I’m a film teacher at a Christian High School in San Jose, CA. If I had free reign to teach whatever class I wanted–regardless of student interest or appropriateness for high school, but based solely on what I would want to talk about day in and day out–I would teach a class called “Hard Christian Movies.”
One use of film is to convey a message. To put characters through situations that illustrate a moral. And this can sort of work, but I think it’s a very cheap use of the medium.
A far more powerful effect happens when thoughtful filmmakers create true to life characters in challenging situations such that the movie becomes a sort of laboratory for ethical human experimentation. And then this lab is utilized to explore a question.
In this way, when we call a film “inspirational,” I feel it’s because it tested a question about essential humanity — a question that would apply to us as viewers– and then demonstrated something true about humanity that offers us hope.
But “Hard Christian Movies”–
These are movies made by deep thinkers of faith who are driven to make their movies not to convey a message, but to explore a question of faith. To use film as a laboratory to explore humanity in extremely challenging situations in light of faith.
One film I’d offer as an example is “Fury” by David Ayers. This movie follows a young soldier who is placed in a tank battalion with one of the most ruthless men to ever walk the face of the earth. Day by day his humanity is challenged and he’s asked to deface the humanity of others. Day by day he is forced to make choices that seem to destroy his soul. But along the way there’s a character named “Bible”, who earned his nickname for his penchant for reciting Scripture on the battlefield. So often his recitations sound strange and out of place–but they’re always there.
The final shot of the film is what we call a God’s eye view looking down at the protagonist in an ambulance staring out at the horrors of war through a dirty window–we might say “Through a glass darkly”, just as Paul would write in 1 Corinthians 13:12. David Ayers seems to say “This isn’t it.” This horror, this darkness, this isn’t the whole story. “Then we will see face to face.”
But the film that would be the centerpiece of this class would be “Silence” by Martin Scorsese, based on the book of the same name by Endo Shusako.
The film follows two Jesuit priests in the 1600s named Rodrigues and Garupe. They’ve stopped hearing from their mentor who has gone to Japan as a missionary, and worse than this have begun hearing rumors that he has apostatized, renouncing his faith. They can’t believe it and beg their elders to go to Japan. Finally, they are given permission and warned that it will likely be the last thing they do.
Immediately after making landfall, they find a village and watch as a Samurai, called “The Inquisitor”, forces the villagers to line up. He places a metal plaque on the ground, on which is etched an image of Christ on the Cross. It’s called a fumi-e. One by one, the villagers step on it to prove their lack of fidelity to the Christian faith. All but three comply, and those three are immediately taken to the beach and drowned.
The priests pray to God asking why he’s allowing this, but they hear no answer.
They begin ministry in the village to Christians starved for the Eucharist, baptism and preaching. Word of their presence spreads to the next village and the priests decide to split up–Garupe leaving to expand their ministry and Rodrigues continuing ministry in the first village.
Shortly after Garupe leaves, Rodrigues is captured. Rodrigues prays again to ask God why he would allow the villagers to be abandoned. But he still hears no response.
The Japanese don’t actually treat Rodrigues all that poorly and he has many conversations with The Inquisitor himself. One day he is taken to the shore, where he believes he will again engage in conversation about his faith. Instead, out on a dock, in the water he sees Garupe with his hands bound behind his back, and on the water, a boat with Japanese soldiers and three Christians tied up in tatami mats. Garupe is told to renounce or the Christians will die. He refuses and the Christians are thrown in the water. With hands still bound Garupe enters to try and save them. They all drown.
Rodrigues again asks God why, and again hears no answer.
As a prisoner, Rodrigues finally meets his mentor who not only has apostatized but tells Rodrigues that the Gospel will never take root in Japan. Christians will continue to suffer until Rodrigues is willing to step on the fumi-e.
One night Rodrigues is woken by a strange sound. His mentor tells him that five Christians are being tortured. Rodrigues screams for them to apostatize, hoping they can hear him. His mentor tells him that they already have. Their suffering will only end in death or in Rodrigues stepping on the fumi-e.
The fumi-e is brought out, and as Rodrigues stares down at the face of Christ he finally hears this:
“Go ahead now. It’s alright. Step on me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain. Your life is with me now. Step.”
The film critic Roger Ebert called movies “Great Empathy Machines”. And I think that’s something Jesus would be interested in. Ebert called them that because in no other art form, or way of communicating are we literally forced to see the world from another perspective. Unless we turn our head from the screen, we are seeing the world as another wants us to see it.
For me, what “Hard Christian Movies” do is allow me to see the Cross from the Darkest corners of human experience and to see that it still offers hope.
My father is fond of saying if you hear the Gospel and don’t ask “Can it really be that Good?”, you either haven’t heard the Gospel, or you didn’t understand it.
Too often, if I were asked “What is the Gospel?” I would probably answer without engaging anything but my mouth. The radical Grace and Reckless Love inherent in God becoming man and dying are dead facts. What these films do is force me to hear the question anew–“What is the Gospel?”–and in searching for an answer face the new question “Can it really be so good that it can bring light and hope to such a situation as this?”
Yes, it can.
For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.Romans 5:19-21
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.Romans 8:1