Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 5)

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 1Week 2Week 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.

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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!

Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 2)

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):

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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.

Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 1)

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!

Some Thoughts on Noah

A group of my colleagues recently went to see Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Fueled by my jealousy over not being able to go with them, I decided I would go over the weekend, by myself, while treasured offspring was taking a nap (beloved spouse stayed home). If you have not seen the movie yet and are planning on it, you may want to stop reading here.Noah-Poster

I will start by saying that I enjoyed the movie. And I don’t typically enjoy movies about the Bible. Growing up I considered Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments to be a form of punishment, and I still have a tendency to lash out when someone even mentions Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (don’t get me started). So I wasn’t planning on being that impressed when I bought my ticket; I was planning on being at least slightly annoyed (what type of person goes to a movie expecting to not like it?).

But I wasn’t annoyed, not at all really. To the contrary, I think that this film accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish, which is to tell the story of Noah and the flood from a different angle. And it does so by drawing from the biblical flood narrative(s), from non-canonical texts and traditions, and from the fertile imagination of the filmmakers. In this regard, Noah was crafted in much the same way as the biblical flood, which is itself a creative work that combines Jewish traditions of creation, theological reflection, and Mesopotamian deluvial traditions such as those that we find in Gilgamesh and Atrahasis (n.b. – I am not claiming that the author[s] of Genesis knew these narratives…only that the traditions they represent would have been familiar ones).

I have neither the time nor the attention span to write a systematic review of the movie, but here are a few comments and observations (Spoilers start now. All quotes are as I remember them; not necessarily exact):

  1. The film does a good job of not making Noah out to be a saint. Those who have grown up hearing the account of the flood in Genesis may remember that Noah is called “a righteous man” (Gen 6:9). But there is also the more nuanced description of him as “blameless in his generation” (Gen 6:9), which may imply that he wouldn’t have been considered quite as good by later standards. In this film Noah is gritty and violent. He fights with (and kills) those who threaten his family, and he is at one point prepared to murder his grandchild (grandchildren, as it happens) . He remarks to his wife at one point, “We are no better than they are,” or some such. Aronofsky depicts Noah as a man of his times, but as one who is aware of his own tendencies toward wickedness. And this, among other things, distinguishes him from all the other characters.
  2. The film weaves together biblical and non-canonical narratives in a compelling way. One of the most striking features of Aronofsky’s Noah is the inclusion of the Watchers, angels who were present at the time of the earth’s creation but who soon after “fell” for the daughters of humankind. It’s a tradition that stems from an enigmatic reference to the “sons of God” in Gen 6:4 and is later developed in the Old Testament pseudepigrapha. The Watchers in Noah seem at first like characters out of Lord of the Rings; they are made of rock and have deep voices, six arms, and glowing eyes. The rock is explained as part of their punishment for interfering with humankind after the fall. Initially, one of them says, they were made of light, but after they transgressed “the Creator,” they became “encrusted in earth.” The really interesting thing about the Watchers in Noah is that they help Noah and his family build and defend the ark–a  rather fun touch, in my view. There is also a scene at one point that shows Adam and Eve together in the Garden, before they eat the fruit. In this scene their bodies are glowing, which echoes a few traditions that say that before the fall they were clad in garments of light. After the fall they lose their garments of light, at which point they realize they’re naked. There’s also a really interesting explanation for how Noah had enough wood for the ark–he grew a forest that sprouted from a seed that came from the Garden of Eden (Methuselah gives it to him). I have no idea if this is rooted in some sort of rabbinic interpretation (leave a comment below if you know where it comes from!) or if it is merely creative license, but it’s brilliant. Effectively what Aronofsky has done is to allow the non-canonical narratives to do what they were intended to do, namely, to fill in the perceived gaps of the biblical text. And he does this quite well.
  3. The film has a preoccupation with vegetarianism. One of the things that distinguishes Noah and his family from the rest of humanity is that they don’t eat meat. Noah is horrified to witness a group of men hunting at the beginning, and one of the most intense scenes of the movie involves a large encampment of soldiers in a sort of feeding frenzy. Noah at one point comments that “they” feel as if eating the flesh of animals (also called “the innocent”) gives them some sort of power. I am sure that this is based in part on Gen 8:20-24, where Noah offers the first explicit sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible (similar activity may be implied earlier, in Gen 4:4, when Abel brings “the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions”), and God instructs him on how he is to eat meat. Before this, apparently, humankind didn’t eat meat. It’s one interpretation. And it’s an interpretation that Aronofsky runs with. The really interesting thing, in my view, is that this preoccupation with vegetarianism led to the omitting of the scene that inspired it in the first place. That’s right — in this film there is no sacrifice made after the flood waters subside! I was shocked to see that this important detail of the Genesis account is just not in Aronofsky’s film. To be sure, after more than two hours of establishing Noah as the champion of the innocent beasts of the earth, having him slit a few of their throats and then toss them on a fire would seem strange to many viewers.
  4. The voice of God is never heard. Throughout the film God is referred to as “the Creator.” Unless I missed it, this is the only way that the human characters (and the Watchers) refer to God in Noah. I quite like it, actually. No character in this film, good or bad, doubts that the Creator exists and is responsible for the world. One of the things that distinguishes Aronofsky’s Noah from Genesis is that God doesn’t really speak to Noah in the film, at least not like in Genesis. In Genesis, God tells Noah, “Make yourself an Ark.” In Noah, he has a series of bizarre and terrifying visions (“I saw water, death by water”) that he has to decode. At one point he seeks help from his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), but for the most part Noah is on his own in discerning what the Creator wants him to do. Even as they are boarding the ark Noah is not entirely sure that the Creator is interested in saving them from destruction. Noah becomes convinced that they, along with the rest of humankind, have been deemed too wicked too survive, and that they are on the ark only to shepherd the animals to the other side of the flood. Once this is accomplished, Noah believes that their task is to die, to return to dust so that creation may again exist in a perfect state, without the stain of humankind. It is only after his granddaughters are born (on the ark) that he comes to realize that the Creator’s intention is for him and his family to repopulate the world.
  5. The ark in this film is a really big floating box, not a boat. I hadn’t thought much about significance of the ark’s shape before watching this film. In coloring books and in Ken Ham’s creation museum (which I place on the same level in terms of intellectual sophistication) the ark is a giant boat with a rudder and a keel, a wheelhouse, and all the rest. But if you think about it, why would a vessel like this need a rudder and/or a keel? It’s not like they would need to steer the thing. I mean, who are they going to bump into? And it’s not like they’re really heading anywhere in particular. The function of the ark in Genesis isn’t to enable Noah and his family to cruise the seas; its function is to protect them from the primordial waters of chaos (which are not the same as the/an ocean). The ark in Genesis is a microcosm of the original creation, which God accomplishes by through separation (light from darkness, waters above from waters below, etc.). The flood, then, is God’s allowing the waters above and the waters below to mingle and swallow the dry land, undoing the original creative act, at least in part. The shape of the ark in this film reminds viewers (or at least me) that Noah and his family aren’t really heading anywhere because there isn’t anywhere to head. The “earth,” as the original Jewish audience would have understood it, doesn’t really exist during the flood; it has been subdued by the chaos.

So is the film an “accurate” portrayal of what happens in Genesis? Of course not. If you made a movie about what’s in Genesis, and you didn’t embellish any of the details, you would have a 5-10 minute movie at best. And if you are going to this movie expecting the Genesis account, you’re going to leave confused and frustrated.

But if you are in the market for a film that will make you think in new ways about a biblical story that has become so familiar that you find yourself skimming over some of the finer details, Noah might be a good choice. If you are like me, you will rush home after leaving the theatre and start reading Genesis!

Stigmata and Christian Apocryphal Literature

I spent the majority of yesterday composing a written statement for a fellowship application. Part of this process involved reflecting on the past 10 years of my life – where I’ve been, what I’ve done, what I’ve studied, and how all of those things have contributed to my present research interests. Self-reflection can be fun, and it forces you to remember things that you’ve long since forgotten.

As I was trying to come up with an answer regarding why I chose to study Christian apocryphal literature, I decided it might be helpful to think about the first time I even heard about Christian apocryphal literature. The answer, which I did not include in my written statement (because it’s stupid), made me chuckle.

During my senior year of high school, I watched a movie called Stigmata. It had just been released. The movie tells the story of a young woman who becomes possessed by the spirit of a dead stigmatic priest. The young woman receives the stigmata, speaks in foreign tongues, and leads an investigator from the Vatican on a wild goose chase to find a lost gospel that the Church was attempting to suppress. The “lost gospel” in Stigmata is none other than the Gospel of Thomas, discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. At one point in the movie, a priest describes it as “an Aramaic scroll from the 1st century, discovered near the cave of the dead sea scrolls outside Jerusalem. Alameida [the dead stigmatic priest] and I concluded that it is a gospel of Jesus Christ. In his own words: Aramaic.” At the end of the movie, the following text pops up: “In 1945 a scroll was discovered in Nag Hammadi, which is described as ‘the secret sayings of the living Jesus.’ This scroll, the Gospel of St. Thomas, has been claimed by scholars around the world to be the closest record we have of the words of the historical Jesus.”

In retrospect, it’s not a good movie, but my young mind was absolutely enthralled at the time. I remember talking with a friend of mine afterward about how something needs to be done about the Church’s attempts to suppress truth like this…we were both really concerned.

I chuckled to myself as I recalled this experience, as it truly is the first time I became aware that there were “gospels” outside of the New Testament. Like many uninformed viewers of the movie, I assumed in my ignorance that what Stigmata claimed about the Gospel of Thomas was true, and I continued to assume that it was true until I heard otherwise (and I seem to recall embarrassing myself in an undergraduate NT course). Of course, there is little truth in what Stigmata claims about Thomas: it is a codex, not a scroll; it is written in Coptic, not Aramaic; it is from the second century, not the first; it was not found near the Dead Sea (Nag Hammadi is over 200 miles removed); some scholars (you know who you are) consider it to be “the closest record we have of the words of the historical Jesus,” but they are a minority. What’s more, the Dead Sea Scrolls were not isolated to one cave, but were spread out among among eleven!

I suppose this memory is useful, if only to remind us about how much garbage there is floating around about the “lost gospels.”

Anyway, hope you enjoyed my rant for the day.