Understanding the French and Their Murdered God
The priest begins to lead the people forward to kill the young warrior for what he has done. The warrior appeals to the maiden he just saved, but she is unsure how to respond. As the angry populace closes in around him, he desperately argues his case. He reminds the people that their god was forcing them to kill their children. He admits that their god gave them wealth, but he asks them to consider the cost. The mob hesitates. The pregnant women place their hands on their swollen abdomens. Fathers take their little daughters' hands. The maiden looks down upon the rotting carcass of the dead snake at her feet.
The people decide not to kill the warrior. They are grateful for what he has done. The priest is dismayed. He tries to get the people to sing again. They do not. The people lift the young warrior and his love upon their shoulders and leave triumphantly, overjoyed that they have been set free. The priest is alone, left despondent with the remains of his murdered deity.
Les Contes de la Nuit showed me that France is a place where the people believe that god is dead, not because he grew too old and was outdated by modern understanding, and not because God never existed, but because they killed God. God, by way of God's proxies the priests, was forcing them to kill one another. Granted, God also gave them much wealth as evidenced by the hundreds of magnificent cathedrals, many of which are gilded in gold and house the golden artifacts of former ways of worship. God on the tongues of their leaders gave them purpose in plundering the peoples of the earth and elevating France to become the preeminent world power. But the price they paid for this bounty was the lives of their children and the lives of the children of the ones they conquered.
So they killed God. The French Revolution was as much a rebellion against the church as it was against the monarchy. For the French people, the two were inseparable. Forty thousand priests were either murdered or exiled from the country during the Revolution. Rejecting their kings and priests, the French people did indeed lose much of their power and wealth, but they gained their lives. Today, many French people proudly proclaim, "There is no god. We killed him, and we are better off for it."
Of course, I don't believe their proclamation is true, and neither do the hopeful people of the arts ministry I worked with this summer. The god the French people killed wasn't the one true God. They killed the gods of institutionalized wealth and power. America would be wise to learn from them and do the same, albeit hopefully nonviolently. But in killing our false gods, we must not make France's mistake and elevate ourselves to the place of prominence. In many ways we've already done this, but instead of creating a religiously antagonistic society, we created a religiously tolerant one in which we try to worship every god at the same time. If France is atheistic, America is pantheistic. We worship institutionalized money and power, our gods, and ourselves. Both cultures need to end their idolatry. I have hope that the people in these cultures can do just that.
A children's movie helped me understand both French and American culture better. Like any other cultural object, films illuminate aspects of our societies we may not otherwise notice. Films, and not just documentaries, but also films made purely to entertain, help us see our world better. If my time in Fuller's School of Intercultural Studies as a student of Theology and Art has taught me anything, it has taught me to pay attention to the culture and think deeply about what I see.
Elijah Davidson is the Co-Director of Reel Spirituality at Fuller Seminary's Brehm Center for theology, arts and culture. Follow his reflections via Twitter, or at the Brehm Center blog and the Reel Spirituality website.