Films struggle to capture humanity behind religion

The Washington PostApril 2, 2014 

WASHINGTON — Part of this year’s Lenten discipline for many religious people has been to see two bad religious movies, “Noah” and “God’s Not Dead.” Both left me longing for the comparative moral simplicity and integrity of “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

In “Noah,” the main character is a brooding, misanthropic vegan. One hopes that Russell Crowe, a fine actor, does not end up being typecast a la Charlton Heston. There just aren’t many parts for brooding, misanthropic vegans. The movie itself consists of tedium, punctuated by anachronism, sanctimony and animated rock people. It contains just enough spiritual pretention to make you wonder afterward if you have missed something important.

You haven’t. The movie’s guiding philosophy — civilization bad, nature good — is as complex as the one in Disney’s “Pocahontas.” With worse music and more cannibalism.

But while “Noah” tries (and fails) to reconceptualize religion, the surprise hit, “God’s Not Dead,” positively discredits it. This movie is an extended exercise in evangelical wish fulfillment. (Freud is evidently not dead, either.)

The plot: Fresh-faced Christian lad bests abusive, atheist philosophy professor at his own game, and then the professor converts just before he dies. Along the way, a Muslim girl gets beaten by her father and converts, and a liberal blogger gets cancer and converts. Everyone is a willing, pliant participant in a vivid fantasy, vaguely bringing to mind a very different kind of film.

The main problem with “God’s Not Dead” is not its cosmology or ethics but its anthropology. It assumes that human beings are made out of cardboard. Academics are arrogant and cruel. Liberal bloggers are preening and snarky (well, maybe the movie has a point here). Unbelievers disbelieve because of personal demons. It is characterization by caricature.

And it raises a sobering question: Do evangelicals actually view their neighbors this way, as moral types and apologetic tools? Not in my experience. Most evangelical leaders and laymen I know would recognize that the line between good and evil (to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn) runs not between groups, but within every heart — and that grace often moves in subversive and unpredictable ways. In general, evangelical lives are better than their art.

Here evangelicals could learn from Catholic writers whose art was often better than their lives. Evelyn Waugh comes to mind. In “Brideshead Revisited,” the working of grace leaves everyone — Sebastian dying at his monastery, Charles and Julia forgoing their love — both shattered and transformed.

In Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” a bad priest — the alcoholic father of an illegitimate child — unknowingly re-enacts the Passion and becomes a saint and martyr while believing himself a failure. In Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” Mrs. Turpin — respectable, upright, odious — is granted a vision of souls climbing toward heaven in which the respectable come last and “even their virtues were being burned away.”

All these would make for good Lenten reading, and time better spent than at the movies. Good religious art — or good art by religious people — does not shape a fantasy world to conform to pious platitudes. It finds hints of grace among the ruins of broken lives, where most of us can only hope to find it. Art is only truly religious when it is fully human.

Consider the ending of “God’s Not Dead,” in which the atheist professor, hit by a car, professes faith to two fortuitously arriving pastors who are cheerful about the securing of his eternal fate. All’s well that ends well — though a man had died of internal bleeding on the rainy pavement.

Compare this to Lord Marchmain’s tortured slide toward death near the end of “Brideshead Revisited.”

Since Marchmain is a lapsed Catholic of “irregular life,” Charles resists the arrival of a priest for the Last Rites as an example of “superstition and trickery.” But finally, at the bedside of the dying man, with the priest in attendance, Charles prays, “O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin.” And then, more simply, “God forgive him his sins.”

When Marchmain makes the sign of the cross, Charles reflects: “Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.”

A skeptic prays for a libertine, and both find grace. Which is more like art, and more like grace.

Michael Gerson, who served as head speechwriter and policy adviser for George W. Bush from 1999 until 2006, is a Washington Post columnist. Email him at michaelgerson@ washpost.com.

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