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March 8, 2009

Robert E. A. Lee, 1921 - 2009

The New York Times reports that Robert E. A. Lee, former head of communications for various branches of the Lutheran church, passed away late last month at the age of 87.

Lee, whose duties included a 34-year stint as executive secretary of what is now known as Lutheran Film Associates, was executive producer of the Reformation biopic Martin Luther (1953) and the civil-rights documentary A Time for Burning (1966). Both films were nominated for Oscars: cinematography and art direction for Martin Luther, and documentary feature for A Time for Burning.

Lee's work was cutting-edge for its time. David Neff, editor-in-chief of the Christianity Today Media Group, recalled five years ago how Martin Luther was the first movie he ever saw, and how moviegoing was so frowned-upon in church circles back then that some of his fellow congregants criticized his parents for taking the family to see that film -- even though it had been made by a church.

Meanwhile, A Time for Burning was widely praised for acknowledging the racial divisions within the Lutheran church itself. The film partly concerned a pastor at an all-white Lutheran church who was forced to resign after his efforts to promote fellowship between his church and local black Lutheran churches ended up dividing his congregation.

Co-director William C. Jersey tells the New York Times: "A Time for Burning would never have happened without Robert Lee. . . . Here we are, we’re doing a scriptless film, and our hero is forced to resign. So then what do we do? And Bob Lee, who's representing the church, has this trial by fire with others within the church who say, 'We're making a film about the church's failure?' He says, 'We should do it,' and we finish the film. So he was vindicated, but in 1965, that was a big risk -- for an institution to say, 'We're flawed.'"

Lee's other films included Question 7 (1961), "a drama about Christian life in East Germany", and the documentary The Joy of Bach (1980).

Related Tags: martin luther, time for burning