What have we been taught about sin in the decades since the Asteroid? I don’t mean in the Church, because the Church has pretty much stopped talking about it. I mean from the real teachers of our times: the media, the thing that governs our wider culture. What has television advertising, for instance, taught us about sin? These ads, often featuring carefully lit, weirdly sexually suggestive, slow-mo clips of chocolate sauce being poured over sweet foods: “Sinfully delicious.”
“So,” our Post-Christian Modern Person could be forgiven for concluding, “sinful means really great and chocolatey! And I like chocolate! So, sin is great like chocolate. OK, I got it. Thanks, TV!”
In fact, pop-culture even goes one better. Not only is sin really great, sanctity is a big bore. Sanctity is like the socially awkward, homeschooled, fundamentalist Protestant cousin your mother forced you to hang out with at Thanksgiving. “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints…” Sinners are fun! Saints are a drag. Got it again. Thanks, pop music!
The idea that sin is bad has gone the way of genuinely scary and horrifying vampires. To most modern ears, sin is like a Twilight vampire; kind of sparkly with chiseled cheekbones and just dangerous enough to be thrilling to teenage girls. Sin is sexy.
There’s a lesson to be learned from the success of sin’s rebranding by modern pop-culture; that people aren’t complex or nuanced thinkers. And the modern un-nuanced thinkers have deeply internalised the simple message: sin = chocolate sauce and sexy vampires with cool cars. Sanctity = Ned Flanders, the contemptible fool with no dress sense.
In the face of this deeper understanding that our opponents have of human psychology, we few remaining Catholics Who Care are left helpless, with our boring, unsweetened Brussels sprouts of logic and reason, our heaps of medieval apologetics manuals and Latin axioms. It used to be that to sell all this, we had incense, candles, velvet, embroidery, frescoes, marble, gilding, precious gems, icons and polyphony.
Now we’ve got Fr. Feelgood in his polyester big-weave poncho and his backup band, the Birkenstock and Grey Ponytail Brigade. And in RCIA, this week, Sister Sideburns will tell us all about how believing in reincarnation is totally compatible with a Catholic understanding of transgendered rights!
Not much of a contest for the sparkly chocolate vampires, right?
Even when Hollywood does do genuinely scary horror, the “demons” are mostly just bogeymen with no moral reality or weight, and the “horror” mainly consists of jump-scares and mood lighting. Heck, that kind of demon was easy for a slip of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer to dispatch with a wooden stake and an ironic metaphor about high school dating woes. Gobs of fun!
The whole notion of “moral horror” has been abolished. Don’t remember what it used to look like? Take a look at the 1922 film Nosferatu. Or read the old Stephen King novel Salem’s Lot. The badness of bad is going to scare the daylights out of you in those. I started going to confession again because of a single utterly horrifying and monstrous scene in that book, the image of which is seared on my memory 32 years later.
Or you could watch this new Irish film I saw the other day, Calvary, one of the most relentless and brutal expositions of naked human evil that the film industry has produced in decades. I won’t give the ending away, but the trailer lays out the simple scenario: a good priest in a remote but very modern part of Ireland, receives a credible death threat in the confessional from a man who says he was sexually abused by a priest as a child. The priest debates whether to turn the man in, to flee or to face his destiny, all while continuing to do his best to continue to minister to his flock.
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“I’m going to kill you, father…” The down-to-earth Fr. James, a late vocation/widower with a troubled grown daughter in London, replies calmly, “Certainly a startling opening line.”
The man explains his motive: “I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent.” Killing a bad priest would only be natural and expected. But killing a good one, a priest against whom no one had ever said or thought a bad word, would send a message. He gives Fr. James a week to put his house in order. Then they will meet on the beach.
Fr. James, played with gravity and humane, flawed courage by Brendan Gleeson, spends the week continuing to deal with the odd cast of mostly unrepentant sinners he has been given by God to care for as best he can in his rural parish, with not a believer among them.
The adulterous woman in an “open marriage” with the local butcher, whose affair with an African immigrant car mechanic has started to become abusive. The local wealthy landowner whose wife and children have fled and who is facing ruin over a criminal investigation into his illegal financial dealings. The aged and cynical American writer, who has isolated himself on a nearby island to finish his last novel.
The bitter pub owner with a chip on his shoulder about the Church. The atheist doctor who berates the priest for his faith and spends his evenings chasing skirts and doing cocaine. The village idiot who wants to join the army to meet women and indulge his urge to kill other people. The policeman chased out of Dublin by the Catholic hierarchy for trying to expose a sex-abusing priest. His catastrophically emotionally and morally damaged rent-boy gay lover, who parades in front of the priest, and then verbally abuses him when the latter refuses to be seduced. And, perhaps just to add insult to injury, the shallow, officious and cowardly curate who cannot bring himself to care for his parishioners.
Fr. James, with little earthly hope of success, doggedly offers each of these people the forgiveness of Christ, and in turn each of them turns him away with various levels of disdain or contempt. Only on one occasion does any of them accept the offer; a young Romanian immigrant woman whose husband was killed in a car accident. After the priest gives the last sacraments to the dying husband, he sits with the widow in the hospital chapel. She asks why so few people have faith, and he responds that it is mostly because of suffering. She observes that if it is so easy to topple their faith, it couldn’t have been much of a faith to begin with, and he does not argue.
While Fr. James marches with heroically dry humour from one moral catastrophe to the next, his adult daughter comes to visit following a mental breakdown and half-hearted suicide attempt. The two have been distant since her mother died and James chose the priesthood. Their walks and picnics around the windy coast, and their eventual reconciliation, are among the film’s few light moments.
But during all this, the knowledge of the death threat hangs over him, and with each day that passes in his week of grace, the evil that had been in the background of life in the little coastal town becomes more manifest, and more violent. The unknown villain burns down the church, and the villagers mostly rejoice as for a just comeuppance. The hatred of the Catholic Church that has become such a background feature of Irish life comes roaring out, like a lion seeking whom to devour.
So hideous is the pressure, that on the night before the scheduled meeting on the beach, Fr. James cracks and returns to the solace of the bottle after decades of abstinence. That night, the pub becomes his Gethsemane as each in their turn the villagers who most hate the One the priest represents come to torment him. The next morning, he almost flees, hanging up the soutane and getting in his car. He gets as far as the airport and meets the Romanian widow who is taking the body of her husband back to their country. Reminded of who and what he really is, the priest turns willingly back to his Via Dolorosa.
The reviewers have called it a “black comedy” and if that’s what it is, it’s so black that very little comedic light escapes its event horizon. Others called it a “murder mystery,” but there is no murder and no mystery other than the mysterium iniquitatis. But the difficulties that secular reviewers seem to have had nailing it down only highlights the film’s main point: that we have forgotten what evil really is. We don’t know what to call it when we see it. But here it is, in all its stink and flat, depressing absence of love.
So overwhelming and grave was its exploration of the peculiar kinds of evil, banal, ugly and futile, to which we moderns are prone, that I and my friend, both professionally active in the pro-life movement for many years, could hardly say a word after it was over. We both sat silently, somewhat stunned, through the credits, turned off the player, then the lights, and just packed it in for the evening. It was not until the next day that either of us found the courage to discuss the film’s extraordinary power.
Calvary is a surprising examination of what goodness looks like when confronted with its opposite. The priest’s heroism shines like a beacon in the heart of utter darkness. And sin is clearly a bad, bad thing. Sin, in this film, including the most popular and celebrated kinds of sexual sin, is revealed as a source of self-hatred, of moral corrosion and even of insanity, that infects every aspect of the characters’ lives and personalities. Nothing is held back, and we meet the ugliness of adultery, homosexuality, divorce, abandonment and empty, loveless fornication. In the background of this are the deeper and even worse sins, of pride, of avarice, of betrayal, of pointless violence against innocents, of despair that rejects love and forgiveness out of sheer spite.
Calvary the film is no more for the faint-hearted, lukewarm sparkly vampire-loving viewer than Calvary the cosmic event. See it. But be aware that you will learn something you might not want to know.