The comedy "Keeping the Faith" seems to answer the question no one had been asking: "What if Starsky and Hutch had taken vows in religious orders rather than becoming cops?" Like the S & H TV show and inevitable movie adaptation, two hip young guys try to change the world for the better -- in "Starsky and Hutch," with guns and badges, and in "Keeping the Faith," with clerical collars and yarmulkes.
Brian (Edward Norton) and Jake (Ben Stiller) grew up buddies along with their friend Anna (Jenna Elfman). Then Anna moved away and Brian became a priest and Jake became a Rabbi, but the two guys remained good friends.
As always, I'm here to talk about the churches in the movies, not the movies themselves. I'm also, as a Gentile, going to exempt myself from talking about Jake's temple; except for two things.
1) Jake's bringing in a Gospel choir to help the congregational singing is very cool.
2) Jake dating and having affairs with a succession of women in his congregation is not cool.
So let's look at Father Brian's church with pros and cons. When we first see Brian in the church, it's a rather sad sight. He's an awkward screw-up, creating mayhem with the incense dispenser. But with a passing time montage we see the church grow, with great crowds coming to hear Brian preach. It's unclear whether the growth is due to people being attracted to the cool, contemporary spin Father Brian brings to his ministry or whether it's because women think he's dreamy or a combination of the two. (A concurrent montage shows the same growth in Jake's temple.)
Brian talks about his calling to the priesthood. His mother thought she couldn't have children and she prayed for God to provide. She saw Brian as a gift from God and was thrilled when he decided to go into the ministry (a story that has a Hannah and Samuel feel to it).
We see Brian taking the confession of a young Hispanic man, and I like several things about the way he handles the situation. Brian has learned enough Spanish to use it in his ministry. He's comfortable as a priest talking with the young man about sexual temptation, reminding him that his feelings are natural but need to be channeled in appropriate directions.
One of the major plot lines is Brian's unexpected temptation when Anna re-enters his life, and he feels attracted to her but talks through his feelings and priestly obligations with an older priest (played by film director Miles Foreman), which is healthy. It's really important for people in ministry to have other people who will hold them accountable.
I also like that Brian works with Jake on community projects. In the film, they're planning a karaoke-focused senior center. Though the world doesn't necessarily need more karaoke, it's good to see congregations working together to meet community needs. I believe this can be done on many projects even when congregations have doctrinal differences.
My one big problem with Father Brian is his abhorrent theology, at least as demonstrated in the one sermon we hear. He talks about what a good thing it is that so many people are coming to church because it shows they have faith. He then makes a distinction between faith and religion. "Faith is a feeling, a hunch, that there is something bigger connecting everything together and that feeling is God." There is a definite pantheistic ring to that idea, rather than Christian. God is not a feeling or a hunch but our Creator, who desires to have a loving relationship with us, as a loving Father with His children.
I do appreciate the desire of the makers of this film to show members of the clergy as real people who pursue God's work for the betterment of others rather than themselves. I just wish Father Brian, in his rush to be relevant in the 21st century, hadn't left behind the best thing about the legacy of the church, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.