Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Modern Parable and “Those We Do Not Speak Of”

M. Night Shyamalan is one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers. I especially appreciate his preference for subtlety in his storytelling, and the symbolism in his films which lends itself to a number of different interpretations.

One of his films that I especially enjoy is The Village (2004). This film appears to present life inside a small village somewhere in the American woods in the nineteenth century. As the story develops it becomes clear that this village has achieved a peaceful co-existence with a race of creatures who live in the woods and who are fearfully referred to by the townspeople as “Those we do not speak of.” Much as the early Israelites refused to speak the Divine name for fear of blasphemy, the people of this village refuse to speak directly of the creatures, or even to allow the color red, said to attract the creatures, to appear inside the boundaries of the village.

The village cannot be understood as a religious group, or a people with any foundational religious convictions. No place of worship or church is found in the village, no Bible or other Scriptures are read, and no scene of prayer accompanies any of the community celebrations such as funerals, meals and weddings. And yet there is something religiously familiar about this village, at least for this viewer. The village is led by a group of elders, and this group appears to function more like a group of church elders than a town council elected through a democratic process. As mentioned above, the group has a form of religious taboo that forbids mentioning the creatures by name. In addition, it is apparent very early on in the film that the people of the village live in constant fear of the outside world, not only of others in “the towns” where evil is present, reminiscent of various fundamentalisms. While it would be unfair to characterize this village as a Christian town, or even a religious group of people, the similarities between them and aspects found in some religious communities makes the comparison possible.

As the storyline develops it becomes necessary for someone to leave the relative safety of the village and to enter the domain of the creatures in order to secure medicine from a nearby town so that the life of a member of the village might be saved. But what about the threat of attack and death at the “hands” of the creatures? The boundaries of the village and the woods had already been breached by some of the townspeople, and a few of the creatures previously entered the village to leave their warnings. How could anyone, no matter how courageous, even consider entering the woods inhabited by the creatures? (For those who haven’t seen the film beware, a plot spoiler is coming.)

In order to alleviate fears and to facilitate a successful attempt at securing medicine, one of the village elders reveals that the creatures don’t exist at all. They were created by the elders in the town as a means of maintaining fear among the village population so that no one would ever want to leave the village and thereby experience the evil and violence of the outside world. The elders make noises in the woods as if they were the creatures, they consume the food offerings tossed into the woods by the village, and at times elders dress up as the creatures and roam the village at night, all of this to maintain the illusion of the creatures and the dangers of leaving the village. In fact, the village isn’t living in the nineteenth century it is in the twentieth, located within an isolated game preserve owned by one of the founding elders.

Other than a film review and a slice of pop culture, what does any of this have to do with the purpose of this blog? Please allow me to connect the dots. I noted above some of the features of the village which permit a parallel between the village and religious groups. I believe one interpretation of the film allows applications that are especially relevant to church communities. There are definite similarities between the people of the village and Christian fundamentalism, as well as some aspects of evangelicalism. This is particularly the case in the fear of the creatures and the outside world. This parallels fears that many conservative Christians have about the possibility of contamination and compromise through engagement with culture. Better to stay safely in the village of the church subculture rather than risk danger from entering the woods of the world.

With these thoughts in mind the lessons Christian’s might take away from Shyamalan’s film can be the dangers of cultural isolation as a form of escape, and the inevitability of culture catching up with you. In the first scene of the film we see the townspeople grieving over the loss of a village member to death as a casket is buried. The village may have been created as a means of escaping many of the evils of the outside world, but ultimately there really is no place where paradise can be recreated. Eventually death finds us all, and while we may be able to temporarily escape some of the evils from the world in our self-created Christian subcultures, we cannot escape the evil within ourselves and our communities. We forget that evil is found in Christians and the church too. It would seem that the creatures “we do not speak of” may not so much be referenced euphemestically out of taboo, but rather because the monsters are us. Perhaps then this film might function as a modern parable for Christians as we envision Jesus sitting down and saying, "A certain group of people lived in a village.."

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jpu said...

i'm surprised you don't see an even closer parallel to the Mormon culture state you live in. i think there are more bogeymen in the mormon world than the evangelical one too. but what about the amish or the mennonites? are they Christian sub-cultures we should view negatively, like "the village?" it was a great movie. i saw the analogy of cults, not american Christian sub-culture. a friend of mine visited an Amish farm and asked about their ability to evangelize. the farmer replied that non-Christians flock to observe them and talk to them. plenty of evanglization happened from the Amish to their visitors. i talked with an Amish team from Ohio who was helping rebuild a house in Bay St. Louis Mississippi after Katrina, they did have to hire someone to drive them down there. Monasteries also are surprisingly effective centers of evangelism. People are drawn to something so different. i recommend The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter as an example of monks who walked among the people they sought to evangelize but established refuges within those communities where a different lifestyle was lived in conformity.
God is good

Scott Eggert said...

We are far more like this then I believe we realize. What a village we are. Huddled down in our sacred spaces that we have created. Preaching to each other about the evils of the world “out there”. The church has become our village. We have built for our god such a small box. We have made God so small and fail to acknowledge even his presence within the world not to mention that he is actively working in the lives of “those whom we do not speak of”. I often want to ask Christians who live their lives like this if their god is big enough. Is he really powerful enough to “lead not into temptation” or “deliver from evil” as they have so often prayed for? I have found that the god of Western Christianity is rather weak and impotent when held next to the God who is the Creator of the Universe. Now that God, He is something! All the world is His, and everything in it. All of the world is sacred.

Good allegory John.

John W. Morehead said...

JPU, as I mentioned in my post, the interpretation and application of the village can be viewed from a number of different perspectives. I think parallels can be drawn between the people of this village and a number of different religious communities. I don't know how closely this might parallel the Mormon culture I live in in that Mormonism tries to both maintain a sense of separatness and distinction as a religious culture as ell as participation in the broader culture as well. For me, one of the strongest parallels needs to be drawn to various expressions of American Christianity in both its fundamentalist and evangelical expressions. I suppose I am more interested in what this says back to the church rather than merely how might this speak negatively of "the cults."