Thursday, May 20, 2021

Crime Month: Can I Get a Witness Protection?


Can I Get a Witness Protection?
(2016)

Many people can’t stand Christian films because the films tend to be...how should I put it? Let's just say sub-par quality. Or incompetently produced. Or insipid. We here at Movie Churches have a different problem with Christian films. We figured that if any filmmakers get the mundane, nitty-gritty details of church and Christian service right, it would be Christian filmmakers. But no.

This sad fact was demonstrated once again in this week’s film, Can I Get a Witness Protection? The 2016 film has a potentially workable high concept: a man who witnesses a murder is put in the witness protection program as a pastor in a small church. Similar themes have been used in films like My Blue Heaven, For Richer or Poorer, and Did You Hear About the Morgans? but this film gets very few of the facts of small church life right, especially in the particulars of denomination and location.

This appears to be the only movie writer/director Robert G. Lee has written or directed, though he has written a number of episodes of VeggieTales. Lee has had an extensive television career as a warm-up comic for a number of sitcoms - Designing Women, Perfect Strangers, Wings, Just Shoot Me, and others. To make this film, he used crowdfunding resources (Kickstarter and Indiegogo).


The wacky comedy tells the story of Jack (Jamie Alexander) and Julie (Jacquelyn Zook), a couple with a rocky marriage forced to move from San Diego to Fresno in the Witness Protection Program after Jack witnesses a murder in a garage of his trucking company. (Since Fresno is only a five-hour drive from San Diego, one might wonder if this is much of a hiding place. Someone in the film raises this objection asking, “You don’t think people in San Diego can find Fresno?” The federal agent responds, “We’ve found most people in San Diego don’t want to find Fresno.”)

Jack is given a position as associate pastor in the First Presbyterian Church of Fresno. Senior Pastor Bronwen (Kevin Brief) takes two large bricks of cash from the federal agents as reimbursement for helping  Jack and Julie. He provides them with living space in the church (which has no showers or private bathrooms) and admits the dilapidated church has been struggling financially. Federal protection money helps them get by.


We then meet the rest of the staff of the church. Danny (David Storrs) serves both as the church janitor and youth pastor (of a youth group with a single member.) Kathy (Karen Whipple) is the music director who is not only unable to play any musical instruments but can’t even play a boombox (at a memorial service she inadvertently plays Christmas carols and the Hallelujah Chorus). And Linda (Jodi Shilling) is the church secretary but calls herself the pastor’s “indentured servant.” With Jack, that makes a staff of five serving a congregation of fewer than fifty people (guessing from the church services we see). The staff all seems quite incompetent, and I was sure the joke would be that they were all part of the witness protection program. But no, this congregation hired and continues to pay a large staff of people wholly unsuited to their work.


The next plot twist comes when the senior pastor dies, putting Associate Pastor Jack in the place of Senior Pastor (you know, like royalty or Presidents). Jack really shakes things up by going out into the neighborhood, serving community meals, and letting a couple of homeless men sleep in the church. This brings the church to the attention of the media (oddly, it's as if no church anywhere -- not just in Fresno -- has ever done such a thing before) and the media draws the attention of the killers.

At the conclusion of the film, the killers come to the church during a service and --at gunpoint -- threaten to take Jack away. But the congregation is able to overcome the killers and call the police. Jack admits he isn’t a real pastor, does not have any seminary training, and, in fact, just became a Christian during his weeks of service at the church, but the congregation acclaims him their new pastor nonetheless.

So what does the film get wrong about churches? And about Fresno? And even about crime? So many things.


First, mistakes about churches:
  1. Pastoral hiring. It was a very poor choice to make the church Presbyterian. There are a number of Presbyterian denominational variants in the United States, but all of them have elaborate procedures for hiring pastors involving bureaucracies in the denomination, church elders, and the congregants. If filmmakers had made the church an independent congregation or even if they just called it Baptist, it might be possible the senior pastor would choose his own associate and the congregation chooses its own senior pastor, but this doesn’t happen with Presbyterians.
  2. Church signs. We see a number of “witty” sayings on the church sign in the film. (“We Don't Raise Our Hands In Church - We're Afraid God Might Call On Us!” “Presbyterians - We’re like Methodists but without the excitement.” “Download God’s Prayer App for Quality God Facetime”) I’m more than willing to believe all of these sayings have appeared on the signs of real-life small churches, but the signs don’t get changed that quickly.
  3. Financial accountability. The senior pastor keeps the funds in cash in a safe. No one but the senior pastor has the combination to the safe. The IRS would be very interested in these things.
  4. Pastoral requirements. Jack’s first sermon is a disaster and his attempts to use the former pastor's library just confuses him,  so his staff gives him several books: Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ, C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, and Josh McDowell’s New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. I’ve read all these books, and they’re good, but it's hard to believe that in one week these books on apologetics not only lead Jack to become a Christian but also make him a passable preacher. As Paul wrote, “Whoever aspires to be a pastor desires a noble task...He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.” I don’t think Paul would have been cool with making Jack a pastor.
  5. No way this would be First Church. The name of the church is First Presbyterian Church of Fresno, but it seems to be located in an upscale newer neighborhood. In a city like Fresno, most First churches (and sometimes even Seconds and Thirds) of a major denomination will have their campuses near the center of the city in a downtown area.

Geography is outside our purview here at Movie Churches, but as a former resident of Fresno, I have some quibbles. The few people in the congregation in what appears to be a very tidy neighborhood seems relatively well-to-do, but our introduction to the church mentions homeless people living in the neighborhood (we see a few well-groomed people pushing shopping carts on the street or getting clothes from what they think is a clothing giveaway). In addition, everybody seems very white, though Fresno's population is only about 50% white. About 40% of the people living there are Hispanic, more than 10% are Asian (Fresno is home to the second-largest Hmong population in the US), and about 30% are Black, Native American, or "other"). Not surprisingly, the church used in the film is located in a Los Angeles suburb. 

I also had real problems with how the way the criminals conducted their business. I admit I'm not an expert, but does it make any sense that criminals concerned about one man witnessing their criminal activities, would hold a whole congregation at gunpoint, creating dozens of witnesses? Again, I’m not in the murder business, but that isn’t how I’d conduct my murder dealings.

But we don’t rate geography, demographics, or the accuracy of criminal representation here. We rate churches and clergy in movies, and we’re giving the entirely fictional First Presbyterian Church of Fresno a meager Two Steeples.

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