We had a snow day on Monday, so nothing to see here this week!
Why not take this as an opportunity to catch up on previous posts?
See you next week!
This post is part of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. You can get caught up on our progress so far by reading the posts from Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, and Week 4.
For this week students read the fourth chapter in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character — “The Church and Liberal Democracy: The Moral Limits of a Secular Polity.” This chapter’s central claim is that Christianity and Liberalism are characterized by competing and irreconcilable ideologies. I therefore anticipated that it would generate some pushback from students, and it did, but not to the extent that I had feared (or hoped?). Discussion at the start of class was fruitful, and I found that many students seem to appreciate the line that Hauerwas draws.
One of the things they seem to have found most compelling in this chapter is its analysis of Liberalism’s emphasis on personal freedom and self-interest as cardinal virtues of sorts. Hauerwas notes that in the early days of Liberalism (liberal democracy in the United States, specifically), the assumption underlying liberal ideology was that people were, in fact, virtuous. Yet as time progresses, the situation will change. Now, Hauerwas argues, “people feel their only public duty is to follow their own interests as far as possible, limited only by the rule that we do not unfairly limit others’ freedom” (79). “Liberalism,” Hauerwas maintains, “thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; a social order that is designed to work on the presumption that people are self-interested tends to produce that kind of people” (ibid).
Below is a word cloud generated from student essays on this chapter.
Over the past few weeks one of the things I’ve noticed in essays and in our class discussion is that students have started asking serious questions about what precisely Hauerwas envisions when he speaks of “the church.” In a previous post I mentioned that one student went so far as to argue that he seemed to be advocating for a sort of “secret clubhouse” mentality.
As we’ve moved further into the book, questions about the relationship of the church to the world have become increasingly more common. Many found the section at the end of this chapter on contrasts between Liberalism and the church to be helpful, and we spent some time at the start of class going over this section.
After some preliminary discussion we watched M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004). To be honest, I actually don’t care much for the film; it’s quite tedious at points, and it’s far from Shyamalan’s best work (in my opinion). But it’s a fantastic illustration of what a truly sectarian society looks like in practice, and in my mind it is a perfect antithesis to how Hauerwas conceives of the church.
“The Village” is made up of people who seem to be living in the late-nineteenth century, deep in the forest and far from civilization. The woods that surround them are said to populated by vicious monsters who are drawn to the color red. Toward the end of the film it becomes clear that these monsters were created by “the elders,” the group of people who started the community. The stories of the monsters function to keep people in the community and to keep them at peace with one another.
At first glance the village seems like a suitable analog for the church. The people are loving, peaceful, and faithful, and they consider money the root of evil and don’t use it in their society. It is only when you consider the means by which the society is maintained that the serious issues with it become clear. In contrast to Hauerwas’s insistence that the church be formed and sustained by narratives/stories that are “sufficiently true/truthful,” the village is a society built on a series of elaborate lies.
What is more, the story of the monsters is in fact contrary to the values that the elders wish to instill in their progeny. They want their children to be peaceful and loving, but they teach them to be peaceful and loving people by surrounding them with threats of violence: “The monsters are drawn to the color red, so if you cause someone to bleed the monsters will come and get you.” Even though this threat of violence is intended as a preventative measure, it nevertheless instills in the people the belief that violence is a legitimate way to solve problems. And this ends up having disastrous consequences for more than a few characters.
Our post-film discussion was rich; students seemed to enjoy the film, and I was impressed at how effectively they were able to grasp its mythology. One of the critical differences they identified between the village and Hauerwas’s conception of the church is that the former in no way benefits the world that it has chosen to exist apart from. The elders seek to build a society of faith, hope, peace, and love, but they do so in radical isolation from the world that they perceive as violent. The church, on the other hand, seeks to cultivate similar virtue in its members, but this is always done in the context of the world. The church is an alternative to secular polities, but if it is to be a true alternative, then it must exist within sight of the polity to which it is serving as an alternative.
More next time!
Students arrived in class this week having read Chapter 3 in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character. Entitled “The Moral Authority of Scripture: The Politics and Ethics of Remembering,” this chapter’s focus is on uses and misuses of biblical texts in contemporary moral decision making. To be fair, Hauerwas would likely take issue with how I just framed the matter, as he argues in this chapter that talk of how to “use” biblical texts in Christian ethics is to fundamentally misunderstand their purpose. “For to put it in that way,” he contends, “assumes that we must first clarify the meaning of the background … and only then can we ask its moral significance” (55).
At the start of class we spent a significant portion of time noting some of the difficulties inherent in the “moral handbook” approach to biblical texts, which Hauerwas argues (rightly, in my view) is always arbitrary and selective. That is to say that persons who claim to be doing “what the Bible says” are always picking and choosing what portions of the Bible they are willing to claim as authoritative for their own lives. A good (albeit overused) example is homosexual relationships, which would seem to be explicitly condemned in Leviticus. Some cite this prohibition as evidence that homosexuality is morally wrong, and universally so. Yet the code in Leviticus condemns a host of behaviors that might be considered (at best) morally neutral by the same group: wearing clothing of mixed fabrics, tattoos, having disheveled hair, etc.
Hauerwas reframes the matter by emphasizing the role of the community that reads these texts as scripture. For this community the texts are not revealed morality but revealed reality. The relationship is a cyclical one, for the community that is formed by these texts is the same community that gave rise to them in the first place. This is to say that the canon of Christian scripture is a product of the community’s ongoing process of reflection and self-definition. Below is a word cloud (generated from student essays on this chapter) in which these themes emerge clearly.
Our film for this week was Finding Neverland (2004), which is loosely based on the story of the playwright J. M. Barrie’s creation of his magnum opus, Peter Pan. In this film Barrie fosters a close relationship with a recently-widowed mother (Sylvia) and her four boys (Jack, George, Michael, and Peter). His experiences with this family inspire him to write his hit play, and the process of writing this play in turn affects his relationship with them and the others in his life. It is this cyclical relationship that drew me to Finding Neverland as a fitting illustration for what Hauerwas is getting at in Chapter 3.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film occurs near the end, during the first stage performance of Peter Pan. In preparation for this big night, Barrie requests that the owner of the theater set aside twenty-five seats scattered throughout the room. As the start time draws near, the seats begin filling up with orphans that Barrie had invited to view the play. The scene is quite moving at first, of course. Inviting orphans to a live performance of Peter Pan? What could be cuter? In short: nothing!
But as the play begins, we see that the invitation was in fact quite practical. The orphans are the ones who respond to the play and thereby invite the “regular” theatergoers to experience the story with them, laughing at the subtle humor and waiting alongside them in anticipation of what will happen next. The orphans, in a sense, teach the theatergoers how to “read” the play, and in doing so, beckon them to abandon their adult ways and become like little children again. And it works, but not because of the play itself. It works because of the unique intersection of the play with the community that has ears to hear and eyes to see.
This illustrates well Hauerwas’s point regarding the relationship of biblical text to community. “The scripture,” he argues, “functions as an authority for Christians precisely by trying to live, think, and feel faithful to its witness they find they are more nearly able to live faithful to the truth … The moral use of scripture, therefore, lies precisely in its power to help us remember the stores of God for the continual guidance of our community and individual lives” (66).
Stay tuned for more next week!
This week students read Chapter 2 in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character. This chapter–Jesus: The Story of the Kingdom–is arguably one of the most difficult in the book. Its vocabulary is complex and technical, and certain portions of the chapter presume a fairly sophisticated knowledge of ancient and modern christological controversies. That being said, the chapter’s thesis is relatively clear throughout: the story of Jesus is itself a social ethic that forms the community of those who would claim to follow him. Or as Hauerwas puts it:
There can be no separation of christology from ecclesiology, that is, Jesus from the church. The truthfulness of Jesus creates and is known by the kind of community his story should form.
I was impressed with how well the class handled this difficult chapter of an already difficult book. There were certainly some questions, but they were the right kinds of questions. The word cloud below was compiled from their essays. When I shared it on Facebook last week, one of my colleagues commented: “That’s a great Hauerwasian word cloud. You’re teaching a class full of resident aliens.” I agree, and I am proud of the progress they are making!
As a means of exploring some of Hauerwas’s claims in this chapter, we watched Jesus of Montreal (1989), a classic Canadian film about a group of actors who write and perform a controversial passion play. If you can get past the bad perms, mullets, and seemingly-endless guitar solo montages, Jesus of Montreal is a remarkable take on the life and person of Jesus. Throughout this film the actor who plays Jesus in the passion play mirrors many of the stories of Jesus in his life. The actors he recruits, for example, are all found to be working at undesirable jobs – one is employed as a voiceover actor for pornographic films. His calling them from these jobs is supposed to resemble Jesus’ calling of the disciples. At one point, the actor who plays Jesus becomes agitated at the way an actress is being treated at an audition, and he begins flipping over tables and lighting stands and drives everyone out of the auditorium. This is a not-so-sutle reference to the so-called Temple Tantrum that features so prominently in the canonical gospels. At the end of the film the actor dies, and his friends allow the doctors to harvest his organs. His body becomes a source of life for others.
This is the most overtly religious film we have watched up to this point, and student reactions to it were mixed. Discussion after the film touched on a number of issues, one of those being the film’s extremely negative portrayal of the church or anything that would resemble organized religion. The Catholic priest who sponsors the passion play is a hypocrite who for years has been breaking his vow of celibacy, and at the end of the play when the actors are encouraged to start an acting company to honor their deceased leader, they are encouraged to do so by a lawyer who clearly is meant to represent a sort of Satan figure. The implication is clear: “Jesus = good; church = evil.”
This undercurrent provided interesting fodder for discussion, especially in light of the weight that Hauerwas puts on the church as the community formed by the story of Jesus. Hauerwas would argue that the church as it exists today does not look as it should, of course, but this is quite different than claiming it to be evil, inspired by some sort of demonic force.
Even in light of these tensions, I think students found the film to be a helpful (if slightly literalistic) illustration of what Hauerwas means when he speaks of a community that is formed by the story of Jesus.
This is the second post of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. For helpful background, please see the first post from last week!
This week students came to class having read Chapter One in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character. In this chapter he outlines his “10 Theses Toward the Reform of Christian Social Ethics” in which he argues for the centrality of narrative to Christian social ethics and the formation of a community (the church) that can exist in a way that is faithful to the story of Jesus. “The primary social task of the church,” he maintains, “is to be itself–that is, a people who have been formed by a story that provides them with the skills for negotiating the danger of this existence, trusting in God’s promise of redemption” (10).
Hauerwas is not an easy read, and I was impressed by the number of students who seemed able to navigate this material with little to no difficulty (I should note, by the way, that of the twenty six students currently enrolled in the class, only a small handful are religion majors; most are taking this course as an elective or to fulfill a religion requirement in the core liberal arts curriculum). One student made the astute observation that what Hauerwas seems to be doing in this chapter is advocating for a sort of “secret clubhouse” mentality among Christians. While I noted that he would likely not want to frame the matter in those terms, I think he would at least agree with the sentiment: the church is a distinctive community that certainly exists within the world, but that exists as an alternative to much of what the world has to offer. And this distinctiveness is one of the things that makes the church the church.
Below is a word cloud that I generated from the first crop of essays (FYI – I will remove the word “Hauerwas” from future clouds):
One of the things that students either loved or hated about this chapter was Hauerwas’s use of Watership Down to illustrate what he means by the role of narrative in the formation of communities. I think many were thrown off by the fact that the characters in Watership Down are rabbits – they thought this silly and not particularly fitting for a sophisticated theological treatise. Others just didn’t think that the stories did much to illustrate his point. Some loved the analogy, however. I only discovered about two days before the class started that Watership Down was made into a film. I’ve not had a chance to get a copy of it yet, but I will be interested in taking a look at it as a possible starting point for future classes.
After our discussion at the start of class, we watched Big Fish (2003), a wonderful film that illustrates the profound power that stories can have in the construction of one’s worldview. I gave the students a few questions to think about as they watched: When we talk about the importance of narrative/stories in the formation of our worldview, to what extent is it essential for these stories to be “true” stories What do we even mean when we talk about a story being “true”? Does this mean that it has to have happened in exactly the way that it’s told? And finally, I asked them to pay special attention to the role that mythology plays in this particular film.
Our discussion after the credits rolled was short (class only lasts so long) but fruitful. Students seemed to really enjoy the film, and one commented that it helped her to understand what Hauerwas had been arguing in the chapter they read for that week. I was pleased that she said this (without my prompting!) because that is, in fact, the goal of the class: read a difficult theological text and use film as a medium to better understand that text. Two weeks in and we are on the right track!
I’m a bit late posting this, and I plan on having my reflections on Week 3 up in the next few days.
This semester I am teaching a class on religion in film. It’s my first time, and as I admitted to my students during our first session, I was initially unsure about the direction I wanted to take.
I knew that I didn’t want to show a bunch of overtly religious or “spiritual” films, mostly because I assumed (rightly, as it turns out) that these were the types of films that students would be expecting to see. But I was also concerned that these types of films wouldn’t encourage the type of critical reflection that I want to encourage. Colleagues of mine who have taught similar classes, for example, have recounted to me the experience of screening a visually powerful film like The Passion of the Christ and then witnessing a certain blindness to its serious theological issues because of the emotional response that it engenders in its viewers.
After I moved away from the overtly religious / spiritual I found myself gravitating toward films that emphasize the importance of narrative in the formation of their characters: stories about stories.
As a more theological supplement to this emphasis on narrative, I thought something by Stanley Hauerwas might be fitting. I surveyed a few options, and ultimately I settled on A Community of Character because of its clear and consistent emphasis on the power and function of narrative in identity formation, specifically as it relates to the concept of Christian identity. “The church,” Hauerwas maintains, “does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.”
As anyone familiar with his work can attest, reading and understanding Hauerwas well is no small task, and I am confident that this book is going to be a challenging one for my class. My students are currently working through the introduction and the first chapter.
This is the first in what I hope will be a series of blog posts on the experience of teaching a class on religion in film in this way. Each week I will plan on posting the film that we watched that week, the reading assignment from Hauerwas, and a summary of student reactions to both.
Stay tuned if you are interested!
What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!
Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!
So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own Him!
The King of Kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him!
Raise, raise the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy! joy! for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!
Nestled at the center of this hymn are several lines that are routinely excised from hymnals (check yours next time you’re in church): “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the Cross be borne for me, for you.” The image of an executed person, it would seem, is simply too much for us to bear at Christmas. We prefer the cleaner image of the sleeping baby.
The inclusion of the cross at the nativity is not unique to this hymn. Neither is it novel. One could argue, as Michael Goulder does, that Luke’s image of Mary wrapping her baby in strips of cloth prefigures her preparation of his body for burial. We might also note Simeon’s words to Mary as she presents the infant Jesus in the temple: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed … and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). From the moment of his birth, this Messiah is destined to suffer.
Today, as the Church celebrates God’s entrance into human history, let us remember that God did not arrive as a warlord, but as an infant, peaceful and innocent. As we contemplate the profundity of this image, let us also bear in mind that God did not take on human flesh out of boredom or curiosity; God took on human flesh in order to redeem it. Moreover, let us not forget that God does not redeem humanity by violence, but by becoming a victim.
In a world that continues to fall prey to the allure of violence, be it in the form of assault rifles, concealed handguns, racism, or apathy, let us remember that today God enters into our midst in order to offer and make possible a more excellent way: peace.