series of tunnels were built under the church prior to the First Civil War to be used by abolitionists. Toward the film’s climax (spoilers), a gang plots to use those tunnels to enter the church and assassinate Owens and all the other leaders of the NFFA party. But, you know, tunnels are always cool.

Even with the tunnels, though, Minister Edwidge Owens and his congregation earn our lowest Movie Church ranking of 1 Steeple.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

In Theaters Now: Unplanned

Unplanned (2019)
This film was birthed, as it were, in controversy. Unplanned tells the story of Abby Johnson, the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic who became a pro-life activist. Produced by Pure Flix, a company known for Christian, family entertainment, this was their first R-rated film -- which is part of the controversy. Pure Flix hadn't expected the R rating. Radio and television stations wouldn't accept advertising for the film. Twitter temporarily suspended the film's account. TV talk show host Samantha Bee urged her viewers not to see the film.

Unplanned is based on the true story of Abby Johnson, a Planned Parenthood clinic director who was won over to the pro-life movement -- which explains the controversy. Abortion continues to be on of the most contentious issue in American society and politics, and in its opening minutes, the film portrays a very graphic depiction of abortion (the reason for the R rating and why many choose to keep a distance from this film.) I suspect that the rating and this graphic scene are why this Christian film, unlike most these days, features no fading TV or movie stars. No Lee Majors or Faye Dunaway. Not even Corbin Bernsen. There don't seem to be many Christian films these days without Bernsen.

LIke most Pure Flix products, this is not a subtle film. Johnson’s boss in the film, Cheryl (Robia Scott, who played Jenny Calendar on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and is the closest thing to a star in the film), would be twisting her mustache if she had one -- she's completely cruel and heartless. The directors of the local branch of Coalition for Life, Doug (Brooks Ryan) and Marilisa (Emma Elle Roberts), are compassionate and without guile. 

I was impressed with the depiction of Abby (Ashley Bratcher). She joins Planned Parenthood out of a concern for the good of women, and the film, based on her book, show her flaws along with strengths. She lies to her child about her work. She makes compromises when she shouldn’t and takes a hard line when it isn’t wise. And this may seem like a small thing, but we see Abby having a glass of wine with her husband and talking about seeing an R rated films. Not typical behavior in a Christian film. The film has the weaknesses inherent in most Christian films (especially from Pure Flix), but Johnson’s story is compelling and worth telling.

But we aren’t here to make a political statement at Movie Churches. We’re here to look at how churches and clergy are depicted in films. 

The film isn't a story of Abby Johnson who becomes a Christian. Johnson was raised in a Christian home and remained true to her faith. Though her first marriage (the wedding was in a church) was to a jerk who wasn't a Christian (not that Christians aren't sometimes jerks), her second husband is a Christian and a good guy. And throughout her time working in Planned Parenthood, they attend what seems to be an evangelical church where she feels comfortable. (In one church scene, though, Johnson seems uncomfortable. The pastor reads from Psalm 139 “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”) 

Abby's not the only person at the clinic who goes to church. Another woman who works there was angered when the priest at her Catholic Church preached about the evil of abortion. Both churches seem to be willing to take difficult cultural stands, and yet show compassion to those who disagree.

There is another tragic reference to a church in the film. While still a director at Planned Parenthood, Abby hears the news of the murder of Dr. George Tiller. One of the few practitioners of late-term abortions, the doctor was shot and killed while serving as an usher at Reformation Lutheran Church.

So the actual churches come across quite well in the film. And Coalition for Life, as a parachurch organization, comes across quite well too, particularly in their dedication to prayer at the gates of the clinic. But some of the pro-life protestors at Johnson’s clinic aren't in the least admirable as they yell at women who enter the clinic that they “should have kept their knees together.” Their awfulness brings our Movie Churches rating from 4 steeples down to 3.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Science Fiction Month Week #1: Codgers in Space!

Space Cowboys (2000)
Though you might not know it from listening to some militant atheists (or some isolated Christians), science and religion are not enemies. Many scientists believe in God. They manage to reconcile their faith with knowledge and believe science reinforces their faith. 

For instance, the epitome of Scientific Adventurer is the astronaut. Many are committed Christians. Jeffrey Williams, a commander of the International Space Station, talks of proof of God in space, “You see God in all the details.” Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin claims his experience on the moon led him to become serious about his faith in Christ. And John Glenn was an elder in his Presbyterian Church.

These examples of Christian astronauts in the real world lead one to hope that the astronaut pastor of Clint Eastwood’s sci-fi adventure, Space Cowboys, might be a compelling character; an advocate of both knowledge and faith. Those hopes are quickly dashed by the first appearance of James Garner's’ Rev. “Tank” Sullivan.

Space Cowboys is the story of aging astronauts who never had a chance to go into space. When the orbit of a Russian satellite begins to deteriorate, the elders are the only ones who know the technology that can fix things, and the repair can only be done onsite. Clint Eastwood plays Frank Corvin, who assembles his old team for the mission.

He goes to see Tank on a Sunday morning as he preaches to his American Baptist congregation. Garner, as Tank, begins his sermon, “Romans… I mean Chronicles. Chronicles. Ah, yes. In the 40th year, Amariah begat Zadok…Who begat Libni...The brother of Uzziah. No, that’s not it either. Just… No, uh…” He then fumbles with his notes, drops them, and as he reaches to pick them up, gazes at a Hawaiian hula dancer doll he has on a shelf behind his pulpit.

First of all, what pastor would ever confuse Romans with Chronicles? The words are nothing alike, and they're in completely different parts of the Bible. Secondly, there are two books of Chronicles. Is he talking about First Chronicles or Second Chronicles? And if a pastor is going to preaching through one of these genealogies, he’s going to practice the names. It all seems to say, “I don’t care about preaching, so sit back and be bored.” (The congregation seems to agree.)

When Tank notices Clint, though, he suddenly becomes animated as he talks about the days of youth,
“Once upon a time, four of the best pilots in the U.S. Air Force trained to fly into space. They flew at the speed of sound to the very top of the sky… cheating death and falling 20 miles out of the sky.” He seems like a completely different man when he’s talking about flying rather than about the Word of God. I saw this and thought, “This guy should not be a pastor.”

It doesn’t take long for Frank to convince Tank to join in on the mission. When Frank asks, he replies, “I have a flock, I have grandchildren. I’m going to have to pray about this.” 

Frank asks him not to pray long. Tank immediately replies, “I’m receiving a word. Why the hell not?” He doesn’t seem to take the discipline of prayer very seriously.

He doesn’t take prayer very seriously when asked to pray at the beginning of their mission either. He says he’s going to recite the Shepherd Prayer. Spoiler: it’s not Psalm 23

He quotes Alan Shepard, “Oh, Lord, please don’t let us screw up.” Many lives are at stake on this mission, but he merely prays not to be embarrassed.

But as an astronaut, Tank performs his mission well. He seems to be a good astronaut in spite of being a lousy pastor. You can glorify God in almost any kind of work, but it doesn’t seem that Tank was called to be a pastor. He could have perhaps brought God more glory working with NASA or becoming a high school science teacher, or doing any other job that used his skills and experience.
That’s why the Reverend Tank earns only two Movie Church Steeples.

(H/T to my father-in-law, Henry Date, for suggesting this film.)