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.