Thursday, April 3, 2008

Keeping the Faith

This past week one of our class viewings was the delightful comedy Keeping the Faith which picks up on the plethora of priest/rabbi jokes that seem to circulate. It tells the story of 3 inseparable kids growing up in New York City until Anna, played by Jenna Elfman, leaves her two boys Jake Schram, played by Ben Stiller, and Brian Finn, played by Edward Norton after their eighth grade year.
Stiller’s character grows up to be a rabbi while Norton’s character becomes a Catholic priest. Many years later, but still in the infancy of their ministries, Anna, now a high-power business woman returns to New York for work and looks up he long lost childhood friends. What ensues are crises faith, falling in love, conversions, and questionable ethics.

Going in, I asked my students to read articles on love, sexuality, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and pluralism from the Musser & Price New and Enlarged Handbook on Christian Theology. I also asked them to read Beth Newman’s article “Pluralism as Idolatry.”

One of my questions of the film and filmmaking in general, is what should we expect from them in the portrayal of religion? Should I expect them to give an accurate portrayal? Can we appreciate the film on its own merits and still be dissatisfied with its shallow portrayal of religion?

Notes on the positive:
Fr. Finn is a young priest who seems to be inspiring his congregation, at least by sight in terms of growth. He had brought a sense of renewal to this apparently dying congregation. Fr. Finn is an interesting portrait of a priest as well. In one sense, this film is about calling and the challenges of ministry. We see a very human priest facing the challenges of celibacy. It is cliché these days to portray a faithless priest as pedophile or sexually active among his congregants. Keeping the Faith walks a fine line. Brian certainly falls in love with his childhood friend Anna, makes a pass at her, but still remains true to his vows. At the highpoint of poignancy, the elder priest comforts Brian by telling him that he had fallen in love at least once every decade of his ministry. But he says to the young priest that each day it is a choice, in marriage or ministry, to be faithful and fulfill your vows. The scene goes like this,
Father Brian: I keep thinking about what you said in seminary, that the life of a priest is hard and if you can see yourself being happy doing anything else you should do that.

Father Havel: That was my recruitment pitch, which is not bad when you're starting out because it makes you feel like a marine. The truth is you can never tell yourself there is only one thing you could be. If you are a priest or if you marry a woman it's the same challenge. You cannot make a real commitment unless you accept that it's a choice that you keep making again and again and again.

It is a welcomed word for both those who are married and serve in ministry. It is a helpful corrective to the “feeling” of love, and Brian’s own definition of faith as feeling.

Notes on the not-as-positive:
My feeling is that the portrayal of religion is ultimately shallow. Brian, in a sermon defines faith as,
“The truth is, I don't really learn that much about your faith by asking questions like that...because those aren't really questions about faith, those are questions about religion. And it's very important to understand the difference between religion and faith. Because faith is not about having the right answers. Faith is a feeling. Faith is a hunch, really. It's a hunch that there is something bigger connecting it all... connecting us all together. And that feeling, that hunch, is God. And coming here tonight, on your Sunday evening... to connect with that feeling, that is an act of faith. And so all I have to do is look around the room at this packed church... to know that we're doing pretty well as a community.”

Not only does he define faith based something as fickle as feeling he connects vital faith with numbers. Not that this is particularly unique to our society. Rather, in many circles this is heightened by the health and wealth gospel as well as our addiction to self-help resources. Faith, for Brian, is about us and not about God. I do not want to reduce faith to pure rationalism, and feelings are a necessary part of the life of faith. But his succinct definition would seem to truncate the historical definitions of faith.

Similarly, the required readings for this film were intended to help students consider our cultures pluralism. Does Keeping the Faith simply show the existence of a plurality of religions or does it suggest in a typical postmodern fashion, that all faiths or spiritualities are equal and can be chosen at random as long as it is useful to ones life? Are the interrelations between Brian’s Catholicism and Jake’s Judaism simply friendship between the two acknowledging the gulf in between or are they just two options in the spiritual marketplace?

Another comical scene in the film takes place when Brian, distraught on a bender shares his story with a local bartender. In this scene we get an insight into the very complicated religious plurality of human lives.

Father Brian: You're a Sikh, Catholic Muslim with Jewish in-laws?

Bartender: Yes. Yes. It gets very complicated. I'm reading Dianetics.

Father Brian: Don't blame you.

Additionally questionable, Brian, along with Rabbi Schram want to bring their religions into the 21st century…“old world religion with a new age spin.” Both run up against religions steeped in tradition. Jake seems though to take it on more directly with the introduction of non-Judaic practices into the communities spiritual life. He also runs up against their expectation of a rabbi. He too receives wise words from an elder that people want to be lead into the next century and change rather than pushed. People like their traditions because they give them stability that orients them in the world. So while both young men want to push their congregants to keep pace with the changing world, they hopefully learn the value of tradition along the way.

I have seen this film numerous times and yet have not come to a conclusion on the films view of pluralism. I do feel it is a valuable film to explore topics of vocation, love, tradition, family, conversion, similarity and differences of faith and religion; but also pastoral ethics, revitalization and many more.