Friday, April 3, 2020

I Fought the Law Month: Salvation Boulevard

Salvation Boulevard (2011)

I’ve mentioned this before here at Movie Churches, but I think it is probably worth mentioning again: we are not in favor of pastors, or anyone in church leadership, committing murder.

Not that murderers can't be pastors. After all, the Apostle Paul was an accessory to the murder of Stephen. God is capable of redeeming people from all kinds of sins. But once someone is in a leadership role in a church, they really shouldn’t be doing any murdering. We’re pretty hardline about that here at Movie Churches.

Salvation Boulevard (2011, directed by George Ratliff) is a dark comedy about a Southern California megachurch with a pastor who loves power and adoration and inconveniently shoots a debating rival. Pierce Brosnan plays the Reverend Dan Day who resembles Joel Osteen as much as anyone on the current televangelist circuit.

Early in the film, we see Day debating an atheist, Peter Blaylock (Ed Harris) at a college campus. It's a public debate about the existence of God. Blaylock brings up the usual arguments about the Plague and the Spanish Inquisition and 9/11 and asks “Where was God during thousands of years of human suffering?” 

These are the most basic arguments anyone preparing for such a debate should expect (and be ready with a direct answer). Day doesn’t answer the question(s) directly but points to “evidence everywhere you look for God’s existence, in law, nature, culture” and in “the faces I know here.”

Day points out a man in the crowd, Carl Vandermeer (Sam Rockwell), a former Deadhead who joined his church. For years, Carl had followed the Grateful Dead, taking “lots and lots and lots of drugs.” Day says that Carl has now found that “true happiness comes from submitting to God’s perfect plan for us.” Carl has “the fingerprints of God all over.”

After the debate, Blaylock asks Day to join him for a drink in his faculty office. He asks if Carl can come along as well. (It is interesting that the issue of the propriety of alcohol on campus -- or being consumed by clergy -- is not raised by Day or Blaylock.) In the office, Blaylock shows Day an antique gun and offers to let Day examine it. As Blaylock proposes that he and Day work on a book together, Day, playing with the gun, accidentally shoots Blaylock in the head.

Carl says they must call 911 immediately, but Reverend Day says, “No,” there are things too important to risk. Such as the groundbreaking of City on a Hill, a project that includes a cathedral, a law school, and medical school. Day puts the gun in Blaylock’s hand so his death will look like a suicide, then tells Carl to call 911 from a payphone (I guess you could still easily find those ten years ago) and claim to have heard a gunshot from a campus office and hang up. Carl does what Day tells him.

We soon learn that Blaylock is not dead but in a coma. The Reverend Day tries to continue with life as usual. We see him lead a worship service at The Third Millenium Church. As one would expect in a contemporary megachurch, there is a large camera crew, talented but banal worship band, and gaudy stage decorations. The most disappointing thing about the service is Reverend Day's preaching. It is pure affirmation, and though the name of Jesus is mentioned, no Scripture is read or even referenced. I don’t recall the Reverend quoting Scripture in any way throughout the film.

After the service, Carl's wife Gwen (Jennifer Connelly) approaches the Reverend with a project she and a friend would like the church to support: a movie theater that shows only Christian films. (I have grave doubts about the profitability of such a project, but if anyone wants to give it a go, would be the ideal place to use your advertising dollars.)

The Reverend Day needs a fall guy for Blaylock's shooting, so he accuses Carl. He also asks his chief video assistant and right-hand man, Jerry (Jim Gaffigan), to kill Carl. 

As Jerry leads Carl into the wilderness, he talks about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac. Carl sees where this is going, and knocks Jerry out before he can kill him.

Carl is now on the run, so he can't escort his stepdaughter, Angie (Isabelle Fuhrman), to the church’s “Purity Ball.” Fathers take their daughters to this rather odd event, a dance where the daughters make a commitment to remain “pure” until marriage. Because Carl is on the run, being accused of attempted murder and all, the Reverend Day, in a quite creepy maneuver, takes Angie to the dance.

The Reverend goes to visit Peter Blaylock at the hospital. He's obviously considering finishing Peter off, but can’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he confesses to the comatose professor, claiming the devil made him do it.

Spoilers - the truth does eventually come out and justice is done. Professor Blaylock comes out of his coma and fully recovers. The Reverend Day is sent to prison where he begins a ministry. 

After he gets out, he goes into real estate. In the end, he isn’t actually a murderer. About the worst he could be charged with is attempted manslaughter, but that still goes against Paul’s instruction in I Timothy 3 that an overseer should be “not violent but gentle.” 

I rather hope The Third Millennium Church disbands. It seems like (at best) a Two Steeple Church on the Movie Churches scale, and the Reverend Day brings it down to One Steeple. This is not the place I’d send people to seek salvation, I would suggest a different boulevard.

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