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10/8/97 ANALYSIS ‘Nothing Sacred’ reflective of Hollywood’s view of clergy

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–“Nothing Sacred,” the new Thursday night drama, has met with resistance from those leery of an industry not prone to charitable portrayals of men of faith.
In this series on Disney-owned ABC-TV, Kevin Anderson portrays a liberal young priest, “Father Ray,” who is handsome, bright, into causes and loud R&B yet remains spiritually anguished.
Most likely it’s not this priest’s questioning that alarms the detractors of Nothing Sacred, but rather the prospect of yet another stereotypical clergyman, portrayed as a “conscientious objector” more involved with social issues than ecclesiastical ones.
A man in love with God, rather than at war with him, seldom is portrayed on TV or in the movies.
Fighting his own demons, Father Ray takes time to glibly contend with parishioners over every subject known to society, (abortion, adultery, bigotry, celibacy, social & political protests, etc). Mind you, while the program is well-written, acted and photographed, none of these issues is carefully examined, but merely addressed, as if pointing a disapproving finger at the Bible’s pronouncements. Most likely at least two or three of these issues will be the plots Father Ray will wrestle with each week — unless the show’s bottom-rung ratings quickly bring its cancellation.
CBS’ “Touched By An Angel” proves that spiritual questions can be raised and dealt with equitably. Other shows have followed in Angel’s successful footsteps. “Promised Land,” “7th Heaven” and “Soul Man” present positive messages concerning faith, family love and respect for our fellow man.
Still, we are given “warm and fuzzy” rather than sound Scripture, or bumbling do-gooders who manage to save the day in spite of themselves.
Do we ever hear these men of the cloth proclaim Jesus Christ as Savior of the world? Very seldom, if ever.
In fairness, it may be argued it is not dramatic programming’s place to proselytize. After all, America is the land where its citizens are free to practice their religion. So how can an entertainment medium proclaim one way to God over another without offending those of different religious beliefs? Yet if you are doing a show about a minister, the character should be allowed the freedom to state his doctrines.
Churchgoers realize some evangelists, priests and pastors have failed to truly represent the teachings of our Lord. And, yes, pious men lured by carnal enticements is surely a tried-and-true ingredient for drama.
But how about a little balance? It would be nice to see the media present men of God who have dedicated their lives to others because of a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ, not in spite of it.
To suggest a character of principals and standards cannot be portrayed three-dimensional is simply a lazy out. Or a defiance to attack, rather than tackle, such a challenge.
With this as a backdrop, here is a sampling of how, over the years, Hollywood movies have portrayed members of the clergy.
Inn of the Sixth Happiness. (1958) Ingrid Bergman stars in this fact-based story of a missionary who leads a group of children on a perilous journey in pre-WW2 China. Contains the most moving conversion this reviewer has seen in the movies, as we witness change in a man’s life due to this courageous woman’s example. It reminds the Christian viewer that our lifestyle does greatly affect others.
Chariots of Fire. (1981) Winner of Best Picture about Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish missionary who ran in the 1924 Olympics. Ian Charleson, Ben Cross.
Tender Mercies. (1983) Robert Duvall as a country singer on the skids gets his life together with the help of a religious widow and her son. PG (a few profanities from our hero until a Christian woman has an effect on his life). Oscars went to Duvall and writer Horton Foote.
Gospa (1995) Martin Sheen, Morgan Fairchild. PG (Brief torture scene, but not exploitive). True story of Croatian priest who, against communist forces, defended six children claiming to see visions of Mary. The youngsters claimed the Madonna told them to fast, love one another and pray for peace. No matter your feelings about Catholicism, that’s a pretty relevant memorandum. As for the film, Gospa is mainly held together by Martin Sheen’s potent performance as an unpretentious man of faith and devotion. And, its message, which transcends the under-financed production, nourishers the spirit.
The Hoodlum Priest. (1961) Don Murray stars in a fact-based story of a clergyman attempting to help troubled delinquents.
Going My Way. (1944) four-star classic with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald as parish priests dealing with wayward kids and diminishing church funds. This sentimental favorite won several Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor.
Stars In My Crown. (1950) One of my favorite films, with Joel McCrea as an 1800s minister dealing with the problems of his church members. A gentle, episodic tale for the whole family.
A Man Called Peter. (1955) Sensitive performance by Richard Todd highlights this account of Peter Marshall, a Scotsman who became the U.S. Senate chaplain.
One Man’s Way. (1964) Don Murray stars in this fictional, but elegant bio of Norman Vincent Peale.
The Scarlet and the Black. (1983) True story of a priest (Gregory Peck) who harbored allied POW escapees and the Nazi official (Christopher Plummer) who tries to catch him. The film is a bit long (155 min.) but the message contained at the end of the picture should not be missed. A true example of Christ’s compassion to help remind each of us to love our enemies.
A Dream For Christmas. (1973) Hari Rhodes, Beah Richards, Lynn Hamilton. Made for TV. Color 100 min. Warner Home Video. Baptist minister moves his Arkansas family to L.A. in 1950. Unfortunately, the church elders have neglected to inform him that the church he’s to pastor has been set for demolition. The family must pull to save the church. Written by Earl Hammer Jr. (The Waltons). Features mainly a black cast, which I think should be included in this market. Dialogue and performances although heartfelt, lack polish. But family regard is uplifted and there are a couple reverent prayers. Lessons: Family togetherness, faith, perseverance.
Dead Man Walking. (1995) Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn. (Rated R: several obscenities, but I did not catch many misuses of God’s name; a rape-murder is seen several times in flashback using long shots; bigotry, but it’s exposed for what it is; an execution by injection is portrayed; the film is very intense due to the subject matter but, unlike most R-rated entertainment, here nothing abusive is exploited or glorified). Based on a true story of a nun who responds to a death row inmate and helps him on his road to spiritual repentance as he faces his execution — a remarkable film focusing on redemption and Christ’s command to love one another. Although Ms. Sarandon and director Tim Robbins are renown for their extreme political and social ideals, the film is surprisingly open to all sides of the capital punishment debate. Although I hesitate to recommend a film with R material, the gut-wrenching plight of victims of crime — average people dealing with terror, loss, guilt and forgiveness – – is never overshadowed by the fate of the perpetrator or by sermonettes. Vid. Alt. The Scarlet and the Black.
The Cardinal (1963) Tom Tryon, John Huston and Romy Schneider head an all-star cast. Bloated three-hour piffle about the dramatic life of an up-and-coming priest. Addresses every subject under the sun (whose religion is the right way, marrying outside your faith, abortion, bigotry, leaving the priesthood for a woman and Hitler and war in Europe) rather shallowly. Marginal acting from the usually talented cast members, with a tiring and unemotional script. Vid. Alt. The Scarlet and the Black.
At Play In the Fields of the Lord. (1991) “Evangelical” missionaries try to reach Amazonian Indians. Each missionary is so internally conflicted, however, that they need the Good News more than the Indians. A true hatchet job on a noble calling. Rated R for violence, frontal nudity.
Black Robe. (1991) A biased look at how a 17th-century Jesuit priest attempts to colonize the Indian tribes of Quebec. Rated R for violence.
Priest. (1994) Another conflicted priest, caught between church doctrines and his own beliefs, including his struggle with homosexuality. Also deals with child abuse, incest and a dark humor about church politics.
Elmer Gantry. (1960) Burt Lancaster as a con artist passing himself off as a tent evangelist.
Leap of Faith. (1992) Steve Martin, Debra Winger, Liam Neeson. A con artist poses as a faith healer/evangelist. It does expose some fraudulent practices, but its cynical premise assumes all traveling preachers are out to take us. PG-13 (several profanities and obscenities; blasphemy; implied sexual situation; cynicism).
The Preacher’s Wife (1996) Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, Courtney B. Vance. Touchstone. Fantasy. PG (1 mild expletive; the grandmother smokes, but the angel chastises her, “Our stay here on earth is precious” — an excellent indictment against smoking; the Scrooge-like character drinks, but again, alcohol use is not glorified). An over-worked pastor gets help from a classy angel. In some ways it outshines the original, “The Bishop’s Wife,” especially when it comes to proclaiming the gospel message (through songs), but it doesn’t surpass that Christmas classic when it comes to charm. Whitney is a one-note actress, but for those who like her music, you won’t be disappointed. Denzel is handsome and cool, and Courtney B. Vance is exceptional as the neglecting father and husband. Replete with moral teachings concerning marriage, home life, faith and the fact that we can make a difference. Very enjoyable. One sad note. The story is about religious people. It takes place at Christmastime. Yet the name Jesus is never mentioned. Ironic, considering most every other movie of this era now uses, or should I say, misuses that name as a mere expletive. Ahhh, Hollywood.
Angel In My Pocket. (1969) Andy Griffith in a hit-and-miss family comedy about a new minister dealing with cliched small-town problems.
Of Human Hearts. (1938) Walter Huston, James Stewart. Story of devout country minister unable to connect with his son. Main strength of this film is the portrayal of a pastor who cares very strongly for his flock.

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  • Phil Boatwright