It may be a surprise that once in a blue moon, I go to a religious service, be it in a church, mosque, temple (both the Jewish and Hindu kinds), and various other sorts. I had such an occasion this Sunday last, where I was struck by the fact that going back just a few hundred years, this was substantially it for regular social activity. Before the time of the Internet and the cell phone, before the weekly television show and the movie theater premiere, and when even live theater offerings were themselves not so frequent outside of the big cities, the constancy of religious services, with their stories and lessons, can easily be envisioned as having resonated across communities from the many different cultures of the world. Indeed, tales of the miraculous, of heroic quasi-historic theological figures, amounted to the weekly drama of the day. And so, having gone to such a service, I thereafter found myself in the mood to watch an actual religious or religion-promoting film for the sake of getting some further perspective in this direction.

After entertaining several recommendations, I decided to watch Father Stu. This is really a very different kind of religious film. Not the kind of thing made by Kevin Sorbo or Kirk Cameron these days, which simply cloyingly appeals to a religious audience with a hyperbolically over the top depiction of the endlessly-praying hero proceeding perfectly in their faith, with a villain in the form of either an Atheist or an agent of Satan (or both). No, this loosely-based-on-a-true-story film centers on a foul-mouthed boxer who yearns to be an actor and a lover, but finds himself in jail for a spell, and after that on a continuing run of bad luck in his career ambitions. Working in a deli, he meets a girl and becomes sufficiently obsessed with her to stalk her to her church and, finding that she is devoted to her faith, converting to Catholicism as a means to further woo her.

But then he ends up in a terrible road accident where he should have died, and decides (against everybody's advice) to become a priest.

The film proceeds through a number of what I'd call "faith-offs." Intellectual confrontations between two equally religious characters wherein each seeks to prevail in a dispute by quoting scriptural passages and historical precedents from within the religion, until one of them hits upon the killer verse that settles the debate. These, to the outsider, sound somewhat like the comic book debates over whether Spider-Man could beat Ant Man in a fight, citing to feats displayed by each in various issues of the comics. Stu must convince a reluctant Monsignor to admit an ex-con to the seminary, and to do so marshals a history of men of initially low character who found their way to sainthood. Stu has frequent arguments of this type with a fellow seminarian (whose name is literally Ham) who thinks Stu is a phony who just doesn't belong.

The only trope that rings truly false to me in the film is Mel Gibson's characterization, as Stu's belittling alcoholic working class Atheist father. Not the alcoholism or the belittlement, but that the character is an Atheist of the Hollywood school--secretly believing in God, but for some reason just mad at that 'ol deity. This, actually, was much more credibly pulled off by Kevin Sorbo -- demographically -- in God's Not Dead. There, the character was at least a philosophy professor who mustered some intellectual-sounding reasons for finding Theism unconvincing, and not a surly blue-collar drunk.

But back to the plot, eventually the pieces fall into place, meaning Stu shows that his low background gives him the tools to reach everyman audiences of parishioners (whether in the pews or visiting prison); Stu is diagnosed with a terminal disease, and feels divinely abandoned, but soldiers on. Ham discloses that he was bred for the priesthood, but doesn't feel its calling, and they depart on friendly terms. The diocese, initially reluctant to fully ordain Stu as a priest, gives in under the weight of the pleas of the parishioners (and the once-reluctant Monsignor). And in the end, Stu relates in the grand finale wheelchair-bound sermon that in his ultimate illness he feels gifted by God to have received something that allows him to connect more closely with the suffering of Jesus —- a “scenic route to die.”

And then Stu dies, presumably to discover whether he'd lucked into the right religion after all. Blessings!!

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