Thursday, May 30, 2019

Missionary Month End of the Spear

End of the Spear (2005)
I knew that the missionaries of 2005’s End of the Spear were likely to earn our highest rating of Four Steeples. The film tells the story of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian, five missionaries who tried to reach Waodani people deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest and the aftermath of the missionaries' deaths.

Years ago I read their story in Through Gates of Splendor, written in 1957 by Elisabeth Elliot, the widow of Jim Elliot. After Jim and the others were speared by Waodani tribesmen, Elisabeth and Nate Saint’s sister Rachel went to live with the Waodani people in order to show God’s love for them. Their examples of love and self-sacrifice have long been an inspiration to me.

Told from the perspective of Nate Saint's son, Steve (who was a child when his father was killed) and Mincayani, the Waodani man who killed Nick Saint, the film tells the story of friendship that developed between the two.

It's not just that, though. The film makes a point of telling why the missionaries wanted to contact the Waodani at the time they did. The tribe was quite violent, attacking any and all outsiders, as well as fighting among themselves to the point that the tribe was nearing extinction. Ecuador's government was considering taking action. The missionaries decided to reach the people quickly while there was still an opportunity.

They used their plane (which the Waodani called a “wood bee”) to drop off gifts in the remote village, and eventually landed their plane on the bank of the river nearby. Men from the tribe met the missionaries when they landed and attacked, killing all five. Life Magazine did a pictorial spread on the deaths, bringing world attention, but the families of the victims remained to serve the tribe and show God’s love.

The people of the tribe asked why the missionaries hadn't defended themselves. They had guns. They could easily have overpowered the men with spears. Rachel Saint was asked, “Why didn’t the wood bee men shoot us?”

She responded, “They came to tell you Waengongi has a Son. He was speared, but He didn’t spear back so the people spearing Him would one day live well.”

The missionaries (both the murdered and their families) did bring peace to a warring tribe. The film itself is a little cheesy, the music is sappy, and some of the acting is wooden. (Bonus for animal lovers, though: the film has monkeys, parrots, and bats.) But we're writing about the clergy in the film, and I guessed right going in.

As anticipated, the missionaries of End of the Spear earned 4 Steeples.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Missionary Movie Month Continues with a Leper Streak

Molokai (1999)
This month, I set out to write about movies with missionaries, not movies with lepers -- yet for the second week in a row, I'm writing about a missionary who founded a ministry to people with Hansen's Disease. Unlike last week's film (The Devil at 4 O'Clock), this week's story is a true one.  Molokai is the story of Father Damien, a Roman Catholic priest who went to the Hawaiian Island of Molokai in 1864. The island was the home (or, more accurately, the prison) of people suffering from leprosy (Hansen's Disease), which casts a dark shadow even in Bible stories. 

I haven’t written about many Belgian films in this blog -- mostly because there aren’t many. But it makes sense that a Belgian company would want to make a film about Father Damien, a Belgian saint. (The director, Paul Cox, was actually Dutch. The film was made on location in Hawaii with an English-speaking cast. David Wenham, who plays Damien, is Australian. Still, the money that made the film was Belgian.)

The 1999 film begins as governing officials of the Hawaiin islands are discussing what should be done about the problem of leprosy. To prevent the spread of the disease, all those afflicted are to be sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula of the island of Molokai, and they may never leave the island (the disease was incurable at the time). The Catholic Bishop (Leo McKern) of the islands is included in the meeting, and he is concerned about the souls of the diseased. He asks the Prime Minister (Sam Neill) for permission to send priests to the island to administer last rights, and that permission is granted.

Four priests volunteer for duty on Molokai, and Father Damien is chosen to be the first to go. The bishop gives him priest very specific instructions: he is to prepare his own food to avoid infection. He is to keep his distance from the afflicted. He is never to touch anyone with leprosy.

Father Damien is not very good at following the bishop's instructions. At the first mass he performs, a young leper boy asks if he can serve as an altar boy -- as he served before he was sent away from his home because of his leprosy. Damien agrees and asks the boy to shake his hand to seal the deal.

Even though he's not good at following his bishop's instructions, he is very good at following the example of Christ Jesus, who (according to the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2) “being in the very nature of God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death -- even death on a cross.” Damien goes to serve the lepers, willing to become one of them, even if it means he will succumb to the disease.

Damien looks to serve all who live on the Kalaupapa peninsula, even if they don't want to become Catholic. He befriends William Williamson (Peter O'Toole), an old man who camps on the beach and a confirmed Protestant. Williamson contracted the disease by tending the wounds of lepers, cleaning and bandaging their sores (“I was a medical assistant in Honolulu, and I got the blasted disease myself. Let that be a lesson to you.”) Some of the best dialogue of the film comes from the conversations of these two men.

Father Damien tries to convert the old man asking, “May I give you the sacraments?” 

Williamson replies, “Me? A proper Catholic priest? My father would rise from the grave. Father, don’t be insulted. Come back tomorrow, I may be frightened and have to think about it.”

When Williamson nears death, the two discuss the afterlife. Williamson says, “I suppose it would be easier for you if I just died?” 

Damien responds, “Oh, you can’t die until I convert you.” 

Williamson asks, “Do you honestly believe only Catholics go to heaven?” 

Damien answers, “I’m not absolutely certain, but I know that Catholics can go to heaven.”

Williamson dies, having refused to Last Rites and telling Father Damien, “No. I’m the one that got away. Don’t worry, I’ll say a good word for you on the other side.”

Damien is not presented as a perfect man. He doesn’t believe the church or the government give the lepers the support they deserve, as each institution gives a little and shifts the blame to the other. He particularly is annoyed by the government's refusal to let him leave the island in order to make confession to another priest. At one time, he must resort to going out on a boat and shouting his confession to the Bishop on a ship. (The story of this at-sea confession becomes a scandal in the newspapers.)

In the 1800's, some believed that leprosy was one of the later symptoms of syphilis. When Damien is found to have leprosy, he is accused of being unfaithful to his vows of chastity. He angrily responds that he has never been with a woman, adding, “or a man.”

Father Damien has times of whether God is caring for him or the leper colony. (He’s in good company with these dark feelings -- what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” Jesus Himself cried out, “My God, My God, why has You forsaken Me?”)

The Church is not portrayed as perfect in the film, but when no other organization was willing to care for the lepers of Molokai, the Church stepped in. So we give the Church in this film our highest rating of 4 Steeples. Father Damien himself, of course, also receives 4 Steeples. We just wish we could give him more.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Missionary Movie Month: What the Devil?

The Devil at 4 O'Clock (1961)
Yes, the priest’s drinking is worrisome. As is his violent temper. And his lack of faith. But what really bugged me was his begging.

In this 1961 film, Spencer Tracy plays Father Matthew Doonan, a missionary on the (fictional) island of Talua in French Polynesia. Directed by Mervyn Le Roy, based on a novel by Max Catto (Mister Mosesit's a disaster film with one of the most cinematic natural disasters: a volcano.

Father Doonan has been serving on the island for 16 years. His ministry began well; many of the French transplanted to the island attend his church and he wins many native converts as well. But something went wrong, and when the film begins, his ministry is no longer prospering. We see him wake in the morning and begin his day with a drink. Early in the film, we see him shoving an official. His disregard for the Mass disturbs Father Joseph (Kerwin Mathews), the priest who has come to Talua to take Father Doonan’s place.

But what really bothered me was seeing Father Doonan go from business to business, house to house, begging for things for the hospital. He asks for money, of course. But he begs a woman for clothes. And a barber for dirty magazines. He persuades some to give, but they mock and insult him along the way.

Asking for money comes up a lot when you talk to people about what bugs them about churches and ministries. Jesus received money from people for His needs and His ministry, but we don’t see him pleading for money. George Muller, a famed evangelist who ran orphanages, committed himself to ask only God for money and provisions, never people. 

Father Doonan begs because he really cares about the hospital up the mountain. We learn that the hospital led to the downfall of his ministry in town.

The hospital is for children -- children with leprosy. (The hospital's doctor clarifies that the disease, a dark secret on the island, is properly called Hansen’s disease.) Tourism is one of the island's primary sources of revenue, and leprosy isn't exactly something that draws tourists. When Father Doonan began the work at the hospital, the people in town began to shun the church. That’s when the priest began to drink. And apparently, beg. 

We hear this story about the hospital from the doctor, an atheist who used to argue faith with the priest through the night, but the priest's life has begun to fall apart. He seems to have lost his faith. The doctor says, “I had to watch a good man, not a saint, but a good man, crumple apart at the seems… Drunk, crazy, awful temper… He is a great man.”

Father Doonan tells Father Joseph, “I’ll bring you together with some of the noble Christians of the town, the loyal brethren,” but Father Joseph wasn’t alone on the plane that brought him to the island. Three convicts on their way to prison in Tahiti were on the plane, and because the pilot takes a break on the island to see his girlfriend (he has a different girlfriend on every island), the convicts are available to do work at the hospital.

Did I mention that one of the convicts, Harry, is played by Frank Sinatra? He’s the tough guy who was an altar boy when he was young, before he took to a life of crime. When someone tells Harry, “Go with God.” Harry responds, “Who’s God?” (Another convict suggests, “He’s a way to swear.”)

So what changes things around for Father Doonan? What brings him back to faith? 

All it takes is a volcanic eruption which threatens the children of the hospital. Father Doonan prays for someone to help him rescue the children, and the convicts prove to be the answer to that prayer. The priest apologizes to God for his lack of faith. The journey to save the orphans brings the convicts to faith.
What kind of Movie Churches Steeple rating should Father Doonan get? That drinking and fighting (he nearly strangles Ol' Blue Eyes to death) and begging -- especially the begging -- lose Father Doonan a steeple, but he still earns 3 out of 4 for being willing to sacrifice everything for those leper children.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Missionary Movie Church Continues with Black Robe

Black Robe (1991)
Black Robe has long been one of my white whale films. Some films are exceedingly easy to view -- Charade and Night of the Living Dead no longer have copyright protection, so you can watch them on cable or even on YouTube or pick them up at the dollar store. Some films, though, aren't available on any streaming service and have never been made available on DVD or video. Most films fall somewhere in between.

Black Robe came out in 1991 and was directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Bruce Beresford. He first reached prominence as a part of the Australian New Wave with Breaker Morantdriving, one of the greatest courtroom dramas. One of his films, Driving Miss Daisy, won the Academy Award for Best Picture, though he wasn’t nominated for Best Director. And he directed what may well be the best film ever made about the Christian experience, Tender Mercies.

Not only that, Black Robe was about a topic readers of this blog might guess would be of interest to me. (I guess you don’t really need to have read the blog, just its title.) This blog was made for stories like this film about a missionary priest, but it's taken me nearly thirty years to watch this film.

When it opened, back in the day, it didn’t play in a theater near me -- and it wasn’t in theaters for long. It hasn’t played much on TV and isn’t available on any streaming services. The DVD has been available for years, but I can only justify so many DVD purchases for this profit-free blog. But as I was getting ready for missionary movie churches month, I found Black Robe at the public library.

Brian Moore wrote the screenplay for this film, based on his own novel. The story opens in Quebec (New France) in the 17th century (1634 to be precise). Father Laforge, a Jesuit priest, came to serve in a distant Huron mission, 1500 miles from Quebec.

Laforge is to be assisted on the journey by Daniel, a lay assistant who knows the Algonquin language better than the priest. They travel with a group of Algonquins who serve as guides and canoe paddlers. Daniel is promised an opportunity to study in Europe in return for his assistance on the mission. 

Daniel says he wants to go on the journey for “the greater glory of God,” but he is unsure about the necessity of the mission. He believes the natives are already “true Christians” who live in harmony and have their own vision of the afterlife. In spite of these doubts, he joins Laforge on the journey.

Laforge is warned about what may be in store on the journey. Previous missionaries have been attacked by hostile tribes. Some were killed and some were mutilated. Traders warn the priest of the dangers. “Priests have had fingers cut off. Or they may cut off something even more useful.” (This statement was followed by lewd snickering).

Before leaving on the journey, Laforge observes some Algonquins in worship. They seem to believe the focus of worship is the clock near the altar. The natives wait anxiously for the chime. “It is alive; it talks,” one man says. We later learn the Algonquins believe the clock is the leader of the Jesuits. They believe the clock gives orders to the Jesuits, whereas the Algonquins receive their direction from their dreams.

The journey to the Huron village is hazardous, with physical and spiritual obstacles. Daniel falls in love with one of the Algonquin women, Annuka. Laforge spies the two making love in the forest. Laforge confronts Daniel and admits that he too struggles with the sin of lust. 

Laforge has wage disputes with his Algonquin guides. The weather and the elements are daunting. But the greatest danger is when the group is captured by an enemy tribe.

There is no doubting Father Laforge's courage. He is willing to put his life on the line for the sake of the Native Americans. Viewers of the film, however, must wrestle with the question of whether the Native Americans need saving. Is Daniel right? Are they already true Christians? Modern viewers are likely to be uncomfortable with the idea that people need the unique Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But if the Gospel is true, everyone needs the Gospel of Jesus. Father Laforge, at times, seems to believe that the Algonquins and Hurons need to become not only Christians but also Europeans. The Algonquins are not impressed when the priest’s description of heaven doesn’t include sex or tobacco. Frankly, his description of heaven seemed rather bland to me as well.

Father Laforge does make it to the mission. He finds one priest dead and another sick, but the Huron people are willing to listen to the new priest if he will baptize them (which they believe will heal sickness).

Father Laforge accomplishes what he set out to achieve. The novel was based on fact, and a priest did indeed reach the Huron Mission. The final title card of the film says this: “Fifteen years later, the Hurons, having accepted Christianity, were routed and killed by their enemies, the Iroquois. The Jesuit mission to the Hurons was abandoned and the Jesuits returned to Quebec.”

I was happy finally to get to see this film, but sadly, I can’t give Father Laforge our highest Movie Church rating. I admire his willingness to sacrifice everything for the natives of North America, but he doesn’t seem to be willing to truly understand them. So we’re giving Father Laforge 3 out of 4 Steeples.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Missionary Movie Churches Month Begins with: The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
“The Call" is a term used in some Christian circles. It's generally short for “the call to ministry,” particularly to the mission field. Notice that little word “to,” because it’s important.

It’s a positive word. Going “to” God’s work -- as opposed to running “from” something. People do that, too -- take up missionary work to get away from something else.

Going off to join the French Foreign Legion is an old movie cliche, and not just in films like Beau Geste. Many films and cartoons mention it as a option when a man is besieged by problems, but the Legion was never an option for people who don’t like guns and sand. For most of the institution’s history, it wasn't an option for women. So where else could a person go to get away from it all? How about the mission field?

Becoming a missionary was the escape of choice for characters in both versions of Murder on the Orient Express we watched here at Movie Churches, and it also seems to be the choice of Patricia (Anjelica Huston), the mother of grown sons, in Wes Anderson’s 2007 film, The Darjeeling Limited.

The film tells the story of Francis (Owen Wilson), a troubled man, who asks his two brothers, Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), to join him on a spiritual journey to explore the holy sites of India. He has quite the itinerary, with stops at such places as the Temple of a Thousand Bulls (“probably the most spiritual place in the world”), but Francis hasn't told his brothers his true goal: finding their mother.

He eventually tells them, “I hired a private detective to track down mom. She’s living in a convent in the foothills of the Himalayas. She became a nun, you know how she is. She’s probably suffered some kind of mental collapse.”

The brothers were quite upset when their mother didn’t attend their father's funeral after his sudden, accidental death. (The brothers didn't attend the service either, which is a story at the heart of one of the film’s flashbacks.) Peter and Jack aren't certain Francis should have tried to contact their mother once the detective found her. And they don't like that he sent her a message saying they're coming to visit her.

Their mother responds with this letter: “Dear boys: Bad timing. This morning I received the details of your travel plans in a document from a man named Brendan. Unfortunately, I cannot receive you now. A neighboring village requires our urgent assistance due to an emergency, not to mention the arrival of a man-eating tiger in the region. You should come in the spring when you’ll be safe. You must know how sad I am to experience this long separation. I hope you’ll eventually understand and forgive me. God bless and keep you with Mary’s benevolent guidance and the light of Christ’s enduring grace. All my love, your mother, Sister Patricia Whitman”

This letter seems to have many religious bells and whistles, but what seems to be lacking is genuine love and concern for her grown sons.

They come to see her anyway, finding her at a convent that also seems to serve as an orphanage. She greets her sons with these words, “Didn’t you get my letter? I told to come back in the spring. Welcome, my beautiful boys.”

We see her teaching children and even worshiping with them (as they sing “Praise Him in the Morning.”) The place is decorated with crosses (interestingly, not crucifixes.) The children play and seem to be happy.

The sons ask her why she didn’t come to their father -- her husband’s -- funeral. She answers, “I didn’t want to. I live here, these people need me.” But she tells her sons they must enjoy the time they have together (“Let’s make an agreement. We’ll enjoy ourselves and stop feeling sorry for ourselves because it’s not attractive.”) She takes their breakfast orders for the next day (actually making assumptions about what each of her sons desire), and leaves them for the night.

And the next morning, the boys find that she's gone. It's a little difficult to believe she was in India because people needed her. She runs so easily.

Paul’s instructions for the qualifications for church leadership discuss handling personal affairs well and being attentive to one's own children. That doesn’t mean having to look after grown children, particularly the annoying grown men that are Patricia's sons. But a leader should be making decisions with honesty, openness, and integrity, which doesn’t seem to be the case with this woman. Instead of being called to the mission field, it seems like she's just running from her family.

That’s why Patricia the Nun received only 2 out of 4 Steeples in our Movie Church clergy rating.