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“Of Gods and Men” — Reflections on the film

October 13, 2011

Friedrich Nietzsche, a master of ambiguous utterance, famously said, “God is dead,” which certainly means that we cannot go back and recapture an earlier, perhaps naïve “age of faith.” But Nietzsche said it through a fictional figure, who continued, “We have killed Him.” Does he mean to say that it is the “God” that is dead is one we have reduced to proportions of human understanding and morality? Might there remain, as Paul Tillich suggested, “a God above ‘God’”?

I missed my self-imposed monthly posting for September, even though the 10th anniversary of “9-11” begged for comment. My excuse for not writing (now happily expired!) was being just too busy preparing my forthcoming James Luther Adams lecture (see Events & Links, for details). The lecture turns on a passage from Adams’s autobiographical essay, “Taking Time Seriously,” in which he speaks of the profound effect he felt, singing in the chorus for a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor. Adams notes that, similarly, Nietzsche once said of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, “Whoever has wholly forgotten Christianity will hear it there again.”

What eluded me last month, however, arrived via Netflix this month: the French film, “Des Hommes et Des Dieux,” directed by Xavier Beauvois, released in America early this year as “Of Gods and Men.” The title is derived from Psalm 82: 6—“You are gods, sons of the most high, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.” It tells the story of the Cistercian Trappist monks of Monastere de Atlas, in a remote Algerian village, who were killed by revolutionary terrorists during the upheavals of the 1990’s. When the long-anticipated time came, seven died and two escaped death by hiding.
There is no point telling how it came to pass; the real story lies in how they decide not to flee, even when they knew what their end would be and could, individually or together, have decided to flee. To appreciate what this means you must see this beautiful and profoundly moving film. What grips us is not just the story of these monks, these villagers, and these revenge-seeking revolutionaries, but our own ultimate self-questioning—what we live for and what we will die for.

Using my CD player’s pause/stop button I was able to record the plain-spoken words of the eight men, when they are meeting to decide whether they will stay in spite of the clear warnings that they will become victims. This follows the meetings and personal struggles over this question, the heart of the film. Now they go around the table and each tells his thoughts about leaving or staying.

Luc, the ailing doctor, says, “I’ve already told you my position in this matter, and my calling is to be here, with everyone.” The others follow: “I don’t see myself leaving.” “Leaving would lead nowhere. I’m not ready to leave, myself.” “Last night I thought about leaving. I’m not comfortable with it. Not at peace. Deciding to run off like that doesn’t make sense.” “We didn’t come here for our personal interest.” “I still think our mission here is not finished. I’m staying.” “I prayed all morning while I was cooking. The disciple is not above the master. This is no time for me to stray.” Christophe, who has struggled with fear most deeply, says, “Let God set the table here. For everyone. Friends and enemies.” Finally, Christian, the prior, says, “Wild flowers do not move to find the sun. God makes them fecund where they are.”

In one scene we see Christian writing a message which he leaves in an envelope on his writing table. We hear his words—not a fictional composition, surely, but the text of this final testament—at the end of the film. They are spoken over scenes of the monastery grounds and their mountainside burial place, bleak, snow-blown winter scenes. I was able to record the words, again thanks to the English subtitles:

“Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. That the unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world, and the evil that will smite me blindly. I never could desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here. And I know how Islam is disturbed by a 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 naïve, 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 s 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.”

The decisive moment in the story is the meeting in which they decide, by unanimous vote, to stay. It is prelude to both the solemn joy of a last supper and the death they will share. Whoever has wholly forgotten the gospel will see it, and hear it, here again.

G. K. B.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Diana permalink
    November 17, 2011 6:35 pm

    We are gladdened by the thought of being partakers at your table of plenty at about this time next week!

  2. Ed Sabin permalink
    December 7, 2011 8:00 am

    We had heard about “Of Gods and Men” but George’s write up convinced me and my wife, Robbie, that we want to see the film even though it sounds pretty heavy-duty. To see it, we’ll have to check to see if it comes (if it hasn’t already) to one of just two “art” theaters in the Baltimore area–the mall movie houses are depressing as they tend to all show the same movies so there isn’t much variety out there despite the many theathers. Few films today deal with religion in a serious manner.

    An exception we saw last week (at an art theater) is “The Way” with Martin Sheen. It’s religion-lite compared to “Of Gods and Men” but we enjoyed it. It’s about several secular people thrown together by happenstance on a long pilgrimage on foot to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.

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