One of the great movie comedy series of all time was the Our Gang shorts produced by Hal Roach Studios from the 1920s through the late 1930s. It featured such rough-and-tumble child actors as Spanky McFarland, Alfalfa Switzer, Darla Hood, Buckwheat, and many others. These kids were charming, clever, and full of mischief. And of all the comedy series from that era, Our Gang consistently ranks at the very top.
This franchise was so popular that it eventually caught the eye of the movie mega-studio MGM, which took over the series in 1938 – and proceeded to destroy it. They made two mistakes.
The more serious one was that the new scriptwriters completely misunderstood the original incarnation’s ethos. In the Hal Roach shorts, the kids often demonstrated more wisdom and insights than the stuffy adults, and in more than one episode, the adults learned important life lessons from the children. MGM changed all this, however, and included many plot lines that were thinly disguised morality lessons for the kids. Essentially, these stories were designed to “civilize” the children and turn them into well-behaved “little adults.”
The second mistake was that MGM greatly upped the production value. Now, instead of having the kids romp through shots showing poor editing, uneven sound, and the occasional lousy overdub, the shorts now resembled the highly polished movies of MGM’s heyday. And the series lost something. Part of the charm of the original films was their production “rawness.” Somehow the technical flaws reinforced the kids’ innocence.
So what can Christians learn from MGM’s mismanagement of the franchise?
First, we must remember that, although we know that ultimately Jesus provides the answers for life’s big questions, we are all in a lifelong process of figuring out just what that looks like, and none of us has our act together completely. And we should stop pretending that we do. I’m not suggesting that we avoid providing clear guidance and biblically-based advice to others, but it must be done in a spirit of humility. Too often, just like the pompous adults in the failed MGM Our Gang movies, we can wag our fingers in condescension at people who fail to meet our standards.
The second lesson is a direct outgrowth of the first. In an attempt to present a good “testimony for Jesus,” we can slather over our faults to try to produce a picture-perfect, air-brushed Hollywood characterization of what a good Christian looks like. Again, I’m not suggesting that we wallow in our shortcomings or condone sin, but just as the imperfections in the original Our Gang films enhanced our appreciation for them, so a candid admission that God still has a long way to go in our lives can be very attractive. How many people have turned away from the church because they were given the impression that only the exemplary people are welcomed. Didn’t Jesus himself say that it’s not the well who need a physician, but the sick?
So, our message should be three-fold:
1. Jesus accepts us just as we are
2. He loves us too much to leave us that way
3. We’re in this together, and we’re willing to let our rawness show as we figure out the Christian life together
So let’s not go MGM on the people we rub shoulders with every day. Instead, let’s present an incredibly positive but honest picture of what it means to follow Christ.