Monday, August 15, 2011

Of Gods and Men

I don't ordinarily use the word "Christian" as an adjective. What does it really mean for a film, album, or other work of art to be "Christian?" Because it was made by Christians? Because it is meant for the audience of the American Christian sub-culture? Because it reflects the values of the kingdom? Because the movie asked Jesus into its heart? I'm unsure. Andy Crouch asks the question in his phenomenal book, Culture Making:
Are we creating and cultivating things that have a chance of furnishing the new Jerusalem? Will the cultural goods we devote our lives to--the food we cook and consume, the music we purchase and practice, the movies we watch and make, the enterprises we earn our paychecks from and invest our wealth in--be identified as the glory and honor of our cultural tradition?
Every so often, a film comes along that merits using "Christian" as a description simply because it beautifully reflects the kingdom of God. Of Gods and Men is such a film. Quiet, solemn, and contemplative, my viewing of the film offered one of the more profound spiritual experiences I've had in recent history. Based on a true story about the kidnapping and execution of eight Trappist monks in Algeria, the film focuses less on the abduction and far more on the spiritual lives of these men. In the midst of Islamic unrest and the rising violence of terrorist groups, these French monks chose to stay in their monastery in a tiny Algerian village. They could have fled the country. They could have had military protection. But they didn't. They stayed. This film wants to explore why.

The life of a monk is quite ordinary. Boring, even. They pray. They worship. They study. They work. They eat and sleep, then do it all over again the next day. Theirs is a spiritual calling far from the spotlight of megachurches and world-famous ministries. The monks live in harmony with the nearby Islamic villagers, offering medical assistance and fully participating in the community. All is peaceful and calm in this small corner of the world until a group of militant Muslims begin to stir up violence. A group of Croatian workers is slaughtered, their throats cut. Fear begins to plague the countryside. As the perpetrators draw closer, the monks must decide what to do.

Each monk has his own point of view, his own story, his own struggles and failings. The lead monk, Brother Christian (powerfully portrayed by Lambert Wilson), has firm convictions about peace and violence. He does not want to abandon their mission to the people of their village. "We were called to live here, in this country, with this people, who are also afraid." Others are unsure, driven by fear and anxiety about what will happen if they remain in the monastery. One monk quips, "I became a monk to live, not to sit back and have my throat slit." The tension is palpable, especially after a midnight invasion on Christmas Eve from a cadre of gunmen demanding medicine. Dragging the monks from their rooms, the edgy gunmen appear ready to pull the trigger at any moment. Brother Christian, clearly afraid, nevertheless demands that the conversation be held outside the monastery, that no weapons be allowed in this sacred space. Showing great courage and strength without resorting to violence or power, Christian quotes the Qur'an to the terrorist leader, then proceeds to share the Christmas story of how they are celebrating a Savior, a Prince of Peace. When confronted with violence, Christian turns to the gospel.

This encounter leaves the monks shaken and wrestling with what to do next. Yet they are honest with one another, desiring to live in authentic community and solidarity. Brother Luc, the elderly doctor,  has already made up his mind. "I'm not scared of death. I'm a free man." His freedom clearly stems from a mature relationship with Christ. On the other hand, a younger monk, Christophe, is clearly fraught with anxiety and worry. Crying out to God in the middle of the night, angrily tilling the soil surrounding the monastery, Christophe does not know what to decide. "Dying for my faith shouldn't keep me up at nights. Dying here...does it serve a purpose? I don't know." Brother Christian responds with a quiet embrace and a whisper of wisdom: "we are martyrs out of love, out of fidelity. Love endures everything."

Prompted by the Spirit of God, in their final meeting on the decision, the monks unanimously choose to stay. There is no grumbling or complaining; there are only tears, a mixture of joy and sorrow as they await their fate. They share a meal together that night--a Last Supper of sorts--and enjoy one another's company in the midst of music and tears.

Would I die for my faith? I'd like to say I would, but I'm not sure. Which one is more difficult--to die the death of a martyr, or to live out a long obedience in the same direction, embracing the simple and ordinary ways of being Christ's disciple? What I am sure of is this: the gospel is worth living for and dying for. It is the good news that allows me to love my neighbor as myself, breaking down the social barriers of culture and religion in order to bring healing to a broken world. Maybe the monks were foolish for choosing to stay and continue to love both the villagers and the terrorists. I would pray that I could be considered such a fool, for the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

This is a Christian film if I've ever seen one. It's a film that reveals the love and power of Christ in tangible and beautiful ways to a greater world, who recognized its beauty by giving it the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Of Gods and Men finds its title from Psalm 82, a powerful reminder of God as righteous judge, and our call to live out His justice until His return:

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk about in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I said, “You are gods,
sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, like men you shall die,
and fall like any prince.”
Arise, O God, judge the earth;
for you shall inherit all the nations!

1 comment:

  1. I just finished watching this film. I found it to be raw and captivating and truly a Christian film if I have ever seen one as you said. Has made me ask myself many questions since I finished it. Hope more people will view it!