The Church at Sundance

The whole idea behind edgy, independent films is that by prying themselves from the commercial grip of major studios, filmmakers finally have the freedom to tell the truth. Sometimes this works. Last year’s The Redemption of General Butt Naked and Higher Ground were intense explorations of spiritual life. Both films were challenging in different ways, but managed to maintain a respect for their religious subject matter. This year, Sundance again returns to tackle spiritual matter in documentaries and feature films. While no single look at Sundance can do the entire festival justice – there are, after all, only so many hours in a day one can watch movies – my hope is that my nearly twenty screenings will provide at least a representative sampling.

Film both reflects and creates worldviews in the minds of its viewers. Because of its culture-shaping, influential power, it is important for us to be aware of how filmmakers depict the relationship between world and the church. And even if some of these films find only small audiences, that they were official Sundance selections means they were seen by other filmmakers. They got in. So they establish a sense of what wins, what is acceptable. As a result, we can expect more of the same, and we should be ready to join that cultural conversation.

As regards the church, my screenings at Sundance fell into five categories: the church triumphant, the church permissive, the church divided, the church rejected, and the church invisible. In this case, scoring only one out of five is bad.

The Church Triumphant – Finding North

Finding North is the kind of advocacy documentary one often finds at Sundance. It wasn’t as manipulative as last year’s How To Die In Oregon, but it does have a clear agenda. The topic of the film is “food insecurity” – the idea that there are some people who really do not know where their next meal is coming from. The problem is exposed as the filmmakers roam America chronicling the lives of people who cannot consistently put the right kind of nutritious food on the table. The culprit is poverty, aggravated by government collusion with agribusiness.

Of all the solutions offered in the film, the one that works best is that conducted by members of a Colorado church who regularly prepare and distribute meals in their community. While the filmmakers laud the work of churches and charities in their role to alleviate hunger in the United States, they argue that it is not enough. During a Q and A session, I asked whether the filmmakers could see the contradiction in their film: that the very people they were blaming for colluding with agribusiness (big government) were the same people that they were expecting to solve the problem of food insecurity (big government). Their only response was that the problem was too big for churches and charities to solve, and one filmmaker offered that campaign finance reform was a necessary step as well. But no one wanted to dwell on the amazing work being done by the Colorado church, or how such work could be duplicated. And certainly no one wanted to entertain the ideas of a book such as When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Finkert of the Chalmers Center – a scripturally-based solution to the poverty that is at the root of food insecurity in the U.S. and outright starvation in the developing world.

The Church Permissive – The Surrogate

The church is a bit player in Finding North, but it is front and center in The Surrogate – based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, a Catholic journalist and poet, who spends all but three hours a day in the life-giving embrace of an iron lung. Afflicted with polio as a boy, he has almost no muscle strength below his neck, but otherwise he has normal physical sensation. Recognizing that he is approaching what he terms his “use by” date, Mark longs for full human companionship. He is accomplished in the life of the mind, and his witty banter charms many women. But his physical malady is an insurmountable barrier to fulfilling his desire for marriage and sexual consummation.

After a last failed attempt to convince his caregiver, who is clearly in love with him, to marry him, Mark turns to a therapist who suggests that he engage the services of a sex surrogate – Cheryl Greene. Morally troubled by the thought, Mark visits his parish priest, Father Brendan, with whom he has struck up a friendship. He explains his situation and asks for Father Brendan’s advice. To the film’s credit, Father Brendan at least agonizes over his answer – but ultimately tells Mark, “I think He’d give you a pass on this one.”

The story does not end here. As Mark continues sessions with Cheryl, he also confers with Father Brendan, who continues to display signs of discomfort with the decision. The film also demonstrates that sexual contact between unmarried people comes with its own set of moral and emotional costs – for both Mark and Cheryl.

The Surrogate is challenging and thought-provoking. Churches are filled with fornicators, some repentant and forgiven, others still struggling with the sin. What makes Mark’s situation different is that in order to commit that sin, he needs to get help. To argue that all fornication is the result of being caught up in the throes of passion is ludicrous. Most sin is deliberate. Nevertheless, to seek permission to do those things that God has forbidden is to tread on dangerous ground. While the church comes off as compassionate to the audience that sees this film, I am afraid that what they saw was less an act of grace, than one of situational compromise.

The Church Divided – Corpo Celeste

The clergy in The Surrogate are depicted substantially better than the clerics in Corpo Celeste. Marta, a young catechist in a southern Italian village, is trying to understand the faith into which she is being initiated. But she gets scant help from the clergy. Her parish priest, Don Mario, is a political social climber, looking to be installed at a bigger, more influential church. The bishop, who the parish has been longing to see, turns out to be more interested in being served than in serving. Even the lay church workers are abusive. Still, this experience does not quench Marta’s desire to know more about her faith.

Marta accompanies a spiritually-disengaged Don Mario to a remote rural church to collect a large crucifix, but when they arrive they find the church unfinished and the local priest a bitter, angry man. So it is poetic justice that the crucifix, strapped to the top of Don Mario’s car, finds escape by slipping off the luggage rack, plummeting over a cliff, and into the water below. This little bit of divine intervention occurs during a conversation in which Don Mario snaps at inquisitive Marta, who wants to know what happens after confirmation, “We go to church, that’s all.”

During the Q and A that followed the film, I wanted to ask writer/director Alice Rohrwacher whether this was an accurate depiction of most southern Italian clergy, but I was unable to catch the moderator’s eye. Regardless of the answer, Corpo Celeste represents an unflattering, yet fairly common, depiction of Christian clergy – both Catholic and Protestant – that demands response. It may be too much to ask for filmmakers to revisit clergy characters such as Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Boys Town, but with overwhelming evidence of the good done by the church over the millennia, surely there are more exemplary, complimentary stories out there waiting to be told.

The Church Rejected – Young and Wild

If Marta represents the enduring quest for spiritual truth amid an apathetic clergy, Young and Wild (Joven y Alocada) – which won the Sundance World Cinema Screenwriting Award – tells the story of outright rejection of the faith. Shot in Chile, and based on a true story, Young and Wild is about Daniela, a girl in her late teens, who is raised in an evangelical family. Her father, and the members of the church she attends, appear by all outward standards to be sincere, dedicated Christians. But Daniela’s mother is depicted as an image-obsessed, domineering monster. In an act of rebellion, Daniela begins a blog about sexual exploits, and lives in fear of her parents’ discovery.

Daniela knows the Bible. She is able to recite it from memory – more quickly than the Bible quizzers on the show she produces for a local TV station. But she is bored by it all, and often replaces key phrases of a scripture passage with “blah, blah, blah.” She lives out a particularly wanton lifestyle. If this film is ever released in the U.S. it will carry an NC-17 rating. But more troubling than the carnal nature of the film is the flippancy with which its protagonist dismisses the eternal consequences of her actions. Descending some stairs as she steps off a bus, Daniela confesses that she simply wants to be lost.

While Christians might shrink in horror at such a blatant rejection of the Christian faith, I am not sure why we are so concerned with it when it appears on a screen, yet practically ignore it when the same attitude is enacted in the real lives of people all over the globe – many of whom are our family, friends, and neighbors. God does not require me to defend Him against celluloid slander, but He does call all of us to bear witness to the truth in a winsome way (Col. 4:5-6). When people reject that witness, our response should not be horror or revulsion, but concern and prayer. We never know whether God’s grace will transform the life of any individual person, but we do know that He has the power to redeem the worst of sinners. If we are ever in any doubt, those of us who know Christ need only look in the mirror.

The Church Invisible — Middle of Nowhere; The Pact; Beasts of the Southern Wild

All of the preceding films have one feature in common to recommend them. Whether the ultimate outcome is acceptance or rejection of the faith, all are honest enough to include the spiritual as at least a significant component of life. What should be truly stunning, if not alarming, are how many films at Sundance – and in wide-release Hollywood movies as well – act as if there is no spiritual life.

Even George Bailey, after admitting that he is not “a praying man,” lifts his voice to God when the circumstances of his financial life spiral out of control in It’s A Wonderful Life. But neither imprisonment (Middle of Nowhere), supernatural attack (The Pact), or an impending apocalypse (the Sundance Grand Jury Dramatic Prize-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild) can motivate a word of prayer or divine acknowledgement from the lips of the characters who populate these films. It is as if God does not exist in their world.

Films serve as part of a collective cultural consciousness. It is fair to say that they make up a substantial portion of the stories we see and tell one another. Catholic moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues in After Virtue that “characters” – and he includes in that definition those constructed by playwrights – are “representatives of their culture” because they embody, in the world, “moral and metaphysical ideas.” In other words, characters stand as representatives of culture, and depict for us a view of the world as it is (at least in the mind of the filmmaker). These ideas become, through repetition, assumptions. C.S. Lewis comments in The Abolition of Man that it is our incorrect assumptions about the world – those ideas about how the world works that we accept without reflection – that pose the most significant danger. When we consistently see characters in film acting out of the presupposition that no spiritual component of life exists, it telegraphs the assumption that this is a correct, if not the correct, view of the world and the way things work. Ignoring such claims, or refusing to engage their advocates, is to cede the argument.

The Church at Sundance

Some in the Church may balk at the idea of Christians at Sundance. But the role of Christians, as both citizens of God’s Kingdom and as witnesses within our culture, is to confirm ideas that are true, and to winningly confront those ideas which are false. In the same way as every filmmaker at Sundance, Christians should listen and speak. What sets Sundance apart from the normal visit to the multiplex cinemas is that filmmakers present themselves to the audience to answer sometimes challenging questions about their work (I sometimes wish that pastors would do the same after a sermon). Some Christians need to be a part of that cultural conversation, as festival goers, thoughtful critics, and filmmakers, if we are ever to gain a foothold in the visual arts. Movies are the language of this generation. The more fluently we speak, the better reception the truth is bound to receive.

Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieBiblesStudy.com, an organization that provides Bible studies drawn from popular film to help the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman also teaches in the graduate program of School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to marc@movieministry.com.