Thursday, March 26, 2020

Christian Movie Churches God's Not Dead

(Originally posted at Dean and Mindy Go to Church in 2015.)

2014 was a banner year for Christian and Biblically themed films. Most impressive were the films made by independent Christian producers that earned sizable amounts of money. One would think such films would certainly get the details of church right. One would be sadly disappointed.

God's Not Dead stood out as one of the show business wonders of the year. On a budget of $2 million, it took in $62 million, not a bad return on an investment. I like the premise of the film, the conflict between a Christian student, Josh, and a professor with an aggressive atheist agenda. The religious liberty issues on campuses are real and could provide an interesting story. But this movie deals with these issues in the most ham-handed way possible, with Kevin Sorbo (TV's Hercules) playing the professor with Simon Legree subtlety.

But once again, the focus here is to look at the church in the film. And this film does have a church, with a pastor and stained glass and all. As is often the case in such films, the name of the church and its denomination is difficult to discover. There are clear shots of the exterior of the church, but no signage is visible. In fact, one object that looks like it should be a sign in front of the church is bricked over. But a sharp eye will spot parking spaces marked "St. James."

Since we see no sign for the church, we don't see the denomination, and no one mentions it. But Pastor Dave wears a clerical collar, and the interior trimmings appear to be high church. Since we never see a worship scene in the film, it's even more difficult to know.

It's also puzzling what Pastor Dave does with his time. We do see him advise Josh when the young man visits the empty sanctuary. Pastor Dave sees Josh sitting in a pew and asks if he's waiting for someone. "Seems he's out for the moment," Josh replies. "Maybe that's why he sent me," Pastor Dave responds.

Josh presents his dilemma: should he stand up for Christ in the atheist's class? Pastor Dave tells Josh to read Matthew 10: 32 & 33 ("whoever acknowledges me before men, I will acknowledge") and Luke 12:48 ("everyone who is given much, much will be demanded"). Then he leaves Josh, without taking time to pray with him. He does text him shortly after that, but doesn't, apparently, follow up again.

Much of the time we spend with Pastor Dave is time spent with the Rev. Jude visiting from Senegal. The two make many attempts to drive to Disneyworld. When Dave's car won't start, they try to rent a car. But not a single rental car brought to them works. (They live in an amazing place where, when renting a car, you don't have to present a credit card or driver's license.) They make no effort to get Dave's car repaired until they pray for it at a crucial moment toward the end of the film.

With time to kill while Disneyworld is out of reach, Rev. Jude asks Pastor Dave what they should do with their time. Pastor Dave says they can meet with the choir director to discuss songs for the upcoming concert, or they could meet with the women's club to discuss details on the upcoming craft bazaar. Pastor Dave comments that back on the mission field, Rev. Jude is winning souls for Christ every day. Pastor Dave's strategy seems to wait for people to call him.

And a person does! A woman calls Pastor Dave to meet her for lunch to discuss her problems with her boyfriend (her boyfriend is none other than the atheist professor). A little clergy pro tip, though nothing scandalous comes of it in the film, it really is best not to meet someone of the opposite sex you don't know well in a restaurant to discuss romantic relationships. This has often led to not good things.

We also see Pastor Dave meet with a young woman whose Muslim father tried to beat her when he discovers she had become a Christian. He encourages her to be strong, but perhaps he should also have called the police.

But back to that crucial moment when the car finally starts. Pastor Dave and Rev. Jude start on their way to Disneyworld but get caught in the traffic for the big Newsboys concert in town. And wouldn't you know it? They come across Professor Hercules who has been hit by a car. A quick visual exam by Rev. Jude shows them that the Prof is dying, so instead of calling 911, Pastor Dave shares the gospel with the man bleeding out on the street.

The adamant atheist trusts in Christ, and then kicks the bucket. Rev. Jude assures Pastor Dave that though there is sorrow now, there is celebrating in Heaven. Pastor Dave really hadn't seemed too upset. It looks like they're about to high five for the conversion over the dead body. I'm cool with praying with the dying, but it seems that they might be concerned about whether the man left behind a widow and/or orphans.

So, as the more perceptive reader may have guessed; St. James with Pastor Dave doesn't get a thumbs up in our movie church rating system. It's a pretty strict system.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Action Preachers: Machine Gun Preacher

(This post was originally posted in our blog Dean and Mindy Go To Church five years ago.)

The name Machine Gun Preacher really sells the title character short. He's not just a machine gun preacher, he's a rocket launcher preacher as well. He's also a real person, Sam Childers. But as per usual for this space, we are here to look at the churches and clergy in this film.

Upon release from prison (and before he became the machine gun preacher), Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) returned his life of drugs, larceny and depravity, and to his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) a woman who had left her life as a stripper and became a Christian.

Following a harrowing carjacking experience, Childers joins his wife at the church she attends. He worries whether he will be welcome at church saying, "I don't got any new shoes." His wife assures him, "God doesn't care about your shoes."

I never caught the name of the church, but according to Wikipedia, the church was Assemblies of God. The interior of the church has a balcony, pews and a large cross in front; it looks like it might have looked during the depression era. Traditional songs are sung ("Glory to His Name," "Amazing Grace") but with enthusiasm. The minister preaches Jesus and salvation through his blood. At the conclusion of his sermon, the minister calls for those who want to trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and salvation to raise their hands and stand up.

Sam raises his hand and is brought forward for baptism. Most churches I've been a part of having some kind of class along with an opportunity to give a testimony to the pastor and church leadership before baptism. In this church as soon as someone trusts in Christ, they're dunked--which I have to admit is quite Biblical.

After Childers has been attending the church for a time, he hears a missionary from Uganda speak at the church. His tales of suffering, particularly of children, in the nation, touch Childers. I've been to a lot of churches where the pastors are quite possessive of their pulpits and are unwilling to give missionaries more than the "Missions Minute" (which is really supposed to be five minutes but often becomes ten to fifteen). But the missionary has enough time to convince Sam he should go to Africa.

After Sam goes to Africa, he claims that God has given him a vision: to build an orphanage in Africa and a church in the states. The church Sam says he wants to build will be different from "Faith United or Calvary Fellowship" and "won't turn away sinners, drug addicts, and prostitutes." This is rather confusing because the church he's been attending was apparently quite welcoming to his wife Lynn, who was a stripper and welcoming to him, a biker and addict. If he had said something like a church which will have a special ministry to reach out to such people; well okay then, but he seems awfully harsh talking about the church where he found grace.

The church Childers founds, Shekinah Fellowship Church has its first meeting while the building is still under construction. Their worship band plays lively choruses. When the guest speaker doesn't show, Childers reluctantly speaks himself. He gives his testimony without any direct reference to Scripture.

Childers takes on the preaching duties in the church, though he doesn't have training. More importantly, he doesn't meet the qualifications of a leader given by Paul in I Timothy 3. Verse 6 says an overseer "shouldn't be a new convert or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil." It turns out Childers eventually struggles with his faith and becomes a quite awful preacher.

Real MGP with movie MGP
What Childers does much better is establish a ministry to orphans in a warzone. He divides his time between work in the Sudan and Pennsylvania. In Africa, he finds himself at war with the LRA, an organization that kills parents and recruits young boys as soldiers. He fights back using the firearms knowledge and skills from his criminal life. A relief worker questions Childers' use of violence. Childers responds, "If it was your child, you would be happy to have me use any means necessary to get your child back."

Childers made me think of the building of the Temple in Israel. David, "the man after God's own heart," was not allowed to build the Temple because he was a man of war. This was true even though God had called David to fight Goliath and the Philistines. I think Sam Childers may well be called by God to fight for the orphans but it may be what keeps him from being a qualified pastor.

I'm glad Childers is fighting for orphans in the Sudan. But though I'd attend the church where Childers came to Christ, there is no way I'd attend the church he pastored.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Action Preachers: Western Double Feature

(The following post was written five years ago in and posted in the blog Dean and Mindy Go To Church. At that time we were not using Steeple ratings, but neither of these pastors would have done well in the Steeple rating system.)

If you have any desire to see either of these Westerns, be aware that by necessity this review has huge spoilers. So read no further if you wish to be surprised by the plot twists of these films.

To start with, both of the church pastors in these films commit multiple homicides. Certainly for most people that fact alone would dissuade them from attending either church. But the fact that these pastors are homicidal is but one factor of many to be learned about these churches. We'll examine the church in Sweetwater first.

The film opens with "Prophet" Josiah (Jason Isaacs) finding a couple of trespassers on his land in territorial New Mexico. The two starving men have killed a couple of the pastor's sheep. The clergyman knifes one man and has his underling gun down the other. Now aside from the murder, which we already mentioned is a bad thing, this incident shows a lack of concern in the church for the alien, the poor, and the hungry. That's not biblical.

January Jones, of Mad Men fame, known for her beauty and superb acting (well, one of those) plays a former prostitute trying to make a new start as a wife and farmer. Josiah kills her husband and rapes her. Again, aside from the murder, the "prophet" is not being faithful to his three wives or the prostitutes he frequents. Again, this misogyny is not biblical.

We hear Josiah berate Mexicans and Blacks as a curse on the White Race; nope, not biblical.

When Jones and Marshall Ed Harris attack Josiah's church, Josiah uses his congregation members as shields to protect himself. The shepherd is supposed to be willing to lay down his life for his sheep. Again, not biblical behavior.

Finally, the film does give an example of Josiah's preaching. He doesn't use Scripture, but rather prophecies he received from an angel (Angel Frank or Marvin or Bob or something). I do believe he was a false prophet. And they don't seem to have much of a music program.

This is not a church I'd want to go to.

It takes longer for the audience and especially the characters in 5 Card Stud to figure out that the Rev. Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum) is a killer. Until that happens, he's not doing too bad of a job planting the church.

When the Reverend comes into town, he walks into a saloon and fires a couple of bullets from his Colt .45 into the floor. He invites everyone to come the next Sunday to the church, "God's House." (The sign in front of the church reads, "God's House - Caretaker: Rev. Rudd") One of the men in the bar says, "You don't want me in your church. I'm the meanest, orneriest S.O.B. you ever come across." Rudd responds, "Jesus found room for Judas at the table, so I think we can make room for you in a pew."

The next Sunday, the church is full. This firearms-in-a-bar technique of marketing probably needs further investigation. The reverend's preaching is of the hellfire variety, but since the condemnation is of a lynching committed quite recently, the harsh tone is more than justified.

Throughout the film, the preacher shows a certain proficiency with Scripture. (Though his interpretation of "'Vengeance is mine,' says the Lord" is certainly lacking) The hymn singing in the church is spirited.

The reverend also has a nice way of dealing with stereotypes of ministers. When someone asks what a minister is doing with a gun, he responds, "When a man dons the cloth, he doesn't stop being a man."

There are a lot of things about the Rev. Rudd I very much like. I would certainly consider going to his church if he wasn't a murderer -- which I'm afraid really is a deal-breaker.

(5 Card Stud is rated PG for violence and came out in 1968, Sweetwater is rated R for violence, language, nudity, and sexual situations and came out in 2013.)

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Movie Churches: Oscar Divison Selma

(This post was written during the Oscar race of 2015 before this blog existed and I was writing about movies at the Dean and Mindy Go To Church blog. Last week was the 55th anniversary of the Selma march.)

There are a couple of big controversies swirling around the Best Picture Nominee, Selma.

There are some critics questioning the historical accuracy of the film's depiction of President Lyndon Johnson as an opponent to Martin Luther King's work and plans. Others are concerned that the film was snubbed by the Academy, for though it was nominated for Best Picture (and Best Song written by John Legend), it wasn't nominated for director, screenplay or any acting categories. Fortunately, for our purposes here, I don't have to comment on either of this brew-ha-has. We're just here to look at the church and the clergy in the film.

The film opens with King talking with his wife Coretta talking about a different kind of dream. He says that someday he'd like to pastor a small church, and Coretta can work to put food on the table. We soon see that he is preparing to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The scene has a sense of melancholy because the couple knows they will never have a quiet life alone.

The scene is also a reminder that King saw himself primarily as a minister of the Gospel. Recently, I saw a newscast in which they kept referring to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as "Dr. King." In another scene in the film, King greets another member of the SCLC as "Doctor" and is greeting as "Doctor" in return, both joking and sardonic. It's clear that's not the way he thinks about himself.

It does make one wonder what kind of pastor King would have been at this stage in his life. Of course, his leadership skills would provide the direction and vision that would shoot him to the top of the pastoral search committee's list. His speaking abilities would keep the most lethargic of congregations awake and perhaps taking notes. But the film doesn't gloss over King's marital sins. A pastor who is unfaithful in his marriage should not keep his position. God used King in mighty ways, but in this one way, he wasn't a faithful pastor.

The film depicts various churches. The first church we see is the 16th Street Baptist Church. We see it for moments, before a bomb destroys it, killing four little girls. The tragic death of those girls, like the deaths of many Christian martyrs before them and since, spurred many to action, to bring justice for the despicable treatment of African Americans at that time.

I was, frankly, a little torn by the depiction of some of the churches in the film. I'm not comfortable with churches promoting a political agenda. During the last Presidential election, I was in a church where the pastor suggested looking at a flyer that, without mentioning names or party affiliation, made clear the "godly" way to vote. Though I agreed with the political position, I didn't agree with it being associated with the Gospel.

And the first time we see King speaking in a church in the film, he is asking the congregation to fight for the right to vote. He is not using any particular passage of Scripture to justify his arguments. I might be uncomfortable today if I was in a church today and someone was proposing, say, starting to a petition to get a proposition on the ballot for even the best of causes. But at that time, the injustice perpetrated against African Americans violated Biblical values. The church was the one place blacks could meet and organize without being harassed by the authorities. (I found it interesting that when police officers tell marchers to cease and desist, they are told to return to "return to your homes or churches.")

The next time we see King speak in a church, it's a funeral. One of the black activists is attacked by a state trooper and killed. King blames government officials for the man's death, but he also says that white preachers who don't speak out against the injustice perpetrated against African Americans are also culpable. During this time in history, many churches were shirking their God-given responsibility to call for God's justice. But many preachers, of various racial backgrounds, did speak out for justice. King called white clergymen to come to march in Selma, and many did.

Today, there are many causes where justice is at stake. Such issues as abortion, gay marriage, Palestine, slavery, economic inequities, and many others certainly call out to be addressed by the Word of God. But the difficult thing is that Christians who seek to serve the Lord faithfully don't agree on how justice can best be served.

We must trust in the God of grace, Who led the Israelites out of Egypt, Who was with those marchers in Selma, can continue to lead us today -- but perhaps not all on the same march.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Movie Churches Potpourri: Oscar Division Boyhood & American Sniper

(As is readily apparent, this was written during the Oscar race of 2015 before this blog was born and the movie posts were in the Dean and Mindy Go To Church blog.)

The odds on favorite to win Best Picture this year is Boyhood directed by Richard Linklater (though it could be Birdman). And if it does win, it'll be fine with me. Linklater took a unique approach to this story of a boy's growing up, filming over 12 years, so we actually see Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow up, from kindergarten to college.

But this column isn't about movies, of course, it's about churches in movies. And of the 165 minutes of this film, a minute of it is spent in a church, more time than any of the Best Picture nominees (excepting Selma) spend in a church.

From the beginning of Boyhood, Mason's parents are divorced. Later in the film, Mason's father remarries, to a younger woman. As part of a birthday celebration for Mason, his father takes him to his in-laws' house out in the country. It should be mentioned, it's out in the country in Texas.

Mason's step-grandmother (is that a term?) bakes him a cake. She also gives him a Bible with his name engraved on it. His step-grandfather gives him a shotgun. I saw the film in two places; with my daughter in Manhattan and with my wife and son in California Wine Country. In both places, both gifts got good laughs. It did make me wonder if people laughed as hard in a Red States. (A Bible, one of the major building blocks of Western culture, even if you don't believe it is the Word of God, is a real laugh getter as a gift. And as a teen, I sure wouldn't have minded a shotgun.)

The grandparents are clearly Christians, with crosses on the wall. But they are not the stereotypical prudish scolds that Hollywood often presents. They are warm and loving, and when Mason, his father, stepmother, and sister join in singing a song that's a tad off-color, the grandparents laugh good-naturedly. I can't help but wonder if the more sympathetic view of these churchgoers comes from the fact that writer-director Richard Linklater is a native Texan who has never moved to Hollywood. He's continued throughout his career (since 1991 with "Slacker") to make many of his films in Texas.

The next day, the family goes to church. We never see what kind of church it is (in that one minute of screen time) but we do hear the pastor preaching from John 20 about the Resurrection, offering hope for all. The bit of sermon we hear is certainly orthodox. The church is probably part of some kind of mainline denomination because they practice child baptism.

Mason's father (played by Ethan Hawke), with a bit of embarrassment, tells Mason and his sister that their baby half-brother is going to be baptized. He explains it's important to their step-mother, who is a Christian. Mason and his sister, Samantha (played very well by director Linklater's daughter, Lorelei) tease their father about becoming religious. He laughs it off, but he certainly seems to be becoming a better man, married to his Christian wife.

In fact, compared to the other characters in the film, the Christian characters (Mason's father's wife and in-laws) seem to be the most stable and joyous characters in the film. Mason's mother, in contrast, has put her all into her children, and when they leave home, she's lost meaning in her life. Mason's step-grandparents seem to be living for a lot more, secure in their faith, values and their God. I'd certainly consider going to their church. So, the Mystery Church of Boyhood gets a thumbs up from me.

The church scene in American Sniper is even shorter. Young Chris Kyle (who will grow up to be the U.S. Military's most effective and deadly sniper) is seen with his family in a church service. The pastor is talking about the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul and judgment, but it's tough to get much out of it. Though I'm usually willing to work with the most meager of information, I can't give the church an up or down.

While at church, young Chris takes home one of the Bibles, which he keeps with him when he grows, taking it on his tours of duty in Iraq. In reviews, I've seen this incident referred to as theft. But most churches I know wouldn't really mind someone taking a church Bible for their own use. (I know the Gideons don't mind people taking motel Bibles and are happy to replace them free of charge.)

There is also a clergy reference in the film. One of Kyle's buddies in Iraq mentions he'd gone to seminary, but what kept him out of ministry was his love for gambling, particularly dice. Kyle says he'd like going to a church like that. Good on Kyle's buddy for discerning that the pulpit and the craps table are not compatible furniture (according to the "not being a lover of money" clause on the requirements of elders clause in I Timothy 3:3).

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Movie Churches Encore: Oscar Division Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver, winner of the 1942 Oscar for Best Picture, is one of the most overtly religious winners of an Academy Award (Going My Way, Ben Hur, and Chariots of Fire would be the other contenders). It tells the story of an average middle-class English woman and her family in a small English town in the first days of the Second World War. An important character in the film is the local vicar, and an important location is the local Anglican church. As to whether it is a Christian film, well, that's another thing.

The film has one fan that certainly wasn't about to be trumpeted by the MGM publicity department. Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler's Reich Minister of Propaganda, said he couldn't help but admire "a masterpiece of propaganda, a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries." Note he didn't say the film led him or would lead others to repentance.

There are four obvious religious scenes in the film, and I'll use them as the basis of the answer to this column's question, "Would I go to this movie church?"

The second conversation Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson) has in the film is with the local vicar. Her first conversation was in the city (London?), between Mrs. Miniver and the milliner who sells her a rather silly hat. She then happens upon the vicar on the train on her way home.

She tells him about the hat she bought and admits to feeling guilty about the extravagance of buying this unnecessary item. The vicar then confesses to buying expensive cigars he really can't afford. They both then laugh about their "lovely guilty feelings." Mrs. Minniver says that's why she's sure the vicar can do much good in their town because of his understanding of the people.

I'm not sure whether the vicar is doing much good here. It can be a fine thing to buy a silly hat or good cigars. But if a Christian feels guilty about the purchase, I believe examining one's own heart is important. Perhaps the purchase isn't a good use of what, really, is the Lord's money. I'm not sure a blanket endorsement of consumerism is really good ministry. Throughout the film, the vicar always feels at one with the culture of the world.

The "religious" scene in the film is in the local church. Everyone in town seems to be there, including Lady Beldon (played by Dame May Whitty) the rich town aristocrat. She has her own pew, which has a door with her name on a brass plate. I couldn't help of think of James 2, where the writer tells readers not to show preference in church to the rich.

A nice little boys' choir opened the service, and the vicar then led the congregation in a prayer of confession. Then the service is interrupted when someone brings the vicar a message. The vicar announces that the nation is at war. And then the vicar says a rather amazing thing. He says, "Many of you have other duties to perform," and he dismisses the congregation. Now it's true that some people have other duties to perform, but it seems like he's discounting the importance of prayer and worship at such a time.

There is a nice little scene in the film between Mrs. Miniver and station manager and church bell ringer Mr. Ballard (played Henry Travers, Clarence of It's A Wonderful Life). Mrs. Miniver's husband has gone off in his boat to aid in the retreat at Dunkirk. Ballard encourages her by quoting Psalm 107, "Some went out on the sea in ships... They saw the works of the Lord." That says something about the church (and perhaps the schools) of the time and the teaching of Scripture. Ordinary people could quote Scripture. In fact, in The Miracle of Dunkirk, England was notified of their need with three little words, "And if not." People of the time knew that was a quote from Daniel 3, the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and the rescue was on its way. An amazing thing.

My big problem with the film comes in the finale. There is a memorial service in the church for those who died in a German air raid (including two characters that were quite dear in the film).

At the service, the vicar asks the question that all are thinking at such a time, "Why?" -- always a difficult question, particularly when the young and innocent die. A minister at such a time must wrestle with Scripture (perhaps looking at Luke 13 when people ask Jesus about people killed in the fall of a tower and by Roman soldiers).

But after reading a Psalm, the vicar ignores the Bible altogether and recruits the dead into the war effort, for this is "not just a war of soldiers in uniform, but of all the people." Abraham Lincoln was asked the place of God in the American Civil War, and he was not quick to claim God was on his side. But the vicar jumps right to it: God is English.

Perhaps it's not an accident that the church in this film is a state church. It is at one with the English culture and government. So if I was in the world of this film, I'd probably go to the church because it's the only one in town. But the vicar would be hearing from me on a fairly regular basis.

(This post first appeared in our Dean and Mindy Go To Church Blog before there was a Movie Churches blog back in 2015.)

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Oscar Month at Movie Churches: Going My Way

Is there anything more riveting than church finances? I guess there are a million things or so. But really, that's what Best Picture Oscar winner Going My Way (1944) is all about. Like every melodrama of the 19th century, the film is about paying the mortgage.

The film opens with Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) begging the president of Knickerbocker Savings and Loan for an extension on their mortgage AND money for a new furnace. Fitzgibbon established the church 45 years before and yet still has a mortgage, which the church is six months behind in paying.

There are subplots in the film only tangentially related to the money thing. Bing Crosby, as hep young priest Father "Chuck" O'Malley, comes to the church to help out. He turns a gang of young turkey thieving, slang spouting hoodlums into a boys choir (with happening tunes like "Three Blind Mice"). Both priests try to counsel an 18-year-old "runaway" woman that she shouldn't pursue a career in show business, but rather settle down as a wife and mother (spoiler, she eventually takes their advice). And there is a gossiping elderly woman in the church named Mrs. Quimp. The priests never give her biblical counsel about the sinful nature of gossip, but instead listen to the gossip, then call her a biddy behind her back. But really, the film is about the Benjamins.

To start with, not knowing the history of the finances of St. Dominic's, a church hasn't paid off the mortgage after 45 years has probably been irresponsible with their resources. In fact, though O'Malley insists that "every respectable church has a mortgage," there are many congregations that with planning, wisdom and foresight, and God's grace, avoid debt.

I've been in churches in financial straits. They usually take the following steps:

1) Pray. This has always been the first thing done; bring the church's cares to the One who "owns the cattle on a thousand hills". Doing this never discussed by the priests in the film.

2) Look for places to cut. But no, when O'Malley comes to the church, he starts spending. He takes his boys' choirs to movies and ballgames. (To be fair, the baseball tickets are free. For some inexplicable reason, the New York Yankees seem to give unlimited tickets to Chuck because he used to work out with the Cleveland Browns).

3) Look for other sources of revenue. This could include things like renting out the facilities or selling off property. Father O'Malley does this. He tries to sell a song he wrote to a music publisher. This is a financial act roughly on the level of buying lottery tickets to get out of debt. I can just imagine if I'd gone to church trustees saying, "I've got a plan for making the budget work! I'm going to write a best-selling novel." But since this is a movie, the selling-a-song thing (spoiler) works.

4) Bring the problem to the people. At the beginning of the film, the Savings and Loan president suggests to Fitzgibbon that he should do a sermon encouraging giving. The priest scoffs at the idea, saying he's not going to preach the mortgage agreement. (The president also suggests he could speak on being a "cheerful giver", a reference to II Corinthians 9:7, which may be more reference to Scripture than either of the priests makes during the film.) At the end of the film, Fitzgibbon does preach about giving, and O'Malley tricks him into thinking the sermon works --even though it's money from the song that saves the church. Deception is a fairly regular practice for these priests.

The thing that annoyed me most in the film is the way the money lenders are portrayed as bad for wanting the church to meet its payments. This kind of arrogance and assumed privilege is what gives the church a bad name in the world.

But let me conclude on a more "spiritual" note. We learn that Father O'Malley became a priest so he could show that religion isn't a drag, but can be fun. His theology can be found in the lyrics of the title song, which he writes as his testament of faith. In conclusion, I invite you to exegete the lyrics:

"This road leads to Rainbowville
Going my way
Up ahead is Blue Bird Hill
Going my way
Round the bend, you'll see a sign
"Dreamers Highway"
Happiness is down the line
Going my way
The smiles you'll gather
Will look well on you
Oh, I hope you're going my way too."

May I just say to that, "Amen" or "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo" or something.

(This post was originally found at Dean and Movie Go to Church in 2015. This was prior to rating churches by Steeples, but this church and Bing would probably have rated Two Steeples or so.)

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Movie Churches in 2019's Best Picture Race

The Academy Awards are this Sunday. I've seen all the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and I must say, there's very little church or clergy in any of the films. It's quite thoughtless of the Academy to give so little attention to the needs of this blog. If a film like Just Mercy or A Hidden Life had been nominated, I’d have a little more to work with, but no…

A majority of the nine films nominated (Ford Vs. Ferrari, Joker, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, and Marriage Story) have no direct reference to churches or clergy, but the remaining four have minor ecclesiastical references.

Parasite (my favorite film from last year), had a passing church reference. The poor family in the movie makes money folding boxes for a local pizza parlor, and that pizza parlor gets a major order from The Love of God Church. And that’s it. (FWIW, I tend to be more favorable to churches that serve pizza.)

Little Women has a prominent clergy character, but they try to keep that on the down-low. The film is based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel (released in two parts in 1868 and 1869). The story tells of a mother and her daughters, the Marches, struggling to get by while Father March serves in the Civil War. In the book, it states quite plainly that the father serves as a chaplain with the Union Army. In Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the novel, the word “chaplain” is never used. One of the daughters, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) talks about her father (Bob Odenkirk) going off to serve the Union Army and wishing she could join him, certainly giving the impression that he is serving as a soldier. The only clues we have of Father March’s profession is when he officiates over the wedding of one daughter and the funeral of another. We really get no indication of the quality of Father March’s ministry. A church in the family’s town is prominent in a number of shots, but we never see the Marches (or anyone else) step inside it.

The Irishman is the only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees that makes prominent references to the church and clergy. This isn’t too surprising, considering it was directed by Martin Scorsese -- who often works with religious themes (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun) and more specifically Catholicism (The Silence). The Irishman is the story of mobsters, particularly Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their involvement in the killing of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa; these vicious, cold-blooded men are active in the Catholic Church. In the film, we see several baptisms and a wedding in Catholic Churches (Christian statuary and iconography are featured throughout the film).

Through the camera's eye, we follow these mobsters as they age, and near the end of Russell’s life, he begins to attend church regularly. Frank teases him for this, but Russell says, “Don’t laugh, you’ll see.” And Frank does eventually find himself in a Catholic nursing home being visited by priests. Frank doesn’t seem to feel much guilt for his past, even for the people he killed, but a priest encourages him, “I think we can be sorry even when we don’t feel sorry. It’s a decision of the will.”

1917 doesn’t have a formal church or clergyperson, but it does have the most moving worship service I saw in a film from last year. The film tells the story of two soldiers given the assignment of taking a message to the front lines. One soldier reaches a troop about to go to battle. It is quite evident that the men are scared. One of the men stands before them and sings a folk/gospel song, “The Wayfaring Stranger.” The song tells of a journey of God’s redeemed across the Jordan to see their loved ones, “I’m only going over home.” We see war-torn churches and hear church bells in the film, but this moment of worship is truly "church." If I was giving steeple this week, that service would get four steeples out of four.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Miracle Movie Churches Month: Saint Ralph

In the Universal 1941 musical, Hellzapoppin', there's a movie studio called Miracle Studios ("If it's a good picture, it's a Miracle!") and Three Amigos uses the same joke. So many things need to come together to make a good movie that every one is a bit of a miracle, making this small film, 2004's Saint Ralph, a bit of a miracle. But as usual, we aren't here to judge the movie but rather the churches and clergy in the film.

Saint Ralph is all about the making of a miracle. It also features two priests who take very different approaches to miracles.

Ralph (Adam Butcher) is a 15-year-old student at a parochial school in Canada in the early 1950s. His father died in World War II, and his mother is very ill. When his mother slips into a coma, Ralph is told it will take a miracle to save her. Ralph sets his mind (and heart) on making the miracle which will lead to lead to his mother’s healing. As he has just begun cross country running, he decides that his miracle will be winning the Boston Marathon.

Ralph’s Religion teacher is also his cross country coach, Father George (Campbell Scott). Ralph asks about the requirements for a miracle, and Father George tells him that three things are required: faith, purity, and prayer. He is told that faith means you must truly believe even though this sometimes makes no logical sense (the great Catholic philosophers and theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas would disagree). He is told that in prayer he must be in direct communication with God (unlike Mother Teresa who spoke of the dark night of the soul or even Christ Himself who cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”). Purity is described as being completely free of sin. So Ralph purses not only his running skills but also these three pious elements.

Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent), the school’s administrator, opposes Ralph’s pursuit of a miracle. Just as Jesus scoffed at those who pursued signs and wonders, he forbids Ralph from pursuing his miracle. His goal for his students is for them to be content with their lot in life, and he doesn’t want Ralph to have to deal with what he sees as the inevitable discouragement of striving for something better, especially the miraculous.

This tension between those who pursue and those who discourage the pursuit of the miraculous is very real in churches. But you might not be surprised to find that the movie leans toward the miraculous -- because that is so much more cinematic. As for the priests, neither really manages to strike the Biblical balance of trusting God’s sovereignty seen in both the natural course of events and in the unexpected surprises we call miracles.

The film does illustrate one other often-overlooked bonus of church life: the merit of Mass (or any worship service, really) as a date. Because Ralph is caught in an embarrassing, public act of “self-abuse” (as the film calls it), the father of the girl he is interested in refuses to allow his daughter out on a date with Ralph. But they can meet at church, which they do during Holy Week. They even hold hands during Mass. In my book bars and Christian Mingle will never hold a candle to that place where they light candles -- when it comes to meeting that special someone.

(This post first appeared in our blog, Dean and Mindy Go to Church, before I was rating churches in movies with Steeples. Who knows what I was thinking back in 2015?)

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Miracle Movie Month: Do You Believe?

(This review was first published while the film was still in theaters.)

At the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes, one of the lowest-rated films in theaters is Do You Believe? It's rocking 19%, meaning that four out of five critics say skip this thing, so I didn't have high expectations going in -- especially since the film shares a writer with one of my least favorite films last year, God's Not Dead.

And do you know what? The film isn't very good. The movie takes the stories of twelve different characters, all facing various trials on a particular day, until all their stories come together. You might be thinking, "Oh, like the movie Crash?" Yes, the movie climaxes in a car crash.

It's not at all emotionally subtle. Silent film director D. W. Griffith would have said to the actors, "You can tone it down a bit." Steel Magnolias would comment on this film to An Affair to Remember: "It's a little emotionally over the top, don't you think?" Deus Ex Machina comments, "There were too many crazy coincidences for me."

But thankfully, we're not here to review the film, which happens to be mediocre, but the church in the film.

Last month, I was fairly harsh on the church in God's Not Dead (I will repost that review soon here), but I have to admit the church in Do You Believe? is a pretty good place.

First of all, it would kind of awesome going to church with the Six Million Dollar Man (Lee Majors), Maddie Hayes of Moonlighting (Cybill Sheppard), and NFL/B Movie Action Star Brian Bosworth, even though this church is pastored by Ted McGinley. McGinley is one of those actors that make you say, "Hey, I know him from somewhere..." It does say something about God's grace that He allows a regular from Married with Children and The Love Boat to serve Him. We see Pastor McGinley at the beginning of the film encounter street preacher Delroy Lindo taking on a gang of street thugs. Delroy then asks Pastor McG, "Do you believe in the cross?"

The pastor then goes home to work on the next night's sermon. His sermon notes are a little less detailed than I usually make in my preparations. His notes consist of a sketch of a cross drawn on a legal pad with the words "Do You Believe?"

He is able to take those notes and preach a fairly full sermon. He uses a large cross in the front of the church for a visual aid, painting it with red representing Jesus' blood. He gives everyone in the congregation little wooden crosses and encourages people to live out Christ's example by serving others.

And we see the congregation through the rest of the film working in soup kitchens, housing the homeless, sharing their faith. When Heath Barkley asks Jacy Farrow to take in a homeless woman and her daughter into their home, she says, "You expect us to turn our lives upside down because of a sermon?" There aren't many sermons that do such a thing. But one that does can be quite a good thing.

There is one morally intriguing subplot. Bobby the paramedic comes across a man at an accident scene who's dying. He does everything he can for the man medically, but there is no hope to save him -- except spiritually. He encourages the man to get right with God and gives him the cross he received at church. The dying man's wife is delayed from reaching the accident scene, and by the time she gets to her husband, he's dead. When the wife learns what Bobby did, she sues. Though like most things in the film, the dilemma is presented with sledgehammer subtlety, the situation is not neatly tied up with a bow.

There are some other good things about this church. Brian Bosworth plays a prisoner released early because of his terminal illness. The church takes him on as janitor. Good for them. During a service, Bosworth welcomes a man fleeing from the police into the sanctuary. Not standard procedure, but he says he does so at the Spirit's direction which proves accurate.

A strange thing about the church is that in the worship service we see, there seems to be no music or greeting time, just a sermon. Most people look for a little more variety in a service, but for a Movie Church, this one isn't too bad. Can't say I'd give the film a thumbs up, but the church in the film certainly deserves one.

(This post is from 2015 in the blog DeanandMindyGotoChurch before this blog began, and before I was giving Steeple Ratings. But this church would probably earn our highest, four steeple rating.)

Friday, January 17, 2020

Miracle Movie Churches Lillies of the Field

The problem with talking about Movie Churches with miracles is it's hard to get people to agree on the definition of a "miracle." Does a miracle need to break the laws of nature? Or can a miracle just be an answer to prayer? How can you tell the difference between a miracle and a coincidence?

Lilies of the Field is a movie about a church built through a series of miracles -- or a series of coincidences. The Mother Superior of a small convent in the desert prays for someone to build a chapel. In their community, there is no church building. There is a priest that travels about in a camper performing mass. The priest, Father Murphy, also prayed in seminary for a beautiful sanctuary to serve, and was disappointed in his situation.

Sidney Poitier (in an Oscar-winning performance) plays Homer Smith, an itinerant handyman who believes he is stopping at the house where the nuns live for water for his overheated car. The Mother Superior believes he has stopped to build a chapel; that he is sent by God. He knows that this is not the case because he is not planning on staying and that he's a Baptist.

He's willing to work for pay. But the nuns really don't have money to pay him for all the work that must be done, and they certainly don't have the finances to pay for the supplies to build the chapel. So the Mother Superior prays for the supplies as well. God answers those prayers when a local construction business supplies bricks out of guilt. Certainly, there seems to be nothing strictly supernatural in the arrival of a worker and supplies, but the Mother Superior has no doubt that it is God's work.

Evaluating this movie church, I should take a moment to discuss the clergy. Father Murphy does not have the best reputation among some in the community. The owner of the local diner believes the Father loves his wine too much. The Father himself believes he's unworthy of his position. He believes his seminary prayers showed disqualifying pride. But the beauty of the new chapel reminds Father Murphy that God's grace overwhelms our sins, and it seems he will be a good priest in it.

Homer doesn't only bring his architectural skills to the new church, he also brings his guitar. He teaches the nuns a gospel song, "Amen," which tells a theologically sound life of Christ. In fact, most of the theology in the film I found fairly sound. I did have a problem with one thing the Mother Superior said in the film. She says about Homer, "He is not of our faith, but he was brought to us by God; the God of all faiths." I have no problem with her saying that about Catholics or Baptists. But when you say all faiths, you're including those that had faiths that asked for infant sacrifices to Baal. I'm just not comfortable with that. (And I'll save my rant on Scientology inspired by the very good HBO film Going Clear for another week. I never did get to that.)

Psalm 127 says, "Unless the Lord builds the house, they that labor, labor in vain." The movie church in Lilies of the Field seems to be built by God. By definition then, that's not for nothing.

[Business detail: as of June 1, Movie Churches will have its own blog. More exciting details to come soon!] (And it happened. Which is why we now moving our posts from DeanAndMindyGoToChurch blog to here.)

Sunday, January 12, 2020

In Theaters Now! Just Mercy

Just Mercy (2019)
What would you choose as the very last song you’d ever hear?

Probably most of us would rather not need to answer that question, but in Just Mercy, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) chooses Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “The Old Rugged Cross” before being executed in the electric chair by the state of Alabama.

This isn’t an isolated moment of religiosity in the film. It's based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and his career as founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization founded to provide legal assistance for those convicted of crimes without adequate legal representation. The film particularly focuses on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man unjustly convicted of murder in 1988 in Monroeville, Alabama (rather ironically the home of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird).

Throughout the film, it seems that many of the best traits of its characters (faith, hope, compassion) are rooted in by their upbringing in the church. We see Stevenson as an intern during law school meeting with a death row inmate for the first time. The two men bond over their background in music -- one playing the piano, the other singing in a choir -- in AME churches.

McMillian should have been able to escape charges immediately. A church fish fry provided an alibi, but the local law enforcement and the legal system took the word of one white criminal over the word of a score of African American churchgoers willing to testify to his innocence.

But this site is all about clergy and churches, so how are they portrayed? Both make a brief appearance in the film. At Richardson's execution, we see a white clergyman in a collar (possibly a Roman Catholic priest?), but we never hear him speak. He seems to be an odd choice of clergy, but possibly Herbert has no other connection to a church or clergyman. (He also has no family; he asked Stevenson -- his lawyer -- to be there for him at his executions.)

We do see one glimpse of a church. Stevenson attends a joyous service at the McMillian’s home church. The service is full of joy and celebration during one of the darker times of the McMillian family journey.

Therefore, we are giving the McMillian’s church in the film, and the depiction of Christ’s Church, our highest Movie Church rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Miracle Movie Churches Month: Agnes of God

"A miracle is an event without explanation," says the Mother Superior in Agnes of God, giving one of the worst definitions of the word I've heard. For one thing, if you look up dictionary definitions of the word, often you'll see the word miracle is associated with positive outcomes and with divine purpose. "Events without explanation" happen on Twitter all the time.

Poor definitions are just the beginning of the problems with the Movie Church/Convent in Norman Jewison's 1985 film, Agnes of God. In the opening of the film, we see what looks like an old white church with a tall steeple. A scream brings the camera within its walls, and we see a bloody, terrified nun.

We then learn the nun, Agnes (Meg Tilly), has been accused of murdering her own newborn baby. A court-appointed psychiatrist, Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda), is sent to interview Agnes. And yes, the mother superior (Ann Bancroft, a little ways from Mrs. Robinson) does indeed greet her with the words, "Dr. Livingston, I presume?"

Livingston is not greeted warmly at the convent. Some nuns, who seem to have taken a vow of silence, greet her only with dirty looks. We learn that the mother superior is opposed because she is opposed to psychiatry. Livingston accuses her of opposing science, and Mother Miriam doesn't deny it.

In fact, she seems to have quite the soft spot for ignorance. The nuns of the convent (excepting the mother superior and one other sister) are kept from any contact with the world. Agnes herself was raised in isolation by her mother and then sent to the isolation of the convent. Mother Miriam speaks rather approvingly of Agnes never seeing TV or a movie or reading a book, seeming to believe there is a connection between holiness and the lack of a sound mind. She says at one point, "Not all of the saints were good, in fact, some were a little crazy." This would come as quite a surprise to Saints Augustine, Aquinas, and Thomas More.

Agnes even appears to be ignorant of where babies come from. She says that "good babies come from an angel whispering in a mother's ear" and bad babies come from "demons touching a mother there and then the baby comes out of the mother's body." There is a mystery running through the film about the father of the baby. Did Agnes have a lover? Was she raped? Or was there a supernatural occurrence?

Agnes claims that the Angel Michael was the father of her baby. This runs directly counter to what Jesus said in Matthew 22:30, "At the resurrection people will neither marry or be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven." But then, Agnes seems as ignorant of the Bible as she is of every book. Bible reading doesn't appear to have a place in the life of this convent.

A priest does come every week to take confession and to give the Eucharist. He stands off from the
nuns behind bars as he blesses the bread and the cup. He is the only man that is supposed to have any contact with the nuns. At night, no man is allowed on the property. Mother Superior says that after dark "Jesus Christ himself would not be allowed in," and from what I could see, He wasn't allowed in at other times, either.

Dr. Livingston does witness one "miracle," stigmata: Agnes' hands spontaneously begin to bleed as Christ's hands did when pierced with the nail. This phenomenon has been associated with many saints through the years, but as Livingston points out, this phenomenon has been explained as having a hysterical origin.

In the world of this movie church, though, natural explanations don't seem to hold. We see the stigmata break out, but nothing encouraging or holy comes from it. So I would think if it was of supernatural origin, it would be demonic rather than divine.

Do I have anything good to say about the Movie Church/Convent of this film? Well, they do have a very cool bell tower. And a secret passage. Secret passages are awesome. And at one point we see the nuns ice skating. Nuns ice skating are just adorable. Otherwise, the place earns a solid thumbs down.

(This post is from 2015 in Dean and Mindy Go to Church before this blog began, and before I was giving Steeple ratings. This convent would have received one, at most two steeples.)

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Miracle Movie Churches: Heaven Is For Real

2014 was a big year for Christian films -- films with Christian themes and films produced by Christians. The film industry was shocked by these films taking in big box office numbers. Few predicted that Heaven is for Real, the adaptation of a best-selling memoir of a boy's adventures through the pearly gates would take in over ninety million dollars.

One of the nice things about writing movie church reviews is I not have to review the film itself,  but also I don't have to decide upon theological and epistemological questions. So reviewing this film adaptation of the book of the same title by the Reverend Todd Burpo (played in the film by Greg Kinnear), I don't have to decide whether Burpo's claims are true or not. You can decide for yourself whether you believe Burpo's four-year-old son visited heaven.

I'm just here to evaluate the Crossroads Wesleyan Church as depicted in the film. This church may or may not be like the church in real life (frankly, I hope it isn't) but for our purposes here, it doesn't matter. So we'll just look at some of the elements of the church in the film for evaluation.

CWC's Music Program:

Sonja Burpo (Kelly Reilly), the pastor's wife, runs the music program. Pastor Burpo dreads Monday night women's choir rehearsals. Part of the problem seems to be that they only sing one song, "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." Sure, we do hear them perform one other song from the public domain, "Jesus Loves the Little Children." But "Fount" is the mainstay, and we hear it several times in the film. I guess if it's good enough for Mumford and Sons (skip ahead to about the one minute mark) it's good enough for Wesleyan.

CWC's Leadership:

This doesn't seem to be a pastor-led church. There are plenty of churches in America (primarily Baptist and independent fundamentalist churches) where the pastor's word is law. This church is run by a leadership team apparently not called deacons or elders but simply "the Board." There are four members of the Board, but just two of them seem to make all the decisions; Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale) and Jay Wilkens (Thomas Haden Church.)

At one point in the film, the church board tells Pastor Burpo they're not pleased with his performance, and they're looking for someone to replace him. I have no doubt this has happened in some churches, but it is pure leadership idiocy. It's not fair to the pastor who is expected to keep working through the leadership has no faith in him. No pastor with integrity is going take a position where the current pastor is forced to dangle on a string. And it's not fair to a congregation. If a church needs to fire a pastor, it's wise to take time to evaluate the state and mission of the church before a new person is hired. The church leadership here doesn't seem wise.

CWC's Teaching:

Here is where I have the biggest problem with the church. In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul urges Timothy to "preach the word, be prepared in season and out." But Pastor Burpo, according to Wilkens, "preaches from the heart" not necessarily from the Word. The first sermon we hear from him, he talks about The Last Battle (a great book in The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis) but we don't hear him mention any Scripture. The next time we hear him preach, he mentions Romans 12, but in not much detail.

My real problem is his final sermon of the film. In that sermon, he spends the time telling about his son's experience in heaven. That is the content of the sermon. Whether his son's story is true or not, it's not preaching from the Bible. And that is what a pastor should be doing with pulpit time. When he addresses the issue of whether heaven is real or not, he goes on about heaven being a baby's newborn cry and sunsets and the assistance of doctors and nurses and such. He really sounds like that newspaper editor who wrote Virginia to assure her there was a Santa Claus.

So, though the church in real life might be swell, for all I know, I wouldn't be going to the Crossroads Wesleyan Church as depicted in the film.

(This post first appeared in 2015 in our Dean and Mindy Go to Church blog before this blog came to be. I didn't do Steeple ratings at that time, but it would probably had gotten 2 or 3 Steeples.)