Welcome to Day Four of my new blog series on “accepting the world.” If you haven’t had a chance to read my previous posts, or if you’re confused about what “accepting the world” even means, click here to see all my posts up to this point.
Yesterday I had the “capital!” pleasure of seeing Greta Gerwig’s take on Little Women. (If you’ve seen the movie, you’ve already gotten the reference).
This won’t be a review, not quite. There are plenty of them out there. Suffice it to say that I think it was the best movie of the year, filled with gorgeous shots, fantastic acting, excellent writing, and the most Christian subtext you can possibly fit into a movie made by a non-Christian post-modern feminist.
Yes, that’s a lot to unpack. Have at it, if you like.
I’m going to focus on a single scene and what it suggests about “secular three” people, one of whom, I’m convinced, is Greta Gerwig herself.
What’s “Secular Three” Again?
In Charles Taylor’s huge book, The Secular Age, he begins by making a distinction between what most people traditionally assume all secularists to be (angry anti-Christian communists and atheists, aka “secular two”) and what many pluralistic secular people actually are. In his own words:
Secularism in this sense consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace… The change then is from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me whose way of living I cannot in all honestly just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least in God or in the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives.
As I’ve argued in my speech at the Ancient Faith Writers’ and Podcasters’ Conference in 2019,
“secular three” people are not inherently anti-religious. They are moved by transcendence and they are willing to see their reality in terms of metaphor and symbol. But they are unlikely to step into a church, unless they have nowhere else to go.
Lady Bird and the Catholic Church
This kind of person is perfectly brought to life by Saoirse Ronan in Gerwig’s previous movie, Lady Bird. After a series of personal disasters, which take up much of the movie, the titular main character realizes that nothing in life is quite so important as family, even if that family is an overbearing mother whom you’re having a hard time living with. But she only comes to this realization after she happens to wander into a church, almost as the last place she wants to go, and experiences a moment of transcendent beauty.
She is a character who craves meaning and beauty in her life, but she keeps missing it. She doesn’t expect to find it in a church, and only after all other options are exhausted does she happen to almost wander in.
The Christmas scene of not going to church
I immediately thought of that scene from Lady Bird as I was watching an early scene from Little Women. When Marmee comes back home from helping some “poor soul” on Christmas morning, she inspires all four girls to sacrifice their Christmas breakfasts to a poor family who has no food at all. The girls, grudgingly, agree, and we are treated to a cheerful scene of them all walking past a bunch of richly dressed church-goers entering a church for Christmas mass.
Of course, the immediate thought is clear: Gerwig is making a point about who is the real Christian. And initially I was a little annoyed at the on-the-nose-ness of it. But then I remembered a different scene in a different movie.
The Holy Fool Who Bows at the Side Wall of the Church
I hope you’ve seen Pavel Lungin’s The Island, possibly one of the best movies ever made. In one scene, the main character, who is a holy fool with a bit of an anti-establishment streak, keeps turning away from facing the altar during a service and bows instead at a side wall.
Initially, it seems that he is doing it to provoke everyone else. That certainly is how his fellow monks take his behavior. Only later does everyone figure out that he was showing, with his body posture, the direction in which a fire was breaking out in one of the monastery buildings. So by this momentary act of liturgical insubordination, he made a telling point about the fact that the Law is made for man, not man for the Law.
Both this scene and the March family marching past the church on Christmas to perform an act of Jesus-like compassion and mercy, of course, are a reminder to us that we shouldn’t be Pharisees. They are also subtle digs by filmmakers who are not mainstream believers about what they believe true Christians should be doing. But they are also another thing: they are a reminder about where we culture creators need to go to meet the people we wish to inspire and attract to the Light So Lovely.
We need to engage with “Secular Three” on its own turf
A recent commenter to my blog made a wonderful point:
Sadly, in the hurly burly of the post-modern, digitalized world we have largely forgotten how to behold, how to hearken. And to the extent that we have lost this mode of spiritual and mental refinement, we have lost the skill-set for becoming authentically Christian. How can we create an authentic Christian culture without authentically skillful Christians there with the spiritual-aesthetic wherewithal to behold it?
This is a trenchant criticism, one I think we should frame and hang on our walls. We must work on ourselves, as Ivan Ilyin says, to purify our own hearts, to make room for the Spirit to infuse our own spirit with His creative potential. And we must do this in the Church. But we should not stop there.
There are many “secular three” people who will not enter the space of the church, the space where this process of becoming-authentic-Christian is happening. They associate the church with the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, as that scene from Little Women shows. So we must go to them. We must meet them, as Greta Gerwig does, in the wild places where they create their own works of beauty, reaching for that Light So Lovely which they don’t even realize they crave, or at least not yet.
Because it’s a little bit sad that the most Christian movie of the last few years was made by a non-Christian.