How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
As darkness falls over a quiet monastery in northern Algeria, a white-clad monk walks purposefully toward the front gate, keys in hand. It is Christmas Eve; a peaceful happiness fills the air. Suddenly, armed terrorists burst in, demanding to see the leader of the monastery, Brother Christian. Christian, a tall, lean man with glasses, is summoned and arrives, visibly steeling his nerves and projecting confidence amid his fear. He tells the terrorists they must leave their weapons outside. He resists their demands to carry off the monastery’s old, asthmatic doctor, Luc, and refuses to give them the monastery’s precious store of medicine (needed by the local town). But he tells them that they will treat any patient who comes to them, regardless of who he is.
Shocked into begrudging respect, the terrorists turn to leave. Christian calls out to them, “Tonight is different than other nights!… It’s Christmas. We celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, Sidna Aissa [Jesus].”
“I’m sorry, then,” says the terrorist. “I didn’t know.” He extends his hand to Christian.
Christian hesitates. Can he, should he take a terrorist’s hand? Finally, he does. He will follow Jesus’s call to love his enemies.
This scene takes place at the mid-point of a spiritually potent French film from 2010, Of Gods and Men. In this film, a group of Cistercian Trappist monks serve in a monastery in Tibhirine, a predominantly-Muslim village in the Atlas Mountains of Northern Algeria. The true story takes place in the 1990s when the post-French colonial nation is beginning to experience the emergence of Islamic terrorism, a threat that eventually makes its way to Tibhirine.The normal position of the Church is that of “missional minority.”
It’s unlikely that most American evangelicals will meet many terrorists face-to-face in our lifetimes. But the film still has relevance for us who live in the toxic environment between evangelical Christians and those they regard as bitter political enemies. Of Gods and Men models a paradigm shift from American evangelical politics that calls Christians back into biblical discipleship and away from the idols of cultural and political control.
I grew up in the heart of conservative, evangelical Christianity. I remember receiving scorecards at my Christian school telling our family how we needed to vote as Christians (obviously, almost always Republican). I remember the reductive focus on abortion and gay marriage. I don’t remember talking about governmental policies for the poor, but I do remember many times when the poor were blamed for their troubles. I saw how we always defended the Republicans, even when they did odious things, and how we pulverized the Democrats, even when they did good. Everything was a political tool. That America needed to get back to being a “Christian [read: Republican] Nation” was not questioned.
Some of the intent was good. There was a genuine desire to protect life, to uplift the good call of marriage, and to help people come to know Jesus.
But somehow, those good intentions became twisted. A fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of God’s kingdom on earth emerged as a serious problem in American evangelicalism. We began to chase the idols of power and control.
Today, many Christians use social media to shout others down with scathing sarcasm and haughty remarks. Other Christians demonize the President and believe every negative and outlandish rumor about him (“He’s a secret Muslim! He wasn’t even born in the U.S.!”). Christians go on witch hunts against their political opponents, praising even those of poor character as long as they bolster Republican power (for example, conservative filmmaker, Dinesh D’Souza). Oftentimes, there is no fundamental difference to be found between those who claim to be Christians and their political opponents. Our politics are full of spin, the cynical pursuit of control at all cost, and the enabling of the baser urges of the American public (such as the latent fear of minorities).
What if there were a better way? What if a group of monks in Tibhirine could teach us something about what it is to be a disciple of Christ, something that applies whether we are missionaries, citizens, or public servants? The monks at Tibhirine teach us to let go of our death grip on power at all cost and instead serve our neighbor humbly, no matter what our station in life may be.
Of Gods and Men shows a community of Christians who are profoundly unworried about their status as religious minority. The monks at Tibhirine do not waste time arguing that they should rule the town (after all, they have seen the havoc wreaked by French colonialism). Instead, they seek to bear the authority that strong character, Christian love, and sacrificial service bring. This authority cannot be demanded. It springs out of authentic witness that seeks nothing for itself, but simply to serve the neighbor in Jesus’s name.
Put baldly, the Bible teaches that the pursuit of political dominance is not the job of the Church or the focus of God’s Kingdom. The goal of God’s Kingdom is not that Christians control earthly governments, but that Christian witness brings changed hearts who change the world. As Trevin Wax has put it, “It’s time we recognized we are no longer the ‘moral majority’ and embrace our identity as the ‘missional minority.'”
When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the crowd was prepared to set him up as their King, a leader who would defeat the illegitimate Romans and give them their country back again (sound familiar?). They waved palm branches, symbols of independence not unlike the American flags we wave in parades or post in our churches. In contrast, Jesus resisted being put into the box of earthly government. When asked by Pilate if he was a revolutionary king, Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NIV). When James and John approached Jesus, asking for high political appointments in His coming government, he knocked them back down to size: “You don’t know what you are asking…. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38 NIV). The other disciples reacted angrily (probably because James and John beat them to the punch), but Jesus went on to remind all of them that the kingdom of God operates differently than earthly kingdoms: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (vv.42-45). Service to neighbor, not pursuit of power and prestige are the hallmarks of God’s kingdom.
The earliest Christians were at their most spiritually powerful in the ancient Roman world when they were at their least powerful politically. These believers were tortured and killed by the Roman Empire, but rather than shake their fist at Rome, they showed respect for their temporal authorities (Romans 13:1-7), obeying them except for when they were asked to deny their Creed, “Jesus is Lord.” When they disobeyed their authorities, they did so respectfully and with a willingness to face punishment and even death. They did not lash out in angry tantrums. There was no pursuit of a political kingdom on earth. Jesus’s Kingdom spanned all of space and time and went beyond all national borders.
Christians should engage in our democratic government, but when we do so, there should be a fundamental difference in our character. Rather than pursue power at all cost, what if we focused on truth, service, and respect for our opponents? American politics is broken, and self-seeking agendas are at the heart of the problem. Political leaders today are often more concerned with holding on to their “rightness” and power than to buckling down and seeking to solve problems and serve others. If Christians could lead the way in putting character before winning, we would not only be living in harmony with the teaching of Scripture, but we also would be doing much to bring healing to our broken nation.
Here are some specific ways we can move toward that healing, as illustrated from Of Gods and Men:
In the film, the monks live in harmony with their non-Christian neighbors, deeply immersed in the life of the town. A town elder in Tibhirine says, “This village grew up with the monastery.” Later, another resident says to the monks, “We’re the birds. You’re the branch. If you leave, we lose our footing.” In the film, Luc diligently cares for up to 150 patients per day. And in one scene, he carefully tends to a little girl’s wound, giving her a grandfatherly kiss on the forehead. At her mother’s urging, he finds shoes for mother and child. In other scene, the monks are all invited to the Islamic circumcision ceremony for a little boy. They graciously accept and come to rejoice with the family. We see the monks selling their honey in the marketplace, joking around with local villagers, and working side-by-side with their neighbors. One monk meets with an illiterate village woman to help her fill out government documents, even offering to take her to the city to get photographs for the documentation. The monks garden and live off the land, offer advice when asked, and stand up for their neighbors against the terrorists. They are willing to do whatever they can to be of service.
What would it be like if American Christians were similarly so deeply engrained in our communities–particularly amongst those with whom we have profound differences–that we would be deeply missed if we were to leave?
In a recent interview on MSNBC, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke of a time in the early 1960s when politicians across the political divide had deep relationships with each other. Legislators did not rush home to fundraise over the weekend. They maintained a spirit of community and socializing, not only with each other but with each other’s families. “They had a history together; they knew each other. They didn’t see themselves as tribal enemies,” she said. American evangelicals could do a lot to heal our polarized nation if we got out of our tribes and began to make friendships across the aisle. We would likely find areas where we could cooperate and accomplish societal good.
Christians and pro-life atheists could fight abortion together. Secular liberals and Christians could work to end modern-day slavery. Liberals and conservatives could join in a common concern for the poor and learn from–instead of vilifying–each other’s efforts. We would discover good in our opponents and become slower to vilifying them. We would probably surprise and shock a country that is deeply cynical about the power politics of religion. But we would also bear good witness to a Christ who frees us to love everyone, regardless of tribe or party.
When a terrorist is brought to the monastery for medical care, he is given life-saving treatment as well as pain relief. Earlier in the film, despite his qualms, Christian shakes the hand of the terrorist who visits on Christmas Eve. When Christian is called to identify the body of a terrorist who has been tortured and killed by the Algerian soldiers, he refuses to approve such tactics and mutters, “Terrible! Nobody should be treated like that!” When he prays over the terrorist’s corpse, an Algerian soldier turns away in disgust, claiming that Christian is “overindulgent” with the terrorists.
Most Christians would agree that Jesus calls us to love our enemies. But do we apply this teaching to our political and cultural opponents? Loving our enemies means loving those who oppose us, our message, and our beliefs. This means we are called to love the liberal activist, the Planned Parenthood lobbyist, the political leader with whom we vehemently disagree. We are called to love those who make films to mock us. We are called to love those who hold beliefs different from ours or who follow lifestyles different from what we would like. We are called to love those who curse us on Twitter or Facebook–and to return their curses with blessings.
This is where politics often breaks down. These days, Americans are very poor at loving those who see things differently from us, poorer still at loving those who actively oppose our beliefs. As Ross Douthat has observed in Bad Religion, both liberals and conservatives are complicit in our growing national militancy, “giving us messianism from the party in power and apocalyptism from the party out of power, regardless of which party is which.” Similarly, the Pew Research Center recently reported that 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans believe the people of the other party “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” With that kind of prideful, militant viewpoint on the world, genuine love and concern for one’s enemy becomes impossible. How can we reach out to someone whom we have decided is worthless and destroying America? If we fail to see our opponent as someone Christ loves and died for, are we really living in line with God’s mission in the world?
Graciously and lovingly defending the faith is necessary at times, but what if we gave up the goal of defending ourselves? When we are secure in Christ, we realize we are free, and have nothing to prove. A weight is lifted from our shoulders when we trust God to change hearts instead of feeling that such change is our job.
I believe one of the reasons American evangelicals have been so hesitant to relinquish their hold on political power is because losing feels like death itself to us. If I put character before winning, I may well lose. I may well be marginalized. I might be misunderstood by fellow Christians and treated like a traitor to the “tribe.” These are weighty concerns, but Of Gods and Men reminds us that grappling with our call is a normal part of taking it seriously. The central conflict and energy of the film comes from the profound struggle the monks undergo as they try to decide whether to stay in a place of danger or to return to France.
Sometimes I idealize those who have given up everything for Christ, but this film showed me that the heroes of the faith had to battle fear, doubt, and selfishness just like the rest of us. Christophe, a younger monk, is very afraid of dying. He wants to leave the monastery and go somewhere safe, especially after seeing murdered corpses discarded by the side of the road at a terrorist checkpoint. That night, he shakes and sobs with terror, crying out to God, “Help me! Help me! Don’t abandon me!”
Later, he tells Christian, “As a kid, I wanted to be a missionary. Dying for my faith shouldn’t keep me up nights.”
Christian says, “Remember, you’ve already given your life. You gave it by following Christ.”
Christophe replies, “I don’t know if it’s true anymore. I pray and I hear nothing. Why be martyrs? For God? To be heroes? To prove that we’re the best?”
We see the depth of Christophe’s struggle with his doubts and fear, but by the end of the film, we also see a man who has wrestled with God and has come through the struggle stronger. We see a man who is now free. Christophe has learned to let go of himself, knowing that because he has Christ, he already has everything.
American Christians must face our fear of the loss of cultural control. But like Christophe, we can confess our fears, receive God’s grace, and begin slowly walking into the freedom we have in Christ. After all, a defensive, forceful, fearful attitude is antithetical to the life we have in Christ. As Pastor Tullian Tchividjian has said, “Because Jesus won for me, I am free to lose; Because Jesus was Someone, I am free to be no one….”
How do we get from fearful defensiveness to gracious freedom? Of Gods and Men‘s touching portrait of the power of Christian community is relevant to all Christians, not just monastic communities. Threaded throughout the film, we see them worship together day after day through liturgy, Mass, prayer, Scripture, meditation, silence. We see them support each other through anxiety and fear. An elderly monk gives a comforting shoulder rub to a fearful younger monk. The monks lock arms and sing a hymn when foreboding military helicopters thrum overhead. Luc is cursed at by a young monk, only to respond with grace (“Just tired. Not his fault.”). Christian tenderly tucks an older monk into bed. The monks gently challenge each other when needed, but without malice.
There are no masks here. Each man sees the other men as they truly are—good and bad. And they love each other as they truly are. The centrality of worship and community is the heart of what we are called to be as Church. Christian community like this gives us courage to follow our Savior. We cannot take up our cross and follow Christ alone. We need our brothers and sisters.
Of Gods and Men ends with the monks captured by the terrorists, being marched into the wintry fog, cold, sometimes afraid, sometimes exhausted, but still going. As they walk away from us and fade from view, we are left to ask ourselves if we will place our feet into their footprints—into the footprints of our Master—and follow. Will we continue to strive after the mere earthly power of being a “Christian Nation,” or will we dare to be a “nation of Christians,” a nation of changed hearts, a nation that trusts in God to bring his kingdom into fulfillment in human hearts through Jesus Christ? We have been given all of Christ forever, and because of this we are free to lose, knowing that we already have everything in Him.
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