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Nourishing Faith Through Fiction: Reflections of the Apostles’ Creed in Literature and Film – John R. May

September 23, 2015

NFFilms can be a form of meditation, so the author starts out by quoting: Knowing the entire Bible by heart, and understanding it so well that you can explain every single verse, is of little use to you, unless the biblical Word penetrates your innermost being, as the rain penetrates the tiniest roots of a tree in order to rise and to fill the whole tree and to bring forth leaves and fruit.

My dear friends, how often do we fall into this very error when we read the Scriptures! We grasp what we read with our minds alone and then let it pass as hard soil lets pass a light rain. Let us employ this [time] not to explain the text, . . . but to grasp it and use it as did the woman in the parable of our Lord who took a leaven and worked it into the dough until it was completely leavened. We will ask God to work his Word into our hearts, into our lives, until they are all filled with it. – Emil Brunner, Sowing and Reaping

And: The novelist Walker Percy was, in my opin­ion, one hundred percent correct when, in an essay on Herman Melville, he commented on the matter of artistic communication: “Lonely as is the craft of writing, it is the most social of vocations. No matter what the writer may say, the work is always written to someone, for someone, against someone.”

It’s a shame, however, that he corals all the films to fit in with the creed. There’s a wider spirituality around which he could relate to. He fits the following into his scheme: Part I: Stories of the Creator

God the Caring Father: Personal Sense of Belonging: The Member of the Wedding, Cosmic Sense of Belonging Stagecoach, La Strada, Grand Canyon;

The Provident Creator: Shared Dominion under God: The Grapes of Wrath, On the Waterfront, Sounder, Norma Rae, Places in the Heart ;

Stewardship Limited by Mortality: Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment;

Stewardship Hindered by Sin: All About Eve, All the King’s Men, East of Eden, Ordinary People;

Structures of Sin: Depleting Natural and Human Resources: Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, The Mission, Slaughterhouse-Five,:

Responses to the Goodness of Creation Wonder and Gratitude: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Empire of the Sun, The Right Stuff;

Stories of the Savior – Representations of Jesus and Stories of the Savior: Jesus of Montreal, The King of Kings, Jesus of Nazareth, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell;

Stories of the Lifegiver: It’s a Wonderful Life, Leap of Faith, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Auntie Mame, Star Wars, Life Is Beautiful:

Holy Catholic Church: Life-Giving Rituals: It Happened One Night, Bull Durham, The Wizard of Oz, The Mission, Mass Appeal, Keeping the Faith, Saving Grace, When Harry Met Sally, Tomorrow, As Good As It Gets, The Lion King:

Communion of Saints: Here and Hereafter: The Grapes of Wrath, On the Waterfront, Places in the Heart, Witness, Alice’s Restaurant,

Forgiveness of Sins: Personal Transformation The Parable of the Prodigal Son: The Godfather: Part III, Dead Man Walking, Grand Canyon, The African Queen, The Searchers, Tender Mercies, As Good As It Gets;

Resurrection of the Body: Hope Confirmed: Resurrection;

Life Everlasting: Reflections of Fundamental Hope: Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition, Nashville, Gone With the Wind;

Conclusion: Tomorrow Comes: Les Miserables.


Huston Smith, in The Religions of Man, says that all the major world religions strive to answer three fundamental questions: Is the universe experienced as benign, indifferent, or malignant? Is salvation a matter of the head or the heart? Is it gained alone or with others? These are, as a matter of fact, the basic questions that the three parts of the book will seek in succession to explore fictional responses to—visions of the world in novels, plays, short stories, and movies that correspond to Christianity’s distinctive answers in the worldview of the Apostles’ Creed.

The purpose in the book is to share “an understanding of the meaning of the fundamental truths of the Christian faith for us,’

“appreciation of the Christian dimensions of literature and film”

There is an extraordi­nary passage in T. S. Eliot’s classic essay on “Religion and Literature” that speaks with clarity and precision about the power of literature (the same obviously can be said of film):

If we, as readers, keep our religious and moral convictions in a compart­ment, and take our reading merely for entertainment, or on a higher plane, for aesthetic pleasure, I would point out that the author, whatever his conscious intentions in writing, in practice recognizes no such dis­tinctions. The author of a work of imagination is trying to affect us wholly, as human beings, whether he knows it or not; and we are affected by it, as human beings, whether we intend to be or not. I sup­ipose that everything we eat has some other effect upon us than merely the pleasure of taste and mastication; it affects us during the process of assimilation and digestion; and I believe that exactly the same is true of anything we read (from Essays Ancient and Modern).

The power of film to affect us has been described more recently, but just as forcefully by the critic Roger Angell: Movies are felt by the audience long before they are “understood.” Going to the movies, in fact, is not an intellectual process most of the time but an emotional one. Any serious, well-made movie we see seems to wash over us there in the dark, bathing us in feelings and suggestions, and imparting a deep or light tinge of meaning that stays with us, sometimes for life.

In the final analysis, I will feel that I have achieved my purpose if I have shown to my readers’ satisfaction how literature and film can contribute to the growth of our Christian faith. I hope to show the folly, as well, of thinking that “secular” culture is devoid of religious significance.

All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the rise and fall of an American demagogue, more than reminiscent of Louisiana’s Huey Long, is also about the fall and its consequences, and as such it is surely a story of the creature, if not of the Creator. Warren’s work is one of the masterpieces of modern American literature and deserves to be read, but the story is perhaps more accessible as adapted for the screen by Robert Rossen. Even though the film necessarily pales by comparison with Warren’s complex novel, it is a powerful and justly hon­ored work of art, winning three major Academy Awards—best picture, best actor (Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark), and best supporting actress (Mercedes McCambridge as Willie’s mistress, Sadie).

In a tightly-crafted script, Rossen makes Willie the focus of dramatic attention, but filters his story through the viewpoint of Jack Burden, the novel’s narrator. Aristocratic Jack Burden, a journalist sent to cover the political career of an opportunistic rural populist, is gradually drawn into the inner circles of power as events conspire to catapult Willie Stark into the State House. The thematic focus of the film as of the novel is on the “knowledge that kills”: astute politician that he is, Willie is convinced that if you dig deeply enough, you can discover the dirt on anyone. “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption,” he insists; find the secret sin in a person’s past and he becomes your pawn. When Willie orders Jack to discover “the dirt” on Judge Stanton, leader of the movement to have Willie impeached, the implied Humpty Dumpty of the title begins his fall from the wall of tyranny. About to be exposed, the judge takes his life; over his body stand Ann and Adam (his niece and nephew), Jack, and Willie. All gazes are on Willie at the heart of the frame, as at the center of a spider web—the novel’s image for our human complicity in evil, and as fine an analogue for original sin as fiction has to offer.

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