Politics & Policy

Praising Helen

Finally, a likeable pastor on film.

When it comes to portraying pastors on film, Hollywood sticks to a handful of flattering and slightly-less-than-flattering stereotypes. On the flattering side, we have the bygone days of red-cheeked inner-city scrappers like Spencer Tracy and Bing Crosby in Boys Town and Going My Way. Today we have the sweet but slightly ineffective dullards in films like Chocolat and Italian for Beginners. These are nice guys, sure, but not too compelling–certainly not clergy that are going to get anyone hot under the collar, if you know what I mean.

The unflattering end of the scale features a host of compelling preachers. Problem is, half of them are the sadistic, hypocritical killjoys found in films like The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, and Heathers. And the other half embodies the latest clergy-on-film trend, the earnest-to-the-point-of-being-imbalanced set, a la The Exorcist, The Apostle, Signs, and Frailty. They may be interesting, but they’re a bit on the intense side, and you probably wouldn’t want to have them over for dinner.

What you won’t find in any of these stereotypes are pastors that even remotely resemble the men who minister to the kind of large, community-minded churches thousands of Americans attend. Men who head up sports ministries and play in basketball leagues. Men who organize heavy-duty work days to clean up derelict neighborhoods. Men who came from a variety of successful corporate backgrounds, but couldn’t resist the call to serve a higher purpose.

These are athletic, business-savvy, attractive young ministers. But despite their proliferation in churches of all denominations, American audiences have never seen anything like them on film. Until now.

In Kate Hudson’s latest charm vehicle, Raising Helen, Tinsel Town unveils a new pastor, a realistic pastor. And there’s only one adjective to describe him: Sexy!

After her sister and brother-in-law die in a car accident, glamorous modeling agent Helen (Hudson) finds herself taking on a new, decidedly unglamorous job, that of “mom” to her nieces and nephew.

It doesn’t take Helen long to realize that her ultra-hip Manhattan life isn’t appropriate (or affordable) for three kids, so she leaves her chic address behind and moves across the bridge to Queens. Unfortunately, Queens doesn’t boast the safest schools in the country, leading Helen to enroll the kids in a private Lutheran school near their home.

Here’s where we (and Helen) meet Pastor Dan (John Corbett, who is just as charming as he was in My Big Fat Greek Wedding). The antithesis of the metrosexual party boys Helen’s used to dating, Dan’s entire persona points out how selfish, shallow, and empty her life has been up to this point. Still, Helen doesn’t see him for the catch he is right away, and her reticence allows Dan to seduce us right along with Helen.

In one scene, shortly after they meet, Dan asks Helen if she’d like to go out sometime. When she shakes her head no, he starts to leave. But then, realizing how blind she is, he turns back and glowers, “It’s because I’m not one of those model, club-hoppin’ guys right? So you don’t think I’m sexy?” Embarrassed and not knowing how to respond, Helen stands frozen until Dan marches back toward her, leans in, and growls, “Let me tell you something little lady, I am sexy. I’m a sexy man of God, and I know it.”

Finally, Helen recognizes what the audience has known all along: “Holy can be hot!”

From there, the relationship blossoms and we are treated to a new portrait of a moral, Christian man. As we see Dan hold Helen up through her struggles with parenthood, as we see him tenderly minister to three children who’ve lost their parents, and as we see him aggressively protect a young girl’s innocence against adolescent punks, we realize what modern cinema has been missing–real men. A real man who cares about others and is strong enough to lead those he loves to do the right thing.

All this is not to say that Raising Helen presents a model of the theologically perfect pastor. Though Dan doesn’t engage in premarital sex with Helen, he doesn’t seem to have any qualms about pursuing a relationship with her even though she doesn’t profess any serious religious faith. Still, compared to the parade of horrors and simps we’re used to seeing, Helen’s Dan is definitely a step in the realistic direction.

John Corbett, who apparently understands Christian men about as well as Hollywood does, commented at the film’s press junket about his character, “I thought I could make him a little different than your typical pastor…I thought I could make him more likeable.” What Corbett must not realize is that audiences will fall for Pastor Dan specifically because he is just like a typical pastor–likeable. Likeable, and strong, and funny, and, yes, sexy. A sexy man who loves God. A man, well, like a lot of our husbands.

Megan Basham is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona, and a current Phillips Foundation fellow.


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