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.