How Catholic is Of Gods and Men?
This weekend, Of Gods and Men — based on the true story of the martyred Trappist monks of the Tibhirine monastery in Algeria — gets its widest distribution yet, opening on 36 new screens in California, Connecticut, Colorado, DC, Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas. Is it playing anywhere near you? Check playdates!
I’m about as excited about this film as I get about film, which is a lot (see my review and even my 30-second review). I understand why some viewers might have questions, though. In the combox for my review, a reader asks:
I heard that some traditionalist critics do not like the film because it seems to endorse the heresy of indifferentism (that it does not matter what religion one is) or subjectivism. In light of what you said about the Quran being on the Abbot’s desk, do you have an opinion about this? Did the original monks make any attempt to introduce their neighbors to Christ? Perhaps you will say that they did through their example, but I mean, did they seem to think Islam was just as good as Christianity? A positive depiction of evangelization would be delightfully politically incorrect these days.
Does Of Gods and Men endorse religious indifferentism? I don’t think that’s accurate, no. It would be fair to say that it doesn’t explicitly affirm Christianity as the one true faith, and that it embraces the better side of Islam, at one point enough to raise pious eyebrows. (More about this later.)
On the other hand, Of Gods and Men powerfully communicates the beauty and attractiveness of lived Christian faith, and of the Christian faith itself, in its theological and liturgical richness and uniqueness—and does so, I believe, more memorably and appealingly than any dramatic feature film I can think of in up to a quarter century.
That’s a strong statement, but I believe it’s accurate. Am I forgetting anything? I can’t think what. (Into Great Silence is not a drama, and while there’s plenty of liturgy, theology is minimal. The Passion of the Christ is about Christ, not lived Christian faith. What else? The Ninth Day? Sophie Scholl? Dead Man Walking? Going back a quarter century, you might make a case for The Mission, but I think I prefer Of Gods and Men.)
Of Gods and Men is exceptional in offering a portrait of lived Christianity that is wholly positive. In many films of outstanding religious significance, from The Mission to A Man for All Seasons to The Passion of Joan of Arc, saintly heroes are contrasted with or pitted against a corrupt or coopted hierarchy. Of Gods and Men stands out for focuses solely on Christian devotion, community and service at its most beautiful and winsome.
Muslim belief is much more briefly and ambiguously treated. We see peaceful Muslim villagers coexisting with Christians, but also violent Muslim extremists—and it’s the latter who ultimately have the upper hand here. Notably, both peaceful and violent Muslims cite the Quran (more accurately, the peaceful Muslims paraphrase or generalize from the Quran, while the terrorist leader, Ali Fayattia, recognizes a specific text Christian quotes to him and completes the quotation).
Cinematically, it is fair to say that Christianity and Islam are not on an equivalent footing here. One could say the film is Christocentric, or at least Christianity-centric, and that it offers a critique of the darker side of Islam and Muslim culture with no corresponding critique of Christianity. There’s a aside critiquing the legacy of Western imperialism, but nothing directed against Christian believers per se.
At the same time, there is a challenge to Christians, in that the Christian spirit celebrated here is an irenic one, embracing non-Christians of good will and appreciating whatever is good and true in non-Christian religions, including Islam. The monks of Tibhirine emphasize that they are called to be “brothers to all,” and they stake their lives on this mission, knowing that they are likely to lose them. For American Catholics half a world away, risking nothing, it’s easy to label Muslims enemies by pointing to 9/11 and other terrorist violence. Of Gods and Men challenges this attitude, as we will see.
More to come.