Woody Allen and evangelicals: A surprisingly romantic pair

REMO CASILLI REUTERS Director Woody Allen looks on during the shooting of his movie “The Bop Decameron” in downtown Rome … Continued



Director Woody Allen looks on during the shooting of his movie “The Bop Decameron” in downtown Rome July 25, 2011.

Earlier this year I was sitting at a cafeteria lunch table with evangelical icon Chuck Colson and some of his close faith advisors when the conversation took a turn I hadn’t predicted: Colson started talking about Woody Allen.

In detail.

It turned out Colson and some others at the table, who help him craft theological writings and classes, are hard-core fans of Allen, and were easily able to recite bits of dialogue. A debate launched about the religious subtexts of various Allen films and what were the moviemaker’s own theological conclusions.

It was only when my regular chats with Southern Baptist leader Richard Land began turning to Allen that I got curious — what’s the deal with evangelicals and Woody Allen?

It turned out that I was clueless to a fascination that now makes perfect sense, since Allen marries two things core to modern-day evangelicals: popular culture and religion. Think “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and the symbolism of the rabbi going blind; think “Match Point” and questions raised about the apparent randomness of life.

Many of Allen’s films wrestle in a complex way with core moral themes, such as the nature of forgiveness, what to do with sin, whether life can have any meaning without God. And he does this as an agnostic.

Land is also a huge Allen fan and can rattle off an amazing amout of dialogue. You can’t get the guy off the phone once he starts talking Woody.

This evangelical-Allen thing reappeared the other day when some friends on Facebook started zapping around an amazing piece of vintage talk-show footage — Allen interviewing evangelical leader Billy Graham (it’s in two parts).

I haven’t been able to determine what show Allen was hosting (he declined to be interviewed), but it looks to be the 1960s, with a wise-guy, 30-something Allen engaging the handsome, older preacher about sex, drugs and life after death.

Allen: “If you come to one of my movies or something, I’ll go to one of your revival meetings.”

Graham: “Well now that is a deal.”

Allen: “You could probably convert me because I’m such a pushover. I have no convictions in any direction and if you make it appealing and promise me some sort of wonderful afterlife with a white robe and wings I would go for it.”

Graham: “I can’t promise you a white robe and wings, but I can promise you a very interesting, thrilling life.”

Allen: “One wing, maybe?”

The off-camera audience is cracking up the entire time, and both men are smiling and relaxed through the 10-minute interview even as they clearly aren’t seriously entertaining the other’s views. It’s entertainment, but it’s also sweet, particularly on Graham’s part, which results in a piece of footage that manages to be both deep and silly (this is not easy to pull off).  

The primary feeling I had watching the video was one of nostalgia for a time when the subject of religion wasn’t so firmly planted at the center of a culture war, when people of totally different convictions about matters of life and death and morality could agree to disagree. It seemed almost romantic.

It seems impossible to imagine. Can anyone think of a comparable exchange today? I considered The Daily Show but even that seems too slick.

In the interview Allen is dorky and giggly – he almost seems like a teenager embarassed to ask about dating.

Could he have sex before marriage, he asks Graham, to ensure that his betrothed isn’t “an absolute yo-yo?” Graham turns fatherly, but not dogmatic; “that won’t happen to you,” he assures Allen.

Graham’s framing of the role of faith is decidedly secular, perhaps aimed at Allen’s audience. The purpose of the religious doctrine and rules is because God wants you to have “the best of life .. happiness and fulfillment.” The ban on sex outside a committed marriage, he says, is to protect your psychological self, to keep your body free from disease.

I asked Land to look at the videos and he commented that the wise-cracking Woody of the 1960s seemed to have “less swagger in his agnosticism” than the Woody who created the characters of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” in the 1980s, with their agonizing over mortality and purpose.

“I find Woody over the years, and of course this is true of people as they get older, there is more resignation,” he said. “There is a light touch and a confidence in his earlier movies — I’m not dead, I won’t die for a long time so I have a long time to figure this all out. Some of his more recent movies, you can see he’s aware of his own mortality.”

Land is sure he sees an Allen less confident.

“He asks all the right questions, he just doesn’t have the right answers,” Land said with a chuckle.

In trying to find the source of the clip I stumbled on a 2010 interview with Allen in which he seems to reference the Graham chat and shows that he hasn’t changed his mind a bit. He still has no faith in any higher power and says Graham is “delusional.”

Speaking of characters in his new movie, Allen says “sooner or later, reality sets in in a crushing way. As it does and will with everybody, including Billy Graham. But it’s nice if you can delude yourself for as long as possible.”

It’s hard for me to imagine a talk being the two men being as light-hearted today.

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  • persiflage

    Woody Allen is brilliantly ambivilant about everything, and in a very creative way.
    He deals with a core human reality that is both common to everyone and at the same time, completely elusive and transient – through the media of film. He also plays the clarinet.

    How that correlates with the absolutism of evangelical Christianity is a complete mystery to me – because this is pure theological dogma with no room for equivication.

    I have to believe that Woody Allen is tongue in cheeck about virtually everything religious, although he probably has more than a little sympathy for both faithful believers and relgious traditions.

  • Carstonio

    I’m not exactly sure where Allen stands on religion. The finale of “Match Point” appears to refute the idea of ultimate justice in the universe. But as Pauline Kael noted, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” stacks the deck against agnosticism, with the film saying that belief in a god is necessary for life to have meaning even if that god doesn’t actually exist.

    There’s something ironic about Colson and other fundamentalists, people known for using anti-Semitic euphemisms like “anti-Christian entertainment elite,” admiring Allen. Not only is he Jewish, intellectual and agnostic, those fundamentalists would be horrified by the subject matter of Allen’s talking-sperm film.

  • schymtz

    Spiritual leadership is missing all around. It is difficult to read the prophets seriously and not take the objective of social justice very seriously. Jeremiah’s prophecy regarding the inevitable exile brought a spiritual or theological dimension to the notion of justice. Ignoring a collective social moral responsibility for social justice leads to sacred wrath and collective judgement over generations. At present, it seems demonstratively true that the “radical right” is quite literally an “abomination.” Capitalism” is a poor substitute for religious doctrine that all too easily risks idolatry. At the same time, the “anemic left” without the kind of spiritual and moral power that drove earlier civil rights and organized labor movements. All that being said, the logical balance of power to trans-national corporate power would seem to be global regulation and/or global labor movements. Else representative government becomes obsolete and a trans-national corporate oligarchy becomes absolute. “New World Order?”

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