My husband and I watched this movie last night on television. It’s an award-winning secular film based on the true story of a group of Catholic monks caught between a military government and extremist guerrillas in Algeria in the late 1990s. There is tremendous pressure on them to leave the country, and they must decide whether they will leave or stay as the situation around them continues to disintegrate.
The film is beautifully made. The cinematography and the portrayal of each character were perfect, in my mind. It was difficult to remember that the actors were actors, and that the film was not a documentary. It remained wholly human and touching, all the way to the end.
As I was watching it, and musing on how attached I was becoming to the monks in the story, I started thinking about how I would (or wouldn’t) place it in the frame of Christian culture. I followed my own train of thought for a few minutes, then turned to my husband, opened my mouth, and heard myself saying, “See? This is a real movie, not a Christian movie, but look at how it’s portraying these monks!”
Whereupon my train of thought split and chugged away down two separate tracks.
Track 1: Oh, so Christian movies aren’t “real” movies. Why do I think that? Musing, musing, musing. Because the agenda always shows through, and then I think, “Oh, it’s not a story after all. Someone just made it up to make a point.” But this movie is telling a true story, which is also a sad story. Most stories (movie or book) that are intentionally “Christian” are fictional. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of religious documentary films and non-fiction books. It is to say that the fictional portion of Christian culture feels pretty fictional in many cases, and I think that’s sometimes because there’s always a happy ending. The definition of a happy ending depends on how much theology you include in your analysis. You could make the argument both ways for “Of Gods and Men,” I suppose. But if this were your standard made-for-TV-feel-good-Christian-chick-flick, it would have been a very, very different film. And nowhere near as powerful. Which leads to the big question I took away from Track 1: do Christian writers hesitate to include sadness or negative elements in their writing? Do they perhaps feel this makes being Christian look less attractive? Are they helping or hurting their not-so-hidden agenda by doing this?
Track 2: My second train of thought centered on the kind of writing that simply portrays Christian characters as accurately as possible in a setting that the author endeavors to make as life-like as possible. “Of Gods and Men” does this, although I don’t believe it was made as a promotional vehicle for the Catholic church or the monastic or Christian way of life. But it does a remarkable job, I think, of portraying both the monks and the government official who keeps trying to pressure them to leave as human beings. They were human beings, and each of them was striving to accomplish what he thought was the greatest good in violent and dangerous circumstances.
Perhaps this is the film-maker’s unwillingness to take sides. Perhaps it’s the historical background of the story. But whatever the cause, the monks were not made to look glorious or foolish, and the government official was not made to look like the “smart one” or like an inhuman monster. Too often in “Christian” fiction and film, the writer’s bias is apparent in the portrayal of the characters, and this makes the story far less life-like, in my view. In real life, good people sometimes make bad choices, and bad people sometimes redeem themselves momentarily, or even permanently. Indeed, you may find that their greatest crime or weakness is their failure to see the world as the protagonist does.
There is a powerful scene in “Of Gods and Men” in which Brother Christian, the leader of the monks, confronts a guerrilla who has come to take their doctor and their medical supplies. In the course of the confrontation, Brother Christian quotes from the Koran. Does this mean he is weak, frightened, less Christian than we thought him? An opportunist? Two-faced? Or wise and brave? Perhaps the problem is that you can’t fully understand and appreciate Brother Christian or the film itself without entering into the complexities of your own beliefs and moving beyond the comfortable assurances that get us through much of daily life.
When I think of how much Christian fiction is comfortable and attractive (even in scenes where something negative or tragic happens), I wonder if the problem is that writers are unwilling to let events take their course. If you must control the message of the book (and it’s generally assumed that’s what Christian writers are doing), you can’t take an honest look at your characters and events, can you? And if you can’t, what are you actually saying about Christians and Christianity? Are we afraid to portray ourselves as we are? Do we think Christianity needs us to pretty it up so outsiders who don’t understand will see it as we want them to see it?
In short, does some Christian fiction turn into an attempt to protect God?
I don’t think God needs our protection.
My two tracks reconnected at this point, and I moved on to my third track, which was that sometimes, a movie or a book is that powerful just because the writer was good enough at his or her craft to make it so. In or out of Christian literature, some part of the success of a story depends on the gifts of the story-teller. Theory and debate are interesting and helpful, but sometimes, sheer talent and tremendous effort can over-ride all of them.
But there’s something more to this than talent. The specific talent I’m thinking of could best be called “insight.” In my personal definition, this is the ability to see the truth of a situation, in detail, and if you are a writer, to communicate that truth. What makes “Of Gods and Men” powerful is the writer’s ability to portray the truth, without bias or animosity toward anything more than evil itself. If we truly believe in Christianity, don’t we further believe that telling the truth about it is all that is necessary?
Which means that my current favorite form of Christian writing (for books or film) must be the type that tells the story in a life-like manner, and lets the goodness or badness show itself, without the writer’s assistance.
Which is no more than looking out at the world through Christian lenses and writing what we see.
Which does not mean hiding in secular fiction and carefully avoiding all display of a non-negotiably Christian worldview…but that’s another story, for another night!