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The good, the bad and the in-between as depicted by Hollywood actors and biblical authors

‘Good vs. Evil 2: The Sequel!’ was a fun and thought-provoking Synod School class

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Mulyadi via Unsplash

STORM LAKE, Iowa — Once the American Film Institute came out with its list of the 100 most memorable heroes and villains, the Rev. Mark Bedford did AFI one better: He paired the top good and bad guys and gals Hollywood has to offer with scriptural passages to promote lively discussions during his “Good vs. Evil 2: The Sequel!” class held last month during Synod School.

“Movies present such dramatic and compelling examples of what’s right and wrong that they may overshadow what we’re supposed to learn about ethics in the Bible,” said Bedford, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sioux Falls, Iowa, and a longtime movie buff. “Instead, use the Bible and our faith to judge the ethical choices we see in the movies.”

“Good” is George Bailey staying in Bedford Falls in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “Evil” is Voldemort killing Snape in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.”

However, “evil is part of everyone, so no one can be completely good,” Bedford noted. After Vietnam and Watergate, “movie ethics became more complex and nuanced. Heroes can do evil things to accomplish good goals. Villains can have positive motives for what they do. Good or evil are only shades on a spectrum, where no one is completely on one side or the other.”

Then there’s the power factor, as exhibited by a speech by Dr. Erskine in “Captain America: The First Avenger.” “Power just gives evil people the ability to perform even greater evil deeds,” Bedford said, “while power gives good people the ability to perform even greater good works,” such as Frodo meeting Galadriel in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

An hour spent on the topic of women and biblical ethics explored numerous passages including Judges 4:4-10, where Deborah orders Barak to lead in battle, but he’ll go only if she goes with him. The 1990s was “a heyday for female authority figures” in movies including “Fargo,” “Mulan” and “Terminator 2,” Bedford said.

Galatians 3:27-28 reminds us that differences between us have been removed, including gender. “Righteousness and heroism, like Christian faith, are not exclusively masculine or feminine,” Bedford said, playing the iconic clip from “Norma Rae” in which the main character played by Sally Field encourages unionization in a factory. “She simply does what she believes is right,” Bedford said, “and in doing so, she becomes a hero.”

During the “Heroes, villains and communities” discussion, Bedford wondered if communities affect the ethics of individuals, or vice-versa. Do righteous communities make heroes? Do wicked communities make villains? Or do heroes make communities righteous, and villains make communities wicked?

The Rev. Mark Bedford

Bedford reached deep into the vault for a scene from “The Apartment” between characters played by Jack Lemmon and his unscrupulous boss portrayed by the normally charming Fred MacMurray. Baxter, played by Lemmon, is rewarded for helping executives have affairs by turning over the key to his apartment to them.

For an example of a hero provoking people to good deeds, Bedford played the memorable clip from “Spider-Man 2” when Spidey saves a train full of people, who then try to save him.

A discussion on “anti-villains: is their heart in the right place?” began with the assurance in Matthew 12:33-37 that we can know a tree by its fruit. What makes Robert De Niro’s character Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” think he has the right to pass judgment on people who ride in his cab? After all, in Romans 14:10-13, Paul instructs us not to.

Bedford concluded the class with a look at hero and villain teams, asking along with Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Why would heroes and villains in movies team up? The Bible offers up possible explanations. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 tells us two are better than one, and Romans 12:4-8 reminds us we all bring different gifts to the table or the task at hand.

Teams of villains often fail because “selfish ambition sabotages teamwork,” Bedford said, while even a team of heroes — here Bedford’s example was “The Replacements,” a movie about a team of scab football players coached by a character played by Gene Hackman — can suffer when one player makes it all about himself.

Teams can work together without pride by following the advice in Philippians 2:2-4, as Bedford put it, recognizing “each other’s value while also being mindful of our faults and frailties.”

Bedford’s final example of an all-time team of superheroes is the four leading characters in “The Wizard of Oz”: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man.

“All these people have issues. They’re all in some manner of need,” Bedford said. “Is the church the same? We don’t walk in thinking we’re the best person here. Church is a ‘sinners anonymous’ meeting, and we all have coffee afterward … Heroes gather with humility and recognize each other’s talents and make it work out of respect for one another — and maybe even out of love.”

Next year’s Synod School, which is sponsored and organized each year by the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, will be held at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, July 21-26, 2024.

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