Judging King Kong by its Cover: The Aping of Beauty — by Crystal Downing

Image: Ahmet Sali, https://unsplash.com/photos/C0ByAjk01jM

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on November 17, 2021.

When visitors enter the museum at Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center, which archives work about and by C.S. Lewis and six of his British influencers, they are treated to an eye-popping display of 53 book covers from famous works: The Two Towers from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Lewis’s Perelandra, Sayers’s first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and more. For each book, covers are arranged clockwise by decades, beginning with the first edition and on into the twenty-first century. It is a fascinating survey in cultural values, covers differing dramatically as marketers seek to sell the exact same content to new audiences. Titled “Judging a Book by its Cover,” the display makes clear that astute observers judge historical contexts as much as narrative contents through changing book covers.

The same might be said about remakes of the same film content. The King Kong franchise provides a great example. The 2021 release of King Kong versus Godzilla reflects profound changes in historical contexts. The original King Kong, one of the few movies seen by C.S. Lewis, set records for film attendance when it was released in 1933. In it, a film crew travels to an isolated South Seas island where a 25-foot ape proceeds to kidnap the film’s starlet, Ann. Sailors and film crew conquer the beast, shipping it back to Manhattan to put on display. When King Kong breaks his chains, he escapes to the top of the Empire State Building with Ann in tow. On top of the skyscraper, he swats at biplanes reminiscent of flying pterodactyls he had battled from the summit of his island lair. When bullets finally bring him down, the film ends with the iconic line, “It wasn’t the airplanes; it was beauty killed the beast.”

Attentive viewers cannot help wondering if the giant ape symbolizes the cumulative gaze of moviegoers who habitually see beauty primarily in the sexualized female body. Indeed, in a scene cut from the movie when the Hays Code came into effect the following year, Kong smells his fingers after fiddling with Ann’s clothing. As famous film theorist Laura Mulvey put it in 1975, women on screen have tended to be coded as “objects of the gaze,” hairy or otherwise. In the 1976 King Kong, Jessica Lange plays the object of the gaze in a contemporary setting, Kong’s remote island discovered during a search for oil, clearly reflecting the 1970s oil crisis. In this movie, Lange actually returns Kong’s gaze, as though acknowledging a 1970s emphasis on women controlling their sexuality. (The fact that Jessica Lange was a fashion model who had never acted on screen before tells us about the producers’ actual object of the film.)

In 2005, Peter Jackson, famous for his Lord of the Rings movies, returned to a 1930s setting for King Kong in order to redirect the gaze altogether. In addition to highlighting the beautiful art deco architecture of Manhattan, he turns Driscoll, a sailor smitten with Ann’s beauty, into someone impressed much more with the beauty of words. Hired to write a screenplay, his Driscoll is called “Shakespeare” while on board ship due to his passion for literary art. Jackson also adds a young sailor, Jimmy, who quotes from Joseph Conrad’s 1901 novel, The Heart of Darkness. A liberal arts education comes in handy when watching Jackson’s three-hour film.

Jackson even changes Kong’s fascination with beauty. Entranced more by the actress’s vaudeville routines—her craft—than her beauty, the ape takes Ann to the apex of his mountain lair, ignoring her to watch the sun shed garments of red and orange as it sinks into the ocean. Enchanted as well, Ann repeats “It’s beautiful,” while patting her heart with her hand. The creature taps his own breast while wistfully watching an azure sea extinguish the flame that keeps at bay the heart of darkness.

At the end of the film, when Kong carries Ann to the Empire State Building, he stops climbing when he notices the sun rising over the waters surrounding Manhattan. Sitting down, Kong forgets not only the army chasing him but also Ann, who so wants to participate in his reverie that she yells up to him “Beautiful!” while tapping her heart. Not wanting to give up on one moment of beauty, Kong keeps watching the gorgeous skies while tapping his breast in reply.

At this moment, gun-toting biplanes rip through the russet-mantled dawn, and bullets pierce Kong’s heart. As his body falls in slow motion to the street below, a soft requiem accompanies his descent until we hear the iconic closing statement, “It wasn’t the airplanes; it was beauty killed the beast.” By keeping the 1933 framing device of a film crew making a movie, Jackson implies that the beauty of film is located not in human bodies but in artistic cinematography and editing, reflecting an era when film programs were flourishing at colleges and universities. *

Jackson and his co-writers finished drafting their new King Kong script in February of 2004, the exact same month that Facebook was launched. After receiving numerous award nominations, the film was available on DVD by March 2006, four months before the launch of Twitter. And that sea-change may explain the narrative of the recent Godzilla vs. Kong (2021), which highlights our contemporary dependence on technology. Rather than beauty generating action, either for good or ill, this film presents a visually ugly culture that Kong and Godzilla attack. C.S. Lewis would have been fascinated by this radically different film, wherein a tech firm named Apex seeks to establish control by accessing the neural networks of a severed head: a plot point echoing the severed head in Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength (1945). Significantly, like the hairy bear and other animals that overrun the hideous technology at the end of Lewis’s novel, King Kong and Godzilla come to the rescue at the end of the 2021 film, defying the Apex of nature-destroying technology.

To understand that destruction, watch the superbly crafted documentary The Social Dilemma (2020), which shows how young people today are being remotely controlled by the seemingly disembodied heads of social media. Tap your breast if you agree.

* Some of the sentences above were borrowed from my essay “The Ape(x) of Beauty,” Cresset 69.5 (June 2006): 25-29.

“My Imagination Seems to Have Gone on Strike” by Kathryn Wehr, guest writer

Since the pandemic started, I have often been strengthened by reading Dorothy L. Sayers’s World War II letters, with their mentions of everyday shortages, inconveniences, and blocks in getting her writing work done. People throughout history have faced challenges – we’re not the first and we won’t be the last. Recently, I was at the Wade Center and came across a 1945 Sayers letter that struck me as something many of us today may be feeling about our own work.

A bit of context for the letter: before World War II began, Sayers wrote two plays for a festival put on by the Friends of Canterbury CathedralThe Zeal of Thy House and The Devil to Pay – and she worked closely with Margaret Babington, the Steward of the Friends and organizer of the festival. As the war came to a close, the festival committee began to think about staging a full-scale festival again, with fundraising focused on repairing damage by German bombs to Cathedral precinct buildings (including, it appears from earlier letters, Babington’s office). Babington asked Sayers to write a new play for the 1946 festival.

Sayers replied that she would not be able to do so, as she was already engaged in writing one for a similar festival at Lichfield Cathedral – a project which became her play The Just Vengeance. She wrote,

“…I also have to admit that I am finding the Lichfield show very difficult, because what with the War, and one thing and the other, my imagination seems to have gone on strike and I can only dig up ideas with appalling difficulty. This is one reason why I was very thankful to get a publisher for the Dante, which being a translation does not call for the same kind of creative effort as an original work.”

Unpublished Letter from Dorothy L. Sayers to Margaret Babington, October 8, 1945, Dorothy L. Sayers Papers, Folder 294/21, Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.

I love this little window into Sayers’s work as a writer. She had had a particularly fruitful period of writing during the war (1939-1945) including two of her best-known works: the non-fiction theology of the artist The Mind of the Maker, and the mammoth twelve-part radio series on the life of Christ for the BBC, The Man Born to be King. Her imagination had been hard at work but suddenly now it had “gone on strike.” I find it very heartening that Sayers too sometimes had creative blocks and could “only dig up ideas with appalling difficulty.”

This gives a helpful point of reflection for us today. Many of us sprang into action at the start of the pandemic, but are now wearied by the ups and downs, the confused messaging, and political polarization. We feel stuck and unable to draw upon our old inner resources. The news sites are full of talk of the “Great Resignation” as people feel they cannot continue as they have been. Perhaps a change can be as good as a rest.

For Sayers, that meant a sudden shift in work toward Dante’s Divine Comedy. Inspired by Charles Williams’s book about Dante, The Figure of Beatrice, she grabbed Dante’s Inferno, on the way to the bomb shelter in August 1944 and fell in love with it. It was a love that would fuel her work in translation of the medieval poem itself, articles, and speeches for the rest of her life – until her death in 1957 just before she finished translating the Paradiso.

Sayers underplays her creative work with translating Divine Comedy in the letter above, but it is interesting that she notes how it uses a different area of her brain and therefore a new work was able to flow. We see she had found gratitude for finding a good publisher (Penguin Books).

Hers was a ground-breaking translation in contemporary language that introduced Dante to a wider English-reading audience than ever before. But, of course, she did not know that yet.

 The end of this 1945 letter also holds a timely reminder for patience and gratitude in our current supply-chain hold-up, which pales in comparison with wartime rationing, especially in Britain, which lasted until 1954 (6 years of war plus 9 years afterward!). Babington had mentioned she was about to leave by boat for America for several weeks and Sayers’s mind jumped to the lighter food and clothing rationing restriction in the United States. She wrote,

“How exciting for you to be going to America. I hope you will have a good time there. I expect you will find everybody looking shockingly overdressed, and sitting down to meals which will strike you as almost sinful abundance…”

Ibid.

Where do you feel stuck in your work today? You are not alone. Sometimes everyone’s creativity goes on strike and the old ways of working become like stirring molasses. Perhaps you can follow Sayers’s lead and try something new, to find a new type of productivity and creativity. Her Dante work called upon Sayers to dust off her Oxford training, her skills in translation, her first love of poetry, her skill and playfulness with vernacular language, her years of giving addresses to groups, and writing articles – it was arguably the most integrated and satisfying work of her life. Perhaps your next move might even be yours.


Kathryn Wehr is a Dorothy L. Sayers scholar and the editor of a forthcoming Wade Annotated Edition of Sayers’s The Man Born to be King (forthcoming 2022, IVP Academic). She holds a PhD in Divinity from the University of St Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. She has also started a YouTube series with highlights of Sayers’s wartime writing.

Permission for use of excerpts from Sayers’s letters was granted by the Trustees of the Estate of Dorothy L. Sayers/David Higham Associates.

Shocking Our Socks off the Mantle — by Crystal Downing

Image: An army of Lindt chocolate Santas by photographer Mark König on unsplash.com/photos/QhxkFSNO_TA.

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on December 14, 2020.

Annoyed by plump plastic Santas perched on suburban lawns, I was suddenly struck by the relevance of my scholarship to cultural conceptions of Christmas. In my November CSR blog, I discussed the need for Christians to avoid an “economy of exchange” in their vocabularies about salvation, and this time of year we can’t help but see how “exchangism” is nurtured by tales of Santa, who rewards those who behave the right way: the quid pro quo that informs most religions. One plastic Santa near my house actually has the words “Believe” written over the gifts in his sleigh, as though to say that belief gets you consumer products in exchange. Ironically, Christians who repudiate the idea that “all religions lead to the same God” nevertheless make Christianity sound like most other religions when they preach that one gets salvation in exchange for belief.

Joining Santa on the sleigh are promoters of Docetism, the heresy I aligned with Christian film scholarship in my October blog. The name based on a Greek word that means to seem, Docetists held that Jesus only seemed to be human, an illusion that gets reinforced at Christmas. Traditional heart-warming images of “gentle Jesus meek and mild” have subverted the amazement we should feel over the outrageous fact that Creator God, who sustains the universe, entered into history by taking the form of a vulnerable baby that pooped and cried and burped and teethed. As far as Docetists are concerned, a pious Christian would never use the word “pooped” in a sentence that contains the name of God. Indeed, Marcion, a second-century Christian Bishop, regarded the Incarnation as “a disgrace to God” because the human body is “stuffed with excrement.”1

Dorothy L. Sayers, introduced in my September blog, believed that dogma about the Incarnation should knock our socks off. In a 1938 essay called “The Dogma is the Drama,” she wrote, “Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious.” She did, indeed, shock the pious, many of whom seem to prefer the comfort of what she called “that Docetic and totally heretical Christology which denies the full Humanity of Our Lord.”

Docetism is still alive and well, as I discovered in my early years as a Christian college professor. As recounted in Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers, “I got in trouble with a parent of one of my Christian college students because I mentioned, while teaching the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, that Jesus was tempted by lust. Incensed, the parent called my department chair, demanding that the college fire me for such blasphemy, her daughter evidently unaware that I was alluding to a famous verse: ‘For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning’ (Heb 4: 15).” Fortunately, my department chair was more committed to Christian orthodoxy than to pleasing parents, and she handled the controversy with aplomb.

Sayers generated far more controversy than I did. She, in fact, caused one of the biggest religious scandals in 20th century England due to BBC radio plays about the Incarnation. Wanting her 1940s listeners to understand that Jesus was born into history, not into the Bible, she refused to use King James English for the plays, having her working-class disciples speak the working-class slang of her era. Worse, some of it was American slang! Christians all over England set up a censorship campaign, not only writing letters to Winston Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury demanding the plays be taken off the air, but also sending Sayers hate mail and threatening phone calls. One protester suggested that the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 was God’s revenge for the broadcasts. Talk about an economy of exchange!

Fortunately, Sayers refused to back down. And, as a result, thousands of people who would not normally listen to religious programming tuned in to the radio plays simply to relish something that had shocked conservative Christians, never anticipating that they themselves would became shocked—although for very different reasons. Due to Sayers’s colloquial language, they finally understood the radical implications of the Incarnation: if the tiny babe, born in a manger, was both fully human and fully divine, that means God was murdered on the cross. It knocked the empty stockings off their Christmas mantles.

Committed to the subversive message of the Incarnation, Sayers addressed the problem of “Father Christmas,” who was the Santa Claus of her era and location. As she suggested in a letter to someone at the BBC, when people go through difficult times in their lives, all too many simply “cry aloud to the Father-Christmas-God who was the only God they had ever heard of”: a God that operates according to the economy of exchange that grounds most religions. She then proceeds to follow up with the shocking truth of the Incarnation: “God was not in the nursery, handing out presents to good boys—He was on the cross beside them.”

Footnotes

  1. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 75.

WALTER HOOPER INTERVIEW

When Walter Hooper was interviewed by Christopher Mitchell, director of the Wade Center, in October 2009, Hooper asked that one sensitive portion of the oral history remain confidential until after his death. Accordingly, he made the following statement in expectation that it would be made public at the appropriate time. Walter Hooper died on December 7, 2020, and the Marion E. Wade Center seeks to respect his wishes by publishing verbatim the interview transcript below.

WALTER HOOPER INTERVIEW

Date: October 21, 2009

Location: The Marion E. Wade Center

Interviewer: Christopher Mitchell

Wade Call Numbers: OH / SR-83 & OH / VR-31

THIS PORTION RESTRICTED UNTIL AFTER THE DEATH OF WALTER HOOPER

Transcription

Mitchell: This portion of the oral history interview is just giving an opportunity for Walter to just address some issues that he personally has an interest in and this will remain confidential under his own guidelines.

Hooper: Yes, I felt that I should perhaps set the record straight about one thing I know about, so that there will be, at least, some pure–some real knowledge about this. Many people, I feel, are unduly interested in whether Lewis had an affair with Mrs. Moore, and this has been a very difficult thing for me to deal with over the years. I intimated perhaps a little bit of this when I said that the problem of writing—of editing Lewis’s diary back in the beginning early 90s was that I knew more than I felt I was willing to say about Lewis and Mrs. Moore in the introduction. And when I got to New York to discuss this with John Feroni, who is the editor of Harcourt Brace who were publishing the book, I told him in confidence what my problem was and anyway we, he—he said “Let’s bring Jim Como into this.” And so Jim came there and the three of us discussed that. And then over the next couple of days Jim Como helped me to revise the introduction so that I didn’t give away everything but I at least could say, see John felt you dare not say anything which is simply untrue. So what we tried to find is a way of explaining the relationship between those two people without giving away his secrets or her secrets. But anyway, people still speculate. My knowledge of this comes from Owen Barfield almost entirely, not from Lewis himself—I didn’t discuss Mrs. Moore with him, and really why on earth would he discuss her with me? But anyway, Owen Barfield told me that yes, Lewis told him there had been a sexual relationship and it began really at the time, right after he came out of the army. And he, as he himself has said about himself he was not a moral man at that time. He believed in morality, he believed in goodness, but anyway, he–they did have an affair. And it lasted until Lewis was converted to Christianity. And Lewis told Owen Barfield that part of his reparation for all of that took the form of, first of all he stopped having the sexual relationship with Mrs. Moore as soon as he was converted to Christianity, and he thought that his penance should be and was looking after that lady for the rest of his life. I don’t think, in any event, I can’t imagine him getting rid of Mrs. Moore. But you can see that this is part of his penance, you know, and I think that penance went as far as he could, right up until he visited her everyday even in the nursing home. So I felt it should be—this is as close to coming from the horse’s mouth as you can get. And I think—Owen thought, I should know the truth as I was spending so much time writing about Lewis that it, it wouldn’t have to say anything about this, but at least I could know what was the truth of the matter. So I felt I don’t want to go out and tell people about this. I see no—I don’t see that I have any reason to say anything about it, nor do I think they should be so inquisitive. I really don’t see why it is such an important issue. But anyway, they did, and he himself told Owen Barfield about it, and Owen felt he should pass it on to me, and now I pass it on to you.

Mitchell: Well, thank you Walter. Anything else that comes to your mind that you would like to share?

Hooper: I can’t think of anything at the moment. Thank you very much though.

Mitchell: Walter, thank you very, very much. [End recording]

©2009 by the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Illinois. All rights reserved.

FILM REVIEW by David Downing: “The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C. S. Lewis”

Max McLean, of the Fellowship for Performing Arts, has proven me wrong twice.

I have written a book called The Most Reluctant Convert (InterVarsity, 2002), tracing C. S. Lewis’s journey to faith in his teens and twenties. When I saw that McLean had written and performed in a one-man play with the same title, I felt sure that Lewis’s memoir, Surprised by Joy, couldn’t be successfully adapted for the stage.

Lewis’s account of his own journey to faith is a fascinating read, but it doesn’t contain much in the way of drama. It is a heady fusion of many strands in Lewis’s life—intellectual, imaginative, emotional, and interpersonal. In recounting all the key elements in his early life—his mother’s death when he was nine, his mercurial father, the trauma of boarding schools and the trenches of World War I—Lewis organizes his life experiences around a central motif: the search for Joy. As Lewis used the term, Joy is a longing for the unattainable, a pang that is also a pleasure, a quest for some lost paradise. As Lewis recounts the many experiences of Joy in his early life, he comes to realize that the Joy he is seeking can only be found in Christian faith, embracing the One who seeks us even as we seek him.

Image courtesy of Fellowship for Performing Arts

When I saw Max McLean’s one-man play “The Most Reluctant Convert” before a packed house, my skepticism vanished in the first ten seconds of the performance. Instead of starting out with some reassuring religious bromides, the show opens with a rather frowsy-looking middle-aged man in his study offering a piercing and eloquent defense of atheism—the vast, empty universe; the seemingly accidental and meaningless nature of life on earth; the inevitable suffering that occurs in all human lives. These words, taken from The Problem of Pain, put the audience on notice that Lewis felt the force of atheism, that he did not turn to faith for mere emotional comfort, but rather as a culmination of a rigorous intellectual investigation.

In passages taken mostly from Surprised by Joy, but with strategic insertions from Lewis’s other books, McLean does indeed provide drama, as well as humor, poignancy, and keen observations about the human condition. When Max’s performance ended, the crowd leapt to its feet in a standing ovation, including several non-Christian friends of mine in nearby seats.

Image courtesy of Fellowship for Performing Arts

As much as I reveled in the play “The Most Reluctant Convert,” I had my doubts about it being turned into a movie. Films based on plays are often static and stagy–long on dialog, but short on scenery and action. But this film proved me wrong again. It includes most of the dramatic monologues in the play, but this time Lewis’s reminiscences are recounted dramatically. We not only hear about but also get to see scenes surrounding Lewis’s mother’s death, his eccentric father, and the even more eccentric tutor Kirkpatrick. Equally vivid are the scenes of combat in World War One and the beauties of Oxford and its surroundings. I would have enjoyed this film with the sound turned off, as the portrayal of cozy pubs, the quaint and quiet English countryside, and the gleaming spires of Oxford evoke some of my fondest memories and my own experiences of Joy.

Of course, the visual luxuriance of the film is suitably accompanied throughout by evocative and well-scored music, and penetrating, piquant narration—both in the form of voice-overs and soliloquies addressed directly to the audience. One leaves the film feeling that it is not just about Lewis’s story, but about all our stories.

Image courtesy of Fellowship for Performing Arts

I end my thoughts here with one quibble and with one compliment. The quibble is that the film begins and ends with the framing device—shots of the film-making process–reminding us that we are watching a movie about C. S. Lewis. I would have preferred to “suspend disbelief,” to immerse myself in Lewis’s life and his thoughts and not to be reminded that this is all an artifice. As for the compliment, what a delight it was to see my friend and eminent Lewis scholar Michael Ward playing the local vicar—with a full head of hair!

The film will be released nationally on November 3. Go see it, and take your friends, if you like C. S. Lewis or Max McLean or meditative memoir or film biography or Oxford or England or Ireland or country churches or cobblestones or spires or spiritual quests or beer or books or boats or winding streams or witty conversations. If none of these things interest you, you may need to wait for the next film to be produced by the Fellowship for Performing Arts.

For more information: www.cslewismovie.com

Theo-Drama and Mise-en-Scène — by Crystal Downing

Image Source: Alex Litvin, https://unsplash.com/photos/MAYsdoYpGuk

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on June 28, 2021.

In my current book project, The Wages of Cinema: Looking through the Lens of Dorothy L. Sayers, I argue that full appreciation for the relationship between Christianity and film necessitates knowledge about the history of theater: a word that comes from the Greek “to see.” Seeing the medium, whether on stage or screen, echoes one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity: “we wish to see Jesus,” an embodied medium of salvation, who proclaimed, “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness” (John 12: 21, 46). To grapple intelligently with the relationship between Christian belief and film—both of which bring light into darkness—one must understand what both have inherited from the stage.

As is well known, the seeds of narrative cinema were incubated on theatrical stages. In the silent era, filmmakers often adapted stage plays, like those starring Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), who reprised her famed theatrical roles for the screen. When “talkies” took off in 1927, studios recruited Broadway playwrights to compose dialogue. French filmmaker Marcel Pagnol went so far as to argue, in 1933, that “talking films” demonstrate “the art of recording, preserving, and diffusing theater.” Even into the 1960s, as James Monaco notes, “Much of the best British cinema . . . was closely connected with the vital theater of that period.” In addition to common words borrowed from theater—director, protagonist, prop, lighting—one of the most important terms in film theory comes from the French stage: mise-en-scène, which originally referred to everything theater audiences saw on the stage in any particular scene.  In cinema it means everything audiences see on the screen in any particular shot.1

Even denouncers of theater and cinema have much in common. In his magisterial work Theo-Drama, Hans Urs von Balthasar outlines the anti-theater teachings of Christian theologians like Tertullian (160-220 CE) and Augustine (354-430 CE), polemics that anticipate the anti-movie attitudes of Christians in the twentieth century. When bishops at the Fourth Council of Carthage (399 CE) wanted to excommunicate anyone attending theater on a Sunday, they adumbrated followers of Canon William Sheafe Chase, pastor of Brooklyn’s Christ Episcopal Church, who proclaimed in 1908 that attending cinema on the Lord’s Day was a “desecration.” In 1909, Pope Pious X authorized a decree prohibiting priests from entering film theaters in Rome—not just on Sundays, but at any time.2

This genealogical connection between stage and screen is essential to The Wages of Cinema, because theater, having nurtured narrative cinema from its very start, developed in response to the wages of sin. As Sayers succinctly puts it, “All drama is religious in origin.”3 While Jews were sacrificing lambs to Yahweh, the Greeks were sacrificing goats on their altars to Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. Both forms of sacrifice were about new life: the sacrifice of the Jewish lamb for reconciliation with God, the sacrifice of the Greek goat to guarantee the resurrection of crops in spring. Furthermore, like the Hebrews who sang and danced in honor of Yahweh (Ex 15:20-21), the Greeks performed hymns called dithyrambs in honor of Dionysus.

Theater began with the embellishment of these dithyrambs, as choruses of up to fifty males danced around the sacrificial goat while singing stories about the life of Dionysus. The event became known as “the goat song,” from which we get our word “tragedy”: tragos = male goat; aeidein = song (or ode). A tragedy, then, establishes that a sacrificial goat (or lamb) must shed its blood in order for human life to continue. This explains the plots of classical tragedies, where powerful individuals, having defied the gods and/or human laws, must suffer the wages of sin in order for harmony to be restored to society.

Shockingly, Dorothy Sayers believed that some people might benefit by reading classical playwrights more than by reading the Bible. In a 1950 letter to a woman who kept prodding her renegade brother to read Scripture, Sayers writes,

[H]onestly, if anybody implored me “in every letter” to read the Bible and quoted texts at me, I should feel an unregenerate urge to throw the sacred volume straight out of the window! . . . The Pharisees, after all, read their Bibles from cover to cover, and were none the better for it—they might have done better to wrestle with the great human problems of Aeschylus or Euripides.4

An outspoken defender of Christian orthodoxy, Sayers valued the Bible greatly, studying the Greek New Testament and Bible commentaries in preparation for radio plays she wrote about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—plays that Christians tried to censor in the early 1940s because Sayers did not use King James English. But that experience made her realize how often Christians, rather than reading the Bible as a guide for faith and practice, instead make a fetish of it, idolizing its language. 

Sayers’s privileging of Greek playwrights over “bibliolaters,” as she calls them, reflects how “Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides,” in the words of Diarmaid MacCulloch, “explored the depths of human tragedy and folly, in ways which have never been surpassed.” Dramatizing the wages of sin, classical theater “crystallizes the most profound dilemmas in human life,” establishing a need for salvation.5 Sayers, of course, believed that redemption from life’s “most profound dilemmas” comes only through accepting the gift of forgiveness made available through Christ’ death and resurrection. However, rather than quoting Bible verses out of context to support theological and/or political positions, Sayers repeatedly encouraged Christians to study the contexts of Scripture, including the history of canon formation and the historical contexts of biblical authors who sought to describe the mise-en-scène of Jesus Christ. Some of these contexts, as Sayers well knew, illuminate the influence of Greek theater on Scripture itself–influences that will be the subject of my next blog.

Footnotes

  1. Pagnol as translated and quoted in Robert Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 58; James Monaco, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 269; David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 2nded. (New York: Knopf, 1986), 119, 151.
  2. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol 1: Prolegomena, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), 93-97. Balthasar notes that, as late as 1917, Roman Catholic clerics were forbidden to attend theater (104n.52). Canon Chase is quoted in William Romanowski, Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 17; John P. Welle, “Early Cinema, Dante’s Inferno of 1911, and the Origins of Italian Film Culture,” in Dante, Cinema and Television, ed. Amilcare A. Iannucci (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 30.
  3. Dorothy L. Sayers, “Introduction” to The Man Born to Be King (1943; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 2.
  4. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, Vol. 3, ed. Barbara Reynolds (Cambridge, UK: Carole Green, 1998), 524-25
  5. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking Penguin, 2010), 35, 34. Sayers uses the term “bibliolaters” in her “Introduction” to her radio plays about Jesus, The Man Born to Be King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 3. 

The Fortress of Christian Higher Education — by Crystal Downing

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Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on June 10, 2021.

Decades ago, when I informed an acquaintance that I had accepted a tenure-track position at a Christian college, he shifted his eyes awkwardly before smiling out, “Sounds like a nice place to send my daughters.” I repeat the appalling comment—appalling on many different levels—in order to contrast it with a different kind of parental approach that has disturbed the professorate in more recent years. In March, 2019, the New York Times published an essay on “bulldozer” or “snowplow” parents who illegally clear the way to get their children into fortresses of financial success. Christian bulldozers seem to have a different fortress mentality, the enemy often being professors themselves. Several years ago a parent called during my office hours to protest the “C” his son received in my poetry course, saying “I thought you worked at a Christian college! What kind of Christian would do this to my child?” In these bulldozing incidents, institutions are regarded as bastions of (anything but) learning, bastions that must be conquered.

I started thinking seriously about Christian college as fortress while teaching at a secular university during summer term. Agreeing to help a student who was allergic to the inside of both classrooms and books, I met with Sue (as I shall call her) at an outdoor picnic table, upon which she placed a huge wooden box with a glass top. Inside was her textbook, which she read through the glass lid, turning the pages by inserting gloved hands into holes cut into the side of the box. Because Sue was both smart and conscientious we had great discussions, and at the end of the term she invited me to have dinner with her family to thank me for my help.

Because she was the daughter of a well-known pastor, I felt comfortable driving into the mountains where Sue lived with her mother and sister in a former logging cabin, all three sharing the same allergies. As I mounted the rickety porch, the door opened only enough to reveal a pair of lips, which asked me to spit out my gum in the woods across the road. After doing so, I remounted the porch, only to have the same lips tell me to go into the shed across the yard, undress, and put on the clothes laid out for me. Wanting to be sensitive to the special needs of my hosts, I put on the oversized outfit and shuffled my way back to the porch, discretely trying to keep the woolen slacks from falling to my ankles. This time, instead of the mysterious lips behind the door, a hand shot out—holding a shower cap to cover my hair.

Finally allowed to enter the cabin (feeling quite lovely), I noticed that every inside wall was lined with aluminum sheeting, all surfaces of wooden furniture were wrapped in aluminum foil, and a television stood behind thick glass in the fireplace. Fortunately, the women were so friendly that after our organically-grown dinner I felt free, despite my fashion dis-ease, to ask “What are your symptoms that necessitate such drastic measures?” After a long pause while glancing at each other for support, one finally answered with “We get irritable.” My reaction, though unexpressed at the time, was probably the same as yours right now. Though allergies are nothing to sneeze at, I wanted to hear about symptoms considerably more dramatic than irritability.1

Unfortunately, the history of Christianity is filled with stories of aluminum-lined fortresses, as when, in the 1940s, The Protestant Truth Society demanded censorship of BBC radio plays about Jesus because they failed to use King James English; worse, the plays were infected with the allergen of contemporary slang. The author of the plays, Dorothy L. Sayers, wasn’t killed by Christians as was Tyndale, whose English translation of the Bible, upon which much of the King James is based, was in its own time considered a debilitating allergen. When I start getting irritated by Christian resistance to new signs, however, I remember an incident in grad school when I was invited to dine with a group of ABD’s from another department. After someone made a sneering comment about the mental deficiencies of Christians, the hostess said, “Crystal is a Christian and she’s smart.” Suddenly ten pairs of eyes turned on me, excoriations on my character soon to follow: “Christians suppress women”; “Christians perpetuate racism”; “Christians are homophobic”; and so on. Somehow I was able to counter each attack: the closest thing to speaking in tongues I have ever experienced, the Spirit giving me words that subverted each attacker’s reason to denounce Christianity. I certainly wasn’t smart enough to do it alone (and they weren’t smart enough to ask really tough theological questions). As the group became quiet, their arsenal of objections depleted, one grad student finally said, “I wish Bill were here; he can argue better than we can,” and all nodded in agreement. In other words, rather than think, “Wow, this grad student has undermined every reason I have for refusing to take Christianity seriously,” they merely donned new shower caps. Christians aren’t the only ones sequestered in aluminum-lined fortresses.

This explains why I value a Christian liberal arts education. At its best, it gently removes shower caps from students terrified of new ideas and practices. Defying a bulldozing mentality, it dismantles aluminum beliefs in order to inspect them, to consider where they came from, how they block our vision and hence our understanding of people and ideas outside our house of faith. More often than not, after such an inspection, the lining will be nailed back up as important to the structural integrity of our house. But in the process of taking it down, Christian college professors help students look through the gap in the wall that the aluminum once covered up in order to understand and assess what is outside. Jacques Derrida called such a process deconstruction, explaining that “The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more so when one does not suspect it.”2 At its best, a Christian college encourages inhabiting the house of faith in a certain way: a way that is open to the other. Derrida, in fact, once defined deconstruction as “openness toward the other.”3

Significantly, the Greek word for “other” is allos—from which we get our word “allergen.”  Allos + ergon means other-work. Christian liberal arts allow the other to work on our thought–without, as Derrida specialist John D. Caputo summarizes, “surrendering the mastery of one’s house.” 4 The Master, instead, welcomes us in, shower caps or not.

Footnotes

  1. Except for the introductory paragraph, the preceding is extracted from my book Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication (IVP Academic, 2012), 167-68. The publisher gave me permission to quote, and I have made minor revisions for clarity.
  2. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (John Hopkins University Press, 1976), 24, his emphasis.
  3. Qtd. in “Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” in Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage, ed. Richard Kearney (Manchester University Press, 1984), 124.
  4. John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Indiana University Press, 1997), 355nt2.

Academic Freedom: From Ram-skit to Bull-dung — by Crystal Downing

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Image Source: Siora Photography, https://unsplash.com/photos/ZslFOaqzERU

Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on May 14, 2021.

Theater was very important to Wade authors. George MacDonald invited locals to plays in his home performed by his entire family; G K Chesterton, recognizing the power of theater, wrote several plays; and Dorothy L. Sayers transfixed England with her powerful theatrical productions. In fact, it was theater that turned Sayers into an outspoken advocate for Christian truth. In 1936 she was asked to write a play about the history of Canterbury Cathedral, and her life was never the same. Because all of these Wade authors recognized that drama was important to Christian tradition, this blog grapples with the subversive power of theater.

My first lesson in academic freedom came not long after completing my Ph.D., at which time I was invited to teach a course in Medieval Drama at a Research-I university. In addition to allegorical morality plays, wherein Everyman must negotiate attacks from the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, medieval playwrights dramatized Bible stories and legends about saints. Hence, in addition to the thousand-plus page tome my predecessor had required for the class, I added as a course text the Bible, introducing students to the hermeneutic tradition in order to establish that literary works must be understood within their historical and cultural contexts. Because it was a secular institution, I was very careful never to share my own faith in class, or even sermonize on doctrinal profundities in the plays. Instead, after providing sociological and theological backgrounds, I merely guided discussion about medieval words inspired by the Biblical Word.

It was tremendous fun. Students were shocked by the humor of medieval clergymen who wrote the plays, authors whom they assumed would be dour docents of dry doctrine. The fourteenth century Wakefield Cycle is a special delight. The Second Shepherd’s Play highlights a comically self-serving couple who hide a stolen sheep in a baby’s crib, only to be exposed by shepherds on their way to visiting the crib containing the baby Jesus. The tale of Noe is filled with slapstick fighting as Noah’s wife refuses to go aboard the ark Noah threatens to “smite” her while yelling “hold thy tong, ram-skit.” Students enjoyed learning how the medieval “ram-skit” follows the same pattern of linguistic sh/sk transpositions, as when the driver of a ship is called a skipper rather than shipper, or the shape of the land is called a landscape, not land-shape.

Even The Crucifixion of Christ, from the York Cycle, contains heart-breaking humor. As incompetent Roman soldiers struggle to nail Jesus to the cross, dislocating Christ’s limbs to fit the nail holes, their complaints about the job radically contrast with Christ’s silent suffering. Hence, when Jesus finally pronounces (in my transliteration) “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” the words had comic double meaning for the medieval audiences. And since my students had studied the biblical account, we were able to discuss that double meaning, if even as a literary trope.

At the end of the semester, I set aside the last day of class to review for the final. To start the discussion, I asked students to share the favorite thing they learned in class. I was floored when one said, “Before I took this course I thought Christianity was ram-skit [titters from students]; but now I recognize it’s far more profound than I ever realized,” multiple others endorsing his perception. Later in the day, a student visited during office hours to tell me that, as the daughter of a pastor, she had become a pariah when she had a baby out of wedlock at age 15. And then she said, “But after studying Medieval Drama, I know that Jesus still loves me.”

Similar comments about the profundity of Christianity were written on my course evaluations, which were the highest of my career. . . . Yet, I was never allowed to teach the class again, my load switched to the far less enticing “Seventeenth Century Drama Excluding Shakespeare.”

Soon thereafter I accepted my first tenure track position at a Christian Liberal Arts college. Later, when friends at secular institutions commented about limitations to “academic freedom” at a “religious” institution, I told them my Medieval Drama story, arguing that, as a Christian, I had as much academic freedom at my CCCU institution, perhaps more, than I did at a famous research university. One friend admitted I had a point and told me of an interaction with a Christian student at the secular college where he taught. This was a place where one professor bragged about proclaiming to students, “Christianity is ‘bull-dung’ and that’s not opinion; it’s fact.” When my friend asked the student why she didn’t attend the equally priced CCCU college near by, she answered, “I heard that professors at that Christian college make students grapple with the history of the Bible and theology, but I don’t want my faith to be challenged. I can ignore the prejudices of non-Christians.” I wish I could have assured her with words from The Flight into Egypt, a Medieval York play based on Mt 2:12-23. Joseph, holding the baby Jesus in his arms, comforts Mary as they prepare to escape Herod’s slaughter of the innocents:

I love my maker most of might
That such grace has grant me tille’s.
Now shall no hatyll [nobleman] do us harm:
I have oure helpe here in min[e] arme!

The Betrayal of Certitude — by Crystal Downing

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Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on April 12, 2021.

A Christian liberal arts education should undermine certitude: something I learned from Dorothy L. Sayers, whose twelve radio plays about Jesus were so cherished by C. S. Lewis that he read them every year until he died. In my new book, Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers (Broadleaf 2020)I recount how those plays challenge certitude. The publisher gave me permission to quote the following extract, which details the shocking way Sayers presents the character of Judas in her scripts, published as The Man Born to Be King in 1943.

Though she follows the biblical account of Judas committing suicide after betraying Jesus with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane, in her early plays she establishes that Judas is the most intelligent and committed of all the disciples. The first to recognize that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, Judas also realizes that he is a Messiah born to suffer. Judas will do anything to protect Christ’s mission, fully believing that humanity can be saved only through sacrifice. As he tells High Priest Caiaphas, Jesus “is the Messiah not of an earthly but of a spiritual Kingdom.” Sayers even has Jesus compliment Judas for his impressive “understanding, and courage,” calling them “great gifts.” Listeners were shocked, some to the point of outrage. Sayers had betrayed tradition about the famous betrayer!

But Sayers was quite intentional in her betrayal. She believed that to make Judas an obvious villain from the start would be an insult to the Son of God. It would imply either that Jesus was not smart enough to recognize Judas’s evil intentions, or that he was slyly manipulative, using a despicable man to achieve his own purposes—like something Herod might do. Very early in her writing process she wrote the BBC Director of Religious Programming to explain that Judas “can’t have been awful from the start, or Christ would never have called him.” And she proceeds to argue that Jesus was too psychologically astute “to have been taken in by an obviously bad hat.”

Sayers challenged conventional images of Judas, I believe, for another significant reason. Wanting both skeptics and Christians to see biblical characters as real and hence relatable human beings, she gave Judas a characteristic that tempts and corrupts the most earnest followers of Jesus to this day: certitude.

In contrast to the Jewish Zealots, Sayers’s Judas fully understood that Jesus did not come to lead a revolution against Roman oppressors. Convinced the Kingdom of God was to be spiritual, not political, Judas defended Jesus when others questioned his motives. But as Jesus became more and more popular, Judas began to worry that Jesus would abandon the role of suffering servant in order to satisfy his adoring fans. Then something happened that confirmed his suspicions: the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Mt 21, Mk 11, Lk 19, Jn 12). Much as politicians today enter rallies with fans cheering and waving signs, Jesus entered the city with admirers yelling “Hosanna” and waving palm branches. As a result, Judas thinks Jesus has fallen for the temptation of celebrity status.

What Judas didn’t realize is that a Zealot named Baruch, one of Sayers’s most important fictional additions to The Man Born to Be King, had contacted Jesus in advance, telling him that if he wanted to fulfill his political role as a revolutionary Messiah, he should ride a horse into Jerusalem. This would signal to the Zealots that Jesus was ready to have warriors follow him into battle in order to overthrow Roman control. But, Baruch adds, if Jesus is too timid to make war against political oppression, he should ride into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey. Judas, of course, saw only the triumphal entry, not realizing the symbolism of Christ choosing the donkey over the horse. Convinced that Jesus has sold out to political celebrity, Judas sells out Jesus to traditionalists.

Sayers’s Judas thus acts like many Christians today, certain that his interpretation of the truth was absolute—much as those who denounced Jesus for healing on the Sabbath were certain that their understanding of the truth was absolute. The Jesus-following Judas, echoing the anti-Jesus Scribes and Pharisees, trusted his own certitude more than he trusted Christ. Sayers thus implies that betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver is merely an intensification of the exchange that many Christians fall into. When culture cheers on disturbing new practices, we have a tendency to exchange our trust that Christ is in control for certitude that we know proper biblical behavior, picking and choosing Bible verses that reinforce our certitude. Seeing only the surfaces, we make absolute judgments, believing our certitude is a sign of faith.

I speak of certitude from personal experience. In my youth I was certain that Christians who did not baptize through immersion were heretical; Christians who spoke in tongues were demonic; Christians who endorsed the Sacraments were superstitious; Christians who drove horse-and-buggies were legalistic; Christians who smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol destroyed the temple of the Holy Spirit; Christians who had icons in their churches were idolatrous. In other words, only the interpretive tradition of my Christian denomination was authentically true.

Clearly, I had totally missed the profundity of Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Paul famously ends his sermon about love with, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (I Cor 13: 2, 13). Rather than love, I had made “faith” the “greatest,” but only my particular interpretation of “faith”—like Sayers’s Judas. Feeling contemptuous of Christians who did not interpret the Word of God the way I did, love did not abide with me. Even worse, I had exchanged faith for its exact opposite: certitude. I had made human interpretations more absolute than my Savior, failing to offer the gift of love to those who interpreted Scripture differently. Like Judas, I had betrayed Jesus.

This, of course, was Sayers’s point. Christians throughout history have similarly betrayed Jesus. Religious certitude led Christians to denounce and later burn the body of theologian John Wycliffe (1320-1384), not only because he translated parts of the Bible into English, but also because he questioned purgatory, transubstantiation, and other traditional beliefs of his day. Religious certitude led Christians to torture 16th century Anabaptists because the latter believed that baptism should be held off until participants could understand what it meant: a belief that subverted infant baptism, the tradition of their day. Religious certitude caused hundreds of Christians in 1940s England to denounce [Sayers’s] BBC radio plays about Jesus that failed to use King James English.

Ironically, according to Strong’s Concordance to the King James Bible, forms of the word faith and faithful appear around 350 times in Scripture, whereas the word certitude appears . . . wait for it . . . not one single time. Even the word certainty occurs a mere seven times, and, of its three instances in the New Testament, only one reference has to do with certainty about the Gospel message (Lk 1:4). The discrepancy, of course, is easy to explain: God calls us to faith, which is the opposite of certitude.*

*From Crystal Downing, Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers (Broadleaf Books, 2020). Reproduced by permission.

Amputating the Liberal Arts — by Crystal Downing

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Enjoy this post by Wade Center Co-Director, Crystal Downing, that first appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog on March 22, 2021.

As theaters, museums, and concert halls struggle during these covidious times, I worry about the respiratory system of the arts. Only a year and half after I took my current job co-directing the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, which archives the work of seven culture-animating British Christians, the center’s museum and research-room were shut down. On the plus side, a podcast we developed has over 50,000 listens from nearly 70 countries, including several predominantly Muslim nations. People around the world seem to crave insight about historical contexts, psychological and sociological tensions, theological issues, and artistic techniques that inform the fiction of authors like C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald. What they crave, in other words, is Christian liberal arts. (See wheaton.edu/listen/wade-center-podcast).

How might cinema satisfy this craving as well? One of the authors we archive at the Wade, J.R.R. Tolkien, has been called the father of modern fantasy fiction, and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films help celebrate his “sub-creation,” as Tolkien once called his work. Unfortunately, Jackson’s cinema success has led to a slew (perhaps a slough) of unreflective fantasy films and television series that merely feed appetites for other-world sex and violence, offering not a single original thought to digest. But there are exceptions, and I would like to focus on a film, available on Netflix, that grapples with the state of the liberal arts.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an unusual film, as is to be expected of a Coen Brothers production. Made up of six unrelated short “Westerns,” the anthology movie was nominated for numerous awards, the National Board of Review naming it one of the top ten films for 2018. Interestingly, the movie presents its stories as adaptations of tales from an old book, allowing viewers to see not only epigraphs to color plates that accompany each story in the book, but also the closing paragraph of each story—as though in acknowledgment of narrative cinema’s origins. The first story, the eponymous “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” spectacularizes what has made the Coen Brothers famous: outrageously silly parody, with brief moments of stylized gore that subvert any sense of realism. Serious cinephiles may feel like turning away to better fare. But if they continue watching, they will see that each succeeding story gets more serious, until the film ends eliciting reflections about the purpose of existence. It is as though the first film story draws attention to the state of contemporary cinema, wherein the biggest financial successes today—based on comic-book clichés—have little to do with topics that drive the liberal arts.

The second story is a bit more sober: more like television comedy than satire, with James Franco playing a humorously hapless bank robber. It is the third story, “Meal Ticket,” that delivers a powerful commentary on the liberal arts. Liam Neeson plays a laconic impresario who drives his wagon from town to town in order to display a man without arms and legs: a deformity that reflects historical realities from America’s Civil War. The amputee earns his “meal ticket” by powerfully reciting great literary works. Witnessing the articulate passion with which the amputee performs Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” passages from Shakespeare, and lines from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, educators cannot help being struck with the way great writing has fueled the liberal arts for centuries: not a topic often explored in cinema. Our hearts therefore break as we see fewer and fewer people turn out for the amputee’s breath-taking recitations, audiences preferring to watch a performing chicken.

There seems to be a similar turning away from the liberal arts today. The last several years before I accepted the job as Wade co-director, I taught English at a Christian college, where I heard more and more students say, “I would love to be an English major, but my parents won’t let me because there’s no money in it.” I, of course, gave the standard answer about the need in any profession for interpretive acuity and informed critical thinking, but to no avail. As in the aptly named “Meal Ticket,” many liberal arts institutions are turning into amputees, cutting off their theater, philosophy and language majors while investing in programs aligned with making money.

While the deleterious desire for money is merely suggested by “Meal Ticket,” the next film in the Coen anthology makes the problem blatant. In “All Gold Canyon,” a prospector played by a grizzled Tom Waits searches for gold in a gorgeous Colorado valley. Digging holes all over the countryside, he not only ruins the landscape but also drives away beautiful butterflies and a majestic horned stag. The search ends in death as another gold-digger seeks to benefit from the prospector’s work, as though endorsing John D. Rockefeller’s Darwinist praise of capitalism: “the growth of a large business is merely the survival of the fittest.”

The search for prosperity is more subtle in the next story, which focuses on a wagon train on its way to Oregon. Suggesting that it is more important to start a family with a God-honoring and gracious spouse than to discover an “all gold canyon,” the film nevertheless shows that “the best laid schemes o’ mice and men / Gang aft a-gley,” as Robert Burns famously put it.

The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” reminds me of another famous poem, this one by Emily Dickinson, who describes riding in a carriage: “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me.” The carriage in this last Coen story is transporting a corpse on its roof while five people underneath discuss the meaning of life. Unfortunately, the one Christian on board reduces faith to “moral and spiritual hygiene”: a clichéd reduction that Hollywood enjoys perpetuating. I left the film praying that Christ might better animate our culture through the liberal arts, if even in amputated form. Perhaps, rather than generating more Darwinian capitalists, Christian colleges can nurture fiction makers able to make foundational truths come alive through acts of sub-creation.