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NEWS FEATURE: An Adaptable Pastor Knows His Verses and Learns His Lines

c. 2004 Religion News Service CLEVELAND _ Members of the independent evangelical Parkside Church in suburban Bainbridge Township might have been dismayed to see their nationally acclaimed pastor, Alistair Begg, drinking liquor, cursing in public and being rude to people seeking instruction. But apparently the native of Scotland has a congregation with merciful hearts. Because […]

c. 2004 Religion News Service

CLEVELAND _ Members of the independent evangelical Parkside Church in suburban Bainbridge Township might have been dismayed to see their nationally acclaimed pastor, Alistair Begg, drinking liquor, cursing in public and being rude to people seeking instruction. But apparently the native of Scotland has a congregation with merciful hearts.

Because that’s exactly what he does as the character Stewart Maiden in the movie “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius.”

“I think they were more intrigued than anything else,” Begg said. “I talked about it in a sermon. There’s been no real negative reaction. One person’s comment was, `You had quite a lot to say in that movie.”’

Robert Tyre Jones Jr. was the legendary golfer who in 1930 won the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Open, the British Amateur and the British Open. That was the grand slam of its day. After eight years of competitive golf in which he won 13 of the 21 tournaments he entered, Jones retired from the sport at the age of 28.

The role of Maiden, Jones’ Scottish golf instructor, came to Begg circuitously.

Begg, 52, came to Cleveland in 1983. His grasp of Scripture and brilliant, no-nonsense sermons soon won him national prominence. Today, Parkside has some 4,000 members, and Begg can be heard on the radio five days a week in more than 30 markets from Los Angeles to New York.

A year ago, Begg was speaking at a religious conference in California with Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon turned Christian prison minister. The two began bantering about the pros and cons of golf. Begg, a golfer, said that the sport champions the qualities of sportsmanship, fair play and staying out of the rough and that those virtues had spiritual parallels.

In the audience that day was movie producer John Shepherd, who was looking for someone to play Maiden to actor Jim Caviezel’s Jones. Shepherd later called Begg and offered him the role. Begg, who had no acting experience, had a scheduling conflict and turned him down. Three months later, Shepherd called Begg again. This time, he was desperate because the actor cast as Maiden had visa problems.

The producer knew casting Begg was a risk.

“But in my gut I knew he could do it,” Shepherd said. “I’d heard him speak. I knew he had a presence.”

The minister from Glasgow agreed to take the part on a whim _ with only two days notice.

“The whole thing was so stinking crazy, I just agreed to do it,” Begg said. “If I’d had a long time to think about it, to weigh it over in my mind, I most probably would have passed on it. Acting in a movie was never a dream of mine or something on my wish list.”

The movie’s director, Rowdy Herrington, initially was just happy to have a warm body with a Scottish accent who could swing a golf club on the set. But he said he’s delighted with Begg’s performance and found him a quick study.

“He was nervous initially,” he said. “But once I explained his character’s objective in the film, he picked it up.”

In his first line in the movie, Begg’s character complains about having a sore rear end from the long trip from Scotland. In his second scene, he pulls a flask of whiskey from his breast pocket and takes a nice slug. Later, he tells a hopelessly bad golfer to “take two weeks off, then quit the sport completely.”

There was some apprehension about Maiden’s rough persona at first. But in retrospect, Begg, who was paid union scale for his role, has no regrets.

“I hadn’t seen a script until I arrived on the set for the first day of shooting,” he said. “When I read the first line, I said to the director, `What have you done to me?’ He had assured me it was rated G or PG and was a family film. But in the end, I was playing a real person and being true to that person’s character. Most of my lines were exact quotes from Maiden.”

The $18 million film opened poorly at the end of April, earning only $1.4 million in its first weekend. But Begg has fond memories of his first foray into show business and found spiritual messages in his role, as well.

“It’s an example of a small man having a big influence,” he said. “There would have been no Bobby Jones if there hadn’t been this rather blunt and taciturn Scotsman to guide him. The national flower of Scotland is the thistle. It’s beautiful, but when you grab it, it grabs you back. The smallest of actions can have profound effects on others, for good or ill.”

Perhaps Begg’s final lesson from the film is one that could have come from the book of Mark in the New Testament. Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” When asked what his wife, Sue, thought of his performance, Begg put his hand over the phone while he asked her.

“She said I was `cute,”’ he laughed.

DEA END RNS