Day 4: Little Women and “Secular Three”

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).

Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen and Florence Pugh in Columbia Pictures’ LITTLE WOMEN.

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.


  1. You got my attention with this one. Having trudged the road from Conservative Evangelical to Quaker silence to Episcopal liturgy, I can lay no honest claim to orthodoxy, but often, as time goes by, I see more of the One who is All and in all, in the souls I encounter beyond a steeple’s shadow than in those of us who warm pews on a Sunday, and the more I’m convinced that we are saved, not because we believe in God, but because God believes in us. By the time we reach the point where we begin to search for Christ, we have already been found.
    An authentic and unique Christian culture grows best with lots of fresh air and sunshine. When more churches have windows we look not at, but through, we will be closer home. Better yet, we might raise our hymns among the trees – before they’re all gone.

      1. Thanks for the translation. My store of languages is pretty thin. This exchange about windows and churches brings to mind Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel, which is practically all window. Perhaps this is what a life of faith does, brings the Outthere inhere, and pulls our in-here out-there.

  2. In reading this, I am reminded that we often forget how deeply scandalous Christ’s ministry was. He was accused of blasphemy, having a demon, being born of sexual immorality (which was another scandal itself), yet was ultimately vindicated in his resurrection.

    A favorite contemporary saint of mine is Maria of Paris. She was tonsured a nun but lived out in the world rather than a monastery. Her reasoning was that in the end, God will judge is towards our actions to others, not by how often we prayed or prostrated (Matthew 25:31-46) and it was to show others that if you are becoming a monk for ill gotten reasons, then you are violating the spirit of early Christianity that is preserved within monasticism. The scandalous are important reminders that the Law is good, but it is made for man, not man for the Law.

  3. I am so glad you mentioned Ostrov. An absolutely stunning film, but also one that, I believe, you need to have “the eyes to see”.

  4. This from the actual screenplay recently made public:

    All of the “proper” people of Concord are entering the local
    church, serving God in the traditional manner.
    The March family walks by, actually doing the Christ-like
    thing, instead of performing their faith.

    That whole sequence was something I didn’t catch the meaning of the first time I saw it, but of course is both directly intended, and obvious upon realization.

  5. It’s interesting to note that the director’s idea seems to be that, with her indication “real” religion consists of social action, liturgical worship is merely selfish entertainment and not communion with our Lord and God.

    1. well, she’s not a Christian, nor should we necessarily expect her to think like one. Honestly, I’m not sure that’s her idea at all. I’m not sure most secular people have any idea that liturgical worship is communion. We have to teach them that.

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