A post from awhile back. I showed this movie in my film and lit class yesterday. So powerful, so beautiful . . .
Last week, as media coverage of the May 21st doomsday prediction was gathering speed, I saw the movie Of Gods and Men. I’m still thinking about it. I can’t stop thinking about it, actually–even as the apocalyptic deadline has, predictably, come and gone. Not that the film has anything to do with bad end-time theology, but it does have everything to do with how we think about time (chronos and kairos) and space (earth and heaven and their continual meeting).
The first thing that comes to mind in pondering this beautiful French film is that in a hundred years of American cinema Christianity has not fared well. (When I teach a course on religion in contemporary film we necessarily read lots of subtitles). Not that there haven’t been lots (and lots) of Christians protrayed in lots (and lots) of American movies, but they have tended toward the cartoonish: hucksters or hypocrites or the insufferably pious and sentimental.
So we can thank a deeply secular French culture in which (until last week, perhaps) the extramarital conquests of rich and powerful men are a matter of course for giving us a film of immense moral power, heartbreaking humanity and grace, and stunning theological acumen.
Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men tells the true story of a small community of Cistercian monks caught up in the violence that overtook Algeria in the mid-1990s. Their abbey had been a mainstay in the Atlas mountains for more than a hundred years and the brothers’ daily lives were inextricably (and contentedly) linked to those of their Muslim neighbors.
In the film, Brother Luc, a physician, treats the infirmities of the impoverished villagers who repay him with smiles of relief and gratitude. The prior, Brother Christian, studies the Koran and quotes it in Arabic when a violent rebel group comes calling at the Abbey. Early scenes in the film establish a long-standing relationship of mutual trust and respect between the monks and townspeople.
When the violence becomes an intolerable threat to everyone the brothers must decide what to do: leave immediately? break away gradually? stay unequivocally? They argue about their options and are, by turns, angry and magnanimous, petty and courageous, fearful and trusting. That is, they are fully-rendered human beings, not celluloid stereotypes of the best (or worst) of confessing Christians.
The film’s real power, though, is in revealing how the monastic rhythm of work and prayer informs a way of life that refuses the facile divisions of time and eternity, earth and heaven, and instead engages and inhabits this world in the hope of God’s good future–the shalom embodied in the way of Jesus. Which is not, as some skeptics would have it, religious naivete or pious wishful thinking–“can’t we all just get along?” Rather, the kairos of God’s coming reign is the demanding work of sustaining difficult relationships and praying when you don’t feel like it and refusing the way of violence in world gone mad with war. It is, in short, the way of the cross–which is never the way of “niceness” but of costly discipleship.
After the rebel soldiers visit the monastery for the first time the frightened monks go inside to celebrate the Christ mass, the Christmas vigil. As Brother Christian says,
It’s what we had to do. It’s what we did. And we sang the Mass. We welcomed that Child
who was born for us absolutely helpless and already so threatened.
And it’s what he says next that stands in such stark contrast to the well-meaning but misguided “Rapture” Christians who believe that redemption lies in escape from the material world, who imagine a radical yet thoroughly unbiblical disconnect between earth and heaven, time and eternity:
Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks. The kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells. Day after day. We had to resist the violence. And day after day, I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. It’s … to be born. Our identities as men go from one birth to another. And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are.
Finally, Of Gods and Men reminds us that we are called to lives of beauty that will likely be misunderstood by those around us, that might in fact get us into trouble or, as in the monks’ case, even killed: Beauty in our worship (if only American Protestants would give up “relevance” for beauty); beauty in our work and in our relationships. But beauty is intolerable in a world driven by raw power, cruelty, and violence.
Doomsday prophets don’t speak much about beauty. But the end of our existence–the purpose for which we were created–is to participate in the beauty that makes our lives possible, to “give beauty back to God,” as another monk once said, “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.”