Kingdom of reader feedback

I’m a little surprised that my coverage of Kingdom of Heaven at CT Movies hasn’t generated more feedback. The Crusades are a controversial subject at the best of times, and since I had a more positive take on the film than a lot of Christian critics — a take that I somewhat regretted when I saw the film a second time, as I mentioned here two weeks ago — I expected there to be more criticism of my review. But instead, with one exception, the letters to the editor recently posted at CT Movies kind of ignore the review and talk about Islam or the Crusades themselves.

Still, there is an exception there, and since I’m the sort of person who can’t help responding to things, I just have to post a few thoughts in reply. Vincent Sheridan writes:

While the director of Kingdom of Heaven goes to great lengths to dignify the Muslims and a few “independent-minded” Christians, the Church as institution is shown in a bad light. This movie is really just an anti-Catholic Protestant fairy tale, with a somewhat “tolerant” spin. For example, the hero starts out by murdering a worldly and thieving Catholic priest — and of course a Catholic priest has no sense for goodness and virtue. The film also shows the Pope ordering the killing of the infidel, a defaced and evil-looking monk exhorting all the knights that “killing the infidel is the path to heaven,” a Catholic bishop figure behaving like a coward saying at the last stand that Christians can “become Muslims [and] repent later,” and so on. The fact none of this is even registered in the movie review is just more evidence of how deep anti-Catholic sentiment runs. Why this myth about the Crusades being an evil military jihad against the peaceful Muslims is still conveyed is a bit perplexing. The word “crusade” is regarded as an offensive word, but we endure the word “jihad” constantly, a word that still calls for “killing” in the name of Allah.

It is interesting that he would call the film a “Protestant fairy tale”, since, as I’ve said before, a surprising number of Protestants have been quick to defend the film, and director Ridley Scott openly admits that he and his protagonist are both “agnostic”.

I also wonder if Sheridan has actually seen the film, since the Pope is never actually shown at all; in any event, Pope Urban II, the first of the Popes to instigate these crusades, apparently did grant “immediate remission of sins” to those who died “in battle against the pagans,” who he went on to describe as “infidels” and “barbarians” and “a despised and base race, which worships demons.” That seems close enough to what the film depicts, to me.

Sheridan also says the film’s Muslims are made to look “peaceful”, but I wonder which Muslims he is talking about, since most if not all of them are members of Salah-ad-Din’s army — an army that is led by a man who, even within the film itself, has vowed to take Jerusalem back from the Christians, and who explicitly refuses to show mercy when he finally attacks Jerusalem, until Balian threatens to destroy the holy sites. (FWIW, the historical Balian threatened to kill all the Muslims within the city, as well, and this, too, prompted the historical Salah-ad-Din to back down.)

I admit the film’s depiction of the Patriarch of Jerusalem is problematic, since the historical Patriarch was quite concerned about the spiritual welfare of the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem. In his book Warriors of God, James Reston Jr. writes:

Meanwhile, among the hotheads there were proposals for a last desperate charge at the infidel force, in the grand tradition of chivalry and knighthood. But the Patriarch advised against this blaze of glory. If the charge should fail, he said, and should the knights die, their women and children would be sold into the slavery of Islam and their souls would be prohibited from entering heaven. “The Arabs will not kill them but will make them renounce the faith of Jesus Christ, and they will all be lost to God,” he said.

On the other hand, however, Reston also writes:

This noble and honorable knight [Balian of Ibelin] probably did not need the moral counsel of Eraclius, for the Patriarch himself was something of a scandal. Though learned and clever, Eraclius lived openly with a mistress who was a draper’s wife from Nablus and who was known in the Holy City as “Madame la Patriarchess.”

So the Patriarch of Jerusalem was not a particularly moral person. But even immoral Christians can still be fearful enough for their souls and those of others that they will not go about converting and unconverting as though it were no big deal.

As I said two weeks ago, the fairly consistent portrayal of the Church as a corrupt institution is problematic, as well. The Hospitaller is the best person in the film and he belongs to a monastic order, but we never see him engaged in any particularly religious functions, apart from his involvement in the knighting of Balian and his very brief hearing of Sir Godfrey’s confession before he dies; we never see him, like, receive communion or anything. And in this light, I think I would highlight one of the remarks director Sir Ridley Scott made at the junket I attended:

“The word ‘religion’ is only a label,” says Scott. “What lies behind that, the most important thing of all, is the word ‘faith’. You either have faith, or you don’t have faith, or you have degrees of faith — and if you have degrees of faith, then you become agnostic. You’re kind of in-between or you’re on the fence.”

We reporters could have followed that up, I suppose, by asking what, exactly, Scott thinks people with faith have faith in. Because obviously, once you try to define your faith in any remotely intelligible sense, you move in the direction of religion.

But anyway, suffice to say that this line from the interview rang through my ears when I saw the film a second time, and the Patriarch tells everyone to convert and repent later, and then a spiritually jaundiced Balian says to him something like, “You have taught me much about religion.” For the Patriarch, as for Scott, religion is ultimately just a matter of labels; and for Balian, as for Scott, it would be best to forget about the labels altogether.

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  • Judd

    Peter, I liked the movie a lot, but I also admit to fondness for Ridley’s work in general, even the weaker stuff.

    I feel it is a waste of time to point out anti-Christian or even just anti-religious bias in the work of a non-Christian, irreligious person. What exactly SHOULD Christians expect of Ridley? Fair play is good, but Christians shouldn’t spend too much time agonizing over it.

    Far from being vapid, I found his paean to religious tolerance immensely attractive. I am a Christian of the openly religious sort, who believes that saving truth is entrusted in the Christ story, told by the Christian religion. However, I find the bible clearly spells out the paramount importance of righteousness, no matter the kingdom or tribe, and yes, even outside of (metaphorical) Israel.

    I think Christians would do good to meditate on the paradoxical, but quite orthodox teaching that divine condemnation comes about not because we don’t believe in Jesus, but because of our sinfulness. To see talented secular filmmaker wrestle with these questions intrigues and heartens me.