[Including a consideration of Pan’s Labyrinth, Children of Men, and Babel]

Encountering Christ While Running From Him

Those who meditate on the character of Christ will be surprised to find him everywhere … even in movies that seem at first to have nothing to do with the Gospel.

In fact, those who try to run from him might find him smiling at them wherever they turn… even in the details of their own storytelling.

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In 2006, three filmmakers from Mexico delivered three award-winning, astonishing films to theaters.

Guillermo Del Toro offered Pan’s Labyrinth – a dark, violent fantasy film about the Spanish Civil War, and a frightened girl who escapes into a wonderland ruled by a faun.

Alfonso Cuaron directed Children of Men – a futuristic adventure in which humanity is becoming extinct due to a plague of infertility.

And Alejandro González Iñárritu gave us a candidate for Best Picture at the Oscars, a film called Babel. Babel told several stories set in different countries, in which family relationships were challenged in various, bloody ways.

All three films have earned worldwide acclaim for their technical achievement, performances, and compelling storytelling. But I doubt that you’ll find many people discussing glimpses of the gospel in these films.

In fact, the directors went out of their way to make sure these stories weren’t about Jesus.

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Guillermo Del Toro made Pan’s Labyrinth after turning down the opportunity to direct The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As CNN reported, “[H]e turned it down because, as a lapsed Catholic, he couldn’t see himself bringing Aslan the lion back to life.” Then they quoted Del Toro as saying, “I’m not proselytizing anything about a lion resurrecting. I’m not trying to sell you into a point. I’m just doing a little parable about disobedience and choice. . . . This is my version of that universe….”

“Profound,” critics are saying about this film. “Beautiful.” “Moving.” But what is it about the film that they are finding so transcendent? Is it merely a tale about disobedience and choice, as its director says?

Hardly. Del Toro’s “version of that universe is resonant with gospel echoes.

As we watch young Ofelia, traumatized by the war, running pell-mell through the dark woods of Pan’s Labyrinth, her story reminds me of the Christian life. As she struggles against darkness, unable to save the world on her own, yearning for redemption, she finds meaningful resources in the stuff of creation, and she is haunted by a sense that she belongs to a heavenly kingdom . . . a place beyond this world, and better.

Her fascist stepfather is like the devil himself, a dictator who follows a dictator and who manipulates others for his own selfish gain. Like the “prince” of this world, he just wants a son, an innocent that he can bend to carry his legacy farther. Ofelia is useless to him, an obstacle, unless he can bring her up to fear him the way other women do.

And while this fascist soldier seems to have the church on his side (the Catholic church had ill-advised connections with the fascists in that war), it should be clear to viewers that the glimmers of Christ-like love come from somewhere else in this story. Some of them come from a most unlikely character . . . a faun, a figure from pagan mythology, who tries to trick Ofelia and whispers to her that the fairy tales she imagines are actually real.

As J.R.R. Tolkien insisted, fairy tales are especially poignant because their make-believe gives us a language to express spiritual mysteries that are otherwise hard to describe. Fantasy, he said, points to a coming universal triumph of good over evil, of joy over suffering. It inspires “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears,” for through its fanciful metaphors, it gives readers “a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.” The relevance of the fairy story to reality lies in this gleam, which is a “sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth.”1 (These ideas are also explored in Chapter Five.)

Pan’s Labyrinth gives us a heroine who looks around the “real world” and sees horror, bloodshed, obscenity, and cruelty. She leaps into a fairy tale world, where she is given tasks that help her find a way to participate in the struggle against darkness. She is given strict rules to follow, and, like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, she fails . . . as we all do. She gives in to temptation, and disobeys.

We feel her pain, for we know that we too have failed, and something precious has been lost – innocence.

But then, suddenly, Ofelia is given another chance. She is given grace – an undeserved opportunity to find redemption in spite of her sins. And she seizes it. While this conflicts somewhat with the gospel, in which we are granted eternal life without having to accomplish any particular mission, the inclusion of this undeserved “second chance” is a big part of the story’s appeal, I suspect. It “rings true.”

Ofelia makes a bold choice to spill her own blood to save the life of an innocent, rather than giving up a newborn infant to be sacrificed. As we see her bleeding to death in the real world, people gather around her and weep at the injustice, the slaying of such a brave soul. What they do not see, but what Christians will recognize as the hope of heaven, is Ofelia awaking in the presence of glory to receive her true reward.

And yet, some Christians are rushing to condemn the film as mere “paganism.” They do not see that even pagan fairy tales, for all of their distortions of the truth, end up affirming pieces of the gospel. Without that, they would be empty and fail to strike chords in our hearts.

It is easy to forget that Del Toro, earlier in the film, gave us a parable about a magical rose. This rose could save the world. But humankind rejected the rose, for it was surrounded with thorns and was difficult to find. They chose to abandon the rose in order to avoid suffering. And thus they missed out on the greatest gift of all.

Echoes of the Gospel . . . everywhere.

Regarding the rumors of eternal glory that glimmer through The Lord of the Rings, the actor Ian McKellen is wrong when he concludes, “I think what [Tolkien] is appealing to in human beings is to look inside yourself, and to look to your friends . . . . ” No. All through Tolkien’s epic there are hints of a higher power at work that can save us from our insufficiency. When we look inside of ourselves and our neighbors, we will find “eternity set in our hearts.” It tells us that we serve a higher power, and he has sacrificed his own son to save us from death.

In the very same way, Pan’s Labyrinth is not just about making a brave choice and saving your friends by putting your life on the line. What moves audiences most is the moment when Ofelia awakes, having returned home to the magical kingdom that was rumored to be her origin. She has passed through death into a new, vivid, heavenly life. She is welcomed home to her true family. And she receives the equivalent of “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

There is a bittersweet quality to Pan’s Labyrinth, because Del Toro does not make it clear whether Ofelia is entering into a heaven of her own imagination, when in fact she’s dead as a doornail, or if she is indeed returning home. Viewers will feel a surge of longing, but they may decide that this longing that dwells in each of us is just “wishful thinking.” Others may recognize that there is no explanation for this common longing in all of us if redemption is not, in some form, a reality.

While the filmmaker has done what he could to avoid a Christian allegory, by smashing the mirror of the truth, his fairy tale still reflects pieces of the gospel in its shards.

Those who know Christ intimately will recognize him everywhere, lurking in disguise, like the stranger who walked on the road to Emmaeus and who talked with the two travelers as they mourned the absence of Christ. When he sat down to eat with them, they recognized him – for they had eaten with him before.

Have we nourished ourselves with the presence of Christ enough to recognize him when he manifests himself? Will we trust that he can be found, even in the best efforts of those who do not believe? Or will we instead rush to judgment of seemingly “non-Christian” storytelling.

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In Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron’s magnificent, powerful, spellbinding nightmare of a world spinning out of control, the director and his four co-writers – Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby – have done everything they can to erase the echoes of Christian conviction that fill their source material, a novel by P.D. James.

When Theo, a disillusioned political activist reluctantly agrees to help a faction of violent activists, he has no idea what he’s getting into. They seem crazy, but when they reveal that they have the world’s first pregnant woman in almost 20 years in their custody, he realizes what is at stake. And he ends up escorting this young woman, whose name is (appropriately) Kee, through a war-torn landscape in search of safety, so she can have the baby theat the world needs so much.

Cuaron and his colleagues erase P.D. James’ respectful, thoughtful portrayals of Christians and turn them into ranting, raving New Agers, cult maniacs, terrorists, and lunatics. Their heroes are, instead, merely determined humanists. Those heroes strive to save the world on their own strength, and the strength of “the next generation.” Instead of turning to God, they place their hope for the future in something called “The Human Project,” which will help humanity overcome the plague of infertility.

I sat down with Cuaron to discuss the film, and I asked him about the Christian overtones of James’ novel. Was he trying to suggest that we should not place hope in God? Had he deliberately sought to remove God from the equation?

He responded, “It’s not that God is out of the equation, but I think it’s too much to ask God to fix all of this mess we’re in. That’s the wrong sort of hope. That hope is very dangerous. I mean … that poor guy!” He laughed, looking up, I suppose, at God, with an expression of sympathy and exasperation. “So now he’s going to come and fix this mess? My view of God is that he is not necessarily ‘the Super’ … you know … where, if the boiler broke in your apartment, then God comes and fixes it for you. No. We are responsible for our apartment building. … No, he’s not going to come and fix the boiler, I’m sorry.”

It’s not hard to see why Cuaron wants to emphasize the importance of human involvement in the salvation of the world. After all, God did command us to “subdue and replenish the earth.” But it’s hard to justify the claim that the film is “based on” P.D. James’ novel when they have done all they can to change the fundamental ideas of the source material to match their own skeptical, dispiriting worldview.

And yet…

As the world is crumbling, a disillusioned young man finds an inexplicably pregnant young woman. They share a moment of powerful understanding and astonishment while standing in a barn… or, if you will, a stable.

Sound familiar?

They run from the powers that be, powers that would seek to subvert their mission. And their mission is to bring this precious child into the world. For this child represents the hope of humanity.

And they are blessed by wise men.

And in the end, while this “Joseph” and “Mary” are sure to eventually die, they can hold on to hope that something transcendent has happened here.

Again, echoes of the Gospel, everywhere we turn.

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And Babel? Where is God in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s stories of human depravity, grief, and broken families?

I am moved by the way each story emphasizes that we must overcome our pride and self-absorption in order to understand and love our neighbors. But even more important than that, there are glimpses of the Virgin Mary and the Cross in the Catholic iconography behind scenes set in Mexico. These bring a saddening irony to the scenes, as human beings lose their way and fumble for help, never thinking to turn to God.

In one scene, set in Morocco, while a devastated American panics at the side of his dying wife, he sees a Muslim man turn to pray that God will help this suffering stranger. The American seems startled, confounded by what he sees. We don’t know what’s going on in his head, but it’s hard not to wonder if he might be thinking about prayer himself. Maybe there’s something to this, this instinctual appeal to heaven practiced by this Muslim who follows “old world” ways.

And in one of the film’s most affecting moments, a child is willing to risk his life to save an endangered family member.

Iñárritu told me that he believes all people, from all cultures, share a “spiritual spine” . . . a remnant of what unites us, a cord connecting us with something greater. He did not give me a name for that “spine,” nor did he identify a “source” from which we come. But he chose the title of his film very deliberately. The Old Testament tale of the Tower of Babel teaches that humankind scattered, their language confused, their cultures divided, because they were so proud as to turn their eyes away from God.

And the film’s only answer for the trouble of the world comes when people stop acting as if they are gods and humble themselves to serve one another the way that Christ served the church.

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These three filmmakers from Mexico are, in fact, good friends. And as the Oscars for 2006 approached, there were articles everywhere about “the Three Amigos” who had invigorated Spanish-language filmmaking.

But they are also united in the way that their films so boldly, clearly, and yes – accidentally – reaffirm things that Jesus taught and demonstrated.

As we learn to know Christ, we can recognize his face, his character, his choices, his teachings, reaffirmed again and again on the screen. And we’ll come to recognize him everywhere – not just in films by “the Three Amigos,” but even in a movie that is called The Three Amigos.

After all, that ridiculous comedy starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Chevy Chase tells the story of a people who needed salvation from a devilish oppressor. When the three amigos rode into town, they found that the people believed in an idealized “three amigos” – heroic, humble, generous redeemers from another culture who would save them from evil. And so, they have to put aside their ego and selfishness and become true selfless saviors. Like Christians, who know they are unworthy to work in the name of Christ, so these three goofballs learn that true glory comes from serving somebody else.

Am I taking this too far?

Perhaps. Certainly there are richer works of art than flimsy Hollywood comedies. But it should encourage us to see that – whether it’s a heavy international drama like Babel, or a cheap laugh-fest like The Three Amigos – the stories stick with us because they have a handle on the truth.

And speaking of Babel, there are more and more movies all the time that give us a “God’s-eye” view of the world. It seems many filmmakers are rising to the challenge, hoping to show us the whole wide world. Let’s consider, now, a few of those films.