Friday, October 28, 2005


We are drawing near to the beginning of the American holiday season which seems to extend backwards into fall ever further as each year passes. The end result of this is that we begin to get the holiday season movies even at the end of October, all in the spirit of "only X more shopping days until Christmas". Two of the recently released movies "The Legend of Zorro" and "The Gospel" range from fluff to the right stuff, though both are interesting for different reasons.

"The Legend of Zorro" finds Antonio Banderas and Katherine Zeta-Jones reprising their roles as the dueling De la Vegas hiding the secret that Don Alejandro has all along been Zorro who is the vox populi not to mention the people's champ. The pleasant fiction this time around is that California is about to become a State (around 1851) but there are those who in fact don't want this to happen, indeed they don't want America to be United. Who are 'they'? I'm glad you asked, "they" are the Knights of Arragon (not to be confused with the Knights of Columbus), a secret society that have as their motto "Orbis Unum"--- one world (domination) as opposed to E Pluribus Unum.

Of course credulity is stretched to the breaking point when we finds this secret society from Europe safely enscounced California in its goldrush hey day, but then also we are led to believe that already in 1850 or so General Beauregard later of Confederate Army fame was already cutting deals with this gnarly secret society to buy the ultimate weapon (nitro-gylcerine made out of--- wait for it, melted down bars of glycerine soap!!!). If that were not enough the Spaniard cum Mexican Zorro becomes the rescuer of freedom, democracy and the U.S. union! What would Catherine of Arragon say!

Never mind that Catherine, we have another one to deal with, namely Zeta-Jones and she, like this movie in general is visually quite appealing. Unfortunately her attempt at an Hispanic accent leaves much to be desired, and she is seldom given lines that she can make much of--only occasionally the verbal sparring with Zorro becomes engaging. In fact it is the Padre who has the only good line of the movie when he confides to Banderas that he indulges in wine as his only vice so he can relate better with his parishoners---- yikes!!! "Forgive me Father for you are drunk."

But this is hardly all. We have the horse of Zorro smoking and drinking, the son of Zorro playing a part straight out of the Bad News Bears, and of course when the plot gets ever so thin we rev up the chase scene or the fighting to new decibel levels. It is amazing how many death blows both the good and bad guys can take before they breath their last. Never mind, Zorro has his one last day in the sun, is reconciled and remarried to his wife, and the world is safe for American democracy. Did I mention that the worst bad guy is a fundamentalist who thinks he is God's angel of death? On the stretching credulity meter this one stretches from here to eternity. It is hardly the stuff of legends.

Very different, though not Oscar caliber material either is 'The Gospel" the story of the prodigal son of an African American minister from Atlanta. It does not rely on action or on star power, but rather on story, and is all the better for it. Bishop Taylor is dying, and his son, the R+B star David Taylor is just about to become the new breakthrough star on the sleaze and tease R+B scene when he comes home to be reconciled with his father before he passes. The real star of this movie is the Gospel praise songs, sung with exuberance by a choir which apparently Kirk Franklin got together. What is interesting is that there is as much action in this movie as in the Zorro movie, only its people praising and dancing before the Lord in church that is electric, whereas Zorro ranges from predictable violence to equally predicable chase scenes. Two very different forms of action--- and the less harmful kind is actually far more engaging and moving, sometimes even reaching for real pathos when you listen to the words of "He is God" or "Our God is an Awesome God" sung by a juiced up choir. The preaching, alas, never reaches such heights. What is interesting about this movie is that it does not pander, and its final altar call scene is just fine.

These two movies present us with clergy of very different sorts. The padre who is the people's and Zorro's friend, but also a lush, and the bishop who neglects his son, while serving his flock, but is reconciled with the son in the end. These are flawed ministers, but only the ones in the second movie seem real. Kudos to Hollywood for being willing to tackle a movie about the African American Protestant church, and its having to compete with modern secular music ranging from jazz to hip hop to rap to R+B. It is a timely theme. Unfortunately Americans are more likely to go see the eye-candy movie, rather than the soul stirring one. What does that tell us about our culture?


john alan turner said...

My concern is that most Americans will only hear about one of these movies. I like to think that if presented with options, more Americans would choose the soul-stirring movie. But they'll never even know it was here.

DanO said...

What I find more disconcerting is the amount of time we spend watching and discussing movies. Now I don't mean that in any sort of right-wing evangelical "Hollywood is the whore of Babylon" sense. Rather, I'm thinking here of the questions people like Neil Postman raise about the nature of the medium.

Regardless of whether the movie is "eye-candy" or "soul stirring" (and it may turn out that both the "eye-candy" and the "soul-stirring" movies are two sides of the same coin), I wonder what this obsession tells us about our culture?

Lee Sill said...

Dr. Witherington, I know this isn't the place, but I'm a seminary student and some other students and myself are just interested about when your new book is coming out. I read the article in CT and on Amazon it said October, and I was just curious if you knew a certain date? I'm an avid reader of yours, and this book looks to be very interesting.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Lee:

The book is already out, and available on Amazon and elsewhere. And in regard to our friend poserprophet, the answer of course is that we are in the visual learner generation as your own use of the computer demonstrates, and movies are the most compelling visuals. Its not a cause for regret, its just a fact and one that provides great opprtunity for the Gospel

DanO said...

Dr. Witherington,

Interesting response... although I hope you'll bear with me as I'm a little unconvinced. (For example, the fact that I use the internet to read and write emails and blogs is not proof that I am a visual learner; I may be part of a generation and a culture full of visual learners but -- due to an Anabaptist influence on my upbringing, education, and the disciplines I engage in now -- I am not one.)

I'm inclined to agree with Postman in thinking that shifting from a typographic to a visual culture has actually been detrimental to learning (he touches on this in several books but especially in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business).

Granted movies (as "compelling visuals") can provide opportunities for the gospel but there may be more to regret than is apparent to the uncritical observer. As a medium film may be more antagonistic to the gospel than we might first expect (Postman's argument based upon the second commandment is especially interesting in this regard).

Notice that I am not arguing that we discard the medium altogther. What I am arguing is that we need to critically examine the medium instead of whole-heartedly embracing it because of its ability to stir our souls.

I actually wrote a reflection about this choosing to use the argument that "violence can be used in film as a means of sensitisation" as the springboard of my discussion. If you have time (and I understand that you probably don't!) I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on all this (my reflection can be found at



Ben Witherington said...

Hi Dave: Actually it was in October that I was in Abilene, but thanks for the offer.