Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Big Valley: Brother Love

The Big Valley: "Brother Love" (1967)
Back in the 1950s and '60s when Westerns ruled American TV, preachers occasionally showed up as heroes (as we saw in last week’s Bonanza episode). At times, a different kind of clergy would cameo -- the Elmer Gantry model. You might wonder how, back in the day of TV censors, shows could get away with portraying a clergyman as a confidence man, but they found ways to make it work. They didn’t get too specific about doctrine, and they always found a way to redeem the bad preacher.

At least that's how things worked out in this 1967 episode of The Big Valley, which featured Robert Goulet in the title role of "Brother Love."  

The Big Valley certainly had similarities to Bonanza, but instead of a father living with his three sons on a large family ranch in Nevada, it was about a mother living with her four sons (and a daughter) on a large family ranch in California.

In this episode, Heath (Lee Majors) Barkley and his (half) sister Audra (Linda Evans) visit town (Stockton, CA) and see what Heath calls a “sky pilot. He remarks, “They come out every spring.” 

Brother Love is playing an organ on a wagon in the middle of the street, singing a song about “Brotherly love, neighborly love” (but strangely not about God’s love).

As Brother Love speaks, two men, one on crutches, approach him. The “lame” man introduces his “deaf and mute” brother. They ask Brother Love if he can heal them, and Love says he’ll do what he can at his outdoor revival meeting the next night at 7:30. He says they may be healed if supported by the prayers of the good people in town.

Brother Love then makes a stop at the local saloon, where Heath happens to be having a drink. Love looks around in disgust and loudly proclaims, “So, this is Satan’s saloon, Lucifer’s lair, Beelzebub's banquet hall…” (Love seems to believe alliteration confers moral authority.) He proceeds to dump the drinks of men at the bar. Heath advises him not to mess with his drink, and surprisingly, Love complies. Love heaps scorn on the women working in the bar as scarlet Jezebels, then, with this winning approach, invites all in the bar to attend his revival meeting the following evening.

In a move of astounding tactical sloppiness, Brother Love meets the men who asked for healing in an alleyway in Stockton. The audience can see that Love is a con man, as his compatriots ask what took him so long to get to town. (“I needed to console one of my converts. She turned out to be as soft as a mouse’s ear.”) They discuss how much money they can make off the town, and Love says that to make the big bucks, he’ll have to win over the rich family in town, the Barkleys. He reveals his plan to woo Audra Barkley.

Love sets his plan in action as Audra drives her carriage to visit a local orphanage. Hidden in the woods, Love uses a rifle to shoot at the feet of the carriage horses. When the horses run wild, Love “rescues” Audra. He then accompanies her on a picnic with a couple of the orphanage children. Audra accepts his offer to attend the revival meeting.

There are a few dozen people at the torch lit meeting. There is a sign for the “Revival Under the Stars”. Love has a rather good opening to his sermon. He asks people to pick up rocks, then he admits he’s a sinner. He challenges people to throw the first stone if they are without sin. When no one does, he says, “Now that we know where we all stand.” The sermon goes downhill from there as he launches into hellfire and brimstone. 

I believe preaching about hell has its place. Jesus preached about hell. But Brother Love preaches about hell without drawing upon Scripture. He even at one points goes on about the River Styx, which comes from Greek mythology (as well as being an awesome ‘70’s band.) And he doesn’t present the Gospel hope that comes through Christ. He never so much as mentions Jesus throughout the whole episode.

The big climax of the meeting comes when the “lame” man, Mace (Gavin McLeod), comes forward to be healed. Love says he’ll heal the “deaf and dumb” man, Fludd (Strother Martin), the next night (“I’ll heal him or sell my soul to the devil.”)

But the next day Heath goes to Brother Love’s campsite and finds the two shills. He tricks Fludd into revealing he is faking his affliction, then goes back home to tell Audra.

Audra goes by herself to confront Love, but she finds the henchmen. Mace shoots her, grazing her head and she passes out.

Love returns to camp and is upset to find Audra injured. He drives his men off. Audra awakens, but she says she can’t see anything. This upsets Love greatly, so he prays, “It’s time we had a heart to heart talk. I’m not asking for me, but for her… I’ve got a thousand dollars. It’s all I have in the world, but you can have it.” (I’m sure He who owns the cattle on a thousand hills is thrilled.) He promises to serve God, if God heals Audra. Audra awakens and can see.

A “reformed” Brother Love is forgiven by local law enforcement and promises to return later and build a church in Stockton, starting a new work. Of course, Brother Love never appears on the show again.
So what steeple rating should we give to Brother Love? Obviously, preaching as a confidence man, brazenly making empty promises of healing to a widow with a blind child, he would earn our lowest rating of one steeple out of four. But we aren’t too thrilled with the reformed Brother Love at the end of the episode either. There is a reason Paul (in I Timothy 3) puts forth qualifications for a church leader as someone of good character. 

Do we really think that this one incident of the “miraculous” healing of Audra will cure Love’s greed and lust? I think he’ll continue to struggle with these things -- and standing in front of an adoring congregation is not the best place to work out these issues.

So we’ll stick with that One Steeple rating.

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