That Place We Cannot Enter
A couple years ago, my wife and I stayed in a remote cabin on a lake in Tennessee. We were moving back to California in a couple of weeks and thought it’d be fun to get away. And when I say remote, I mean we drove for almost an hour off of the highway deep into the woods. We loved the silence and the inability to see human beings or evidence that they exist. At least we loved this for a while. . .
One of the days we decided to watch the movie The Village. This is one of M. Night Shyamalan’s early films, and just as a warning, I do plan to give some spoilers away. Some slate it as a horror movie, but it’s much more like an Alfred Hitchcock film -- unnerves you without blood and gore and sex and language and excessive violence. I handle scary movies just fine though...when it’s daytime, we’re in the city, and in the middle of a loud party with lots of people.
WISDOM AT ITS FINEST
So, it made sense that Megan and I waited till dark to watch The Village in a cabin with lots of windows looking out into a vast wilderness exactly like the setting of The Village. The film takes place in an isolated community without technology and modern conveniences. Dense woods surround the village and no one is to enter the woods because frightening creatures dwell there, referred to as “Those We Don’t Speak of.”
On the other side of the woods are the towns which are, as one character explains, “wicked places where wicked people live.” Their village is a refuge and fortress from fear and evil. The elders have established a sort of priesthood to protect the village from “Those We Don’t Speak of.”
And yet, evil finds its way into their village--one of the characters is mortally wounded. So one character must venture into the woods -- alone.
Let's return to our cabin in the woods. . .at night.
The evening was moving along well, and Megan and I had been enjoying the movie now for about an hour when...suddenly (it usually does) the power goes out. With no light poles or street lights or loud neighbors, it was unusually dark. The darkest of darkness accompanied by silence. I knew what needed to be done: venture outside and check the fuse box.
I sent my wife.
No, not really. But I did take her with me. I grabbed her hand and my flashlight and walked around the porch. Hmm. . . No fuses were out. We decided to head to bed. I didn’t know when the power would return, and even if I wanted to call someone I couldn’t. No cell service. As I pulled the covers over my head--uh, I mean. . . over my body--it did occur to me that if the power should return The Village may power back up right where it left off, channeling the mighty surround sound speakers to terrify me into a coma.
I was right.
The power did return while we slept and the movie did continue playing, but it wasn’t as bad I had imagined. I bolted out of bed and turned off the television. And I escaped the coma.
As unnerving as that experience was, it has caused me to reflect on The Village many times over the years. While M. Night Shyamalan isn’t a Christian, he’s written and directed a film that reveals some important truths that Christians can affirm. That’s the beauty of common grace. As you may remember, common grace is an important biblical doctrine that says God showers insights of truth, goodness, and beauty on the believer and unbeliever.
HOW STORIES INTERACT WITH CHRISTIANITY
Leland Ryken in his work, The Liberated Imagination, discusses three ways that stories can interact with the Christian faith.
THE FIRST WAY is that it can allude to Christian material. An author may use allusions to Christianity to uphold the faith, critique the faith, or simply reference the faith (without offering much commentary on it). In the previous article, “The War for Christian Imagery,” I show how filmmakers use Christian allusions to undermine the Christian worldview.
THE SECOND WAY is that a story may affirm truths that Christianity affirms as well. These truths are not exclusive to Christianity, but may be shared by many philosophies and religions. Ryken refers to this as an inclusive approach. The Village falls into this category.
THE FINAL WAY is when a story incorporates and affirms truths or ideas that are exclusive to the Christian faith, such as the doctrines of the Incarnation or the Trinity. We will look at this category in our next article.
But until then, let’s observe how The Village reveals truths about our world and then helps us better understand God’s redemptive story.
TWO TRUTHS FROM THE VILLAGE
First, The Village is about man’s attempt to protect himself from evil. In the universe of The Village, the world is not as it should be, so the elders of the community isolate themselves from the wickedness they see in the towns. In their community, they train their children, remove distractions, seek to live innocent lives. They hope to keep evil at bay by going through elaborate rituals, dressing up in robes, throwing sacrificial meat on altars, hoping to appease “Those We Don’t Speak Of.” The children growing up in this village learn that to keep themselves safe they must have a “priesthood” who acts on their behalf and that their “innocence” very well may protect them from evil.
But, secondly, The Village reveals that man’s best attempts to keep evil out of his camp will always fail. In the film, evil still enters their village, despite their “innocence.” In one home it takes the life of a child and in another it mortally wounds a man. The woods which form a barrier between them and the towns cannot protect them from what they truly fear, and neither can the “priesthood.” The real problem, of course, with trying to keep evil from their village is that they cannot keep the heart of man out of the village.
THAT PLACE WE CANNOT ENTER
Many religions and philosophies could agree with these points: man is always seeking ways to protect himself from evil, and he continues to fail. But, as thinking, biblically-based Christians, we can make further applications from this movie to ourselves which may illuminate and illustrate the Christian worldview.
Just to clarify, The Village is not a Christian movie, and yet, as I see it, the movie helps us better understand the biblical Fall of man.
First, in man’s desperate attempt to keep himself from evil, he builds fortresses, surrounded and guarded by deep woods. This is man’s attempt to re-create or re-enter Eden. But man’s rebellion in the garden barred him from that place (see Genesis 3), and now it is “The Place We Cannot Enter.” And yet, we keep deluding ourselves into thinking that we can.
Turn on the television or pick up a self-help book, and it all seems to say. . . if we only had a little more technology, education, health care, or religion, we could fix man’s tendency towards violence and hatred, which would create a New Eden. In some cases, “progress” becomes the religion that we hope will appease the unseen monsters inside of us and the people around us. We desperately hope to find a way to fix the human condition. What we don’t realize is that you can’t live in Eden outside of Eden.
In The Village the elders established a community that they thought could keep them unstained from the towns. But what stained the towns with malice, greed, and jealousy was not certain people, but the human person. Sin has affected man’s heart, mind, body, and will. Man’s rebellion in Eden ensures that all mankind will be born in the towns--“wicked places where wicked people live,” producing more towns.
What made Eden so desirable is not the beauty of the garden or the lack of suffering, but God himself. In Eden, man was in perfect fellowship with God. Man’s rebellion shattered his fellowship with God and He consequently turned Eden into “That Place We Cannot Enter.”
The Village helps us understand that our attempts to keep ourselves innocent--apart from God--are doomed. Only one priest can bring us back to Eden, ensure our innocence, and secure our eternal fellowship with God. It is Jesus, the eternal one who sits at the right hand of the throne of God.
LOOK FOR GENERAL REVELATION AND USE SPECIAL REVELATION TO INTERPRET IT
Even in our fallen world, God has allowed us (followers of Christ and those who are not) to see truth, goodness, and beauty in unexpected places...like the movies. But this will only lead us part of the way, we need Scripture to help us rightly interpret all that we experience. General revelation is the doctrine that God has revealed certain things about himself, how the world works, how he wants people to live, and how man is separated and miserable without him. God reveals all of this through creation and in the conscience of the human being.
General revelation allows for man to study and further the disciplines of mathematics, science, medicine, and, of course, the arts. That man can achieve this is a gift from God and what we refer to as common grace. This grace is offered to all peoples, even though all are born sinful, separated from God, and unworthy of anything but God’s wrath. It’s a sad irony when human beings pursue disciplines such as math, science, or the arts with the conscious intention to reject or mock the God who made their “discoveries” and “creativity” possible in the first place.
While we may observe the stars and conclude there must be a God and study human nature and conclude man is not as he should be, general revelation will never lead us to how we can personally know God and make things right with him. Special revelation, specifically Scripture, is what unveils to us God’s plan to reconcile man to himself, known as the gospel. So, as you watch movies, remember that God’s grace certainly can be found in them -- common grace permeates all things -- but it has its limits. And man in his sinfulness will naturally use this grace to hide and justify his sin, which then seeps into our movies.
The answer is less that we should stop watching movies and more that we should take all ideas and experiences “captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). This takes practice. But begin by asking yourself as you sit in front of Netflix, what perspective does this story offer about the world we live in and the people who inhabit it? Is it an accurate perspective as taught in Scripture? The goal of this is not to kill your joy but increase it as you seek to do all things in light of your Christian faith, even watching movies.
Dane Bundy is president of Stage & Story.