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.
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.