There Are No Ordinary People — You Have Never Talked to a Mere Mortal
“All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.” —C.S. Lewis
Last year I wrote an article for the Register, panning several Christian-inspiration films. You may have read it. It occurred to me, some months later, that although I’d so eagerly criticized films that other people had taken their time to write and produce, I myself had never taken the time to attempt at crafting a meaningful story in that very genre. That’s just something that jerks, such as myself, enjoy doing. And so I went ahead and did something I didn’t previously imagine that I would ever do: I wrote a screenplay for a Christian film.
Statistically speaking, the chances of any screenplay ever being turned into a film are remarkably slim. But writing a story, even if that story is destined for obscurity, is still an excellent opportunity to reflect.
Christian inspiration is a genre with far greater potential to share soul-touching stories than most of what mainstream Hollywood would offer these days, simply because it’s not taboo to directly insist that the life-changing Truth is, in fact, true. Authors such as Dostoevsky and Dante remain among the most profound storytellers of all time because they didn’t shy away from our religion, or the bearing of their own souls. And Our Lord understood the sheer power of stories to transform our lives so very well that he taught to us in parables. What’s disappointing about a fair amount of the Christian-inspiration films that are made these days is how they often fall short of the genre’s true potential.
I very much appreciated that God’s Not Dead, as flawed as any narrative with such one-dimensional characters may be, did include the conversion of a young Muslim woman to Christianity as one of the subplots. “Would a Christian audience be willing to accept the conversion, and subsequent struggles, of a former Muslim as a main plot?” I wondered.
As a former Muslim, I have a tremendous distaste for when a story is so immersed in Prosperity Gospel as Heavenly Deposit and Eternal Salvation were, because I know that for former Muslims, conversion is far more likely to be thebeginning of many sufferings, rather than the end of them. How is it that any sensible person can stare at an image of Our Lord, squirming on the Cross, and still believe in the Prosperity Gospel’s teachings about suffering and wealth? “Would a Christian audience be open to a narrative which, in earnestness, defies such assertions?” I wondered.
Questions such as these were the beginning of my own attempt at writing a story. I do, on occasion, also get asked about what can be done to share the Gospel with our Muslim neighbors.
I’ve met a few converts from Islam to Christianity over the course of my 15 years as a Christian. In some cases, I’d met them just once, or just a few times, and then wondered whether they’d stopped going to church altogether shortly afterward. One such person was a successful singer, who’d once given her testimony during a service at Redeemer Presbyterian Church (circa 2009), and politely asked those of us in the audience to remain discreet. “If you’re not a Muslim,” her mother had once told her after she’d expressed to her some doubts about Islam, “then you’re not my daughter.” I had stopped seeing her, in person, shortly after that evening. I occasionally wonder whether she has discreetly kept her faith in Our Lord in the years since. Could it have been that we, Christians, had failed to provide her with the confidence that she needed in the loving support of a community that would help her get through the pain of being estranged from her family?
As a former Muslim, I’m also quite familiar with arguments that a Muslim may cite, to prove that their own religion is far more “rational” than the Christian faith. That the Holy Trinity is just a thinly-veiled polytheism is among the most cited of them (“shirk” — associating “partners” with Allah — is considered one of the very worst sins of all in Islam). The Holy Trinity is, in fact, a far more complete, as well as a more rational, understanding of God than unipersonal monotheism is. The love of God is not so distant. God is not too proud to dwell among us, nor to dwell within our very hearts. But are there often psychological reasons, which largely go unspoken for, that would prevent the mind of a Muslim from allowing doctrines of our faith to make any sense?
Being ostracized isn’t pleasant. Why should a Muslim lend an ear to the Gospel if he knows that his reward on Earth for believing it will be the loss of love? Is it practical to think that Bible quotes, or assurances of a heavenly reward, would be enough for him to bear that pain while on Earth? Who would be that Simon of Cyrene, to help relieve him of his cross when he needs it?
The Gospel is true, and Our Lord suffered enormously on Good Friday for it. But weren’t we believers each given the power to make it seem true or untrue, in the minds of all those whom we touch, by how we live our lives? If so, what do we owe to our neighbors?
It is recorded in Matthew 22:35-40 that Our Lord gave us the two Great Commandments. “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments,” he declared. These words weren’t weighing particularly heavily on my mind when I began the writing process. The plot of the screenplay follows a Muslim’s conversion to Christianity, his descent into alcoholism and depression after conversion when he lacks the prolonged support of Christian community, and the efforts of Providence (always in the background) to restore his hope. It was in the midst of writing the screenplay that the words of Matthew 22:35-40 began to weigh heavily on me, that they became close to an obsession.
“Why, exactly, is it that Our Lord told us that the second commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves, is ‘much like’ the first, to love God with all our being?” I wondered.
God’s deep love for each of us is an objective truth. But this objective truth would be tremendously difficult for any of us to believe if we feel, strongly enough, that our experience doesn’t verify it. If your neighbor cannot experience the love of God through you, then it’s hardly surprising that he would soon be tempted by the lie that God doesn’t care much for him either. It’s difficult, for any of us, to love a God while believing that he doesn’t love us back. From there, the first great commandment itself becomes rather impossible to uphold. A good look at a person who struggles with loneliness (and there are many people who struggle with loneliness) is all that’s needed to understand this. That lonely person may very well be a reserved stranger seated by himself at a pew each Sunday.
Objective truths, obviously, remain true regardless of our feelings. The very last thing I’d be interested in writing is an article that amounts to modern sensitivity training. The Woke movement in our own day has placed so much emphasis upon “feelings” that objective truths, even as obvious as biological sex, are getting militantly disregarded throughout much of the public sphere. As if truth can magically become untrue when speaking it gets rendered illegal! As if it is somehow “loving” to indulge a person in the lies that consume and destroy him! Political correctness and the blatant infringements upon our freedoms of speech and religion that come with it are a great price to pay for such a lopsided concern for “hurt feelings.”
And yet Our Lord understood perfectly well that the Truth would quickly be lost if it were not to be verified by our experiences, that our love of God could only endure if we take seriously the responsibility of loving our neighbor. The two commandments are, in fact, hardly distinguishable.
Our Lord’s words in Matthew 5:23-24 state that we ought to make amends with our brothers before bringing our gifts to the altar. His words in Matthew 25:31-46 warn that failing to serve our neighbors in their time of need is the equivalent to failing to serve Christ himself. The hero in the parable of the Good Samaritan was a man who would’ve been considered theologically “wrong,” but who nevertheless tended to the needs of his neighbor. St. Paul’s beautiful words in 1 Corinthians 13, which plenty of us have heard during weddings, declare that faith without love is pretty useless. What’s the point of stating that we believe in Christ if we’re not willing to be a Christ?
It’s intimidating to realize that the awesome power to strengthen, or to shatter, your neighbor’s faith was placed in your very hands, hinting at just how cosmically important you really are. It can be terrifying to dwell on those times we’ve failed, including by neglect, to comfort our neighbors. It’s humbling to have to admit to the truth: that we are each so vulnerable as to need the human touch so very desperately.
I myself was baptized in 2007 and confirmed in the Church in 2012. Contrary to Prosperity Gospel teaching, I didn’t become fabulously rich for them. What kept me going to church throughout those years, both as an Evangelical and as a Catholic, was that I’d found communities of believers to be surrounded by. If all that I had were words from a preacher about a reward in Heaven, while sitting at a pew each Sunday all by myself, I would’ve stopped bothering to go a long time ago.
“Should I become a Catholic?” I’d been wondering to myself, on an afternoon back in September 2010, while sitting in the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York (where I did eventually get confirmed). I couldn’t hear whatever it was that God wanted to say, since a crazed woman began loudly crying and screaming at the back of the church. When enough had become enough, a security guard at the church finally approached that woman. “Hey,” I heard him say to her in a commanding voice, “come here.” I watched from the corner of my eye as he … hugged this stranger. The woman suddenly went silent in his arms. The quiet time with God that I’d intended once again became quiet. It was in that very moment that I realized my question had indeed been answered: “Yes!”
I’m a Catholic today because I had unwittingly witnessed an act of love. The love you give to your neighbors may very well be noted by some of your other neighbors, and some of those other neighbors might not even be Christians … yet.
“The angels are jealous of us because they can’t suffer,” Padre Pio once said. I wonder if part of the reason for their envy is because they don’t get to comfort each other quite like we can.
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“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” —C.S. Lewis