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Saturday, June 19, 2010  

Christianity on Film

W.H. Auden, speaking in the voice of an unusually perceptive King Herod, imagines the future of literature once the tale of Christ in the stable gets out:

The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

I thought of this as I pondered the premises behind notions like the Top Fifty Christian movies (via Jim Skaggs) and The Arts and Faith Top 100 films. The problem is not in the lists themselves, which are good and worthy as far as I am familiar with them. Rather, it's in trying to draw a line between a Christian film and a non-Christian film in a culture whose aesthetics are still enduringly shaped by the Christian understanding of humanity and the world.

The Gospels themselves are small epics of the ordinary. Forget Jesus for a moment, the son of Mary and person of the land whose ordinariness has been crushed out by the burden of exemplifying everything--from the cosmic logos spermatikos to a sort of Lou Reed of the Palestinian lumpenproletariat. Even leave aside Mary and Peter, who have been given thrones and rings and sumptuous dress, as if they were second-rate Renaissance warlords. Look at almost any episode from the life of Jesus between the departure of the Magi and the days before his execution and people he encounters are, by the standards of classical pagan drama, quite unremarkable. They are even pathetic. Consider last week's Gospel lesson about the sinful woman who drenches Jesus's feet in her tears and kisses and dries them with her hair. Or this week's lesson, about the demoniac and the swineherds. These are the people whose stories intersect with the life of Jesus. Their problems are the ones he chooses to address, their sins the ones he chooses to forgive, their bonds the ones he chooses to break--if he even had a choice to make in the matter. They are the heart of the story. The governors and potentates come on stage only to move the action along, much as servants and lower gentry do in a proper aristocratic tragedy.

Not a few critics, ancient and modern, have seen aesthetic disaster in these stories just as Auden's Herod predicts. We have our word "maudlin," after all, in tribute to popular depictions of the repentant Mary Magdalene weeping rivers over her sins. But pick most any independent film, or any drama about people you would never hear about if they were real, and you likely are seeing a film or reading a story that would have been hard to imagine without the advent of Christianity and its radical ennobling of the daily, the ordinary, the unremarkable. Whether the Irish street musician and the Czech pianist fall into each others' arms or go back to their spouses, or whether the album they record becomes a popular success, is not the test of a story's religiosity. Rather, it's the very idea that such a man and such a woman are fitting objects of poetic commemoration alongside, or even in preference to, the general, the statesman, the philosopher. They tried hard to make The Bicycle Thief into a communist parable, and it's a great one, but the film cannot shake off the Christianity that finds reality in the people who take shape between the grand impersonal forces and the brutalized, faceless masses.

By contrast--and I mean this with all respect--who gives a damn about Ajax? Even in Sophocles' tragic depiction? Here we are every week, telling the stories of fishermen and prostitutes and serial monogamists at the well and imperial soldiers, and hearing the stories of their unacknowledged secular children. And when the time comes to tell the stories of Achilles and Hector--great, noble, stirring stories--they must be tarted up with love that conquers all and the thwarting of Fate itself. In aesthetics, if nowhere else, Christ really did conquer the Western world.

Not that this is without its downside--namely, kitsch. As Auden's Herod points out, the people will call on God to

'Leave thy heavens and come down to our earth of waterclocks and hedges. Become our uncle. Look after Baby, amuse Grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his home-work, introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves.'

But even such kitsch is often just a mangled version of the kind of thing that ended up in Dickens. It testifies to a real and enduring yearning, not for an alien nobility but for the possibility of nobility, beauty, and grace that is latent even in the smallest life.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:01 PM
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