Last Sunday evening I went to see Calvary. It made me cry in the dark at the QFT, (not the first time this has happened), it brought to mind many of the reasons why faith has always been both a struggle and a necessity for me and it stuck with me, like the proverbial thorn in the flesh, all through Easter week. If you only see one loosely-based-on-Biblical-themes movie this week, skip over Aronofsky’s self-indulgent, Noah and try to see Calvary before it disappears from the big screen. It’s not an easy watch but it’s absolutely essential viewing for anyone who would claim allegiance to the contemporary church in any of its varied formats. Writer/Director John Michael McDonagh, (brother of the equally prolific screenwriter and playwright, Michael McDonagh), had already proven his worth on 2011’s brilliant black comedy, The Guard. Despite what the trailer might insinuate, Calvary is not The Guard though there are some very funny bits. Calvary falls into a long tradition of writing which walks the line between dissent and respect, and as such serves the contemporary church, (both Catholic and Protestant), with a much-needed critical voice.
I’ve had a relationship with the Protestant church in all its various factions and denominations for as long as I can remember. I’ve grown into a real and persistent faith as a result of time spent in the church community and been inspired, encouraged and lovingly chastised through relationship with the Christians I’ve met in churches throughout the world. I’ve also been hurt, frustrated and bored by the church more than any other institution I’ve ever been party to, (including local government, higher level education and a brief, but decidedly uninspiring stint in commercial retail). As a writer I’ve always sought to pursue honesty in my work, albeit honesty with a generous dash of imaginative hyperbole, and cannot help but approach my faith with the same desire for realism in all my experiences. There have been many occasions when I have wished to be more demure, to sit down, shut up and follow the peculiar trends for hat-wearing, hand-waving, worship singing, women preaching, pipe organ playing or whatever the particular congregation calls for, yet I find it almost impossible to pretend in a church. There’s a lot of ugliness in the Bible, a lot of offensive material and things I’d really rather hadn’t been included, but absolutely no justification for pretending as far as I can see.
As a young reader, I fell in love with Graham Greene. I think I read almost all his books in less than a year and even attempted to plough my way through his monolithic biography. His painfully honest accounts of struggling between belief, unbelief and disbelief in novels like The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair were the first things I read which made me want to write. They did not make me want to become a writer, and I’m at pains to make the distinction here. They made me want to write, in my voice, fully aware of the tensions I’d inherited simply by getting myself born into the believing side of Ballymena with an overactive reading gland and a terrible tendency towards cynicism. These novels also reassured me in my fledgling faith. For the first time in a decidedly Presbyterian upbringing I realised that it was ok to walk the path of Job and Ecclesiastes; to doubt and wrestle and ask questions and sometimes never arrive at a neat or definable answer, yet remain, gut-stuck, impossible to deny, convinced of a hope worth holding onto. I discovered God between the lines of Greene and later Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson and a host of wonderful Jewish writers, chief of whom I rate Elie Wiesel and Chaim Potok. This was not a join the dots simple God, a God I could accept or dismiss on a whim. This was a God who stuck to me, as resolute and impossible to shirk in the blessing times as he would prove to be in the wrestling times which still show no sign of abating even as I approach my mid-thirties.
I loved these writers because they were brave enough to hold their faith in tension. When you write honestly from a place of believing, or even desiring to believe, you cannot be content with a sweeping dismissal of God, the Church or Christianity. It would be easier to hack off your own arms and ignore the impulse to write. God is in you like a rib or kidney and any attempt at an amputation would only serve to leave a hungry space where he should be. Instead of denial you must write honestly, honouring that which is worthy of honour and pursuing, even with the very act of pursuit is painful, the truth and hope which you have come to recognise as elemental. Neither however, can you write about such topics without critiquing and even condemning that which is corrupt, that which perplexes, that which seems less than (and I borrow the Psalmist’s term here), “the beauty of holiness.” There will always be a tension in writing about faith as the grim reality of the present clashes up against a promised future. There is an unsatisfactory element to even the most beautifully written of these novels, and I’m thinking here particularly of Flannery O’Connor’s shorts which always seem to stick with me like the memory of a particularly vicious slap.
The writers who I admire most in this area were often misunderstood and occasionally condemned but I hold them up as prophets and truth tellers; artists who have chosen to avoid the easy path of blanket condemnation and wrestled through brute, ugly truths to deliver something which is nuanced, uncomfortable and compelling in its honesty. In the past religion was fair game for celebration and critique amongst our writers. With the ever-diminishing influence of the established church there appear to be fewer and fewer contemporary writers willing to approach the topic from the inside out; exercising the rigorous humility and honesty of Graham Greene and his contemporaries. The church, when depicted in contemporary art is often mocked and/or derided. Should it fall into the hands of the growing number of “Christian artists” creating for a specifically Christian market, it is generally depicted in such gleaming, reverential terms, one can barely recognise the church as we know it. Calvary surprised me and disturbed me, but more than anything made me realise that it is still possible to create art which holds the Christian faith in the tension vocalised by the wonderful activist Dorothy Day when she called the church a harlot and her mother, in the same honest breath. More of this sort of brave writing please.