Law & Gospel at the movies

Anthony Sacramone discusses the movie Black Swan, which is about a ballerina’s tormented pursuit of perfection.  He then draws out the Law/Gospel connections:

The film is not subtle and Nina’s inner life, her delusions and paranoid fantasies, trace the borderline of camp. But what is really missing is a way out of this false dilemma between “perfection” and “failure.” Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and so in order to achieve it one must always subordinate the self to some other authority, which, in this realm, is always, always fallible. It is a self-defeating exercise, because even if you think you’ve achieved it, give it a minute, and the criteria by which that perfection is judged will shift, and you’ll find yourself having to place catch-up. To be perfect is, by definition, to fail. And the ultimate failure is death.

Which is why we Lutherans have placed such emphasis on law/Gospel dichotomies. Every time gospel implies “You must” or “You must not,” it becomes a word of condemnation, of failure, because, with all do apologies to Yoda, “you can’t,” try as you might. The good news is that someone already did, and you can rest in his success as if it were your own. You can put yourself under his authority without fear of collapsing under its weight, because his yoke is easy and his burden is light. The price of admission to perfection is faith alone, because the cost of that admission was paid 2,000 years ago. And faith is never a work. Only believe.

But Nina never hears that word, drowned out as it is by the disparate and competing demands of “You must.”

via Black Swan: Law vs. Gospel » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    please see my comment in the previous post about the chinese tiger mom. comment #1.

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    please see my comment in the previous post about the chinese tiger mom. comment #1.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ John

    I might add that this is a very course movie. So course, and blatantly exploitative of female sexuality that I had to leave. fwiw.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ John

    I might add that this is a very course movie. So course, and blatantly exploitative of female sexuality that I had to leave. fwiw.

  • http://www.lefootnote.wordpress.com Brooke

    @John: It’s a touch more (shall we say) vivid than what was required, perhaps, but I don’t think I’d go so far as to call it ‘coarse’. While I can’t say that I was entirely comfortable with a few scenes in the film, I don’t think they were shot gratuitously or obscenely – the scenes in question (while certainly not appropriate for all audiences) did serve a narrative purpose, and were (relatively-speaking, of course) tastefully done. Regardless of whether or not one deems it necessary to use graphic depictions of this sort to communicate developments in a character’s personality, I think it’s important to judge film (and all art) in its entirety, and not just on a couple of scenes.

  • http://www.lefootnote.wordpress.com Brooke

    @John: It’s a touch more (shall we say) vivid than what was required, perhaps, but I don’t think I’d go so far as to call it ‘coarse’. While I can’t say that I was entirely comfortable with a few scenes in the film, I don’t think they were shot gratuitously or obscenely – the scenes in question (while certainly not appropriate for all audiences) did serve a narrative purpose, and were (relatively-speaking, of course) tastefully done. Regardless of whether or not one deems it necessary to use graphic depictions of this sort to communicate developments in a character’s personality, I think it’s important to judge film (and all art) in its entirety, and not just on a couple of scenes.

  • Stephen

    This filmmaker Aronofsky also made Requiem for a Dream which, if you really want disturbing, well . . . it is what the law does, that is, kill completely. In his films, like Requiem, there is no “Spring” no renewal, no hope. A bit like Cormac McCarthy and the film the Coen Brothers made from his book No Country for Old Men. Fine and truly expert in craft, but no redemption at all. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada. That is the vision. Blunt as ever.

    I’m thinking that actually these sorts of works can be great tools for evanglism because they expose the conscience so baldly. It is 200 proof law, maybe 300. Not unlike a brutal Tiger Mom. Flee to the arms of a savior who alone will save us from this troubled conscience that cannot rest. Maybe these films are useful in this respect, like the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch perhaps. Maybe Tiger Moms will make way for the explosion of Lutheran missionaries in China to bring the holy gospel of salvation in Christ alone. That could be good.

    Yes, read fws on the Tiger Mom thread.

  • Stephen

    This filmmaker Aronofsky also made Requiem for a Dream which, if you really want disturbing, well . . . it is what the law does, that is, kill completely. In his films, like Requiem, there is no “Spring” no renewal, no hope. A bit like Cormac McCarthy and the film the Coen Brothers made from his book No Country for Old Men. Fine and truly expert in craft, but no redemption at all. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada. That is the vision. Blunt as ever.

    I’m thinking that actually these sorts of works can be great tools for evanglism because they expose the conscience so baldly. It is 200 proof law, maybe 300. Not unlike a brutal Tiger Mom. Flee to the arms of a savior who alone will save us from this troubled conscience that cannot rest. Maybe these films are useful in this respect, like the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch perhaps. Maybe Tiger Moms will make way for the explosion of Lutheran missionaries in China to bring the holy gospel of salvation in Christ alone. That could be good.

    Yes, read fws on the Tiger Mom thread.

  • http://www.lefootnote.wordpress.com Brooke

    @Stephen: Don’t judge Tiger Mom too sharply :D I finished her book on Monday and she asked some wonderfully probing questions about Western parenting that aren’t getting a lot of airtime. (I was positively embarrassed for Maureen Corrigan and her review on NPR.) We’re meant to be discussing ‘Black Swan’, so I’ll leave it alone here, but I really do recommend the book.

  • http://www.lefootnote.wordpress.com Brooke

    @Stephen: Don’t judge Tiger Mom too sharply :D I finished her book on Monday and she asked some wonderfully probing questions about Western parenting that aren’t getting a lot of airtime. (I was positively embarrassed for Maureen Corrigan and her review on NPR.) We’re meant to be discussing ‘Black Swan’, so I’ll leave it alone here, but I really do recommend the book.

  • George A. Marquart

    We read the words, we even memorize them; we say that they are true, but in the depth of our souls we doubt them.

    St. Paul writes, Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” But the Old Adam, or Eve, if you will, constantly yearns for justice through law, even as the Jews yearned for the fleshpots of Egypt after they became free. The child of God has the Holy Spirit dwelling in its heart, Who provides His many gifts, among which are faith, hope, joy and love. Therefore, the child of God can trust and believe God. But the unregenerate person, not having the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, is simply unable to trust or to believe, as Martin Luther so eloquently writes in his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed.

    Why some believe and some do not remains a mystery, but we know that without hearing the Gospel there can be no faith. So the hope is that among ”the disparate and competing demands”, Nina will hear the Gospel at some point and that it will take root in her heart. At this point she will become perfect in the eyes of God, even though she will still struggle with her imperfections. But, having received the gift of faith, she will also receive a totally inexplicable joy, as our Lord promised His Apostles, John 16:22, “So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

    PS.: I know “Black Swan” is fiction, but fiction, to be believable, has to take place in reality.

  • George A. Marquart

    We read the words, we even memorize them; we say that they are true, but in the depth of our souls we doubt them.

    St. Paul writes, Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” But the Old Adam, or Eve, if you will, constantly yearns for justice through law, even as the Jews yearned for the fleshpots of Egypt after they became free. The child of God has the Holy Spirit dwelling in its heart, Who provides His many gifts, among which are faith, hope, joy and love. Therefore, the child of God can trust and believe God. But the unregenerate person, not having the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, is simply unable to trust or to believe, as Martin Luther so eloquently writes in his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed.

    Why some believe and some do not remains a mystery, but we know that without hearing the Gospel there can be no faith. So the hope is that among ”the disparate and competing demands”, Nina will hear the Gospel at some point and that it will take root in her heart. At this point she will become perfect in the eyes of God, even though she will still struggle with her imperfections. But, having received the gift of faith, she will also receive a totally inexplicable joy, as our Lord promised His Apostles, John 16:22, “So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

    PS.: I know “Black Swan” is fiction, but fiction, to be believable, has to take place in reality.

  • Stephen

    Brooke -

    Maybe you didn’t catch my allusions to the Book of Concord. I don’t have an opinion on the “good or bad” of the Tiger Mom book necessarily if that’s what you mean. I was going by the article posted. I realize there’s more to the story. I was offering a comparison based on that reading, and trying to see it as a reflection of law and gospel alongside what I know about this director’s films, which also include Pi, another disturbing descent into madness. I didn’t see Black Swan, and I’m not sure I want to for the psychological beating it would mean, no matter how “beautiful” it is. For a similar reason, I didn’t see Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie, but I have an opinion about it. I think it’s okay to express opinions about things one does not have a full experience of, and I can think of several things I have never experienced that I would never need to in order to know what they consist of, and whether or not I value them.

    So I do have an opinion about theology and Lutheran doctrine, as well as film making and art, and how those things interrelate. I wasn’t pronouncing some final judgment on anything. But if it is the case that threatening and punishment are the lion’s (tiger’s) share of how women in China raise their kids, then I’d say that a degree of what I said is certainly likely to be accurate on a theological level.

  • Stephen

    Brooke -

    Maybe you didn’t catch my allusions to the Book of Concord. I don’t have an opinion on the “good or bad” of the Tiger Mom book necessarily if that’s what you mean. I was going by the article posted. I realize there’s more to the story. I was offering a comparison based on that reading, and trying to see it as a reflection of law and gospel alongside what I know about this director’s films, which also include Pi, another disturbing descent into madness. I didn’t see Black Swan, and I’m not sure I want to for the psychological beating it would mean, no matter how “beautiful” it is. For a similar reason, I didn’t see Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie, but I have an opinion about it. I think it’s okay to express opinions about things one does not have a full experience of, and I can think of several things I have never experienced that I would never need to in order to know what they consist of, and whether or not I value them.

    So I do have an opinion about theology and Lutheran doctrine, as well as film making and art, and how those things interrelate. I wasn’t pronouncing some final judgment on anything. But if it is the case that threatening and punishment are the lion’s (tiger’s) share of how women in China raise their kids, then I’d say that a degree of what I said is certainly likely to be accurate on a theological level.

  • Helen F

    George,
    After reading your post, this sentence really stood out for me:
    “So the hope is that among ”the disparate and competing demands”, Nina will hear the Gospel at some point and that it will take root in her heart. ”

    I cant tell you how many times I’ve seen a film that speaks to the lostness of a person(s), i.e. Stephen’s reference above of , “Requiem for a Dream” and wished that I could have seen this and other films with those who are non-Christian. Although we might erroneously conclude, “Well, I’m sick of watching these hopeless stories” which seem to be anthems to some kind of nihilistic philosophy, nevertheless, again, as Stephen #4 said above,
    “these sorts of works can be great tools for evanglism because they expose the conscience so baldly.”

  • Helen F

    George,
    After reading your post, this sentence really stood out for me:
    “So the hope is that among ”the disparate and competing demands”, Nina will hear the Gospel at some point and that it will take root in her heart. ”

    I cant tell you how many times I’ve seen a film that speaks to the lostness of a person(s), i.e. Stephen’s reference above of , “Requiem for a Dream” and wished that I could have seen this and other films with those who are non-Christian. Although we might erroneously conclude, “Well, I’m sick of watching these hopeless stories” which seem to be anthems to some kind of nihilistic philosophy, nevertheless, again, as Stephen #4 said above,
    “these sorts of works can be great tools for evanglism because they expose the conscience so baldly.”

  • Stephen

    Helen F -

    I find these films wear me out, and I do have Jesus. So what does that say? Imagine people who walk away from them without Him. Imagine what kinds of stories they need to tell themselves or things they cling to in order to cope with that kind of naked reality stuck in their minds. I’m grateful that there are artists out there making art that is done so well like this, with such attention to craft and form. It’s too bad that some Christians do not see it or what it is in this regard. It is a misunderstanding of what the law is and how it works on us and its purpose in God’s world.

    In my last post I probably should not have compared Aronofsky to Gibson because Aronofsky is a much better film maker. That wasn’t my point. Anyway, having said all that, if you really want to see law and gospel in recent cinema – In Bruge. That’s the ticket! The Gospel with gangsters. Funny. Brutal. Absolutely brutal.

  • Stephen

    Helen F -

    I find these films wear me out, and I do have Jesus. So what does that say? Imagine people who walk away from them without Him. Imagine what kinds of stories they need to tell themselves or things they cling to in order to cope with that kind of naked reality stuck in their minds. I’m grateful that there are artists out there making art that is done so well like this, with such attention to craft and form. It’s too bad that some Christians do not see it or what it is in this regard. It is a misunderstanding of what the law is and how it works on us and its purpose in God’s world.

    In my last post I probably should not have compared Aronofsky to Gibson because Aronofsky is a much better film maker. That wasn’t my point. Anyway, having said all that, if you really want to see law and gospel in recent cinema – In Bruge. That’s the ticket! The Gospel with gangsters. Funny. Brutal. Absolutely brutal.

  • Helen F

    Yep, I saw In Bruges a couple of years ago and you are right!

  • Helen F

    Yep, I saw In Bruges a couple of years ago and you are right!

  • Tom Hering

    “… fiction, to be believable, has to take place in reality …”

    If it’s realist fiction, like Zola, yes. But what about Kafka’s Metamporphosis? Why do we suspend our disbelief when reading it? Realism isn’t necessary to all forms of fiction, and fiction as a whole would be greatly impoverished if it were.

  • Tom Hering

    “… fiction, to be believable, has to take place in reality …”

    If it’s realist fiction, like Zola, yes. But what about Kafka’s Metamporphosis? Why do we suspend our disbelief when reading it? Realism isn’t necessary to all forms of fiction, and fiction as a whole would be greatly impoverished if it were.


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