Warning: Mild spoilers below. I also feel compelled to state that this movie is rated R, and for good reason. That is to say, I’m not encouraging anyone to watch this movie with their children, for the same reason that I wouldn’t encourage anyone to watch Christ being crucified with their children. There are realities in life that, although they are Christian, are meant only for the mature. This movie is one of them.
To start, we might ask: What makes a movie “Christian?” Obviously it takes more than the incorporation of Judeo-Christian narratives into the plot. Otherwise we could include the recent Noah in the category, which, although it was clear that the man who wrote it had reflected more deeply on his subject than most Christians, was simply not a movie concerned with conveying the message of the Gospel.
Even further from the mark than Noah was the recent, highly praised, pat-on-the-back-for-middle-class-Christian-Americans: God’s Not Dead. That tall glass of rationalistic-sentimentalist Kool-Aid was a very enjoyable experience for a specific crowd. However, judging from both its praises and its criticisms, it specialized in the glorification of the American martyr complex, in which the “persecuted” guy really loses nothing more than a good-looking girlfriend. As for pain, he suffers little more than some ostracism, which is something experienced more often and more deeply by the fat kid you made fun of in school. But he was “witnessing for Christ,” so that made it different, I guess. In the end he is more than compensated with glorious victory (something the fat kid may never have): the bad guy repents, the good guy wins, and everyone gets an onslaught of warm fuzzies.
So what’s so wrong with that? Nothing, I suppose, if you just want to feel good–to be “uplifted.” But if you want a depiction of the Christian life as lived by Christ and as it actually is in our world today, you are nowhere close. The Apostle Peter did not win in the end; neither did Paul; neither have countless other Christians who’ve been beaten, bruised, immersed in vice, and left with no sign of victory before their last moments on earth. I’m not only talking about martyrs, but even the common man who breaks his back all his life with nothing to show and dying poor.
Needless to say, I have not seen much recognizable “Christian-ness” in modern Christian film-making.
To point out the most obvious problem, the Christian story – from Christ’s own death to the unpleasant happenings in the book of Revelation – does not have a happy ending in the temporal sense. To live as a Christian is, to quote Tolkien, to live out the “long defeat.” He said in a letter:
I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.
He says the same thing through one of his characters in The Lord of the Rings: “Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” Christ, if we speak of his life, fought the long defeat. He knew it was coming, and he accepted it as the lamb to the slaughter.
No one had warm fuzzies at Golgotha. The bad guys won. Yeah, sure, we can talk about how the Savior rose again on the third day, conquered sin and death and opened the doors for the faithful to enter Paradise. So what? Glory abounds, and we will rejoice in it; but the glory came after rejection by friends and neighbors, after temptation in the desert, after hunger, flogging, crucifixion, death. It came after defeat. In short: Christ went to Heaven by going through Hell (both literally and metaphorically).
How does God’s Not Dead prepare the Christian for something like this? Unless of course a jeering professor, a skeptical group of peers, and the loss of a pretty girl are equivalents to the Christ-life. How does it convey to non-believers, which is really the more important thing, the profound ugliness of sin? The fact that it doesn’t do this, and doesn’t seem to care that it doesn’t do this, but rather tells non-believers that “their argument is invalid” and that Christians are in fact the smart ones, shows us that its intent was something quite different.
What’s more important, however, is that with respect to contemporary Christian film the emphasis is always on victory and glorification–of God, in theory, but of us in the actual story-line.
This fits well with the egoism of contemporary Christians whose hymns have been replaced by “Happy Day” lyrics that center on how much our “personal savior” (much like a personal masseuse or a personal chef) cares about us and wants to give us spiritual hugs. What it doesn’t fit at all is the reality of Christ’s life and death, as well as his compassionate disgust of the sin that he immersed himself in while he lived. In fact we could say that even such classics such as The Ten Commandments emphasize victory and affirmation over everything else. In short, they ignore Christ’s actual life–that incredibly challenging story of pain, betrayal, prostitution, hatred, and murder–and skip right to the happy ending. We ignore the fact that the happy ending was postmortem.
This week I watched the Irish film Calvary, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. It follows the last days of a priest as he walks through a world ravaged by sin. He meets prostitutes, homosexuals, suicides, murders, adulterers, atheists, and even a cannibal. He himself deals with a history of alcoholism. He himself is a sinner. Each of these vices, including his own, come to torment him with brutal force. Each of them he tries to help–to each he wants to offer absolution.
At the end he dies willingly. He doesn’t die of despair, though. He dies in the imitation of Christ–he dies taking the sins of his neighbors on himself, as a lamb to the slaughter. When the final scene closed and the credits began to roll, I realized that this was the first Christian film I’d ever seen.
Now I’m not saying that this is the only Christian film ever made. I’m just saying it’s the only one through which I was violently faced, at one and the same time, with the evil-ness of evil and the goodness of innocence. There are, no doubt, other Christian films in existence, I just don’t think we hear about them.
Sam Rocha, for example, recommended Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life as a fitting example of Christian art in film. I can’t say that he was wrong, but I can say that most of its meaning escaped me. It was a subtle film, and its truths were subtle, and so I, being artistically dense, missed it. The difference between The Tree of Life and Calvary is the brutality of the experience. You cannot possible walk away from Calvary unaffected. You may miss the truths that it conveys, of course. You may not realize how its protagonist experienced something akin to Christ’s temptation in the desert, his agony in the Garden, and eventually chose to suffer for the crimes of his neighbors. You may miss how deeply this man imitated Christ. But you cannot possibly avoid feeling awe at the suffering of an innocent throughout the long defeat.
To answer my first question: What makes a Christian movie? The good guy dies at the end. It isn’t glorious; it isn’t beautiful; it isn’t poetic. It makes you sick, as Mary felt sick at Golgotha. It makes you sick at the ugliness of the sin that overwhelms an innocent man, the same sin that strangles innocence around us and in us every day, just as it strangled the breath out of Christ. The good guy dies and the bad guys win. And when you walk away you feel sick, not in the way you felt sick after seeing the torture-porn that was The Passion of the Christ, but because you’ve seen how bad sin really is, and how only a Son of God could hope to conquer it.