There's so much trite and recycled in Keeping the Faith, a romantic comedy that plugs a priest and a rabbi (ha ha) into a love-triangle formula, that it's hard to believe the film scores the minor coup of being the first mainstream recognition of today's "seeker church." Father Brian Finn (Edward Norton, who also directed) and rabbi Jacob Schram (Ben Stiller), friends since childhood, begin to attract crowds to their respective places of worship with a combination of energy, humor, and Ross Perot-style straight talk. (Schram even brings in a gospel choir to help teach his congregation sing with more pep.) While these stunts might be over the top, they do replace the common images of withering religion with those of resurgent religious communities working to stay relevant to a rapidly changing culture. It's a quite accurate peek into the modern American church, which has entered a "difficult yet exciting period of transition from modernism to postmodernism," according to Eric Stanford, a contributing editor for Next-Wave, an online magazine that serves church leaders pioneering this transition. Keeping the Faith reflects many of the trends Stanford identifies in today's church, including "innovative new alliances in missions, social service, and every other kind of Christian work … a decreasing inclination of people to get exercised over secondary theological differences … [and] the growth of indigenous Christian movements that are dynamic yet in some respects make other Christians uncomfortable."Even more remarkable is that the film doesn't ignore these tensions between old-school and newfangled philosophies. Schram's determination to reinvent the image of his synagogue gets him in trouble with his superiors, who explain quite convincingly the value of tradition in worship and faith. Where many films would have written off the traditionalists as fuddy-duddies, Keeping the Faith reveals the benefits of both traditional and modern worship styles.Alas, these moments of accuracy in spiritual matters are sparse. Norton seems to grasp how one might worship through song and prayer, but not through one's very life. Away from the office, our rabbi and priest use God's name in vain more than in reverence. Finn gets drunk, and Schram sleeps with his girlfriend (Jenna Elfman). No one in the film suggests this might be immoral; nor does anyone suggest he might not want to date a woman who's spiritually bankrupt. No, his hang-up is that she's not Jewish.This wild difference in tone, mixing truthful worship with spineless faith, is easily explained in Norton's interviews. He says in Interview magazine that after his first reading of the script, he thought, "You are doing a story about a rabbi and a priest and you are avoiding the subject of God. You can't avoid talking about God." Clearly, the more accurate scenes were grafted on later in the evolution of the script, while the central characters remained the same. The scenes of corporate worship might reflect real-world Christians, but the movie's concept of personal spirituality is something straight out of Hollywood. When Finn tries to explain faith, it ends up sounding remarkably like the Force in Star Wars; in practice it's not much more than mishmash of self-help and the Golden Rule.I don't believe Norton's misrepresentations were a matter of hostility toward religion, but merely a matter of ignorance and insufficient research. World Entertainment News Network quotes him as saying, "The synagogue where we shot, there was dancing and all these young people and it was so clearly a vibrant part of the community. … It was impressive to me because in some sense we see ourselves as a secular society but it's still so much a part of many people's lives." Perhaps, if he could have started his story from scratch after seeing such a scene, he might have done more justice to the truth of religious life rather than merely depict his preconception of it.
Steve Lansingh, who writes the weekly Film Forum for ChristianityToday.com, is editor of thefilmforum.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.
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