The new Wal-Mart on Silver Spring Street in Providence is very handy for anyone, like me, who is heading toward Woonsocket. Route 146 is a minute from the superstore’s parking lot.
The other main attraction at this Wal-Mart is the availability of movies on DVD for a dollar each. Most of the movies are action/adventure films probably made for cable TV with a lot of car chases and gun fights.
But lately, older classical films have been offered for a buck. “Meet John Doe” debuted in 1941 with Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper taking the lead roles. Somewhat akin to “It’s a Wonderful Life” featured on TV every Christmas, the movie exalts, in a folksy manner, the potential of the American common man in opposition to the Fascist dictatorships that had then seized Europe. Gary Cooper, as John Doe, goes about the country preaching civility, cooperation and community involvement. The nation responds and Doe becomes a hero. Discouraged when he discovers that he was being used by higher-ups for political purposes, he arrives at city hall threatening to jump to his death as a protest against corruption in high places. Needless to write, good triumphs over evil and Gary and Barbara conclude the film in a warm embrace.
“Meet John Doe” is not a religious movie in the way that “The Bells of St. Mary’s” or “Come to the Stable” are. It is not at all churchy. Nor is “Meet John Doe” a fully-Christian movie. There is nothing of revelation in it. Nonetheless, the movie’s overriding theme of neighborliness and teamwork is thoroughly imbued with what T.S.Eliot labeled the “Christian myth.”
While the movie’s theme was utterly humanitarian, its trappings were astonishingly Christian. John Doe’s initial speech that won the hearts of the nation developed at length Christ’s words on the mount: “… the meek shall inherit the earth.” Corrupt politicians were compared to Pontius Pilate; John Doe’s complicity with the mighty was described as a sell-out for “30 pieces of silver.”
Choristers sang “Silent Night” through a snowy window. A minister called not for a “moment of silence” but for a “moment of silent prayer.” But the ultimate Christian sermon was left to Barbara Stanwyck, who convinced Gary Cooper not to jump off the tower of city hall by telling him that there was no need for him to die.
Without a hint of apology, Stanwyck reminded Cooper that “the real John Doe died 2,000 years ago,” and his good example has strengthened mankind ever since. It mattered little that Gary Cooper’s John Doe was just a publicity stunt. The spirit of “the real John Doe” was still guiding humanity and all Cooper did was to call attention to it. His charade underlined basic Christian insights about human nature so his pretense was worth it — in Stanwyck’s and the supporting cast’s opinion.
Audiences around this nation viewed this movie 65 years ago and most were able to catch all the Biblical references and take them in stride – let alone take offense at them. The United States of America truly was a Christian nation in the sense that the trappings of Christianity were the framework within which citizens lived their lives. True, some possibly visited their bookie every Friday after work, maybe some did fall asleep during sermons, perhaps an unexpectedly pregnant girl left town for a few months to stay with an aunt – things were not perfect “in the old days.” But there was a frame of reference, a meeting of the minds, a consensus, based, at least remotely, on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Our parents and grandparents had a spiritual structure inherited from an age of great faith which they could call upon in times of struggle and testing.
Our current age, which glories in opinion and dissent, is in danger of having no common resource to draw society together. Religion, especially, and Christianity, in particular, are rapidly losing their place in the public realm. America is becoming forgetful of its Christian roots.
Contemporary American Christians must neither compromise nor apologize for their beliefs but rather modern Christians must evangelize with their beliefs. Their personal commitment to Jesus Christ must be coupled with a readiness to show the unity between Christian beliefs and human aspirations, between faith and common sense. There is no conflict between nature and grace. It is true that America’s present cultural and moral diversity is indeed a challenge. But that just makes evangelization an even more pressing Christian responsibility.