How can a girl stop eating for months at a time with no apparent change in her health? Is God bringing about a miracle? Or is this religious community conspiring to fool us all?

The Wonder, the new film from director Sebastian Lelio (adapted from Emma Donoghue’s celebrated novel), takes place within an idiosyncratic Irish Catholic community. (Is there any close-knit community that isn’t idiosyncratic?) Their closeness has been forged, in part, by the the ongoing consequences of the famous 1840s famine that cost so many Irish lives two decades earlier. But now, a nine-year-old named Anna (Kila Lord Cassidy) in their midst seems to have been touched by God and she is now able to survive without food. The story is about what happens when these excited believers are threatened by an outsider, a nurse (played with luminous intensity by Florence Pugh), who suspects that this seeming “miracle” might in fact be a conspiracy and perhaps even one involving child abuse.

To some, The Wonder will seem a straightforward story of a clash between religion and science. But it’s much more than that. It’s also about how religious traditions, even those that provide the most meaning and inspire the most goodness in the world, can go wrong. When fear or vanity take root within a faith community, religion can mutate from a humble vocabulary of faith into legalistic fundamentalism; from freedom into oppression; from a union of intellect and conscience into a denial of both; from the cultivation of love into the perpetuation of harm. It’s about how what we choose to believe and how we choose to express that belief can make us either generous and gracious or self-serving and destructive.

As a writer who lives in the challenging zone where belief in God and confidence in academic inquiry co-exist, I care about such stories very much. In order to illustrate why I find The Wonder so compelling, I’ll share an account of my recent encounter with a stranger, one who challenged my own religious beliefs with the sharp edges of his intellect.

Actually, a lot of things happened that morning. But this is what storytellers do when they tell “true stories”: We select amplify certain details. We minimize others. We erase some altogether. We rely upon our memories, notions which are not entirely trustworthy. We align our curated specifics in a coherent way to take readers on a journey, a path to glimpses of a larger idea. Yes, even nonfiction is fiction. When we tell a true story, it is still a construction, an art made of available materials. Nonfiction is full of creative storytelling strategies.

This is important. The Wonder begins with a narrator who reminds us that everything depends on the stories we tell ourselves about the world, the stories we construct and choose to believe in.

So before I get to my particular review of The Wonder, I’ll tell you how this encounter took place.

On that chilly December morning…

…as I leaned over a cafe table revising my syllabus for next quarter’s Fiction Writing class, a man at another table — I’ll call him “Saul” — waved at me and pointed at the stickers decorating my MacBook. Since I apply stickers in hopes they’ll spark conversations, I removed my headphones and suspended my work. The sticker in question? It’s a portrait of Yaphet Kotto, an actor known for his commanding presence in television’s Homicide: Life on the Street, the 1988 chase movie Midnight Run, and the sci-fi landmark Alien. Saul was familiar with Alien, and soon we were swapping stories about the most disturbing films we’d ever seen. I happened to mention (as I often do) that the community I grew up in tended to condemn movies as “corrupting and worldly influences.”

“You must be a ‘recovering Christian,” Saul snarked with a knowing smile.

I laughed. “Yes and no.”

“But you left all of that toxic religion behind,” he said, eager for me to affirm this.

We shared an uncomfortable silence as I weighed my response. I knew that I was being tested. I had stumbled unwittingly into a conversational minefield, and I needed to step carefully. This inquisitive stranger seemed eager for me to join him in lamenting the awfulness of Christianity.

“No,” I finally admitted. “No, not really. But let me explain what I mean: I don’t subscribe to the cultural Christianity prevalent in America. That’s a religion that prioritizes nationalism, white supremacy, and a very selective and self-serving moralism. But I do believe in Jesus — what he teaches, what he does. I believe Jesus is a revelation that God is Love, and that anything contrary to that Love is not God. So, yes I am ‘recovering’ — but I’m recovering from distortions of Christianity, not from the Gospel itself.”

It was like I had lit a match and tossed it into a barrel of kerosene.

My new friend was visibly aggravated. He began accusing me of “endorsing” and “promoting” a religion that is responsible for many of the most heinous crimes against humanity throughout history. And much of what he said can be easily supported with evidence from the Scriptures: “The Bible endorses slavery.” “The Bible has passages telling men to beat their wives.” “The Bible is full of some of the most horrible things human beings have ever believed.” His litany of complaints became more aggressive and more personal. “If you’re a Christian, then you believe the Bible. And if you believe the Bible, then you worship a god who commands us to do these things. Christianity is a rapist’s religion.

How does one respond to such challenges in a crowded cafe?

In this corner, we have a man who believes that Christianity it a toxic influence in the world. And in this corner, it’s me: a man who embraces Christianity as a path into “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” How can two people like me and Saul hope to have a meaningful conversation and find our way to a peaceful resolution?

A similarly heated confrontation is the crux of the conflict in The Wonder.

Anna’s family is attracting attention. Her family claims she’s on in the fourth month of a fast from all food, and yet she shows no sign of deterioration. She claims, rather, to be living on a diet of “manna from heaven.” Her mother (played by Elaine Cassidy, Kila’s real mother) swears her daughter is telling the truth. And thus, Anna’s fame is growing. Some are even murmuring about the possibility of sainthood.

So a council of men (you may recognize veteran actors Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and Brian F. O’Byrne) has decided to put matters to the test. They want to be able to say they’ve done their due diligence and investigated the matter thoroughly. They aim to determine whether or not Anna’s survival is a sign from God or some sort of trick. So, sitting solemnly behind a long table, they interview two visitors who they have asked to watch Anna vigilantly: a nun and an English nurse.

But more and more believers are coming to Anna’s house, eager to see what they believe is a miracle. Is Lib an enemy of faith, sent by the devil to sow doubt and division? Or is she, in her quest for understanding, an agent of love and wisdom?

Lib Wright is a woman aptly named.

She is a free thinker (“Lib”) and she is convinced that she is… right. Jaw set, eyes blazing, she marches into what she suspects is a conspiracy determined to catch Anna and her family in whatever trick they’re performing. She won’t be easily swayed to the idea that God is at work her. She’s lost too much — a child, a husband, and more. And so she’s a bloodhound for truth, even if that truth is too painful for anyone else to face.

And yet, while Lib takes her detective work seriously, she refuses to jump to any conclusions. Thus, William, a brusque and pushy journalist (played by Tom Burke), finds he cannot easily persuade Lib to conclude that Anna is simply “an actress.” In fact, his commitment to covering Anna’s case suggests that he might be harboring deeper questions about the mystery himself. After all, both he and Lib have deep scars in their recent history, scars that amplify their desire to know the truth even as they become fiercely committed to this child’s well-being.

And so, Anna is caught in the middle — like the infant child torn between two possible mothers in the courts of King Solomon. Should she be trusted? How much of her self-knowledge has been shaped by her zealous Christian community? How differently might she understand the circumstances if she were to prioritize reason, as Lib does? Which perspective reveals the truth? Which plan of action is more loving?

Everyone involved here believes they’re doing the right thing. Anna’s community see those who would disbelieve Anna as enemies of God. Lib believes that anyone who prioritizes religious speculation over the child’s heath and survival is dangerous and deluded. Some act as if those who threaten their traditional values are unfaithful to God. But Lib believes in loving and serving the patient in front of her first, even if it means separating Anna from her family in order to observe her more closely.

The stage is set for violence of one kind or another. Either the community will tear Anna away from Lib in order to protect their notion that God is performing a miracle through Anna, or Lib will isolate Anna for rigorous observation to find a reasonable explanation. Either outcome endangers Anna.

Which way is the purer demonstration of love?

The Wonder may not stand up alongside the greatest cinematic works of religious art. But then again, it might.

Only time will tell, as we return to it again and again and delve deeper into conversation.

Cinematographer Ari Wegner (who also shot Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog) gives us an 1800s Ireland of muted colors — grey, black, blue, lavender — that accentuate the starkness and coldness of the spiritual landscape, amplifying desperation and hardship. I am not enthralled by the composition of the film’s imagery — like most literary adaptations, the film works as an elegantly illustrated version of an abridged text.

Thus, I wouldn’t rate it alongside films like those of Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, or Terrence Malick on such subjects. I think it’s probably best considered in relationship to other, more “accessible,” more mainstream films about faith and doubt, faith and science, “Good Religion” and “Bad Religion.” I’m thinking of films like John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, or even Verga Farmiga’s Higher Ground, all of which are compelling and rewarding in ways that welcome large audiences without alienating viewers who aren’t as adept in navigating the demands of poetry. It also reminds me of Babette’s Feastin how it shows us a community in crisis, suffering the consequences of its own religious fundamentalism, and how they respond when an outsider with a more expansive philosophy brings new and threatening ideas into their community.

What I admire most about the filmmaking here is Pugh’s riveting performance. It’s a joy to watch this young actress of such tremendous gifts, pushing herself to greater and greater achievements in films beyond her disposable mainstream contributions like the episodic MCU stuff (Black Widow), “arthouse” fare that thrives on sensationalism and audacity (like Midsommar), or other “arthouse” fare boosted by lurid backstage drama and gossip (Don’t Worry Darling). This is, in my opinion, the best work she’s done since Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Pugh is so good here that while she is the film’s greatest strength, she highlights one of its weaknesses — the fact that so many great actors are present here filling forgettable roles as poorly developed secondary characters. (What is Ciarian Hinds doing here in such a thankless role?)

The certainty of those who believe Anna’s health is a meaningful miracle is shaken when Lib requires that Anna be separated from her family. They interpret this as cruelty, and based on the way Anna suffers from the separation, it’s hard to deny their objections. What should Lib do? who claim they are following God in this film is leading to excruciating suffering in the body, mind, and soul of a young girl. The woman who comes to their aid, and who does not claim to be religious, she believes in applying her intellect to the case of the suffering girl in the hopes of saving her life. And it is clear that she loves the girl, and will do whatever she can to save the girl.

And so we the audience are challenged. If God is Love, that raises a difficult question: Who here is showing the fullest measure of love for the suffering girl? Who here is really serving God? Isn’t this a perfect circumstance to ask “What would Jesus do?

I suspect I know what most viewers will think of this movie.

I suspect that those who hate Christianity based on the horrors they have seen human beings commit in Jesus’ name, horrors that have been defended with Scriptures taken out of context, will nod and point to The Wonder as a story about how religion ruins the world.

But I look at it and see good examples of how religious communities can misunderstand and then misapply the Scriptures. I also see good examples of people who are loving their neighbors (and, thus, loving God) at great cost to themselves.

Here is one of those stories in which the “religious” community has corrupted the vocabulary of the Gospel. And it is a figure from the outside, one not perceived as “religious,” who actually embodies True Religion. Nurse Wright reflects (inadvertently, I suppose) the ministry of Christ in the world. She embodies a marriage of intellect and heart for the sake of Love and Love above all, thus becoming an icon of the Savior in spite of herself — both a Marian figure, in her willingness to play a maternal role that opens her heart to harm, and (before it’s over) a Christ figure, complete with wounded hands — seeking to love, heal, absolve, and, yes, save one lost lamb from distortions and curses before it’s too late.

And this brings me back to the Monday confrontation, and how I decided to answer my challenger.

In this situation, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of having been categorized as a religious fanatic, challenged by a “reasonable” man. But here’s the thing: I share his frustrations with cultural Christianity. I cannot deny that the church is guilty of grievous crimes against humanity. The story I was sold about Christian faith was false, and yet the story that Saul believes is also false: Christians are responsible for horrible violence, and often act in ignorance; but the Gospel at the heart of Christianity is not at fault — in fact, it clearly condemns much of what the church, in its hypocrisy and weakness, excuses.

I decided it would be best to focus on common ground, at least at first. I assured Saul that I could relate to his anger: Yes, human history is loaded with evidence of professing Christians doing wretched things in Jesus’ name. As Max Von Sydow’s character says in the film Hannah and Her Sisters: “If Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.” I assured Saul that his grievances are shared by Jesus himself, who clearly and consistently condemns these obvious evils that his so-called followers perpetuate. Jesus promises us that many deceivers will commit evil in his name. To throw out his teaching is to throw out the wisdom that identifies such behavior as wicked.

My new friend pushed back: “The Bible is full of the worst teaching. And Christians believe the whole Bible is ‘God breathed.’ Christians believe that everything the Bible says comes from God.”

Some Christians,” I argued. “Maybe even the majority. But not all. Many treat the Bible as if it’s a big textbook full of facts and instructions, but that approach is a demonstration of ignorance and illiteracy. The Bible comprises books from different times, places, languages, contexts, authors, and literary genres. Some of its stories are historical accounts, some are parable, and some are poetry. Even those who organized and published what Christians call ‘the canon’ of Scripture never claimed that these texts should all be taken ‘literally,’ nor did they insist that every passage can be aligned without contradiction. Such narrow-minded approaches are recent developments that lead to damaging consequences. Those who read the Bible as a Book of Law to follow under the threat of hellfire, they are not only deluded, but they seem to ignore the teaching and example of Jesus himself.”

As I made my case for the defense, I knew that if I stopped to take a breath my challenger would fire another round of scattershot accusations.

And sure enough, he did. “How can you say God is Love when God instructs people to carry out abuse and murder and rape? And what about heaven and hell? If you’re a Christian, then you worship a merciless God who thinks it’s right to torture people for eternity. How is that Love?”

Saul seemed to suspend his attacks, at least for the moment. He really wanted an answer.

I will probably always wish that I had replied with more eloquence. Knowing my time was short and that others in the cafe were listening, I offered one last appeal — a “closing argument.” I didn’t record this conversation, so this reconstruction is close to what I remember saying. I suspect it was delivered clumsily. But as I fumbled for words, I was thinking about the difference between the way Anna’s her zealous, religious community responded to her claims, and how Nurse Wright approached them. So much of Anna’s religious context is shaped by a paralyzing fear of a cruel God; so much of Nurse Wright’s intervention reflects a Christ-like love.

“I’ve struggled with the same questions you’re asking,” I admitted. “But I’ve grown and changed in what I think the Scriptures are actually saying. At this point, we’re not so far apart, you and I, on what we care about. You’re reacting to a vocal majority who misunderstand and exploit the Bible for their own purposes. And you do that because you have a conscience. You do that because the idea of a cruel, merciless, legalistic god is abhorrent to you — as it is to me. And it should be.

“You see, I was taught that the Bible is something dictated by God and scribbled down by human puppets. But when I tried to apply that teaching, I ended up tying myself in crazy knots trying to reconcile the complexity of the Scriptures. The Bible never claims such things about itself. It is a multi-genre anthology — a collection of texts that show us how human beings have been on a slow and zigzagging journey of discovering the true nature of God. We’re not to accept all of it as prescriptive instructions for knowing right from wrong. Of course not! Much of it is poetry! And it is full of accounts in which people reconsider and revise what they understand about God. We need to decide what we think the heart of the matter is, and interpret everything else in the light of that.

“Many believers I know reject the horrors that have been done in Jesus’ name. That’s because they believe that the four Gospels are the heart of the Bible, the light that puts everything else in perspective. When Jesus arrives, we hear him say ‘You have heard it said about God that _______, but I now say unto you _______.’ And he then teaches and lives out a fearless and radical understanding of God.

“To Jesus, the Law is sacred, but it is sacred only insofar as it offers a set of ‘training wheels’ for Love. And, just like training wheels, Law can become a hindrance as much as a help. In the Gospels, we frequently see Jesus objecting whenever pious religious types remind him of the Law. When Law is exploited by those who want to preserve power at the expense of others, it is no longer God’s Law, but one that leads to destructive hierarchies, oppression, and violence. People who prioritize legalistic morality over Jesus’ example of love and grace, they’re the ones who make of The Bible into a source of horrors.

“The God of true Christianity is Love — and anything that isn’t Love isn’t God. Jesus contradicts what passes for ‘the Christian religion’ today by insisting that Love and Grace are the governing principles in God’s Kingdom, not moral legalism and judgement.”

The conversation changed at this point. Saul conceded that I was not preaching what he had assumed I would preach. And he was eager for me to read some of his favorite historians, writers who would cause me to revise my understanding of world history. I assured him that nobody would surprise me with any new examples of the evils that have been done in the name of religion. Nevertheless, I would be glad to investigate.

You see, my new friend is standing on stories that he and others have constructed, too. We all are. It’s how human beings are designed to function. But while it matters that we know the truth about history, it also matters if we respond with love or with… something else. Whether we’re talking about Nurse Lib Wright, Anna, Anna’s family, my new friend Saul, my new friend’s favorite historians, myself, or the community I grew up in — we can test the soundness of the stories these thoughtful people believe by the fruit such beliefs produce. Do our beliefs inspire love? Fearlessness? Compassion? Generosity? Grace? If not, they’re probably corrupt.

At the end of The Wonder, it’s clear that there are layers upon layers of storytelling going on. Some might conclude that Nurse Wright is heroic because she rejects religion. Me, I see in her an image of True Religion. As she pursues the truth, the truth is setting her free — and others as well — from a false religion. At the end of the film, we can see that she is still struggling within a variety of oppressive cultural hierarchies. But look at the difference she’s making as she acts upon the truth that she discovers. Look at how she loves.