Saturday, November 8, 2008

Freedom and the Great Hospital

So I am working on a number of things but none of them are ready to post, so it is back to the file. Most of my creative energy has been going into preaching. I post the transcripts here. This post is a bit dated (based on a 2004 film) but it is on topic from my last post so here it is.

Hollywood recently decided that a retelling of the Arthur myth would be profitable. To artistically justify their retelling however, (as I am apt to believe that even the most realistic/cynical artists are apt to do), they placed it a thousand years earlier than its standard context, in the far reaches of the Roman empire, the British Isles. This provided a couple of convenient plot points, most notable, matriarchal Gaelic tribes that could be reconstructed to satisfy our enlightened, contemporary, gender role demands upon our female protagonists (read Kiera Knightly in straps of leather). There was another plot device I found more startling, however. By placing the story in the fifth century isles they were able to make Pelagius the boyhood tutor of Athurius prior to the Pelagius’ travel to Rome. This was an intentional facet of a larger theme in which the movie makers attempted to contrast Arthur’s pagan friendly Christian spirituality to the rigid, domineering, and cowardly spirituality of the Roman center. At one point Arthurius states, somewhat defiantly, somewhat innocently, to a deceitful Roman representative[1] that he particularly respects Pelagius’ views on human freedom.

This sounds very good, very American, very Hollywood – rejecting the orthodoxy required by distant, hypocritical potentates because the idea of freedom is particularly compelling. And who could really be against that?

Here’s the problem. They backed the wrong horse. Pelagianism and the stress on human beings as free moral agents, taken seriously, invariably progresses to a fierce rigorism. It is this sort of thought that spawned the monastic movement that was mocked in the movie. It is thought that by throwing off the divine decree we somehow achieve freedom, in the sense of a liberal self determination. What we actually get is the bondage of unattainable responsibilities. It might be popular to assert that we have all the necessary resources for moral uprightness within ourselves, but it is not an empirically robust assertion under the scrutiny of honest self reflection. It was actually Augustine[2] who paints the picture of freedom and a generous liberality. Augustine, not Pelagius, welcomes the weak and desperate sinners. Alister McGrath summarizes this well “(For Pelagius) Only those who were morally upright could be allowed to enter the church – whereas Augustine, with his concept of fallen human nature, was happy to regard the church as a hospital[3] where fallen humanity could recover and grow gradually in holiness through grace.”[4]
The movie’s message that there is freedom outside of the church, self conscious or not, was clearly articulated. But what they did in the name of freedom and liberality was to champion a position of behavioral rigor and moral exclusivism. I’ll take grace, thank you very much. I’ll take the great messy, tragic hospital that is the church and the physician that will hold my bed while I heal.
[1] Who, incidentally is accompanied by a despicable, cowardly monk who serves no discernable plot purpose and appears to only exist to contrast the bravery of pagans against the sniveling cowardice of orthodox Christianity. I seriously hope that he has several scenes on the cutting room floor to justify his existence beyond the shameless perpetuation of anti-Christian stereotypes.
[2] Augustine and Pelagius staged the most significant doctrinal debate of the 5th century. Pelagius suggested that salvation was attained by acting according the teachings of Christ. Augustine countered that we are not free moral agents but hopelessly broken and in need of a complete salvation that rests only on the grace of God. The Church sided with Augustine. Over 1000 years later the reformers (Calvin and Luther) rediscovered Augustine and found his theology in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
[3] His favorite image of the church.
[4] Christian Theology: An Introduction 375

1 comment:

Kel said...

I also think they like Keira in leather for reasons and less to appeal to feminists :P

I appreciate your putting this movie into historical perspective. It is nice to know what is really going on, as opposed to the spin the movie wants to tell us. (my friend Geoffrey who is a medevial studies major is interesting to watch movies with. he sometimes becomes apopleptic at certain things). Have you ever read Lies Across America? (It's the sequel to Lies my Teacher Told Me). The major point of the book, which goes on to talk about monuments in all 50 states, is that monuments tell you nothing about what actually happened, and everything about the people who erected them and the values of the time it was erected. For example, there is a monument to a confederate soldier in wisconcin. Anyhow, the way the filmmaker tried to reappropriate the topic to try to support his own beliefs about faith and the world is very interesting. I also reccomend The Wordy Shipmates, about the Massachusetts Bay pilgrims. I think you'd like Roger Williams. I just love her writing. Just in case you haven't picked something out for in flight entertainment.