Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
Like many of us, I watched August’s unfolding news about the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, with horror. After seeing swastika flags waving in hatred, I found myself returning to one of my favorite childhood movies, the 1965 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, to see the von Trapp family’s example of faithful Christianity at the height of World War II. While I watched it with Charlottesville’s violence fresh in my mind, I cheered Captain von Trapp’s valor in publicly ripping a Nazi flag against the annexation of Austria (the Anschluss) and the workings of the Third Reich. Yet watching this movie as a Christian compels me to see the story—and myself—in a different light. My Christian faith shows me that all stories have echoes of the gospel, in which I must humbly identify first not with heroic Jesus sacrificing for all on the cross, but the executioners or the guilty thief dying on the tree next to him. Engaging stories as a Christian means I don’t just cheer for the hero, but I consider what the flawed characters—and even the villains—reveal about myself. It’s natural to be drawn to the goodness we see in those around us; we like to think we are most like them. But the flawed characters remind us we regularly stumble in pressured situations too.
It’s not hard to see that Captain Georg von Trapp—despite his personal flaws—is terrifically brave and Christlike, but the gospel story compels us to also consider how much we relate to people like his charming and craven friend, “Uncle” Max Detweiler, and their telegram boy, Rolf, too. The stage musical’s extra numbers like “No Way to Stop It” make Max’s self-absorption plain when he tells Georg to compromise to Nazi propaganda, because “you don’t have to bow your head to stoop a little!” The movie’s exclusion of this song makes Max a little less cheesy and more relatable. Making only sly comments and maintaining a jovial relationship with the von Trapp children, his obsession with self-promotion and preservation almost slides under the surface. But the reason Max is such a difficult character is how innocent he thinks he is. In saying, “What’s going to happen’s going to happen. Just make sure it doesn’t happen to you,” and “You know I don’t get involved in politics. Can I help it if other people do?” he reminds us that comfortable neutrality permits oppression just as much as open promotion would.Engaging stories as a Christian means I don’t just cheer for the hero, but I consider what the flawed characters—and even the villains—reveal about myself.
As The Sound of Music comes to a crescendo when the von Trapp Family Singers perform a concert before secretly fleeing, I can’t help but wonder if Captain von Trapp had been reading Scripture. I sense the influence of passages like Jeremiah 22:16 (“He pled the cause of the afflicted”) or Proverbs 31:9 (“Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy”) as he reluctantly takes to the stage in a love song to his dear Austria, “Edelweiss.” The lyrics mention blooming flowers, but the message he leaves is both tender and unwavering: I love this country that you are conquering here, but I stand with what is vulnerable, fragile, and precious in this world over political power or national identity. “I know you share this love,” he tells the audience sitting under Nazi regalia. “I pray that you will never let it die.” The festival platform was not where he wanted to be, but he used it to turn the affections of others toward love and righteousness. When his family hides in Maria’s old convent later that night, Captain von Trapp makes another more personal call to repentance to their telegram boy (and his daughter’s old flame) Rolf, never giving up hope for his possible conversion. The boy who boldly pledged his heart to the Captain’s sixteen-going-on-seventeen daughter Liesl now fearfully points a gun at his chest. Rolf’s participation in Nazi hatred has nearly destroyed him, but Captain responds with the invitation of love: “You don’t really belong to them; come away with us.” His call to Rolf is the same call Christ offers us: Leave your allegiance to this evil so you can be part of my family, where you have always belonged anyway.
It’s easy for us to stand on this side of history and roundly condemn Nazi atrocities. But it is not just Adolf Hitler (and The Sound of Music’s Max and Rolf) who worked such evil; it flourished by the tacit permission of a continent full of churches with leaders like Uncle Max. Captain von Trapp and others like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie Ten Boom in the European front of World War II were few and far between; their valor is noteworthy because it was rare. I once read of an old German church that met along the railroad tracks leading to a concentration camp. When boxcars full of prisoners rattled past during services, instead of praying or trying to stop the train, the congregation opted to sing their hymns with gusto until the screaming faded. It’s uncomfortable to hear other people wail, especially when you’re not sure you can do anything about it (and you haven’t done anything about it in the past), but purposefully ignoring the sorrows of others is the antithesis of Jesus’ example to us. This most commonly happens today when Christians dismiss conversations about racism. They may cite any number of reasons, but I recognize their core concern in my own heart: we are uninterested in examining the extent of racism in America because it might indicate that we are more responsible than we want to admit.
We may be long past D-Day and the events of that war, but considering racial injustice in neo-Nazi protests and police tension and educational inequalities swirling even today, it’s not as pleasant to realize what Max Detweiler’s character reveals about my participation in my community. He’s still friends with the von Trapps and even helps them escape Nazi-occupied Austria, but he doesn’t take their convictions as his own. In the same way, I can sometimes ignore conversations about today. I’d like to say racism is dead because it hasn’t made an impact on my life, or I haven’t noticed it much, or I do not personally harbor ill will toward people of other races. This confidence is not the same perspective minority Christians in America usually share. Perhaps people like me can’t consider our role in America’s national history of racism and injustice when we are too busy singing along with Uncle Max about “the center of the universe, that lovely thing called ‘I’!” It is easy to let our discomfort, our assessments of the problems, and our proposed solutions lead our interest (or lack thereof) in racially charged conversations. Let us instead commit to confession, prayer, and humbly listening to the voices of leadership and lament from communities outside our own perspective. Imagine what could have happened if European church leaders as a rule had built relationships with Jewish rabbis as antisemitic sentiments grew? Or if they had used their pulpits to boldly proclaim Christian teaching about imago Dei and saving the afflicted, even if it touched the nerve of their congregants’ tender national pride?
Since my church is committed to the hard work of racial reconciliation in our neighborhood of St. Louis, I did not have to wonder what lament and exhortation would come from the pulpit after the events in Charlottesville this past August. Many of my Christian friends across the country did not have the same experience; their church and community leaders have said things like Uncle Max: “I don’t get involved in politics. Can I help it if other people do?” As if an uncomfortable topic can’t be brought to the cross. As if God doesn’t care about marginalizing an image-bearer based on skin color or oppressing an entire racial group. As if the gospel does not speak to our inherent sinfulness, our shared responsibility for sin, and the way we sin—and sin often—without realizing it. But the same gospel that tells us we are like Uncle Max in our flesh also calls us to repentance and newness of life in Christ. Among God’s people, of all places, we can face the racial tension and division of our communities with the hope of the gospel inspiring us freely to examine ways we are ignorant and silent in the face of injustice, as we turn and follow Jesus into promoting the welfare of others ahead of ourselves.
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