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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.

Header photo by MARK HESSLING on Unsplash

Dave Larsen

Dave Larsen, humorist and storyteller, is a member of Hope Christian Reformed Church in Oak Forest, Illinois, along with his wife Sally. He is the retired Director of the Bright Promise Fund for Urban Christian Education in Chicago.


  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    If not defenestration, then a slippery slope; within a few years, Calvin College itself had a Film Council which promoted and showed films in the Fine Arts Center (also home to chapel services and Woodlawn Church on Sundays), memorable ones such as Psycho, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange, their viewing I’m sure has led to half a century of cultural and denominational disarray.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    On a similar note, the Beach Bashes at the Grand Haven Roller Rink were the place to be when I was a teenager. Having a wicked sense of humor even then, I would tell my friends that I prayed that the Lord wouldn’t return while we were in this den of iniquity because my dad would kill me! It might have been depraved, but as much fun and as instructive as the movies we didn’t confess to going to: Midnight Cowboy, Last Tango in Paris were among the most notable.

  • Jack Nyenhuis says:

    Thanks for telling this story about a beloved professor at CTS (I’m quite sure I know who he was).

    Since you were a member of FQI, you undoubtedly know that Anselm of Canterbury wrote “Fides quaerens intellectum,” so please correct the typographical error in your Latin quotation.

    One further note: in the 1940s I was severely punished when my father caught me playing Rook during a Sunday evening family visit at the home of his cousin. Synod 1928’s injunction against worldly amusement was strongly enforced even in the Dutch-Calvinist outpost in Pease, Minnesota.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    You made me smile. It reminds me of a story told to me half-a-dozen or more years ago after I preached at a CRC here in the Grand Rapids area. At the time this man was the oldest living retired CRC pastor. He had just turned 100. He said that way back when he was getting ready to graduate from Calvin Seminary and as his small class of seminarians–5 or 6 total–were getting ready for their interview at the full synod, it became known that one in their number had been caught attending a movie in Holland. They knew synod would block his becoming a candidate. What to do? They decided they would ALL go to a movie and so synod would have to choose between rejecting the lot of them that year or accept the lot of them. Perhaps through grit teeth–or perhaps for some with a wry appreciation for their clever solidarity–synod passed them all as candidates for call. That’s a true story!

  • Edward Wierenga says:

    When my dad was at Calvin (class of ‘40), a Calvin professor would patrol in front of the Wealthy. My dad or his friends would call the theater and someone would let them In through the back door in the alley.
    Film Council began showing movies in the auditorium of the Ad Building on Franklin. I learned a lot then.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Thanks for the memories. “The old joke was that premarital sex was frowned on because it might lead to dancing.” Were they confessional issues or just worthy of confession?

  • Carol Van Klompenburg says:

    What a great story!

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    This is great, and so foreign. I love movies. Use them as often as possible for sermon illustrations. You might say, it is the story telling form of modern America, though some of the best of TV is pushing its way into the argument.

  • Karen Larsen Merchant says:

    I loved this story! One part in particular resonated with me: on Easter Sunday evening in 1964 or 1965 I went to see “The Graduate” with a young orderly I met through working at Christ Hospital. I was so afraid that Jesus would return to earth right then that I didn’t even have any popcorn. And you know how I love popcorn!
    My, how things have changed, right?

  • Burt Rozema says:

    Great story, Dave, I’m sure it’s all true. I too have fond memories of the Wealthy Street Theatre, but before the days of Dustin Hoffman. And thanks to Jack Nyenhuis for setting you straight on the Latin.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    This recovering Baptist (40+ years fundy-free) because of Calvin’s liberalism moved his theological position to not fear Jesus’ imminent return while at the movies, but rather to welcome Him to sit next to me and share some popcorn.

  • John Loeks says:

    On the opposite side of Wealthy St from the movie theater, Dr. David Otis Fuller, pastor of Wealthy Street Baptist Church, guarded the table.
    In the 1940s, my father, Jack Loeks was “defenestrated” for exhibiting Hollywood movies.
    I have always been thankful for the church’s vigilance.

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