There Will Be Blood: Christianity in Film Shouldn’t Be About Miracles

[THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.]

While I grew up in a Christian household and still consider myself a Christian, I am also an artist, and I often find myself having to choose between my faith and creating art that is meaningful to me. I was urged to watch Christian films growing up, so I have seem my fair share of films like Fireproof and Ring the Bell, which often featured a protagonist who, by the end of the film, either had their life saved by a God-induced miracle, was brought to salvation in Christ by an intensely loving group of Christians, or some combination of the two. Partially as a result of this, I grew up believing there was a natural progression to faith where a sinner would break free of their temptation and fall in love with God forevermore. Of course, I knew I would never be completely free of temptation and sin, but with God by my side, I could overcome it all. When, inevitably, that did not come true in my own life, I began to question what the Christian faith was all about.

What I realized, as I got older, was that the influence of these films was, more often than not, negative, especially when it came to demonstrating the Christian faith to children. Rather than exploring the difficult realities of constantly pursuing God, they showed a world where Christians always overcame adversity and were the better for it. Thus, when I started recognizing the mistakes I was making–and kept making those mistakes–I began to wonder if I was even cut out to be a Christian.

This was reflected in the stories and screenplays I wrote throughout my youth. These compositions often worried my parents as they were often centered around death. This was not the beautiful death of an already saved Christian but, rather, contemplated what it meant to be die not having done anything good. They would often tell me to write something happier, but what I never told them was that these works were a reflection on unanswered questions I had about Christianity. To be clear, this is not meant to be a poor reflection on my parents, but instead, a representation of their experience with a distilled version of Christianity. Besides my parents, there are many Christians that are not open to Christian art that does not adhere to the Christian image of a desirable salvation and pleasant path to eternity. Art that does not conform to these rules is often shunned as sacrilegious or blasphemous, but instead of outrightly rejecting it, Christians should first view this art from a different perspective. At the very least, it is a way to understand how the world sees Christians and what Christians can do to change negative perceptions of themselves, but in addition to that, some of these works do a great job of presenting and analyzing the realities and struggles of the Christian faith. All Christians (and all people) have faults, but the more we try to present ourselves as perfect and others as imperfect, the more we will be chastised for our imperfection and our hypocritical rejection of others who do not abide by our standards.

Admittedly, my favorite film, There Will Be Blood, deals with this topic. It is written off by many as anti-Christian, but in my opinion, it does not reject the religion but the façade behind which many Christians hide. I’m not going to pretend that the film’s director is Christian, but if you seriously examine the film, it is clear that what he is not critiquing Christianity as a whole but Christians who tout their faith, only to abandon it when it becomes convenient to their livelihood.

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This idea is embodied by Paul Dano’s character, Eli Sunday, the pastor at the Church of the Third Revelation. His sermons are dramatic demonstrations of miracles and salvation. During one service, in order to rid an elderly woman of her arthritis, he touches the sides of her face and whispers for the ghost to leave. This quickly escalates to him yelling at the demon, “As long as I have teeth, I will bite you, and if I have no teeth, I will gum you!” The film’s main character and Eli’s foil, Daniel Plainview, watches skeptically, later saying to Eli, “That was one goddamn helluva show.”

In contrast to Eli, Plainview is an openly self-involved man. As he states in the film (and as can be seen in the featured image/GIF), he often sees “nothing worth liking” in other people, including his adopted son, H.W., who he uses more as a tool to convince others to sell him land on which he can drill for oil. It is obvious that Plainview is not a good man, but while Eli has questionable methods, some viewers might perceive his actions as well-meaning, if misguided. What Plainview has that Eli does not, however, is transparency about who he is, and while that does not make him a better person, it makes him–in an unfortunate way–more respectable. At the end of the film, when Eli approaches Plainview about helping him out of a rut, Plainview forces him to say that he is “a false prophet” and “God is a superstition,” demonstrating that all along it was power and wealth that motivated Eli rather than his love for the gospel.

I recently showed the film to a Christian friend of mine, who enjoyed the film but was concerned about how to perceive evangelicals after watching it.  He had recently read a book that had told stories about the lives and practices of various evangelicals and told me that many of the things described in the book were similar to the things acted out by Eli Sunday in the film. The question he posed was interesting: is it inherently wrong to share the gospel the way that Eli does?

In my opinion, the answer is no. While people need to be careful about the way they interpret the gospel–and while many of the things Eli does are wrong–what the film is telling us to do is examine the person behind the mask. What are their intentions and to what are they actually committed? Is it what they are preaching and the people they are preaching to or themselves? And if it is the latter, how can they be seen as better than a man like Daniel Plainview?

Films like these are not meant to suggest that Christianity and all its followers are constantly doing wrong, and neither are they in support of Christianity. However, just because they do not necessarily portray the religion a completely positive light, does not mean that they should be written off as anti-Christian. I am not suggesting that Christians should add these films to an anthology of Christian media, but rather that films and other works of art like this one deserve to be watched closely by the Christian community, so we can examine how these critiques can better Christians and, by extension, Christianity as a whole.

Post-Script: While I won’t write extensively on it, another good work that is great to view from a critical perspective is Paolo Sorrentino’s limited series The Young Pope. It tells an eccentric story of a young American who becomes Pope and how his unconventional approach to the position opens the eyes of those working inside the Vatican.

 

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Na sheldanou & Other Words in Czech

Czech Books

The two week, intensive Czech language course I have to take for my study abroad program started this week. Before coming here, I always joked about having to take this class because I had no idea what I would do with my knowledge of Czech, but now that I’m learning it, I’ve fallen in love with the language. Part of it, I think, has to do with the way I misinterpreted Czech culture. I imagined them as brash people, but in reality, they’re quiet and private but, generally, quite nice. And they truly appreciate people putting in the time to learn their language, which really helps to encourage you through the struggle.

Unlike my time learning Spanish, I’m actually getting to be immersed in the language by being in a country surrounded by the people who speak it, and in this context, I’ve realized that learning a language is a lot like learning to act.

New words in a language are like looking at a script for the first time. You have to fully understand what it is you’re trying to say, and you have to become confident in your ability to remember those words and express them the way they need to be expressed. For example, we were sent out yesterday by our wonderful Czech teacher, Luděk, to ask for directions to certain streets. We were supposed to pick up on directional words, such as “rovně” (straight) or “doprava” (right), and then respond by saying, “Aha, takže…” and then repeat what they had told us.

I was so unsure of myself going in that I just walked past tons of Czech people without asking them for directions. Every time I considered approaching someone, I would suddenly forget the words, “Promiňte prosím vás” (Excuse me, please) or “Kde je…?” (where is insert street name here?). When you think of speaking in Czech to real Czech people, you become self conscious in the same way you might having to try and express certain emotions or give specific intonations to lines from a script.

It takes a lot of time to really become comfortable with the phrases you’re using in new languages and being confident that you’re pronouncing them correctly or using them in the right contexts, but as it is with acting (and really everything in life), practice makes pretty darn close to perfect.

My roommate and I went back to Kozlovna today for lunch where we made a weak (though it was a lot of effort on our part) attempt to order and communicate with the waiters and waitress in Czech. They were extremely kind about it. They smiled, fixed our pronunciation, and told us the Czech terms for words we only knew in English. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had so far in my stay here.

Here’s my advice from my experience so far: For any one who is trying to learn a new language, I would highly suggest finding an environment in which you can comfortably practice speaking that language with someone who knows it well and will, gently, correct you when you make mistakes. You’ll always be uncomfortable for the first bit of learning something new, but unless you struggle through the awkwardness and the fear, you’ll never get better at it.

What’s also great is giving yourself the opportunity to see that language used in a practical sense. I always hated learning languages in grade school, but I think that had a lot to do with the fact that I never saw how they could be useful to me. Being in a situation in which you need to use a language you’re learning can help you fall in love with it–or at least appreciate it a little bit more.

Find more pictures of my travels in Prague here. (I’ll be updating the album until I leave the country.)

Let Me Tell You A Story

Once There Was A Little Girl

Once there was a little girl from the Southern United States, and one day, she realized that at some point in her life, she was going to have to decide to be something. So she started to search. How do you decide what to be? she wondered. Money was important. This much she knew. So she searched online high-paying professions, though in more words because she wasn’t yet sure what such “being” was called. A veterinarian, she decided. This is what I should be. She liked animals. (They were cute.) And it made her sad when they were hurt. So why not be the person who fixed them? But one day, she accidentally caught a glimpse of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and decided that being any sort of doctor was too gruesome for her (but again, not using such a big word).

Now this little girl’s favorite uncle was an author and illustrator of children’s book, and he was her favorite because he was cool and would draw her pictures and sneakily put her name and her cousins’ into his books. I like drawing, too, the little girl thought when her uncle came over once. Maybe I should be an author and illustrator like my uncleSo she tried this too. Her art teacher at school taught her basic book binding and she would write stories and draw pictures. But she never seemed to have the patience to finish these stories or pictures enough to develop her craft, and soon this pursuit was dropped as well.

Much of the little girl’s life continued like this. She thought about many professions, including news anchoring, website designing, and being the lead singer of an alternative rock band (which was eventually discarded as a result of her waning interest in alternative rock). It wasn’t until early high school that the little girl found what she really wanted to be–this time knowing to call it profession.

She had another uncle–one who had married into the family and who she also deemed “cool.” Unlike her other uncle, this one was pursuing the profession of authoring books for adults, but he also had an extensive knowledge of film (the critical side, not the technical). He would talk to her about film every time she was visiting and tell her all the amazing new films coming out and why they were important. She hadn’t realized before that film could be so intricate–that it could reach so many people in such a deep way. I want to do that, she decided once and for all. I want to make movies and share my thoughts and feelings and experiences with the world around me.

Since then, the little girl has been trying her best to learn all she can about film, and she has come to find how related it is to many of the other things she tried to pursue and many of the things she now enjoys. She’s not where she wants to be yet (and as she’s learned from her recent viewing of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, she probably never will be) but that’s okay because there will always be room for improvement. All the girl hopes to do now is take what she loves and do it, and she’s decided that maybe she’ll write about it along the way. Maybe like once a week. (But really, she will. That’s what this blog is for. Just FYI.)

I don’t think I need to tell you: that little girl was me.