A few weeks ago I was asked to help out with promo for Stations of the Cross, a film about Catholic fundamentalism. It’s debatable whether Catholic fundamentalism is actually a thing, but we’ll ignore that for now. I ended up briefly appearing on London Live TV to discuss it (the clip is online here, although I don’t know how long for).
I don’t honestly know whether I liked this film. It seemed to go on much longer than its claimed running time, and despite allusions to dark humour in other reviews, I didn’t laugh once. But it reminded what it was like to be a believer, and I cried at the end. I think you should watch it.
As I mentioned on London Live, I could only think about two things while I was watching it: what I would have thought if I’d seen it 15 years ago, at the height of my fanaticism, and what the hardcore evangelicals I still know would make of it. So really that’s one thing: How do fundamentalists react to depictions of fundamentalism of a different kind?
The answer, I concluded, is that they react exactly the same way most people react: with horror. There are always a thousand reasons why their beliefs are nothing like the beliefs being depicted, even though they are to all intents and purposes exactly the same. I recently heard Vyckie Garrison talking about trying to reason with some Quiverfull members about how their patriarchal, abusive lifestyle was… patriarchal and abusive. And these Quiverfullers were all like “But we’re not like the controlling abusive types at all! Our women are allowed to wear jeans!” When I watch a film like Stations of the Cross, all I can see is similarities; if my ACE-loving friends did the same, they’d only see difference. Since my Christian friends are all charismatics, they would all relate to Christian, the friendly, moderate Protestant whose church choir sings soul and gospel. In fact, my biggest objection to the film is that Christian, the evangelical, is about the most reasonable person in the film, when evangelicalism is packed with controlling mechanisms and exclusive attitudes of its own.
Had I seen it as a believer, I wouldn’t have recognised anything of myself in Stations of the Cross. Instead, I would have thought how tragic it was that people could be suckered into Satan’s counterfeit version of Christianity, Catholicism. If only Maria had known the true Gospel, everything would have been fine. I believed that false religions were similar to mine because the devil made them that way purpose. By concocting religions that were very similar to the Truth, Satan was able to trick people into eternal damnation. He was crafty that way. The fact that false religions were similar in some ways to mine really only confirmed that I was on the right path.
There are a number of scenes in Stations of the Cross which, had they been set in the USA, could have been the IFB. In one, Maria attends confession, and admits to having committed the sins of vanity, and of lust. What are the specifics of her terrible crimes? Had she fantasised about orgiastic sexual practices? No. She had entertained the evil imagination that Christian might look at her and find her beautiful. In response, the Priest asks if she might have sinned by looking at Christian in a manner that might raise unclean thoughts in him. And of course, she feared that she had. I think anyone who has spent time with fundamental Baptists will be struck by how much the teachings on modesty and chastity sound like they could have come from a Hyles or a Gothard or any other conservative southern Baptist preacher.
During a gym lesson, the coach puts on pop music for the warmup, and Maria complains that she cannot listen to it because it has satanic rhythms. Again, the arguments are straight from Gothard. Of course, Maria was bullied for this. I was reminded of the intense hazing I experienced after I left my ACE school when I refused to swear in front of my new schoolmates.
I identified with Maria because she internalised the beliefs. Some people talk about the scary aspect of fundamentalism being the forced compliance, the troubled teen homes and the corporal punishment, and those things are horrendous. But even under that level of duress, it’s possible for your mind to stay free. When you’re ostensibly free to act how you want but you’ve taken all the doctrine to heart, that’s when they’ve really got you. Maria’s prison is in her mind, and it was in mine, too.
Dr Marat Shterin joined me on London Live, and he seemed to think rather less of the film than I did. He complained that it’s not likely that many Catholic believers, no matter how devout, would end up acting as Maria does at the end. I think that’s hardly the point. Maria takes the doctrines absolutely seriously. She takes them more seriously than her parents or her priests. She is more devout than anyone, and her actions, while unlikely, are the actions of someone who truly believes, of someone who takes these teachings to their logical conclusion.
This is something that’s come up many times in the comments on Leaving Fundamentalism: children taking fundamentalist teachings more literally and more uncritically than their parents and teachers. My parents and teachers had converted as adults. They had still had a good secular education and the benefit of a couple of decades’ experience in the real world. In all sorts of ways, they were (perhaps unconsciously) taking some teachings with a pinch of salt. Their expectations of God were moderated by a sense of what is realistic. They could read a Christian book and not necessarily take every word of it at face value. But none of them ever explained that to me. I treated writings by our most trusted preachers and pastors with the same reverence as Scripture. If I was taught a doctrinal principle, I followed it without exception. It ended badly for me, and it doesn’t end well for Maria either. That’s why I was crying at the end of this film, and why I was very glad there was no one else with me in the carriage of the train where I watched it.