In 1996, a small group of Trappist monks were faced with a terrible dilemma – in the midst of a war in which their lives were explicitly threatened, should they leave the people they were there to serve, or should they stay and most certainly be killed? What does Christ require in such dire situations? What if one is simultaneously questioning one’s faith? What does responsibility does one have to one’s community? To one’s world? What is right when everything has gone wrong?
These are the questions that are embodied by Of Gods and Men, a 2010 French film from director Xavier Beauvois. The film tells the monks’ story beginning just before the Algerian war begins and ending with, well, whatever happens as a result of whatever decision they make. I don’t want to ruin it for you.
This is a breathtaking film, both in the power of its images and in the strength of character of the people imagined. This is not a romanticized retelling of the monks’ dilemma. This is an unflinchingly truthful exploration of the doubts and struggles – all theological, emotional, and physical – that faced the monks during the war. Not since Chariots of Fire have I seen a film so honoring of the Christian faith and so honest about the philosophical difficulties of practicing that faith.
At it’s core this film is about faithfulness. The monks’ is a faith proven by action. They are faithful in their liturgies. They are faithful in their work amongst the Algerian people. They are faithful in their care for each other. They are faithful in their honest doubting of their faith and of their motivations for staying “faithful.” Ultimately, they are faithful in their love of each other as an extension of their love with Christ.
As I watched this film, I was moved. Of Gods and Men made me proud to be a Christian, made me sure I’m not a very good one, and gave me peace that my unfaithfulness is okay. These remarkable brothers, I learned in this film, are not much different than me. They simply acted faithfully even when they didn’t feel faithful, and by those actions were proven faithful. I was challenged by this film to act faithfully while doubting, to treasure both my doubts and my faith because the one proves the other as genuine.
That’s probably the best word to use to describe this film – genuine. Of Gods and Men is as genuine a film as I’ve ever seen. I encourage you to see it too. Be encouraged in your faith. Be encouraged in your doubts. Be encouraged that if you act true, perhaps your faith and your doubts are one and the same.