July 2, 2009

Karl Malden and Religious Conscience

It would seem beyond obvious to note that a number of high-profile deaths have hit the news lately. Actively lost amongst these notices is that of Karl Malden, an iconic actor lost among a legion of recently deceased icons.

In seminary, I recall my pastoral theology professor, Will Spong -- himself a giant among men in his own right, himself now gone to his reward -- noting Mr. Malden's performance as a priest, a certain Father Barry, in "On the Waterfront" (1954).

"Now, Malden gets it right," I remember Will as saying. "He's tough and uncompromising, not like these schlub ministers you're always seeing on TV and in movies."

As usual, Will was so right -- right on both counts.

The cinema and television have just brimmed for years with ineffectual, soft, and bumbling ministers. These are guys played for laughs ... guys played without any robust feeling ... little nothings, ninnies and boys in collars and stoles who stand in as wallpaper and only react to situations, and only then with terrible caution. They don't acknowledge that life has a dark side; they can't, because they've been sheltered and preened and read to, and the world would fall apart if there were actually anything wrong.

Hollywood has a stereotypical Christian pastor, but I can tell you, he's not the priest I was trained to be or the priest I pray I am, and I bet he's not you or yours, either.

Now, Malden (thank you, Will) gets it right. "On the Waterfront" is about the politics of conscience and what we do, when we are capable of taking action, in order to stop bad things from happening. And in a film that so beautifully explores the line between taking action and just letting it ride, Father Barry is the catalyst of both conscience and consciousness.

The dock is his parish, the workers his flock. He takes care of them because it's what Christ would do. He takes the slings and arrows; he stands with his people in glory and in defeat; he doesn't exactly stand for nonviolent resistance, but he'll be damned if he's going to let his parishioners play small and let The System win out in the process.

Although Father Barry fades in and out, Malden chews beautiful scenery every time he's within frame, and ultimately he lands the one speech that, more than any other, has the greatest staying power of the entire film, and it comes straight out of the Bible.

Bud Schulberg (the screenwriter) and Mr. Malden did get it right. They got it right fifty-five years ago. They've had plenty of time to explore faithful ministry in the meanwhile. Why, in 2009, does institutional cinema miss this mark so widely?

It isn't as if there aren't a lot of Christians going to movies. They recognize the stereotype when they see it. Yet, I suppose we just wince and chuckle and go on; we continue to put up with it.

Sort of begs the question, doesn't it? Is faith a passive thing that fills us up, or is it an active force that changes the world?

God bless Karl Malden until we see each other again.

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