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Tuesday, April 06, 2010  

Doubt and Into Temptation

With the Doubting Thomas pericope once again coming up on Sunday, and being again in the pulpit for it, I decided to watch Doubt. The film is a qualified success, with the lead actors elevating the material substantially. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives impressive depth to the character of Father Flynn, a man otherwise pigeonholed by his charisma in the chancel and his pale humanism. Meryl Streep holds the screen, obviously, against him, raising Sister Aloysius well above the picayune tyranny some reviewers saw in her. Amy Adams can't keep up with that firepower, offering a less intelligent version of Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story. Director John Patrick Shanley, adapting his own play, lays it on pretty thick with alienating camera angles and Hitchcockesque background music. A race angle and a gender angle amp up the intensity of the conflict without pandering.

All the same, setting the story in a Catholic parish and school is a bit of a MacGuffin. Accusations of misconduct with a minor give it a powerfully topical feel and the religious dimension gives it some metaphysical heft, but the same story could be told in a number of different scenarios. In fact, God and God's grace are out of view until a climactic confrontation near the end. Shorn of its vestments, the film is just a different run-through of The Children's Hour. The problems of conflicting personalities, dangerous intuitions, and managing the relationship between time-tested truths and a changing world apply just as well to secular schools, social service agencies, police stations--most any institution, in fact, that deals with vulnerable people and the flawed people who are charged with their care.

But I was personally moved by the story because it takes place in a church and because it takes place on the razor's edge of being faithful to a vocation and preserving the appearance and reality of decent boundaries. The cursed and blessed fact of the matter is that no one--male, female, Catholic, Protestant--can do the work of ministry with even a modicum of seriousness without courting the possible appearance of impropriety. I have conducted myself in ministry in a manner beyond reproach, but if I had been looking over my back for trouble all the time, I often would have been unable to so much as open a church door, much less drive a student to the seminary to complete an online scholarship application. Quite without my realizing it, a malicious person could already have made a good attempt at ruining my career. Imagining a good-hearted but disordered person in many ordinary ministry circumstances leads one to even worse possibilities. There's no question that pastors need to use more discretion than was customary in 1964, and that is by and large a good thing. But a culture of constant self-protection makes many of the tasks of ministry difficult or totally impractical.

The unheralded 2009 film Into Temptation takes this dilemma on in a modern setting. Jeremy Sisto delivers a fine performance as a priest haunted by the confession of a suicidal prostitute (played by Kristin Chenoweth, looking like late-period Chet Baker). He wanders into the unnamed city's red-light district to find her, enlisting the help of a streetwalker, a dirty-bookstore owner, a pimp, a taxi driver, and--breaking all reasonable rules--a parishioner with a history in boxing to try to find her. It's a movie that falls into a curious slough between orthodox Catholics who will object to the priest's views and secular viewers who might be turned off by the obsession with sin and forgiveness--which is just to say that I think it's terrific. Sisto's Father John lives a plausible priestly life, drinking beers in an empty rectory, shrugging off the grandparental yearnings of his mother, parrying the attentions of a freshly-divorced ex-girlfriend.

Anyway, it turns out that there is a specific reason that the prostitute seeks him out and that he is so concerned to reel her back in, and the story very powerfully and successfully explores the terrain between the plaster saint priest and the drunken, leering, or bloodless caricatures we have all encountered. It challenged me because I cannot really imagine doing what Sisto's Father John does. This is partly because my work involves mostly non-sacramental tasks, partly because Lutherans don't have a well-conceived practice of sacramental forgiveness, partly because I have imbibed the good and bad of cautions concerning professional boundaries, and partly because I'm not hopeful enough to imagine things going the way they should (and something goes beautifully and unexpectedly right in the movie--something that alone justifies watching it). We have learned to let things go. On some level, we cannot avoid letting things go. The repentant prostitute is an ancient sentimental trope (Sisto's parish is St. Mary Magdalene, in a heavy-handed and outdated touch). The lost sheep, the desperate prostitute, the sole black child in an Irish and Italian parish--for these we can imagine leaving the gathered flock and risking all manner of danger. But the mundane crises of life go on and we are not especially effective against them, so it is best not to obsess over fixing them. If I had not been able to hive off the daily tragedies I saw on internship from the rest of my life, I don't know how I would have endured it.

This is where the ordinary form of doubt--doubt over particular facts--becomes something harder to resolve--doubting that one's own choices are faithful in a given circumstance. Did I do all that I ought to have done? Was I being prudent or cowardly? Was I acting out of creditable motives? There is usually no firm answer to these questions. The answer, in fact, is supplied only by grace--something Doubt does not grasp but Into Temptation ultimately relies upon.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:54 PM
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