Grace and Pelagianism in movies

Some time ago, an article at the Tablet called Tree of Life “the least Jewish film ever made” for its supposed focus on grace and predestination.

Film—more, perhaps, than any other medium—thrives on action. It revels in initiative. Movies demand movement, which is why their heroes take charge: Leave it to characters in novels to think; on screen, they do.

This—and not the largely insignificant fact that so many of its champions happened to be named Goldwyn or Mayer or Spielberg—is what makes cinema a profoundly Jewish art form. On celluloid film and in Jewish spirituality, there’s no room for grace: One is always the hero of one’s own story, and one must always redeem oneself.

To better understand this contentious claim, consider the following, from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man: “The grand premise of religion is that man is able to surpass himself;

Judaism, according to the author, is a Pelagian faith, which certainly matches my observations of Jewish intrinsic self-rightousness.  The above might also be why movies seem to be such a poor medium for religion and myth.  Religious stories, myths, and folk tales either fail on screen, seeming silly and implausible, or else they succeed but at the cost of being transformed into another type of story, with the archetypal and dreamlike qualities removed.  This is certainly a limitation of the medium itself.  Religion and myth have found powerful expression in narrative art as far back as Gilgamesh.  It just doesn’t work in movies.

In my last post, I pointed to superhero stories as being distinctly Jewish.  The hero intrinsically possesses powers and uses them to confront a world to which he is morally superior.

What would a Christian hero (or a pagan hero, since Christianity is a type of paganism) look like?  Sine I’m on a “superheroes and princesses” kick, an example might be Prince Phillip from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.  Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid have long been my favorite princess movies because the prince actually gets to do something.  About a year ago, I was watching Sleeping Beauty with my wife and sister in law, and I was taken aback by how hostile their reaction was.  Ultimately, the problem seemed to be that Walt Disney was trying to tell an actual fairy tale, and they were expecting a movie in the regular Jewish template.

“Princess Aurora isn’t a real character.  She’s too perfect.  She doesn’t do anything.”  It’s true, the writers deliberately do not develop the leads, but allow them to remain archetypes.  Depending on the type of story you’re telling, this isn’t always a defect.  I’m not sure what people mean by criticizing the old princesses as “too perfect” as if the recent ones have any particular flaws.

“The prince has it too easy.  He gets too much help.  The fairies do everything for him.”  The short answer here is that Phillip has a lot more work to do than the prince in the original Briar Rose story.  And getting help from supernatural beings has been a common plot device in myths for thousands of years–nobody complains that Perseus gets too much help–so it can’t just be an artistic flaw.  The fact of which pre-Jewish art was aware is that Heschel’s grand premise of religion is metaphysical nonsense.  Man cannot surpass himself, almost by definition.  He can be raised up from Outside, and raised up in a way that works through his free will; this is the mystery of grace.  The myths resonate with us because they show us this transformation of the hero being raised up to do things beyond his native power.  Phillip fights and defeats Malificent (one of Disney’s greatest villains), but with a strength that is not his own.  The fairies give him the Shield of Virtue and the Sword of Truth, inviting us to look for allegorical meetings in the coming battle.  The fairies do engineer his escape from Malificent’s castle almost without his help, but then Phillip is left to fight Malificent in the form of a dragon, wielding, she tells us, the powers of hell itself.  Phillip throws his sword, but the fairies also command its flight, a nice image of the synergy of grace and free will.

Best of all, the prince follows this battle by finding the girl and marrying her, not by looking for more dragons to slay.

9 Responses

  1. The “problem” with Rose/Princess Aurora from the modern woman’s standpoint is that she lacks the odious quality of “sass”. She does not backtalk to her father and run away from home (Princess Jasmine, Rapunzel, and, yes, Ariel). She does have one ” interesting” moment, from the Jewish/action perspective; she cries and bridles at returning to her fathers’ home on her sixteenth birthday because she has met a man and fallen in love. She is reaching womanhood and marriage and doesn’t want to return to her childhood home. This is too traditional for the modern woman though.

    The modern woman define herself and all acceptable female identity through defiance. There is none of the feminine resignation to one’s fate, cheerful even, in the case of older princesses like Cinderella and Snow White.

  2. This gets at the deep rift between the religion most Jews practice (i.e. a medieval- and even modern-influenced collection of commentary and traditions) and the sole teachings that Jews are actually supposed to follow and regard as sacred (the Tanakh).

    Jews are the most nakedly tribal group of white people overall, so from the outside it’s easy to not see that like many other groups they have their own problems with men’s words and ideas being placed on pedestals as high or higher than those of God. Even from the inside, most Jews have no clue how insidious a problem this is. The Judaism most Jews practice (when they do practice, anyway) could therefore be called a kind of “poisoned Judaism”. Even Karaite Jews (approx 0.1% of Jews), who are supposed to reject from their faith any law not found in the Tanakh, are susceptible to the influence of this poisoned Judaism, and so even Karaism isn’t a useful litmus test for the poison.

    Some of the most essential stories in Judaism–Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac, Moses speaking with God on Mt. Sinai, God speaking to (or, uh, at) Job from out of the tempest, etc.–are indeed dreamlike and could not be translated to film in a way that fully and accurately captures what they’re about in the Torah, as written. They’re all about grace and spiritual predestination.

    But the poisoned Judaism practiced by Hollywood Jews would never permit them to see it that way. For each of those stories, there are volumes of imperfect commentary that is accepted as law, and that opens up the legitimacy of interpreting the stories in a way that sells lots of movie tickets.

  3. “Judaism, according to the author, is a Pelagian faith, which certainly matches my observations of Jewish intrinsic self-rightousness. “
    I have read that the Jews of Jesus’ time were not Pelagian. They did not think their works were salvific – they believed in their chosen-ness and their strict observances were their natural response to God for choosing them. This is supposed to be what Paul meant when referring to “works.”
    I don’t know about Talmudic Jews and liberal Jews. My impression is that it was fairly natural to go from the chosen ones to being the moral crusaders for humanity when Jews secularized.

  4. “Jews are the most nakedly tribal group of white people overall”

    Where did you get the idea that jews are white?

  5. Sleeping Beauty is odious to modern women because it is deeply Christological and modern women hate Christ.
    Aurora is a human soul: a beautiful creation, blessed by God with gifts that no other creatures have. When cursed, the curse cannot be undone, and she is helpless. Even when the other humans do everything within their power to stop the curse: burn the instrument of doom, run to the forest and hide from the inevitable end, nothing can stop the doom…except a change meeting between Jesus and the human soul. He finds her in the forest, he sings to her a song she thought that only she knew, and she is smitten. Her own royalty means nothing to her at that point. The promise of riches and marrying the prince, meaningless. Her longing can only be fulfilled by the Jesus figure, Philip. He doesn’t look like much of a prince, but only he is willing to go to the castle and face Maleficant to reclaim Aurora, just as only Jesus could go to hell and free the dead. Aurora is in death, or rather, dormitory, until Philip the Christ figure kisses her and gives her life.
    I know my version of the allegory fails. There’s only so much I can do while typing off the cuff on an iPad, which is annoying.
    Please accept my proposal that Sleeping Beauty is deeply Christological, and thus hateful to modern viewers. They prefer Maleficent in which all men are evil, and dark neo paganism lesbian rules: just like America.

  6. […] He contrasts this with Frozen, in which superpower—i.e., magic—is done rightly. And while we’re on the subject, Bonald digs up another one from the philosophical deep: Grace and Pelagianism in movies. […]

  7. Anglo-Thomist, I completely agree. I think Bonald mentioned that Maleficent the dragon is slain by the Sword of Truth and her hellfire repelled by the Shield of Virtue. In the original versions of the story all her kin have passed away after her 100 years of slumber, symbolic of one’s old life passing away after conversion. I believe the initial meeting in the forest is a Disney innovation, but it works almost better than the original.

  8. […] pleasantly surprised.  I’ve written about this before regarding Disney movies (see here, here, here, and here), My Little Pony, and Batman.  The affirmation of official pieties, when present […]

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