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He was a beloved professor at a mid-sized seminary in a mid-sized city. His specialty was systematic theology, and his gift was making dry doctrines interesting and meaningful. Historical arguments came to life as he skillfully made connections between settled convictions and our lives. Listening to him kept us engaged and curious.
Teaching with his pipe in one hand and broad gestures from the other, garbed in his tweed sport coat with elbow patches, we felt as if we were in Oxford rather than Grand Rapids, Michigan.
It was natural, then, that the seminary club for which he was faculty sponsor — Fides Querum Intellectum –– chose to study Theology and Film one semester. We sought the connection between his classes and the burgeoning interest in film during the late 1960’s and early 70’s. We were accustomed to parsing Hebrew and Greek, and fine lines of distinction in dogma. Film, not so much. The text to guide us was James W. Wall’s Church and Cinema, A Way of Viewing Film. I still have the copy, dog-eared and underlined.
It was a bold move since the denomination supporting the seminary had historically and officially frowned on all things Hollywood as a matter of doctrine and practice. The immoral lifestyles portrayed in film and theater and their contagious worldliness had no place in the life of the Christian. The last place you wanted to be found when Jesus returned was a movie theater. Your last supper popcorn.
All of this took place around the time the denomination was redefining “worldliness.” Film was one element of the infamous trinity including card playing and dancing. The old joke was that premarital sex was frowned on because it might lead to dancing. Card playing did not include Rook or Old Maid, both of which could be found in most prominent parsonages throughout North America.
That view of film was commonplace in spite of a synodically approved report which concluded that “The art of film is considered a legitimate cultural to be used with discernment by Christians.” With this nod of approval, and a collective sigh of relief in Hollywood, we took the next step.
Our small club — faith seeking understanding — decided to screen Straw Dogs starring a young Dustin Hoffman fresh from his breakthrough roles in The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. These were films that many in the club confessed to seeing.
Straw Dogs was showing at the shady Wealthy Street Theater on a Thursday night in a neighborhood filled with denominational folk for whom film was still among the strongest of the devil’s tools.
We had to come up with a plan to smuggle our beloved professor, pipe and all, into the theater under the cover of darkness, lest he be seen entering the den of iniquity. Worse, the one to blame for leading seminarians astray. If a true believer spotted him, the professor would be brought up on charges, become the subject of synodical proceedings, defrocked and, perhaps, defenestrated. Unofficially, the denomination simply couldn’t abide it.
My friend and I volunteered to pick him up in front of his humble abode and escort him to the screening. He sat in the back seat, and it was clear from our brief conversation that this was for him a mix of giddiness and caution. When we pulled up to the theater we threw a raincoat over him and hustled him inside. It was not raining. We scurried in as if he were suddenly in a theological witness protection program.
Once inside and safely seated, we sat and smiled smugly at our accomplishment. We had the theater to ourselves, almost wishing there were witnesses to our imminent heresy. A classmate ran out for enough popcorn and licorice whips to share. Our professor smiled, laughed, lit his pipe, and soaked up this foreign environment, a place and art form he had never before experienced. It turned out to be a bumpy ride.
Straw Dogs featured rape, revenge, vigilantism, and deep sorrow. This was no Sound of Music. It received tepid reviews from some critics, high praise for director Sam Peckinpah from others. At first blush — and in the dim light we could only guess that our professor was blushing — this film seemed far removed from the Canons of Dordt, the Belgic Confession or the Heidelberg Catechism. More cataclysmic.
When FQI met the next month, we discussed and dissected the movie, noting that cinema could provoke both critical thinking and artistic appreciation, telling stories in a unique art form. The film reminded us of gruesome and gory Old Testament stories, and the themes of forgiveness, or lack of it, in the New. Considering the lengths to which one might or should go in the name of defending loved ones or property was a fruitful discussion.
With the help of reviews researched by club members we gained insights into what we saw and how to experience film as we ventured into this brave new world of cinema. Our professor appreciated the fact that we had broadened his horizons. We thanked him for going out on a limb and spending time with us outside the formal classroom. It meant the world to us, a tangible extra mile. And to this day I’m confident all club members still benefit from engaging with film. No doubt illustrations from movies regularly appear in sermons for everyone’s edification and enlightenment. Even R-rated ones.
At times I imagine our professor, still alive, after supper and evening devotions, after grading mounds of essays, after reading the Reformed Journal, sitting in his favorite overstuffed reclining chair, inviting his wife to sit down beside him in her favorite chair and saying, “Dear, I think there’s a good movie on Netflix.” No raincoat needed.