Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Hidden Life

I read a fantastic book over the weekend by Catholic nun Sister Joan Chittister called “The Time is Now.” The theme of the book – the role of the prophet in contemporary society – is one that conjures up visions of heroic, deeply principled men and women such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. And while heroism and steadfast pursuit of societal change is indeed part of the package, Chittister rightly points out the price these people have paid in living out their callings. King and Gandhi, of course, were assassinated. Mother Teresa was frequently lonely; misunderstood and reviled even by those in her own religious order, those who were theoretically “on her side.”
I think it’s worth noting that much of the contemporary Christian Church in America is currently focused on shushing the loudmouths. It’s up for debate, of course, whether the loudmouths should be considered prophets. Probably they would like to be considered so. It is, after all, part of a longstanding Jewish and Christian religious tradition, and it’s better to be a prophet than a mere loudmouth. What is not up for debate is that some significant portion of American Christians are offended by the loudmouths/prophets, and invoke a whole arsenal of tried-and-true tactics – calls for unity (as if an insistence on righteous behaviors is somehow disunifying), calls to love (as if an insistence on righteous behaviors is unloving), calls for forbearance (as if an insistence on righteous behaviors is impatient or inappropriate) - in the fervent hope that the loudmouths/prophets will shut up.
One of the things that Chittister points out is that loudmouths/prophets are most frequently opposed by people who are theoretically part of the same team/cause. They have to learn to be proficient in taking friendly fire and persevering anyway.
In any event, the loudmouths/prophets need to reconcile themselves to the notion that their actions – perhaps their very lives themselves – are worthwhile in the face of opposition and rejection. These lives frequently look like failures, and the opponents of the loudmouths/prophets are all too happy to brand them as such. But they are not failures. Perhaps they look like the life of Franz Jägerstätter; virtually unknown, certainly unheralded, the victim of a “senseless” death that accomplished nothing except a remarkable consistency to the principles and values to which he had sworn faithfulness.
I can’t wait to see this film.
“Instead of battlefield valor or underground daring, the latest film from Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, Badlands, Days of Heaven) is a tale of something much more difficult to emulate: goodness and courage, without recognition. It’s about doing what’s right, even if it seems the results hurt more than they bring good to the world. It’s set during World War II, but our Austrian protagonist Franz Jägerstätter, based on a real-life conscientious objector, does not save Jews from Nazis or give rousing speeches. In the end, what he’s done counts for what seems like very little.
A Hidden Life is Malick’s most overtly political film and one of his most religious, urgent and sometimes even uncomfortable because of what it says — to everyone, but specifically to Christians in places where they’re the majority — about the warp and weft of courage. It’s a film that seems particularly designed to lodge barbs in a comfortable audience during an era of rising white nationalism. Jägerstätter could have lived a peaceful life if he’d simply ignored what was happening in his homeland and been willing to bow the knee to the fatherland and its fascist leader, whose aim is to establish the supremacy of Franz’s own people. But though it will bring hardship to his family and the harshest of punishments to himself, he simply cannot join the cause. The question A Hidden Life then forces us to contemplate is an uncomfortable one: Does his life, and his death, even matter? …
I was startled to see just how biting A Hidden Life is, particularly toward any Christians, or others, who might prefer their entertainment to be sentimental and comfortable. In one scene I can’t get out of my mind, an artist painting images in the nearby church tells Franz, ‘I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo on his head … Someday I’ll paint the true Christ.’ The implication is painfully clear — that religious art prefers a Jesus who doesn’t accost one’s sensibilities, the figures who make us feel good about ourselves. We want, as the painter puts it, to look up at the pictures on the church’s ceiling and ‘imagine that if they lived in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did’ — in other words, if we had been around when Jesus was, we’d have known better than to execute him. When, of course, most of us most likely would have just gone along with the crowd …
A Hidden Life is everything Malick’s devotees could want from a movie: beautiful, poetic, hewing closely (particularly at the end) to films like Days of Heaven and Tree of Life. His camera observes his characters from all angles, sometimes straight on, sometimes from below, sometimes distorted in a wide-angle lens shot close to the face, creating the intimate feeling that we’re experiencing their interior lives rather than just watching passively. Its end, in which Franziska anticipates meeting Franz again — in narration that closely recalls the end of Tree of Life in particular — is a note of hope. Malick concludes, by way of a thesis, with lines from George Eliot’s Middlemarch:
'The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.'
Jägerstätter’s refusal to bow the knee looked pointless in his time, but in its own way, it was a kind of heroic act, though not the kind that ordinarily merits the Hollywood treatment. The things that are not so ill with us are because people we’ll never hear about did what they had to do for people they’d never know, and who’d never know them. A hidden life is worth living, and giving up, so that others may live.”
- Alissa Wilkinson at Vox

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