Although Clint Eastwood is not particularly known for being a religious guy, his last two movies are prime examples of how the Christian worldview can be applied and taught using the medium of film. Eastwood’s approach — allowing the story to unfold naturally, rather than forcefully — is exactly the sort of technique that budding Christian filmmakers need to be studying. However, most Christians will not see The Changeling or Gran Torino (or admit to seeing them), because they are rated R and deal with “adult” issues. And this is most unfortunate because the church is the only institution in the world that is specifically called to be the voice of responsibility and maturity and to serve as the conscience of society. "Adult issues" are the primary domain of the Church.
It should come as no revelation to even a casual reader that the Bible deals with difficult issues. The Bible presents human nature as fallen and desperately corrupt and provides example after example of humans behaving badly. But it also presents the solution. The Bible is written not to the prig, but to the humble. This is what Jesus meant when He said: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). Jesus parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18 makes a similar point: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” While most Christians will readily acknowledge this simple biblical truth, it is another thing indeed to get them to actually live this way. Instead, Christians are paralyzed by the prospect of sin and live in fear of it, rather than rightly fearing the God Who commands His people to combat the effects of sin in this world.
This disconnect is always readily apparent in the area of movies. I don’t want to be misunderstood here so I will be as clear as I know how. I am not recommending that we must, as one critic put it, wade through a cesspool of Hollywood filth looking for the drain plug. Quite the contrary in fact. I am not endorsing moral relativism in the name of evangelism. What I am saying though is that Christians should not avoid movies that accurately portray the damaging effects of sin. I will readily admit that there is a fine line between portraying sin and glorifying it. For instance, the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy is a good example of a series of relatively clean movies that are far more sinister than most people realize, because of the way they depict crime as “cool.” The message of a movie is much more than the sum of its individual scenes. But this is not to say that a film like Basic Instinct should be recommended because it is a good deterrent to adultery. Wisdom and discernment are still necessary, but just because a film has a fair amount of objectionable language in it, like Gran Torino does, should not automatically disqualify it as being “off-limits” for the Christian. (For a good discussion of this topic, see Brian Godawa’s book Hollywood Worldviews.)
Eastwood seems to understand the church’s prophetic role in a civilization. In Changeling, he casts dynamic actor John Malkovich as a Presbyterian minister who risks personal defamation to call attention to injustice. Although Malkovich is perfect for the role, the very concept of a respectable and socially-conscience member of the clergy is anathema to most Hollywood films. More often than not, preachers (and Christians) are portrayed, at worst, as part of the problem, or, at best, as wimpy and naïve. In both Changeling and Gran Torino, Eastwood gives us two examples of strong religious leadership that help to effect change in their communities. The Catholic priest in Gran Torino, a young twenty-something fresh out of seminary, seems to fit the Hollywood stereotype at the beginning of the film, but by the end matures into a powerful intercessor. No wimpy Christianity here.
But this is not where Eastwood’s seeming approval of Christianity ends. In fact, in both films, as Eastwood gives us good role models of Christian social action, he also seems to be asking why the church is so absent in modern society. Gran Torino begins with a funeral in a church and ends with a funeral in a church, with the actual last scene being a drive-off into the sunset — a new beginning. Although Changeling has a somewhat less “perfect ending,” justice is still served and the tireless work of the preacher is not in vain. In both cases however, the religious figure works alone. Perhaps this is an example of what one individual can do, but I find it to something of an indictment on the invisibility of the modern church. The fact that Eastwood is willing to portray the clergy in a positive light is certainly a good thing, but both religious characters are presented as “superheroes” that prefer to work alone. Never does their powerful witness motivate others to stand with them. Their convictions are commendable, yet their influence is limited. The church may win a battle here or there, but without a concerted effort and a united front, we will never win the war.
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I will not give away anything about these films because I highly recommend that readers view them for themselves. I have already given a caution about the language in Gran Torino, but I will assure you that it is not gratuitous. The film deals with several difficult issues and the harsh language is only a reflection of the harsh subject matter. Sin must be exposed before it can be killed. Conversely, the language in Changeling is far less frequent, and because of this, far more powerful. In the scene where Christine Collins (brilliantly played by Angelina Jolie) stands up to the director of the mental ward, it is a forceful reminder of how incredibly effective the wrong word at the right time can be. Christians should take notice. We should not be afraid to deal with the incarnational effects of sin on the world of men, because only we have the real answer to the problem. Clint Eastwood can only offer Christ-figures in his films, but we have the Christ. Eastwood can only offer symbols, but we can offer the substance. Eastwood points to the sunset, but we point to the cross and the empty tomb. Eastwood may know the story, but we know the Storyteller. Christian characters can never be a substitute for Christ Himself, but until Christians learn to tell better stories and make better films, we will have to rely on men like Clint Eastwood to do it for us.
Article posted July 30, 2009