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.)