Gods, Powers and Principalities

The events depicted in 'Of Gods and Men' capped a bloody century for Christian martyrs.

(photo: CNS photo/Sony Pictures Classics)

Of Gods and Men, one of the most compelling religious films of the past 30 years, tells the story of the Trappists of Tibhirine, seven brave men who were murdered by Islamist extremists in 1996. Though it is not widely known, the 20th century produced more Christian martyrs than all of the preceding 19 centuries combined. The monks who are the subjects of this film were among the last to die for the faith in that terrible 100-year period.

These Trappists were transplanted Frenchmen, who had established themselves in a very simple monastery nestled in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria. They worked almost exclusively among the Muslims who inhabited the tiny towns and villages nearby. One of their number was a doctor, who provided basic medical care for hundreds of poor; their abbot was a decent and intelligent man, who in his spare time studied the Quran so as better to understand the people whom he served and for whom he prayed. The prayer life of the monks — which the movie conveys very effectively — was spare and beautiful, grounded in the rhythms of the Psalms.

The drama of the film centers around the growing influence of radical Islam in the vicinity of the monastery. Tales are heard of threats and murders, and then the violence strikes close to home as a group of Croatians are found just outside the village with their throats slit. On Christmas Eve, gunmen break into the Trappist monastery and demand to see the abbot. Coolly, he reminds them that no guns are allowed in a place of peace and that the militants are interrupting the celebration of the birth of the prophet Issa (Jesus), who is, of course, reverenced by Muslims. Impressed by the monk’s courage, and more than a little embarrassed, the armed men slink away. But the Trappists know that it is only a matter a time before more dangerous extremists will be back.

Accordingly, they commence to debate whether they should stay or return to France or perhaps relocate to another monastic enclosure in a safer sector of Algeria. From the first, the abbot is adamant that, in accord with their vows of stability and out of love for the people they serve, they should remain. But a few of his brothers sharply disagree, arguing that remaining would be tantamount to suicide. Some of the most affecting scenes in the film are the depictions of the intense, honest and deeply respectful manner in which these Christian men deliberate this very serious matter. In time, all of the brothers come around to the abbot’s point of view and resolve to stay, despite the danger.

Luc, the doctor monk played by the wonderful French character actor Michael Lonsdale, beautifully expresses his conviction that he is a free man, since he is willing to endure life or death, ease or hardship, according to God’s plan. Just after we hear of the monks’ collective resolve, the filmmaker gives us an image, at once weird and spiritually powerful, of Luc tenderly caressing a painting of the crucified Jesus: a free man acknowledging the source of his freedom.

As the Trappists feared, gunmen return. Islamist militants roughly drag the monks from their beds in the middle of the night and load them onto a truck. They then drive them deep into the wilderness and, on a snowy morning, force-march the Trappists into the woods. The final scene of the film is the snowy atmosphere gradually closing around the freezing men as they walk toward the forest. Though this is not depicted in the movie, the Trappists of Tibhirine were put to death and their headless bodies were later discovered.

Of Gods and Men is a quiet story of great courage and spiritual strength, as beautifully recounted by the Register’s critic Steven Greydanus here, here and here. But it is also a film with an edge — and this becomes clear when we meditate upon its title, taken from Psalm 82: “I said: You are gods, all of you sons of the Most High; yet like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” This particular Psalm represents the sovereign God’s judgment of false gods, those who have been mistakenly considered absolute. Yahweh states that these “gods” have failed in their task of assuring justice on the earth, that they have not defended “the lowly and the fatherless” or rendered “justice to the afflicted and the destitute.”

Who precisely are these “gods?” Within the biblical framework, they are construed as supernatural beings, but we could also think of them as those political and military “powers and principalities” that make bold to govern the world in any age, usually through threats of violence. Up and down the ages, bully boys with swords or bombs or guns have acted as “gods,” exercising their power, but doing precious little to ameliorate the human condition. The sovereign God, the true God, passes judgment on these pretenders to ultimacy and announces that they will “fall like any prince.”

Though by all appearances the gunmen of Algeria defeated the simple Trappists of Tibhirine, those monks, through their spiritual freedom, became the instruments of God’s judgment over wicked men who act like gods.

Father Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire and an author, theologian and speaker. He currently serves as the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary outside Chicago.