The Spirit in the Real World: Of Gods and Men

Of Gods and Men (Dir. Xavier Beauvois, 2010)

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it” – Matthew 16:25

Above and beyond all else, Christianity is a religion obsessed with and centralized around concepts of death and resurrection. The most obvious example of this is the idea that all men may be saved through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In turn, Jesus asked his followers to die, just like he did; if not literally, then at least figuratively. Christians are told to give themselves away, to let go of their selves and personal interests. To be a Christian is to submit to others in humility, to seek the interests of others, and even to love your enemy. If this sounds like it would be difficult to do, that’s because it is. Amidst all the talk of love, forgiveness, and heaven, Christians are told to do the most unnatural thing of all: turn away from the self and towards God, to reject the world for things unseen. Though there are other, better movies about Christianity, Of Gods and Men, perhaps more than any movie that I can think of, examines what it really means to do these things actively.

Movies about Christians or Christianity tend to fall into two opposite camps. Either the film is extremely critical of the hypocrisy found in the church, or it’s a superficial treatment of Christianity that does little but reaffirm already held beliefs and truisms. On the one end you have Saved! or Jesus Camp, and on the other end you have Facing the Giants  and Left Behind. Neither approach is necessarily bad, but both are far too easy. To straddle the line requires thoughtfulness about the wide range of possibilities within a belief system, and an acceptance of the mysteries that surround it. There’s only a small audience of people who are willing to engage a movie that explores Christianity with respect while at the same time challenging Christians (and everyone else) to think critically about the core values and expressions of the faith. Historically, we might look to films like OrdetThe MissionThe Apostle, I Confess, Diary of a Country Priest, Black NarcissusForbidden Games, or Leon Morin, Priest. There have been a few valiant attempts to create something more balanced in recent years, such as Steve Taylor’s The Second Chance, but modern attitudes tends towards one extreme or the other, which is why Of Gods and Men is such a rich and welcome experience.

Based on a true story, eight Trappist monks are living in Algeria, in relative peace with the local Muslim culture. They work with the local people, providing, among other things,  important medical services. We are given the sense that their existence is routine and even comfortable, despite the level of absolute service that their lives are dedicated to. When the Algerian civil war creeps closer to their monastery, their way of life and the core of their beliefs are challenged. They must decide what authority they are truly under. Will they subject themselves to terrorists who want to come into their monastery to kill and raid for medicine? Will they cave under the pressure of having their very lives threatened by violence daily? If they stay, are they inviting violence on the community? If they go, are they abandoning those that they’ve helped for so long? The answers are not exactly easy; they are fraught with a tension that appeals to pragmatic issues and metaphysical demands. No matter what path they choose, we can hear that classic Clash song behind their decision-making process: “Should I stay or should I go now? If I go it will be trouble. If I stay it will be double.” There is no path that can lead to a happy conclusion. And in truth, the path that they eventually take seems more or less inevitable.

Of Gods and Men is not a suspense picture, though; it is more like portraiture than proper narrative. The dynamics of community interaction is the real focus here, allowing us to peer into a lifestyle that is very foreign to most of us. These men have somehow hidden themselves inside their faith without excluding the world around them.

The practical question of staying and leaving does permeate the movie, though. Along with the monks, we ask what would be best to do. If they leave, each man would be dispersed to live on their own, perhaps multiplying the little bit of good that they might accomplish by staying. But if they leave, they would be abandoning a people that they’ve become inextricably connected to. It would be like a father leaving his son or a shepherd leaving his flock to the wolves. If they stay only to die, though, what is the difference? Is there a higher principle to be followed here?  

An early scene gives us some clue as to who these people are. When the terrorists first arrive, Christian, the head of the monastery, insists that they will not leave their post under any circumstances. Christian thinks this stance is obvious and assumes that everyone else will agree. At their next meeting, later that day, most of them do agree, but the real issue of contention is that Christian made this decision without consulting the group. Other members make it a point to show him that the spirit of their order is community, and that to make a decision, even if it was the correct one, without consultation, is to break trust with the group. Their chiding is gentle, and even loving, but it is also firm and without reservation. They do not get into a shouting match or even argue in any normal sense; they simply discuss and exchange ideas. They challenge each other to righteousness without being self-righteous. Even in stark disagreement, there is calm. The film’s narrative drive is anchored by these meetings, which appear to take place daily. The meetings are then punctuated with small worship services of hymns and liturgy. In a way, the film invites it’s audience to worship with the characters on screen, to meditate on the content of their lives.  

When they are not in meetings, which they often are in this movie, this group of monks is allowed to freely struggle with the difficulties of living in a hostile environment with no protection other than that which comes from God, who is, the movie openly recognizes, alarmingly silent. These men are allowed to struggle with their faith, even rage against it. This struggle is a process of dying. When one monk chafes at the fact that they are not leaving their post, and therefore exposing themselves to almost certain death, he tells another monk to “fuck off” during a short discussion. He’s never reprimanded for this outburst; instead, he’s given the understanding that we all long for. Struggling is something is permitted in this community, something not often seen in the church. Instead of scorning the one who struggles, these monks lift each other up in their darkest times. This is what the Body of Christ is supposed to look like; a unit that functions as a whole.

Of Gods and Men is an austere film, moving slowly and deliberately through a situation that demands moral fortitude and grace. As the film progresses we see that the monks must figure out how to balance a quadrilateral relationship that involves them with the community that they serve and terrorists who want to use their position and resources for evil. The forces that surround them leave them few viable options. They must die, and they must live knowing that death is coming soon. One could be inspired by this movie, but that doesn’t seem to be its immediate aim; rather, it seems to call us to contemplate our own relationship with God and the world. It’s hard to think ofOf God and Men as a triumphant movie, because the plight of these men is such a failure on practical terms. And yet, that is the spirit of this rare movie, perhaps because failure turned into triumph is a central paradox of Christianity.

Behind these men is a map of the world, a place that they humbly serve.

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