Friday, August 27, 2021

Movie Churches is confused: Is this old or new?

Hail Caesar

I’ve watched the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar a number of times, but this time I watched it after watching some of the Biblical epics satirized in the film, particularly Quo Vadis and The Robe. Among other things, Hail Caesar presents a compelling argument for why such films are so very bland.

The film follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer whose job is to keep the worst antics of the studio’s stars out of the newspapers and to ensure that the studio’s releases don’t offend the “average American.”

The film opens in a church, with Eddie in the confessional booth. Eddie is a frequent occupant of the confessional, concerned about his smoking habit and white lies to his wife but showing very little concern for the lies and crimes that are a part of his job.

His current task is to make sure the studio’s new Biblical epic, Hail Caesar, is not offensive to religious audiences. As a Catholic, Mannix naturally thinks of bringing in a priest but adds, “Let’s also invite a Rabbi and a Protestant padre of some kind.” Which he does, along with an Orthodox priest.

Mannix addresses the clergymen (and they are all men): “We don’t want to send it to market except in the certainty that it will not offend any reasonable American, regardless of faith or creed. Now that 's where you come in. You’ve read the script; I wanna know if the theological elements of the story are up to snuff.”

The response of the Eastern Orthodox priest (Aramazd Stepanian) is not really to the point, “I thought the chariot scene was fakey. How is he going to jump from one chariot to the other, going full speed?”

Mannix is trying to sell the men on the power of movies to educate and exhort people (“Yes, and entertainment,” he adds with a winning smile) and particularly on this production which he insists will be the best telling ever of the story of Jesus. 

Again, the Orthodox priest answers, “Perhaps, sir, you are forgetting the telling in the Holy Bible.” 

Eddie answers, “You’re quite right, Patriarch. The Bible, of course, is terrific.” (High praise indeed.)

Eventually, Eddie asks, “As for the religious aspect, does the depiction of Jesus Christ cut the mustard?”

The Catholic priest (Robert Pike Daniel) answers, “Well, the nature of Christ is not quite as simple as your photoplay would have it.”

“How so, Father?” Eddie asks.

“It’s not the case, simply, that Christ is God or God Christ…” The priest responds.

“You can say that again,” explodes the rabbi (Robert Picardo), “The Nazarene was not God!”

“He was not not God,” the Orthodox priest interjects.

“He was a man!” the rabbi insists.

“Part God,” adds the Protestant (Allan Havey).

“No, sir!” answers the rabbi.

“Rabbi, all of us have a little bit of God in us, don’t we?” asks Eddie, seeking common ground.

When the Catholic priest insists the important thing is to show that Jesus is the Son of God, the rabbi responds that God doesn’t have children. The priest answers, “God has children.”

The rabbi gets sarcastic, “What? And a dog? A collie, maybe? God doesn’t have children. He’s a bachelor. And very angry.” 

The Catholic priest answers, “No! No! He used to be angry!” 

The rabbi asks, “What? He got over it?”

The Protestant butts in, “You worship the God of another age!” 

“Who has no love!” adds the priest. 

“Not true,” the rabbi responds, “He likes Jews.”

(I must interrupt here to say the theology of the Catholic priest and Protestant minister is going to dock them some Steeples in our clergy rating. Christianity actually teaches that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New are one and the same.)

The Catholic priest makes another shot at explaining Jesus to Eddie saying, “It’s the foundation of our belief that Christ is most properly referred to as the Son of God. It’s the Son of God who takes the sins of the world upon Himself, so that the rest of God’s children, we imperfect beings, through faith, may enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Not a bad little Gospel presentation.)

Eddie asks, “So, God is...split?”

“Yes! And no,” says the Catholic priest.

“There is unity in division,” says the Orthodox Priest.

“And division in unity,” says the Protestant.

“I’m not sure I follow, padre,” says Mannix.

“Young man, you don’t follow for a very simple reason,” the rabbi tells him, “These men are screwballs.”

Now I wouldn’t call these men screwballs, but for Christian clergymen, they seem to have a pretty poor understanding of Christology, or at best aren’t very good at explaining who Jesus is. Orthodox Christianity teaches Jesus was and is fully God and fully Man. None of the Christian clergymen expressed this doctrine.

Perhaps the real problem was the Christian clergymen going along with the idea of a presentation of the Gospel as uncontroversial. According to the Apostle Paul, the Gospel has always been a scandal, a stumbling block for the Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles.

To tell a story of the Gospel in a way that is uncontroversial neuters the story and makes it rather dull. But Eddie’s concern is making money for the studio and protecting the business. Even though his Catholic faith is important to him, he doesn’t consider staying true to the Gospel as part of his job.

But that is one of the most endearing things about Eddie, his devotion to his work. Throughout the film, he considers leaving the studio and taking a more cushy and financially lucrative job in the aerospace industry, but a talk with his priest (as far as we can tell, not the priest in the focus group) reminds him that his job makes people happy and God wants people to be happy. So he stays at the studio because he believes it is what God has called him to do.

So while the presentation of the clergy at the studio meeting is less than impressive (though quite funny), the care that Eddie receives from his priest keeps the Movie Churches rating for the church and the clergy in the film at a rather respectable Three Steeples.

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