Exegesis, Footloose, and the Reverend Shaw Moore

Footloose (1984) starring a young Kevin Bacon is a phenomenal film. The subtext of this musical drama is quite inspiring and the filmmakers should be applauded for their success in taking an otherwise cheesy dance movie to an emotionally engaging level, even if they were not fully cognizant of the degree to which they were saying something rather profound.

Most of the success for this deeper side of the film can be attributed to the Oscar-worthy performance of John Lithgow as the Reverend Shaw Moore. A casual and perhaps clumsy viewer will make the mistake of viewing Shaw as a disgruntled clergyman out of touch with reality and serving no real purpose in the film other than to be one of Ren’s enemies, and an annoying conservative one at that. But there is a depth to Lithgow’s character that I resonate with both as a pastor and as a lover of movies.

There are many examples in Footloose I could point to, but one of the best is in the following clip. In case you haven’t seen the movie, Ren is a big-city teenager who moves to a small town where dancing is illegal. Ren takes it upon himself to get this law reversed and that will require changing the mind of the town’s leading (only?) pastor, Shaw Moore, who has considerable influence in the community and has historically been behind the dancing restriction. In this clip, Ren is speaking before the city council to make an argument in favor of changing the law. Take a look…

On the surface, it appears that Shaw is speechless in light of Ren’s recitation of Psalm 149 and 2 Samuel 6. Who knew that this hip, dance-crazed teenager was such an accomplished exegete that even the well-studied Shaw Moore would be out of his league in biblical interpretation? But that isn’t what’s happening at all. Ren’s use of Psalm 149 and 2 Samuel 6 to advance the reversal of a no dancing law so they can have a senior prom is probably the worst exegesis I have ever heard (on second thought, no it isn’t). Shaw could have torn down his argument in about 15 seconds.

But he didn’t.

Shaw’s own views of the dancing law were indeed changing, and Ren did indeed have a role to play in those changes, but not because of his faulty use of Scripture. Trust is never earned if you never had the opportunity to lose it. And the one thing Shaw desired more than all else was for his daughter to be trustworthy – both in her faith and in life. Ironically, the thing that was most important to Shaw was the thing he was most preventing.

So, in this clip, the Reverend Shaw remains silent, and in doing so reveals the depth and nature of his character. He is a man who sincerely desires the best for his family, friends and community; enough to keep his mouth shut when he could easily have humiliated the young Ren. I love the eye contact Shaw first makes with Ren upon his opening of the bible, and then the subsequent eye contact he makes with his wife, Vi (great name). Both times, Shaw is showing great restraint, even knowing that young Ren is on dangerous, and faulty, ground. Vi also knows how incredibly weak Ren’s comments are, nervously bringing her left hand up to her face, not certain if her husband is about to rip this young man’s argument to shreds. And this is a lesson for us all. Sometimes well-intentioned folks will be moving in the right direction, but might not have all the right words or arguments. It takes patience and humility to avoid correcting every little argumentative error. Shaw’s heart was changing, and would eventually be changed through the experience of a book-burning episode in the community. He knew Ren was on the right track, even though he made a poor argument. So he kept silent. That isn’t a villain. That is a hero.

This is a challenging lesson in pastoral ministry, especially for younger pastors. Whether it be in a small group bible study or one-to-one conversations, there is a tendency to correct every little misspoken word, failing to let the student stumble about, but slowly make progress with Godly guidance. Although we certainly want to keep our folks out of doctrinal error, we must resist putting words in their mouth to the detriment of their own processing and study. It is a difficult line to find at times, and Shaw Moore nailed it.

This is only one of many important moments in the film. Perhaps it is time for you to revisit it.