The other day I was so tired after sweating through some lawn work I sat down in front of TCM with a big glass of water. And there she was: young Katherine Hepburn acting strangely, as usual, in a movie I had somehow never seen, The Little Minister. Since I have been tagged a “little minister” a few times, I got interested and witnessed a strange view of Christianity — I’m still digesting it. As is sadly common in the movies (and this was 1934!), the plot is about how love must rescue little ministers (and whoever else has their head on straight) from the mean old hypocrites who are “bound by God” to enforce the rules that keep everyone from true love! If elders like those of the Scottish Presbyterian Church portrayed actually exist in great numbers, as the movies lead us to believe (as in, they are in every church of every kind!) then it is no wonder so many people finally give up on the church even though they like Jesus — a lot!
It turns out this little piece of anti-church-elders art started out in 1891 as a J.M. Barrie novel (he wrote Peter Pan) and was turned into a play for the famous Maude Adams in 1897 (who was famous for being the first woman to play Peter Pan, which became a tradition). Then it became a silent movie in 1921 with Betty Compson. Then Katherine Hepburn gave it a star turn in 1934 as a talkie when she was 24 years old.
I suppose I should have been interested in the little minister himself, trying to be all stern and proper in his new parish but falling in love with a “gypsy” (who turns out to be the ward and heir of the Lord of the manor). But the actresses were more interesting, as was their character, who carries all the anti-establishment sentiments of the piece. She’s like St. Francis emerging from the forest — the truth-seeking rebel who always seems to show up to reignite the Spirit, even though the law-keepers and power-mongers are trying to take over the church.
But what interested me even more is how awful the elders of the church were portrayed. It is not that the church does not deserve to be stereotyped; Pence is the Vice President, after all! [I’ve complained about him myself.] And his agenda definitely resembles the mean-spirited, loveless stereotype the movies keep undermining. [A stereotype this year’s movie: Paul the Apostle of Christ, undermines quite well]. The stereotype is terrible, but all too true, and it got me thinking.
I decided to do some research, which, as you can tell, is like a hobby for me. I typed into Google: “Americans disdain for straight-laced Christians in the movies.” I was hoping that someone had already cataloged all the criticism the church gets onscreen. I did not get a straight answer to my question, but I did get some revelation about how the world sees Christians these days. Take a look at the first four articles that came up.
#1. The Guardian: “White” Christians are now a minority of the U.S. population
First off, so what? What is “white?” What do you mean by “Christian?” And why do you keep labeling people and making them majorities or minorities? So many problems! But the 2017 article is interesting:
But change is afoot, and US demographics are morphing with potentially far-reaching consequences. Last week, in a report entitled America’s Changing Religious Identity, the nonpartisan research organization Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) concluded that white Christians were now a minority in the US population.
Soon, white people as a whole will be, too.
The survey is no ordinary one. It was based on a huge sample of 101,000 Americans from all 50 states, and concluded that just 43% of the population were white Christians. To put that in perspective, in 1976, eight in 10 Americans were identified as such, and a full 55% were white Protestants. Even as recently as 1996, white Christians were two-thirds of the population.
I suspect The Guardian thinks these “white Christians” are the same people J.M. Barrie thought were idiots. I’m pretty much OK if their majority disappears too, even though I guess The Guardian would label me one.
#2. Time: Regular Christians Are No Longer Welcome in American Culture
First off, who are “regular” Christians and what is “American culture” (Katherine Hepburn movies? Facebook? Walmart? Childish Gambino?). I think there are plenty of people, like me, who don’t lose a minute of sleep wondering about whether they are welcome in American culture. As a matter of fact, being alternative to American culture might be the same as being saved.
But Mary Eberstadt, as usual, has a point and Time gave her an op-ed in 2016 to voice it;
This new vigorous secularism has catapulted mockery of Christianity and other forms of religious traditionalism into the mainstream and set a new low for what counts as civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs. In some precincts, the “faith of our fathers” is controversial as never before.
It is true, the media is a powerful tool for mockery. These days, mockery is like an industry, not a literary device used to get to the truth, as in all the variations of The Little Minister. Trump makes a mockery of truth every day. People mock Trump for making truth a mockery. Christians are right in there and rightly getting it right back at them. Personally, I think we little ministers can do better than mocking or trying to unmock a Hillary or Donald.
#3. The American Conservative: The Problem of Contempt in Christianity
I don’t have any “first offs” for this third entry, since I think she is absolutely right. Contempt kills love and we are swimming in a cesspool of it. The Little Minister was a sweet little stab of contempt in the heart of the church: its leaders, and it deepened a suspicion that infects probably 75% of the people trying to work out the body of Christ together.
Grace Olmstead said this in 2014 and look where we are four years later!
This reminded me of another article on kindness and the “other,” written by Emily Esfahani Smith for The Atlantic last week. She writes that the greatest destroyer of marriages is contempt, whereas the greatest builder of marriage is kindness:
Contempt, [researchers] have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued.
In contrast, she writes, “If you want to have a stable, healthy relationship, exercise kindness early and often.” Smith lists several ways to be more consciously kind, but one of the primary ways it to be “generous about your partner’s intentions … The ability to interpret your partner’s actions and intentions charitably can soften the sharp edge of conflict.”
This simple advice should be applied to more than just a marital relationship. What if we treated church, and Christianity as a whole, in this way? Instead of responding to denominational and traditional differences with contempt, what if we tried to assume the best of the other, looked for shared truths, united on core doctrine, and spoke with combined honesty and generosity about the things we see as misguided or wrong? What if we spent more time in shared service, “showing interest and support” for those actions we see as laudable and important, rather than merely looking for things to critique in the denominational “others” around us?
It is good that she started with a critique of how Jesus-followers act, since she went on to describe how Protestants are beginning to feel the backlash from people who have been under their political thumb since the country’s inception. The movies often take the point of view of oppressed “gypsies” (like Katherine Hepburn :)) who are interesting because they contemptuously point out the misplaced and unChristian contempt of church leaders for huge segments of the population.
#4. Wall Street Journal: One Hundred Years of Freud in America
First off: How did this article get into the WSJ? And how did it end up number four in my search? The internet is a strange thing. Did Google know that I am a psychotherapist and this would wind my clock? Did it know that I was analyzing the motives of moviemakers and the reactions of their prey?
This article from 2009 may not interest you much. But it serves to point out what is happening to us. The movies don’t always create the philosophies, they reflect them. Freud was a determined outsider, too, who doggedly unlaced strait-laced people. And Christians, for good and ill, have been loosened from their traditional moorings ever since. I think psychotherapy can unleash the work of the Spirit in us. But it can also become another philosophical overlord if Jesus doesn’t direct it.
A Harris poll last year found that nearly one in three American adults had “received treatment or therapy from a psychologist or other mental health professional.” Orthodox Freudians are relatively rare nowadays, and drugs are replacing psychotherapy as a treatment for many mental ills. (A study out this week from Columbia University says that one in 10 Americans is now on antidepressants.) Yet some version of Freud’s talking cure—with or without the dogma—is an accepted feature of American middle-class life.
Before his visit  , Freud predicted to his circle of followers that presumably strait-laced Americans would never embrace his ideas “once they discover the sexual core of our psychological theories.” But of course in America sex sells; indeed, it is probably one of the biggest reasons that Freud’s theories gained such currency here. As with so much else, he was wrong about that, too.
The Little Minister brought it all down to “true love.” The minister’s head is warmed by a gypsy heart and the whole town is enlivened. Natural goodness is set loose, the minister personally stands between the murderous oppressed and their clueless overlords, takes the knife meant for someone who deserved it, and Jesus is revealed (it is quite a plot!).
Americans show so much disdain for straight-laced Christians in the movies because there is a lot of true Christianity laced into America. They have some discernment and hope. The government has often been held in check by the faith of Americans, but not that often (although we don’t know how bad it would have been without the Jesus-followers doggedly following). From my little experience, I think most people can spot a real Christian when they see one. That’s what The Little Minister was all about — spotting the true Christians; one was dressed like a minister, the other like a gypsy. Others were scattered here and there.
There are so many Christ figures in this little movie it deserves an altar call! The heir of the fortune gives it all up after she falls for a true Christian and God answers her prayer for healing. I suppose nowadays, if people don’t see such folks on screen it will be hard to see them at all, since they look at screens so much! But when they look up and see you, I hope you will not feel so much shame at being associated with the idiot Christians so often depicted in the movies that you forget that you are actually associated with Jesus, who doesn’t need the affirmation of Americans to be the Lord of all.