Friday, April 15, 2022

It's a Free Country Film

The Green Promise

The Green Promise has quite an unusual opening credit. After seeing a couple of familiar names in the cast (Walter Brennan and Natalie Wood) we see this: “Introducing the Indiana 4-H Girl Jeanne LaDuke.” I’m afraid this is Jeanne’s one and only credit, and I believe it's the only Hollywood feature film including 4-H, let alone an “Indiana 4-H Girl.”

Now there may be some unfortunate readers out there who know nothing about the 4-H organization, but I was a member as a kid (my projects were woodworking and rabbits). The H’s are “Head, Heart, Hands, and Health,” and the goal of the organization is to aid in kids' development. While STEM, civic engagement, and even space exploration are all part of 4-H these days, the program's roots are in agriculture. The film is very much an hour and a half commercial for 4-H on the farm.

It tells the story of the Matthews family -- a young woman, her widowed father, and her brother and two sisters -- who moved into a farm community to make a new start. Unfortunately, Father Matthews (Walter Brennan) is a stubborn old man who uses outdated farming methods and has very unhealthy control issues. On his new property, he looks to harvest old-growth trees that provide erosion protection for his crops. He makes very poor crop choices. Worst of all, he forbids his children from joining 4-H. (How could any parent say ‘no’ to young Natalie Wood?)

If only Matthews would listen to David Barkley (Robert Paige), the local government agent who knows all there is to know about farming, auto repair, and ecology. He has nothing but sage advice but the old man won’t listen and runs the farm into the ground. Pop also doesn’t listen to the local minister.

There only seems to be one church in town, which everyone attends. Even David Barkley goes and recommends it as a nice friendly place. One neighbor says, “The preacher is less like to preach at us than talk to us.” They have a strange old organ in the church that needs to be pumped in the back room. (The congregation sings “God of Our Fathers” and “Bringing in the Sheaves,” a hymn which for some reason is more popular in movies than in actual churches.)

But the sermon preached contains some of the poorest hermeneutics I’ve ever heard. The Reverend Jim Benton (played by Milburn Stone, Doc from the long-running Western Gunsmoke) quite obviously had a message in mind, cherry-picked a Bible story, and made it fit his message. (Sadly, this is not too uncommon a practice, it’s just more blatant here.)

He begins with these words, “My sermon today is inspired by the story of Moses and the promise God made to him.” Well, at least he says the story “inspired” his sermon rather than saying his message actually comes from the text. “The story is found in the Old Testament in the book of Exodus.” Reminding his congregation that the story of the Exodus is found in the book of Exodus shows he doesn’t think much of the Biblical literacy of his people.

“The story is of those who suffered cruelly under slavery… God made a promise to Moses. God would show them how to be led out of bondage to a land of milk and honey. It was a promise of new life, a green new promise.” (Title drop!) “But the fulfillment had to be earned.” (The Reverend doesn’t seem to be a big proponent of grace.)

“We have the same Green Promise, only we have a different Moses. Our doctors, chemists, scientists lead us… These men are our Moses… This is one true and only road that will lead us to the land of promise. We too are in bondage, by whips of ignorance and the iron shackles of the unknown. We must cross the sea of doubt, the barren sea of illiteracy, the hunger of bigotry, and thirst of incompetence. These things stand between us and our freedom. But we have many Moseses to lead us; our men of science. Seekers of fact and truth, these men are our Moses, turning us from the path of superstition to the path of knowledge.”

So, basically, the Reverend is just saying, “Follow the experts and you’ll be great." There are many things wrong with this sermon, but the first is the idea that Israelites found freedom in following Moses rather than following God. If the Reverend would have gotten this point right, he would be directing his people to follow God rather than look for another Moses.

But can we really trust “science” to lead us where we need to go? In the early 20th century, many looked to the “science” of eugenics, to breed out the unhealthy elements of the human race. It wasn’t just the Nazis in Germany that believed such things, either. The 1927 United States Supreme Court decision Buck v. Bell upheld the rights of states to sterilize people. They were looking to what they thought was science, but which was later discredited not just by scientists but also by theologians, politicians, and philosophers.

We saw in our recent dealings with Covid-19, that “following the science” is not always a simple thing. In the early days of the pandemic, the CDC told people there was no need to wear masks; masks wouldn’t be helpful for average citizens. We later learned they were saying this to protect the supply of masks for medical professionals.

Many virologists advocated lockdowns to protect people from the virus, but many mental health professionals warned that isolation would be harmful for young people and those dealing with addiction. Economists warned about the dangers lockdowns would cause to the economy and a number of industries. Without judgment about whether the decisions the government made were right or wrong, I’m only noting that “experts” differ on policy. We can’t just follow “science,” not just because scientists have differing opinions, but because morals and values also need to be a part of decision-making.

I’m not going to give the church in The Green Promise our worst Movie Churches rating, because it is at least a friendly place, and we only heard one sermon, but that one sermon brings the rating down to Two Steeples.

(The Green Promise is available for free viewing at

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