Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Lord's Prayer in Movies

As I continue to recycle my old stuff (this from the Healdsburg Community Church newsletter)

Matthew 6: 9 – 13
“This is how you should pray:
Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name,
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
Our Father Who Art in Heaven and the Multiplex

In our increasingly Biblically illiterate society, it is interesting to see which passages of Scripture continue to maintain a high pop culture profile, particularly in the movies. The Shepherd Psalm certainly gets its share of shout outs (most recently The Number 23 with Jim Carrey notes the 23rd Psalm’s reference to ‘the valley of the shadow of death’.) I Corinthians 13 is used almost as frequently in movie weddings as it is in movies off the silver screen (In Wedding Crashers a bet is made about whether I Corinthians 13 or Colossians 3:12 will be used in the ceremony. I Corinthians is the sage bet.) But the Scripture that seems to be the moviemakers’ go-to passage is The Lord’s Prayer. It has been used frequently through the first century of cinema, and there is no sign it will go out of fashion soon.
The prayer that Jesus gave to His disciples (Matthew 6: 9 – 13) remains a powerful touchstone for our culture, but not always in a positive one.
One of the most common uses of the Lord’s Prayer in movies is in funerals. There is a long legacy of the “Our Father, Which Art in Heaven” eulogy, particularly in Westerns. The prayer was used at the funeral in George Steven’s Shane (1953) and was used at a funeral in the HBO series Deadwood (2004). The Lord’s Prayer is used in a funeral in Michael Cimino’s Vietnam War epic, The Deer Hunter (1978).
But one of the most powerful uses of the prayer as a eulogy can be found in Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). In the seafaring adventure, Russell Crowe plays British Ship Captain Jack Aubrey, a stern yet fair man. When the men of the ship begin to question the authority of one of his officers, he tries to set things right. Soon all the ill-fortune of the ship (especially the still wind) is blamed on this officer; he is referred to as a Jonah. The officer eventually comes to believe himself that he is somehow karmicly responsible for the ship’s woes, and following the prophet’s example, throws himself in the sea. But the Lord does not provide a fish, and the man drowns. At the man’s funeral, Aubrey refuses to read from the book of Jonah that is offered, but instead leads the crew in the Lord’s Prayer. In a powerful way the crew is reminded that they had not been willing to forgive this man, leading to his death. The prayer serves as a reminder of dependence on God for all needs: wind, rain, and forgiveness. We too, need these reminders.
But as I mentioned, the Lord’s Prayer is not always used positively. Sometimes knowledge of the Prayer is a Christian Badge, and not a positive emblem. In David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004) the rather freakish Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer (the more cool people in the film are the Buddhists or existentialists). In Claude Berri’s The Two of Us (1967), a Catholic suggests to a Jew in 1944’s occupied Paris that he should learn the Lord’s Prayer, just to be safe.
This theme is echoed in the 2001 Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Nirgendwo in Afrika (Nowhere in Africa), the story of a Jewish family in Nazi Germany that flees to Kenya for safety. The parents use the majority of their meager resources to send their daughter, Regina, to a private British school. At the opening of the school year, the school master asks the Jewish children to stand at the side of the room, while the rest of the children stand to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Regina was ostracized in Germany for being a Jew, is set apart again in Africa because of her white skin, and discovers this prayer is yet one more obstacle to prevent her from being part of a community.
In many congregations the Lord’s Prayer is recited with an expectation that all will know it. Someone visiting the church, new to the Christian faith, may also find that their ignorance of the prayer sets them apart. I am sure Jesus is not pleased when the prayer He gave as a gift is used as a test of spirituality.
In the melodrama Johnny Belinda (1948), reciting the Lord’s Prayer in sign language was a part of Jane Wyman’s Oscar winning performance as a deaf mute.
The Lord’s Prayer makes cameo appearances in horror films as well, often as a contrast to the forces of evil. A character in The Seventh Victim (1943), produced by horror icon Val Lewton, uses the Prayer as protection against a satanic cult. In the remake of The Omen (2006), the anti-Christ’s adopted father, Thorn, recites the Prayer as he unsuccessfully tries to kill the child with a sacred dagger.
The prayer can also be heard in film adaptations of Marvel Comics. In Bryan Singer’s X2 – X-Men United (2003), the blue, German, Christian, teleporting, mutant, Nightcrawler (AKA Kurt Wagner) recites the Lord’s Prayer in to fight his fear.
But my favorite use of the Lord’s Prayer in a fantasy film is in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman. Peter Parker (AKA Spider-Man) was raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Toward the end of the film, Aunt May is knelling by her bed in the midst of praying “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from…” when she stops, shrieking in fear as the film‘s villain, the Green Goblin, breaks through a window into her bedroom. The demonic looking creature has discovered Spidey’s real identity and has chosen to attack Peter Parker’s through his aunt. He commands May to finish her prayer. She hesitates, and then prays, “Deliver us from evil”. We next see Aunt May lying on her hospital bed. Was her prayer answered, or not?
It is worth noting that praying for deliverance from evil does not mean evil will not have an impact on our lives. Christians throughout the centuries have prayed for daily bread, and yet some have starved. And though we pray that God’s will be done, people will still act against God’s will.
This point is quite clear in the two major theatrical films made in 2006 about the events of 9/11/01. In both, Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center characters facing death pray the Lord’s Prayer. But of course these aren’t just characters. Actors in both films portray real people that faced death on that day. Passengers on United Flight 93 really did pray for God’s will to be done. And they died.
Port Authority Police Officers John McLoughlin and William Jimeno prayed for God’s will to be done. And they were rescued.
There is something about that prayer that Jesus taught. It forces us to wrestle with God’s will, God’s provision, sin and forgiveness. It addresses the ultimate issues. So it makes sense that this is a prayer that would come naturally to believers facing death. It is a prayer that should come naturally to believers most every day.
And it makes sense that this is a prayer, a passage of Scripture, that even Hollywood can not ignore.

2 comments:

coleSlaw said...

interesting, you obviously keep your eyes and ears open while your watching movies to see so many intersections on the same thing... i'm interested in movies and spirituality too: www.booksbypatrick.com

Ed Robbo said...


"Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."

What happened to...

"Forgive us our trespasses as we for give those who trespass against us" ?

Isn't the bible supposed to be the ever unchanging word of God?