Blogs | Mar. 22, 2011
Does Of Gods and Men portray the Tibhirine monks evangelizing their Muslim neighbors? Not directly, certainly. Trappist monks generally don’t engage in direct evangelization. It’s true, as noted by my correspondent (see Part 1), that a positive depiction of evangelization would be strikingly countercultural, but we mustn’t substitute ideas for a film we would like to see for criticism of an actual film. What a film might have done may provide an interesting point of comparison or contrast, but in the end a film stands or falls what it does, not what it might have done.
If a film is based on a true story (or even a fictional story) that we care about, then fidelity to the source material may be an important point of comparison or contrast to us. In that connection, while Of Gods and Men only loosely follows the events in the last years of the monks at Tibhirine, with respect to evangelization and the unique truth-claims of Christianity Of Gods and Men is probably a reasonably fair record of the monks’ behavior and attitudes.
It should be noted that the film features no major Muslim characters, and focuses on the monks, not Muslim–Christian dialogue, so it’s not like we see the monks passing on lots of opportunities to evangelize. For the most part the monks’ brief interactions with Muslims involve either serving their neighbors with medical, charitable and other forms of aid, or confrontations with government or military authorities as well as terrorists.
There is some discussion with the local villagers about Muslim atrocities against both Christians and Muslims. The villagers, horrified by a deadly attack on Christians in their community, express their incomprehension at those who kill in the name of Islam. “God says in the Quran: You kill your brother, you go to hell,” one says to Dom Christian, adding that the terrorists “say they’re religious. They’ve never read the Quran. In the Quran, it’s written down.”
This is too glib—and we’ve seen that the film shows us that it is untrue; terrorists may indeed know the Quran and may even be able to finish a quotation. Even so, had I been in Christian’s place, I probably wouldn’t have taken that opportunity to contest the point with the horrified villagers; and I don’t blame Christian, or the film, for not cross-examining the villagers in this moment of crisis.
That doesn’t mean Of Gods and Men gives the monks no opportunity whatsoever to bear witness in words to their faith. When terrorists break into the monastery on Christmas Eve, Christian goes out of his way to tell them that “tonight is different from other nights” because on this night the monks “celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace … Sidna Aïssa” (Arabic for “our Lord Jesus”). While Muslims understand these titles differently, in a Christian context they attest Jesus as more than a prophet, as our God and Savior. It’s also worth noting that by invoking “the Prince of Peace” to men of violence who have just been holding him and his brothers at gunpoint, Christian obliquely but unmistakably rebukes them for their violent ways.
There is also a touching, low-key exchange between Brother Luc and a teenaged Muslim girl who asks him whether he has ever been in love. “Several times, yes,” Luc acknowledges, “and then I encountered another love, even greater. And I answered that love. It’s been a while now—over 60 years.”
This way of talking is characteristically Christian—particularly in the context of Luc’s religious vocation, as Islam has no religious orders or consecrated celibacy. Muslims don’t “answer” the love of Allah in this way by giving their lives and renouncing marital love. Although Muslims certainly talk about Allah’s love and love of Allah, divine love is more central to Christian thought and spirituality—above all because of the dogma of the Holy Trinity, by which we understand in the unparalleled Johannine phrase that “God is love”; because of Jesus’ divine Sonship, revealing God as Father and enabling Christians to understand our relationship to God above all in terms of generation, adoption, filial relations. Islam emphatically denies that God is a Father or that He has begotten a Son, and the characteristic image for the believer’s relationship to God is not that of sons, but of servants. (Christians also use the language of servanthood, but subordinate to the language of sonship.)
These are only scraps, but notable scraps, particularly given the comparatively little religious dialogue between Muslims and Christians in the film. For the most part, the film focuses on the inner and communal lives of the monks—and it is here the film most powerfully bears witness to the uniqueness of the Christian faith.
The Incarnation is a major theme in the film, from the crucial Christmas Eve celebration with its hymnody to Christian’s theological discourse toward the end of the film. Here is an excerpt from a hymn the monks sing, which we also hear a monk singing to himself while preparing for the Christmas Eve liturgy:
This is the night
The immense night of origins
And nothing exists except love
Except love which now begins…
God has prepared the earth like a cradle
For his coming from above.
This is the night
The happy night of Palestine
And nothing exists except the Child
Except the Child of life divine
By taking flesh of our flesh
God our desert did refresh
And made a land of boundless spring.
Later, referring back to that Christmas Eve celebration, Christian offers these extraordinary thoughts:
We welcomed that Child who was born for us, absolutely helpless, and and already so threatened. Afterwards we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks: the kitchen, 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. The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity. The mystery of Incarnation remains what we are going to live.
Islam cannot accept this. God “taking flesh of our flesh” and “coming from above” to the “earth like a cradle” is blasphemy to Muslims. The “filial reality of Jesus” that reveals God as Father is emphatically rejected by the Quran, which denies over and over that God is a Father Who has begotten a Son. If Christian’s faith is true, then to that extent Islam is in error. The film doesn’t press this point home, but the divine truths are there, and those with ears can hear.
There are other scenes and lines that could be discussed here, such as Christian’s discussion with Christophe about the meaning of priesthood and monastic life. The most relevant bit, though, is also the most challenging, and it is there that we next turn.
More to come.