Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Category: 2014 films

Heaven Is for Real (dir. Randall Wallace, 2014)

In cinematic terms, Heaven Is for Real is not a particularly good movie. It has a few things going for it: a nuanced and sympathetic performance from Greg Kinnear, as well as fetching camerawork from cinematographer, Dean Semler, a veteran of major Hollywood productions such as Dances with Wolves (1990) and Apocalypto (2006). But it is also mawkish at times, and director Randall Wallace seems to prefer eagerness to mystery — a point underlined by his decision to actually stage the heavenly visions of four-year-old Colton Burpo (Connor Corum). In short (and whether or not this is a good or bad thing will depend on whom you ask), it is like a Lifetime movie with class.

Nevertheless, Heaven Is for Real (and, presumably, the book on which it is based) manages to raise a number of interesting questions, not just about heaven itself, but also about the status of heaven in contemporary Christianity. When, after an emergency appendectomy, young Colton reports that he visited heaven and even sat on Jesus’ lap, he brings his father, Todd (Kinnear), to a point de crise. On the one hand, Todd — who, notably, is also a pastor in the Wesleyan tradition — is astonished at how the experience has affected Colton. The boy seeks to comfort those around him, particularly the sick, and he seems to have acquired preternatural knowledge about his parents’ lives. On the other hand, his understanding of heaven is, well, childish. He speaks of angels and of songs and of Jesus riding on a colorful horse. How, Todd wonders, is one to reconcile Colton’s spiritual wisdom with his less than sophisticated theology? Is doubting the latter tantamount to rejecting the former — or worse? Has Todd, perhaps, lost his own faith?

Heaven Is for Real is a little too ripe to press these questions, and therein lies its failure. For it wants to have its cake and eat it too. Whether or not one believes or doubts in Colton’s vision is deemed irrelevant, so long as one tries to be a “good” person. Nothing essential is claimed, and so nothing essential is gained. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing: one shudders to think at how poorly a more dogmatic film might have come off. At the same time, however, this approach cannot help but evacuate the doctrine of heaven of its intellectual content and peculiar role in Christian eschatology. After all, as doctrines go, it is something of a new kid on the block, not receiving its definitive formulation until Pope Benedict XII’s Benedictus Deus (1336). This delay, among other things, suggests that the “life everlasting” mentioned in the fifth-century Apostles’ Creed was first and foremost understood in Pauline terms — namely, as bodily resurrection. For the early church, then, Christian eschatology was intrinsically bound up with the redemption of the physical as well as the spiritual, with the renewal of the material and not just with the immaterial.

That is not to suggest, however, that the doctrine of heaven lacks biblical warrant altogether. Jesus refers to “eternal life” throughout the Gospels, and the beatitudes speak of “seeing” God (Mt 5:8). And yet, this phrase and its implication of the so-called “beatific vision” — that the bliss of heaven consists in the immediate vision and perfect love of God — does not disclose pat truisms but, rather, incomprehensible mysteries. As St. Paul writes, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard; neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor 2:9).

Ultimately, then, heaven ought not be reduced to a good feeling or a kind deed or a hope for a better tomorrow. But Heaven Is for Real would make it all of these, even as it tiptoes around the traditional profession of the resurrection of the body. For a movie that overtly engages Christian theology, it has far too little theology in it.

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Noah (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2014)

You have to give it to Darren Aronofsky: the man has chutzpah. He has made good movies (The WrestlerBlack Swan), bad movies (The Fountain), and just plain weird movies (Pi). But they have all been bold, creative, and memorable. Thus it is not surprising that his latest film, Noah, is bold, creative, and memorable as well. It is also, perhaps, something of a landmark — a big-budget Hollywood production that not only overtly deals with the Bible, but does so in a way that is neither sanctimonious nor sentimental. In turn, Noah demonstrates, right in the teeth of our post-religious culture, that the Bible remains a text worth contemplating and learning from.

Of course, the extent to which Noah might be deemed biblically accurate is a matter of debate. Some have chided Aronofsky for taking too many liberties with the text (Genesis 6-9), arguing that he turns the great patriarch into an angst-ridden and possibly murderous protagonist. Others see it as a left-leaning picture that intends to address the problem of climate change, thereby casting Noah as an “environmentalist wacko.” Still others view it as simply “anti-Christian.” And, finally, there is the view that Aronofsky, no matter his personal beliefs, is drawing on the ancient Jewish tradition of Midrash, effectively having a conversation with the biblical text, searching (sincerely if also confusedly at times) for its underlying meaning.

I side with the latter perspective. Aronofsky does expand on the source material (how could he not, given the need to produce a full-length film from a few chapters of text?), and he certainly puts his own stamp on the movie’s aesthetic and thematic interests (again, how could he not, given that someone, somehow had to commit the text to the cinematic medium?). And yet, ultimately, the film affirms the core of the biblical message — that the universe originates from a divine creator; that the creator made everything good (a sequence that Aronofsky masterfully inserts into the narrative); that through pride, selfishness, and violence human beings corrupted what was originally good; that for the sake of this good creation (and not out of petty malice) God elected to end the old order and to fashion the world anew; that Noah and his family were the chosen vehicles for the preservation of the good; and, finally, that the upshot of the story is God’s ultimate commitment to the goodness of life (“Be fruitful and multiply.”).

Needless to say, if that were all that Aronofsky conveyed, then there would be no controversy. So, what’s the big deal? The real issue — at least among Christian viewers — seems to lie less with what Noah is about and more with how it gets there. Sure, one might say, Aronofsky says some good stuff about “The Creator” and animals and love and all that, but why are there “freakin’ rock monsters” in the movie and why is Noah so damned nasty? I’ll leave the first question largely alone — in nuce, the rock monsters are known as “The Watchers,” and they come from the Book of Enoch, an ancient text that has traditionally been deemed “inspired” but not canonical by Christians — but I do have a few thoughts on the second one. Aronofsky appears to be interested in the burden of Noah’s mission. It’s a fair concern. After all, not only does Noah have to deal with the construction of the ark and the handling of the animals, but, as any other person would, he has to confront a series of devastating ethical questions. For example: Who gets to make it on his boat, and who doesn’t? And why are Noah and his family spared, when they too share the blood of Adam and Eve? Are they really better than the rest of humanity? Indeed, if they do survive the deluge, will they and their seed not simply corrupt the earth all over again?

As the film progresses, these questions take a toll on Noah (a typically fantastic Russell Crowe). He grows surly, even mean. But he does not doubt God. Rather, he doubts himself and his standing before God. He is, in a sense, a victim of his own humility, so certain of his sinfulness that he can no longer perceive the deity’s loving will. Here, I daresay, Aronofsky is drawing on Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous work, Fear and Trembling — a treatise based on Genesis 22 (Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, Isaac) rather than on Genesis 6-9. Nevertheless, Aronofsky’s Noah is quite similar to Kierkegaard’s Abraham. Both are confronted with what Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Johannes de silentio, terms a “teleological suspension of the ethical,” that is to say, a break from the norms of human society for the sake of adhering to the will of God. Put differently, both Kierkegaard’s Abraham and Aronofsky’s Noah give priority to the will of God over human convention. Moreover, in doing so, they exemplify the spiritual trial, the sheer fear and trembling, of such a rigorous faith, and they raise the specter of what might happen if that faith were misguided.

To paraphrase Kierkegaard, faith is not effortless — a mere matter of reciting a creed or whatnot — but all too difficult. It may render one incomprehensible to others, and, on account of human frailty and limitation, it may even bear so much resignation that God’s beneficent “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) is not heard. That, on Aronofsky’s telling, Noah narrowly avoids the latter circumstance is not an indiscriminate adulteration of the biblical text. On the contrary, it is a reading of the Noah cycle that is indebted to other parts of Scripture. Aronofsky’s approach may make persons of faith uneasy, but, as Kierkegaard was at pains to remind us, faith was never meant to be easy anyway.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson, 2014)

The word “nostalgia” is typically associated with a maudlin recollection of the past, but its explicit meaning is even more pointed. Taken from a pair of Greek terms, nostos (homecoming) and algos (ache), “nostalgia” literally involves a painful ache to go home — indeed, a home-sickness for a time or place that no longer exists. The term was originally applied to soldiers, who, stationed abroad, longed to return to their home country. Indeed, for a time, it was categorized as a proper disease, which, if left untreated, might lead to suicide. “Nostalgia,” then, bears more than a little resemblance to a word that is more favored today — “depression.”

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is profoundly nostalgic. Under the careful hand of its auteur, virtually every scene bears a longing for a world that no longer exists, both (to borrow a phrase from Flannery O’Connor) its manners and its mystery. The plot centers on Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, in a spot-on performance), the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel — a resort famed for its alpine views, Roman-style baths, wine selection, and, perhaps above all, Monsieur Gustave H. himself. The sort of old-world figure unthinkable in a society of Holiday Inns, Gustave lives to serve the guests of the Grand Budapest, from arranging their suites to (in the case of elderly dowagers) providing sexual favors. His ethical code, then, is not explicitly of the Judeo-Christian variety, but it’s not exactly opposed to it either. For Gustave, there is a right way to do things: champagne must be vintage, trysts discreet, and others treated with decorous respect. And, as the (rather intricate) plot develops, it is this insistence on interpersonal civility that is his undoing. For society, under pressure from totalitarian forces, is moving toward an altogether different set of values — avarice, bland uniformity, and, perhaps most worrisome for Gustave, rudeness. Thus the concierge comes to represent, in the words of one character, “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity.”

Of course, the longing for bygone days and ways is typical of Anderson’s work, from Rushmore‘s portrayal of prep school clubs to The Life Aquatic‘s celebration of Jacques Cousteau. One might even say that Anderson is a “nostalgic” director, and, as noted above, this is no small matter. It means that his films, however pristine, however quaint, convey a certain kind of sadness — one apt to stir up feelings of ache for worlds (school plays, summer camp, pre-war Europe) that we no longer have access to.

This tendency, for Anderson, extends to Christianity as well. Many of his films include depictions of traditional Christian (and especially Catholic) habits, practices, and offices. There are priests, nuns, altar boys, school uniforms, sacramentals, sacraments, and so on. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, for example, one of the dowagers asks Gustave to have a candle lit for her in the (fictional) Cathedral of Santa Maria Christiana. It is a flitting moment, but, seen in the context of Anderson’s oeuvre, it is one that makes sense, harking back to a religious decorum now frequently neglected in the West.

It is, in short, nostalgic. And, as with all nostalgia, it is potentially perilous. After all, life must be lived forward, not backward. But Anderson certainly knows how to make the backward glance enchanting, and, in prompting us to ask why we abandoned the old ways, he opens up a space for us to reconsider the future.