How Catholic is Of Gods and Men?
Religious identity in the story of the monks of Tibhirine
From a series of National Catholic Register blog posts
By Steven D. Greydanus
Has any dramatic feature film ever more powerfully communicated the beauty and attractiveness of lived Christian faith, and of the Christian faith itself, than Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men?
At the very least, Of Gods and Men explores the the Christian ideal, in its theological and liturgical richness and specificity as well as its distinctive praxis, more memorably and appealingly than any such film I can think of in up to a quarter century.
That’s a strong statement, but I believe it’s accurate. Am I forgetting anything? I can’t think what.
(Into Great Silence is not a drama, and while there’s plenty of liturgy, theology is minimal. The Passion of the Christ is about Christ, not lived Christian faith. The Russian film Ostrov (The Island) is a haunting portrait of Orthodox monastic spirituality, though its otherworldliness is less accessible than the world of the Tibhirine monks. Other possible contenders include The Ninth Day, Sophie Scholl, Dead Man Walking, and, going back a quarter century, The Mission. Still, Of Gods and Men seems to me unique.)
Clearly, I’m about as excited about this film as I get about film, which is a lot. I understand why some viewers might have questions, though. In the combox for my review at NCRegister.com, a reader asks:
I heard that some traditionalist critics do not like the film because it seems to endorse the heresy of indifferentism (that it does not matter what religion one is) or subjectivism. In light of what you said about the Quran being on the Abbot’s desk, do you have an opinion about this? Did the original monks make any attempt to introduce their neighbors to Christ? Perhaps you will say that they did through their example, but I mean, did they seem to think Islam was just as good as Christianity? A positive depiction of evangelization would be delightfully politically incorrect these days.
Does Of Gods and Men endorse religious indifferentism? I don’t think that’s accurate, no. It would be fair to say that it doesn’t explicitly affirm Christianity as the one true faith, and that it embraces the better side of Islam, at one point enough to raise pious eyebrows. (More about this later.)
Of Gods and Men is exceptional in offering a portrait of lived Christianity that is wholly positive. In many films of outstanding religious significance, from The Mission to A Man for All Seasons to The Passion of Joan of Arc, saintly heroes are contrasted with or pitted against a corrupt or coopted hierarchy. Of Gods and Men stands out for focuses solely on Christian devotion, community and service at its most beautiful and winsome.
Muslim belief is much more briefly and ambiguously treated. We see peaceful Muslim villagers coexisting with Christians, but also violent Muslim extremists — and it’s the latter who ultimately have the upper hand here. Notably, both peaceful and violent Muslims cite the Quran (more accurately, the peaceful Muslims paraphrase or generalize from the Quran, while the terrorist leader, Ali Fayattia, recognizes a specific text Christian quotes to him and completes the quotation).
Cinematically, it is fair to say that Christianity and Islam are not on an equivalent footing here. One could say the film is Christocentric, or at least Christianity-centric, and that it offers a critique of the darker side of Islam and Muslim culture with no corresponding critique of Christianity. There’s an aside critiquing the legacy of Western imperialism, but nothing directed against Christian believers per se.
At the same time, there is a challenge to Christians, in that the Christian spirit celebrated here is an irenic one, embracing non-Christians of good will and appreciating whatever is good and true in non-Christian religions, including Islam. The monks of Tibhirine emphasize that they are called to be “brothers to all,” and they stake their lives on this mission, knowing that they are likely to lose them. For American Catholics half a world away, risking nothing, it’s easy to label Muslims enemies by pointing to 9/11 and other terrorist violence. Of Gods and Men challenges this attitude, as we will see.
A Love Even Greater
Does Of Gods and Men portray the Tibhirine monks evangelizing their Muslim neighbors? Not directly, certainly. Trappist monks generally don’t engage in direct evangelization. It’s true, as noted by my correspondent (see Part 1), that a positive depiction of evangelization would be strikingly countercultural, but we mustn’t substitute ideas for a film we would like to see for criticism of an actual film. What a film might have done may provide an interesting point of comparison or contrast, but in the end a film stands or falls what it does, not what it might have done.
If a film is based on a true story (or even a fictional story) that we care about, then fidelity to the source material may be an important point of comparison or contrast to us. In that connection, while Of Gods and Men only loosely follows the events in the last years of the monks at Tibhirine, with respect to evangelization and the unique truth-claims of Christianity Of Gods and Men is probably a reasonably fair record of the monks’ behavior and attitudes.
It should be noted that the film features no major Muslim characters, and focuses on the monks, not Muslim–Christian dialogue, so it’s not like we see the monks passing on lots of opportunities to evangelize. For the most part the monks’ brief interactions with Muslims involve either serving their neighbors with medical, charitable and other forms of aid, or confrontations with government or military authorities as well as terrorists.
There is some discussion with the local villagers about Muslim atrocities against both Christians and Muslims. The villagers, horrified by a deadly attack on Christians in their community, express their incomprehension at those who kill in the name of Islam. “God says in the Quran: You kill your brother, you go to hell,” one says to Dom Christian, adding that the terrorists “say they’re religious. They’ve never read the Quran. In the Quran, it’s written down.”
This is too glib — and we’ve seen that the film shows us that it is untrue; terrorists may indeed know the Quran and may even be able to finish a quotation. Even so, had I been in Christian’s place, I probably wouldn’t have taken that opportunity to contest the point with the horrified villagers; and I don’t blame Christian, or the film, for not cross-examining the villagers in this moment of crisis.
That doesn’t mean Of Gods and Men gives the monks no opportunity whatsoever to bear witness in words to their faith. When terrorists break into the monastery on Christmas Eve, Christian goes out of his way to tell them that “tonight is different from other nights” because on this night the monks “celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace … Sidna Aïssa” (Arabic for “our Lord Jesus”). While Muslims understand these titles differently, in a Christian context they attest Jesus as more than a prophet, as our God and Savior. It’s also worth noting that by invoking “the Prince of Peace” to men of violence who have just been holding him and his brothers at gunpoint, Christian obliquely but unmistakably rebukes them for their violent ways.
There is also a touching, low-key exchange between Brother Luc and a teenaged Muslim girl who asks him whether he has ever been in love. “Several times, yes,” Luc acknowledges, “and then I encountered another love, even greater. And I answered that love. It’s been a while now — over 60 years.”
This way of talking is characteristically Christian — particularly in the context of Luc’s religious vocation, as Islam has no religious orders or consecrated celibacy. Muslims don’t “answer” the love of Allah in this way by giving their lives and renouncing marital love. Although Muslims certainly talk about Allah’s love and love of Allah, divine love is more central to Christian thought and spirituality — above all because of the dogma of the Holy Trinity, by which we understand in the unparalleled Johannine phrase that “God is love”; because of Jesus’ divine Sonship, revealing God as Father and enabling Christians to understand our relationship to God above all in terms of generation, adoption, filial relations. Islam emphatically denies that God is a Father or that He has begotten a Son, and the characteristic image for the believer’s relationship to God is not that of sons, but of servants. (Christians also use the language of servanthood, but subordinate to the language of sonship.)
These are only scraps, but notable scraps, particularly given the comparatively little religious dialogue between Muslims and Christians in the film. For the most part, the film focuses on the inner and communal lives of the monks — and it is here the film most powerfully bears witness to the uniqueness of the Christian faith.
By Taking Flesh of Our Flesh
The Incarnation is a major theme in the film, from the crucial Christmas Eve celebration with its hymnody to Christian’s theological discourse toward the end of the film. Here is an excerpt from a hymn the monks sing, which we also hear a monk singing to himself while preparing for the Christmas Eve liturgy:
This is the night
The immense night of origins
And nothing exists except love
Except love which now begins…
God has prepared the earth like a cradle
For his coming from above.
This is the night
The happy night of Palestine
And nothing exists except the Child
Except the Child of life divine
By taking flesh of our flesh
God our desert did refresh
And made a land of boundless spring.
Later, referring back to that Christmas Eve celebration, Christian offers these extraordinary thoughts:
We welcomed that Child who was born for us, absolutely helpless, and and already so threatened. Afterwards we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks: the kitchen, garden, the prayers, the bells. Day after day. We had to resist the violence. And day after day, I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. It’s to be born. Our identities as men go from one birth to another. And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are. The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity. The mystery of Incarnation remains what we are going to live.
Islam cannot accept this. God “taking flesh of our flesh” and “coming from above” to the “earth like a cradle” is blasphemy to Muslims. The “filial reality of Jesus” that reveals God as Father is emphatically rejected by the Quran, which denies over and over that God is a Father Who has begotten a Son. If Christian’s faith is true, then to that extent Islam is in error. The film doesn’t press this point home, but the divine truths are there, and those with ears can hear.
There are other scenes and lines that could be discussed here, such as Christian’s discussion with Christophe about the meaning of priesthood and monastic life. The most relevant bit, though, is also the most challenging, and it is there that we next turn.
Illuminated in the Glory of Christ
Of Gods and Men concludes, very nearly, with excerpts from the real Dom Christian’s spiritual testament, a meditation in which the abbot of Tibhirine reflects on the possibility of his eventual murder. Here, in part, is how it is quoted in the film:
I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for people here indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who called me naive or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank-you, which encompasses my entire life, includes you, of course friends of yesterday and today and you too, friend of the last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank-you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insh’allah!
In this extraordinary document are an astonishing Christian spirit and an irenicism toward Islam that is startling and challenging. Is it too irenic — the “false irenicism” warned against by Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis and the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism?
Some Christians may be put off by Christian’s reference to God, at the end, as “Allah.” Allah is the standard Arabic name for God used by Arabic-speaking Christians from before Muhammad’s time to today. While it wouldn’t be appropriate for non-Arabic-speaking Christians to adopt “Allah” as a name for God, in the immediate context of Christian addressing his potential Muslim assassin as a brother whom he hopes to see in paradise, it seems appropriate enough.
Yet how can a Christian speak of a country and Islam as “a body and a soul”? What does he mean by God’s “children of Islam”? If anything in Of Gods and Men raises questions about indifferentism, it’s this meditation, which, again, comes from the real Christian.
Complicating matters, Christian’s comments have been abridged, and some helpful clarifying context has been omitted. Here are excerpts of some of the affected passages, taken from an online source (PDF) helpfully pointed out by Victor Morton:
I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages. It is too easy to salve one’s conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received from it, finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel, learnt at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, already in Algeria itself, in the respect of believing Muslims … This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills — immerse my gaze in that of the Father, and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His Passion, and filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in the differences. … And also you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, I also say this THANK YOU and this A-DIEU to you, in whom I see the face of God. And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen. In sha ‘Allah.
In unpacking these lines, a few things are worth bearing in mind. First, we are reading a translation of a handwritten document, and the author’s meaning may at times be unclear or obscured by translation issues. (For example, does Christian write that the Spirit’s secret joy is “to establish communion and to refashion the likeness” among different peoples while “playfully delighting in the differences” — or (following the translation in John Kiser’s book The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror) “to bring forth our common humanity amidst our differences”? The difference is not trivial.)
Ultimately, though, the critical question for the film is what the film presents, not what it doesn’t. If the filmmakers omitted something, then that choice to omit it may be more relevant than the fact that Christian wrote it in the first place.
Still, it helps to see that, for Christian, to be God’s children means to be “illuminated in the glory of Christ, sharing in the gift of God’s Passion and of the Spirit,” and that even Muslims who reject God’s Passion may nevertheless unknowingly share in it. This seems to be consistent with the Church’s understanding regarding the possibility of non-Christians being saved through implicit baptism of desire expressed by the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith in the 1940s in response to Fr. Leonard Feeney, and by Lumen Gentium and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
It’s also helpful, at least to an extent, to see clearly that the image of Algeria and Islam as “a body and a soul” is connected, for Christian, with the goodness and “strand” of the Gospel that he has experienced among believing Muslims — and that it is pitted against the stereotype of Islam as a violent terrorist creed. In other words, he seems to be saying that Islam as he has experienced it among believing Algerians represents love of God and of neighbor, and that far from a force of death and hate, it is a force for life or goodness. While this isn’t language I can imagine myself using, Christian’s manner of life and death have earned him the right, as I see it, to challenge me, to push the limits of my comfort zone.
What about Christian’s comments about “the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages”? While I’m no Islamic scholar, I’m inclined to go along with the noted Egyptian Catholic Islamic scholar Samir Khalil Samir, S.J., author of 111 Questions on Islam: Samir Khalil Samir on Islam and the West, who contends that Islam is neither inherently a “religion of peace” nor inherently a “religion of hate.” Rather, the Quran and the tenets of Islam are sufficiently open to interpretation and dispute that Muslims of both violent and peaceable persuasions may reasonably find support for their views in the sacred texts. Neither interpretation of Islam is normative or a distortion of the other.
Thus, the common politically correct rhetoric about terrorists “hijacking Islam” seem to me dubious. On the other hand, just because Islam doesn’t have to be caricatured in order to be violent doesn’t mean that Islam can’t be caricatured at all, or that there are no distortions of Islam among terrorists. Radical Muslim clerics may hold violent views that they can credibly defend on the basis of the Quran and hadith, and may justify terrorist actions, but it’s hardly likely that the actual views of most or all suicide bombers and cave-dwelling al-Queda lackeys are as well-informed or critically defensible as those of the clerics. (The recent British black comedy Four Lions offers a scathingly satiric, cynical look at a cell of incredibly stupid, self-destructive jihadis in Britain; the content is so extreme that I can’t exactly recommend the film, but it’s an astonishingly brave and in some ways truthful film.) Very likely caricatured Islamic teaching is quite common among terrorists, even if it isn’t necessary to caricature Islam in order to affirm terrorism.
Does the film’s abridgment of Christian’s spiritual testament fundamentally change or water down his message? I don’t think it changes it. Even before I discovered the longer text in Kiser’s book, it seemed to me that the words in the film were probably meant to bear a sense like what I have explicated above. I’m grateful for the longer text, but I didn’t need it; in the context of the whole film the shorter text is clear enough to me.
Do the edits water down Christian’s message? They certainly leave out some helpful context. I see no reason to suppose ill will or bias. Viewed from the filmmakers’ perspective, it’s not hard to suppose that they made the edits basically for length, focusing on the bits they found most essential to their purpose. Their purpose is not what ours might have been, and the result is a text with less to challenge secular viewers and less to reaffirm Catholic viewers.
Even so, Of Gods and Men is such strong drink, and the challenge to secular viewers is already so substantial, that to me this is scarcely more than a footnote. Here is a critically acclaimed, award-winning film, not made by believers for believers, that asks audiences to deal with lines like “The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity” and “The apostle’s weakness is like Christ’s, rooted in the mystery of Easter and the strength of the Spirit,” just for starters. I have a hard time imagining many receptive indifferentists watching this film and being comfortably confirmed in their indifferentism. While I can imagine a version of the film more clearly opposed to indifferentism, I suspect such a version of the film, however much it would be preferred by the devout, would be of less or no interest to anyone else. This would be contrary to monks’ own self-understanding and mission, which was dedicated to reaching out in love across divisions.
G. K. Chesterton begins his brief volume on St. Francis of Assisi by noting that St. Francis is something of a paradox for moderns, partly appealing to modern liberal instincts and partly repelling them. Francis’s secular admirers, Chesterton says, are inclined to celebrate only the bits of Francis they instinctively admire and ignore or dismiss the rest, his religious admirers might be tempted to defiantly celebrate only his unfashionable religiosity while ignoring all that makes him appealing to the modern mind. Chesterton argued that neither approach was viable — that the only way forward was to begin with what was accessible in Francis and use that to cast some light on the unfashionable religious side, and try to offer some insight into how the two are not opposed but integrally related.
Of Gods and Men seems to me to do precisely this to a remarkable degree, in the process challenging both Christian and secular viewers. The monks here are not politically minded doves or syncretists, nor are they evangelists or critics of Islam. They are theologically specific Christians living a location of contemplative prayer, service and love of neighbor reaching across religious and cultural divisions. They are a sign of peace in a world of violence.
The Disciple is Not Above His Master
In response to the above reflections, a reader expressed concerns about the filmmakers editing Christian’s testament to eliminate references to Jesus Christ. Another expressed doubts regarding the extent to which the monks’ conversations, including their debates about whether or not to remain in Algeria, made reference to Jesus, God or spiritual considerations. Other readers have written to me with related questions and misgivings, though to be fair I’ve also heard from many deeply appreciative viewers of the film.
To an extent some of these questions are startling to me, partly since I already documented Christian’s magnificent Incarnational discourse in which he talks about “welcoming the Child” at Christmas, adding in part, “The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity. The mystery of Incarnation remains what we are going to live.”
To this crowning example can be added numerous additional spiritually and theologically fraught lines — including specifically Christological references specifically on the subject mentioned above, whether or not to stay in Algeria.
For example, one of the monks defends his vote to say this way: “The Good Shepherd doesn’t abandon his flock to the wolves.”
Another, citing the words of Jesus, says, “The disciple is not above his master. This is no time for me to stray. Let God set the table here.”
Amédée’s contribution to the debate is notable: “I don’t know yet,” he says; “We need to think, and pray together.” Christian agrees, adding, “Help will come from the Lord” — and the monks automatically add, “Who made heaven and earth.”
Later, Christian concludes, “Wildflowers don’t move to find the sun’s rays. God makes them fecund wherever they are.”
To one of the brothers struggling with doubts and even with the notion of leaving the community, Christian appeals to the imitatio Christi and to the vows that bind them together: “You’ve already given your life. You gave it by following Christ. When you decided to leave everything. Your life, your family, your country. The family you could have raised.”
Then there’s Luc’s testimony in a letter, in the actual words of the monk: “We are in a high-risk situation, but we persist in our faith and our confidence in God. It is through poverty, failure and death that we advance towards Him ... Dear friend, pray for me that my leaving this world will pass in peace and joy of Jesus.”
There’s Christophe’s struggle with the sense of God’s absence, which surely implies that God is the central reference point in his life — and his serene awareness of God’s return: “You. You envelop me, hold me, surround me. You embrace me. And I love you.”
Finally, consider Christian’s spiritual testament, considered in detail above. Even as edited for the film (edits, I submit, made basically for length, even if one might wish for different edits), the film still reports Christian alluding to Jesus’ passion and death in contemplating the possibility of his own murder: “The the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure.” And in referring to God twice as “Father” Christian expresses a filial sensibility toward God that is both Christian and Christological.
In addition to all this are wordless gestures that explicitly attest Christian faith and spirituality, the most touching of which is the image mentioned in my review, far more powerful than words, of Luc pressing his head to the Savior’s side in the mural on the wall. Another is Christian’s prayer for the terrorist leader, both an obviously theological act and one that is uniquely Christian — only Christianity teaches us to love and pray for our enemies.
I don’t know how much more theologically and Christologically fraught the spare dialogue could possibly be — it’s not a very talky film. (By my count, according to the online source I’ve been using, the film has fewer than 5000 words total, quite low for a movie script. If we count only the dialogue, omitting liturgical and other readings (including a reading from a newspaper sports column), the word count drops to under 3700; eliminate dialogue from Muslim characters, and the count drops further still. In fact, in terms of actual substantial dialogue amongst the monks, including their writings, I count fewer than 2000 words total. As a point of comparison, my review of the film is 1400 words!)
Let us Greet the One Who Sacrificed Himself
Finally, in addition to the spontaneous words and actions of the monks, the rich and frequent scenes of prayers, hymns and liturgy, an integral part of the fabric of the film, contributes enormously to the depiction of the monks’ Catholic milieu, their beliefs and spirituality.
We’ve already seen the immense significance accorded to Christmas in a crucial early sequence, with its Christmas hymn recounting how “God has prepared the earth like a cradle / For his coming from above” as “the Child of life divine,” “taking flesh of our flesh,” etc. Later in that sequence, we see the monks tenderly place a manger holding the Christ child in the creche they have set up.
I’ve also cited lines like “Recognizing my weaknesses, I accept those of others. I can bear them, make them mine, in imitation of Christ … The apostle’s weakness is like Christ’s, rooted in the mystery of Easter and the strength of the Spirit.”
Here’s another notable excerpt from the monks’ worship, redolent with powerful passion, resurrection, Eucharistic and Trinitarian language:
Let us turn to the Man of Sorrows
Who beckons us from the cross
Because He is with us as on Easter morn.
Let us not forget the blood He shed.
Let us break the bread
Let us drink from the chalice of passage
Let us greet the One who sacrificed Himself.
By loving us until the end
Through Him, with Him and in Him
You shall receive, Almighty Father
In the unity of the Holy Spirit
All glory and honor,
Forever and ever.
The eucharistic language is reinforced by an actual communion scene in which we hear the repeated words “The body of Christ.” (There is also an important climactic “Last Supper” scene, though the Eucharistic overtones are subtextual, not explicit.)
We hear excerpts from the liturgy of the hours:
Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth will proclaim your praise …
Save us, Lord, while we are awake,
guard us while we are asleep;
that, awake, we may watch with Christ,
and, asleep, may rest in His peace.
Scriptural texts include a chanted Psalm 143 (“Enter not into judgement with your servant / For no man living is righteous before You…”) and a reading from Luke 17 (“On that night two people shall be in one bed; one shall be taken, the other left”), followed by “The Gospel of the Lord — Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” God is hailed as “Father of light, eternal light and source of all light,” who “seeks the prodigal son.”
After all this, what more can I say?
There are not many outstanding films — I could probably count them on the fingers of one hand — of which I could say to an inquirer, “You want to know what it means to be a Christian? You want to know what following Jesus is all about? Watch this film.” Of Gods and Men is one of the few, and one of the best.
Could it say more? Can one take exception to Christian’s perspective in one regard or another? Well, of course. The Tibhirine monks are men, not gods, and the film isn’t the Bible, or the Catechism, or the Mass.
Then again, we need more than the Bible, the Catechism and the Mass. We need works of art — stories and images, books and films — that make the good, the true and the beautiful alive to our imaginations and senses, that offer persuasive and inspiring human examples of lived faith. We need films like Of Gods and Men.
I don’t necessarily accept or agree with everything I read in, say, St. Alphonsus Liguori, or St. Francis de Sales. (The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ and Introduction to the Devout Life are not the Bible, the Catechism or the Mass.) My issues, moreover, may not be trivial; they may be worth noting. I would be a fool, though, to allow such issues to deprive me of benefiting, with deep appreciation and gratitude, from the immense riches of their spiritual insights and holy example.
There are immense riches in Of Gods and Men. I am deeply grateful for it. Already it’s become a hugely important film to me — one that I expect to revisit again and again, with great benefit, for as long as I continue to watch movies.