The image of Christianity in films
I’m approaching this topic from a personal point of view, commenting on the influence that some films have had on me, bearing some relation to the Christian faith.
Perhaps I should begin by saying that until the age of 11 I was a heathen. My parents were atheist/agnostic and we never went to church as a family. The first time I went to church was with a friend who took me to the local Anglican church on Christmas day. The next year I went to a Methodist school, but the maths teacher, who was also responsible for teaching us “scripture” did not believe much either, and fulfilled his responsibility by getting us to read the Bible aloud in turns, starting with Genesis 1:1.
By the end of the year I’d developed a taste for it, and surprised my mother by asking for a Bible for my birthday, and read it through in about 16 months, and started again with a new edition that had the Apocrypha. We also got some new teachers, ardent evangelicals, who organised voluntary Bible study groups and placed what I’d read in an evangelical framework, and convinced me of the need to make a conscious personal commitment to Christ as Lord and Saviour, which I did at the age of 13.
A couple of years later I went with my mother to see a film called Lease of life. She wanted to see it because Robert Donat was in it. I had never heard of Robert Donat, but went along anyway because I had nothing better to do. It was about a school chaplain, and when it began I prepared to be bored. I was at a school that had a chaplain, and didn’t find any of them inspiring or interesting. I’ve forgotten most of the film now, but this chaplain bloke had some kind of incurable disease, and knowing that his time was short inspired him to preach more interesting sermons to the kids. That bit stuck with me, and I could say influenced my choice of career, a choice that horrified me every time I thought of it, and then images from the film would pop up in my mind, and I’d calm down.
The next one that made an impression was Dracula. This was a straightforward horror flick, and I’d read the book first, and enjoyed it. I’ve seen the film a couple of times since then, and read the book 4-5 times. One scene from the film and the book always returns to me whenever a certain theological point comes up. As C.S. Lewis points out, when considering the devil, there are two opposite errors to be avoided. One is to believe that he does not exist, and the other is to be excessively concerned about and afraid of demons and the devil. The devil has power over us only if we let him. Since the death and resurrection of Christ the final result of the conflict between good and evil has not been in doubt. The devil is an oxymoron, a powerless force. And whenever I discuss this point the image of Lucy Westenra in the house at Whitby comes to mind. Dracula is powerless to enter the house unless one of the inmates invites him, and Lucy Westenra does, partly because of the overprotectiveness of her friends and family.
I’ll now jump ahead, from my teenage years to middle age, when I was teaching missiology (the study of Christian mission) at the University of South Africa. There were two films that I recommended by students to see, both about Christian mission in South America. One was The mission, about Jesuit missions in the 17th century. The second was At play in the fields of the Lord, about Protestant missions in the 20th century. Between them these two films raised about half the issues that students were expected to deal with in the course, and write assignments on — mission and colonialism, mission and culture, inculturation. Ideally I would like to have had the students at a camp in the bush for a weekend (in South Africa we call that a “bosberaad” — bush council), show them both films and then get them to discuss them, then watch the films again and discuss them some more.
The Jesuit method, shown in The mission, was to create utopian Christian communities for their converts, where they were protected from the wicked world of both their pagan compatriots and those of the missionaries, the colonial capitalist exploiters. It was in some ways a magnificent vision, but also a misguided one. The new Christians lived a communal (and communist) life in an environment in which Christian virtues could be nourished — until the outside world, in the form of the colonialist exploiters, intruded. The power of secular businessmen got the Jesuits suppressed, and it was the Jesuits who resisted the genocide of the local people. But when the Jesuits were suppressed, the flower of Christianity they nurtured wilted and died. And the reason is not far to seek. They failed absolutely to raise up local leadership. Everything was under the absolute control of the Jesuit missionaries. When the missionaries left, the vision could not be sustained. They had failed to pass on the vision. They had failed to do what St Paul recommends in II Timothy 2:2 – find reliable men they could teach who could in turn teach others.
Their ideal Christian communities were ruled by an authoritarian paternalism. And the name of these communities has come down to us in the 21st century with more ominous connotations. The name reducciones has been translated as “protected villages“, but another name for them is “concentration camps”. They were used by the British in the Anglo-Boer War. They were used by the Portuguese in the Mocambique liberation war, and have been used by various 20th-century dictators to control their opposition.
At play in the fields of the Lord is based on a novel by Peter Matthiesen, but I only managed to find a copy of the novel to read long after I had seen the film. Two American Protestant missionaries are trying to evangelise indigenous people of the Equatorial jungle. One is more culturally sensitive than the other, which leads to tensions between them. Civilisation, in the form of the government, is encroaching, and wants to dispossess the indigenous people so they can exploit the land, and the missionaries, who understand a great deal less than the Jesuits, are torn between having to please the government officials, whom they depend on for permission to stay there, and loyalty to their home mission society and the people they are sent to, all of whom have conflicting interests. Into the equation comes a charter pilot, who had been involved in various activities of dubious legality. He is descended from North American Indians, and finds himself called to what he sees as his cultural roots by the South American Indians.
An interesting difference between these two films is the way Christianity is presented. The mission presents Christianity in a very positive light, as the protector of the indigenous people against the cruel capitalist exploiters. The negative aspects are played down.
At play in the fields of the Lord tends to accentuate the negative aspects, and the Christian missionaries are shown as largely ineffectual, unable to comprehend what is going on. They are a bit more savvy in the book than in the film, but that, if anything, makes it worse. But I must say I have met missionaries like that, and the ones shown in the film were quite true to life. The only thing is that they are not all like that.
So there you have it. Four different films, of different eras, each saying something about the Christian faith, yet quite different from each other in many ways.
See what the other synchrobloggershave to say on Christianity and film:
- Adam Gonnerman pokes at The Spider’s Pardon
- David Fisher thinks that Jesus Loves Sci-Fi
- John Morehead considers Christians and Horror Redux: From Knee-Jerk Revulsion to Critical Engagement
- Marieke Schwartz lights it up with Counter-hegemony: Jesus loves Borat
- Mike Bursell muses about Christianity at the Movies
- Jenelle D’Alessandro tells us Why Bjork Will Never Act Again
- Cobus van Wyngaard contemplates Theology and Film (as art)
- Tim Abbott tells us to Bring your own meaning…?
- Sonja Andrews visits The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly:Christ in Spaghetti Westerns
- Steve Hollinghurst takes a stab at The Gospel according to Buffy
- Les Chatwin insists We Don’t Need Another Hero
- Lance Cummings says The Wooden Wheel keeps Turning
- John Smulo weaves a tale about Spiderman 3 and the Shadow
- Josh Rivera spells well with Christian Witchcraft
- Phil Wyman throws out the Frisbee: Time to Toss it Back
- Sally Coleman rushes up with Making Connections- films as a part of a mythological tradition
- Kim Paffenroth ponders Nihilism lite
And a couple of late entry honorary synchrobloggers: