People who have known me long enough know I have an almost pathological hatred for a little film called Faith Like Potatoes. I wrote a review of it here. I tend to single this one film out, but it is merely the worst of a whole slew of “Christian” films* that follow a disturbing trend of sentimental emotionalism which present the movement of the Spirit as some kind of supernatural high. While I stand by my review of Faith Like Potatoes 100%, I have come to realize there is an adjective missing from that review which I’d like to discuss in this post.
The word is “pornographic”. A lovely word, isn’t it? It sounds as disgusting as it usually is – sort of like “flagrant” and “ulcer”. Yes, Faith Like Potatoes, along with its closest cousins, are porno films of the worst kind. First, some etymology.
The word is Greek, from pornos meaning prostitute (or more accurately, whore) and from graphein meaning to write. In the 19th century this morphed into the English word pornography, literally meaning to write about whores. Since then the word has gained a more sinister connotation meaning salacious and sexually explicit “entertainment” made solely for the purposes of titillation (there’s another one of those so bad it’s good words). The always helpful Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. (#2354)
The key phrase to remember here is “the illusion of a fantasy world”. In other words, porn is bad (among other things) because it takes sex and sells it down the river for the sake of instant gratification. One might use the analogy of the difference between a cigarette and a pipe. A cigarette is trashy and vulgar (at least from an aesthetic stand point) because it is quick, cheap, and easy, whereas a pipe takes time, effort, and practice and thus becomes, in a way, sacramental.
So what, pray tell, has this to do with sentimental Christian fiction (movies and otherwise)? In a 1957 essay for America, the master of Christian fiction Flannery O’Connor wrote:
Pornography, on the other hand, is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purposes, disconnects it from its meaning in life and makes it simply an experience for its own sake. (America)
Flannery O’Connor was notorious for her hatred of anything hinting of sentimentality, especially with regard to religion. She excoriated liberal Protestantism for its soft emotionalism in worship and in theology, and she was constantly on the hunt for it in her fiction. But her revulsion at Christian sentimentality, like mine, is far more deeply rooted than merely artistic preference. She connect sentimentality to pornography because she saw that the kind of wishy washy piety that dominated the Christianity of her time (and has only gotten worse since) was an attempt to seek instant spiritual gratification rather than enduring the purging fire of authentic Christian spirituality.
We lost our innocence in the fall of our first parents, and our return to it is through the redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.
This is what the counter-reformers would have labelled “cheap grace”, the reduction of grace to “unmerited favor” or a mere movement of the emotions. How often do we here of people bouncing from church to church, from communion to communion, looking for something that “inspires” them, which usually amounts to some concoction of a “cool” and “with-it” preacher, loud Contemporvant music, and lots and lots of tears? No thought is made of suffering in silence, of ritual, or of subjugating the emotions to the intellect. No! They want the Spirit now, dammit! But the Spirit blows where it wills. Apostolic spirituality has always maintained a skeptical if not adverse relationship with such histrionics. Eastern Christians, especially, try to avoid sentimentality and urge the Hesychasts to eschew anything that comes from them during prayer (including emotional responses, religious ecstasy, and imagery) in order to be receptive to God’s uncreated energies.
Movies like Faith Like Potatoes are full of inspiring messages and motivational speeches, stories in which no one gets hurt, the family stays together, and everything turns out all right. I am reminded of a book by Sarah Young called Jesus Calling, a devotional making the rounds on the Evangelical circuit these days**, which is as saccharine and silly as it is creepy. On almost every page we’re reminded that there’s no problem Jesus can’t fix and if you just put your trust in Him all your troubles will go away. What they fail to realize is that statistically speaking you’re more likely to be beheaded or stricken with some debilitating disease for following Jesus. St. Lawrence was fried on a grill, St. Josaphat got an axe tot he head, even Flannery O’Connor endured a long battle with lupus, and of course there was Jesus himself who was crucified.
The point is that the Christian life is no walk in the park. Our Lord tells us he has not come to bring peace, but the sword. What so many fail to realize is that the sword is for them, that in order to be Christ’s disciple they must embrace their own martyrdom. To suggest that Theosis is possible without intense suffering, be it physical or spiritual, is to make a mockery of the Gospel, just as pornography makes a mockery of sex.
What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. (Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being)
I am writing this post to explain that when I criticize a film, especially one with the label “Christian” slapped onto it, for being too sentimental, I don’t mean merely that it is too tender and wholesome for my taste, but that I reject sentimentality philosophically as porn for the soul. I do hope this clears some things up. I’m not just being a crank. The richness of Apostolic Tradition has so much to offer, is such a deep well from which to draw, that it is disappointing when a work of fiction takes the easy way out.
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whosoever would save his life will lose it; and whosoever loses his life for me sake, he will save it.” (St. Matthew 9:23-24, RSV-CE)