Recently, my wife and I watched “King Arthur,” a semi-historical Hollywood video released in 2004 starring
Keira Knightly. It is mostly an action film, but, being set in the Roman Empire a couple hundred years after Christ, Christianity is portrayed in the film.
Obviously, being a Hollywood film, accuracy comes second to story and with King Arthur, little, if anything, is known for sure. But watching the portrayal of the church – a church that burns nice people advocating for the freedom of slaves like Pelagius, where the bishop commands soldiers and monks torture Britiannia’s tribes people who are unwilling to become serfs, I got to wondering why the church is often portrayed as a villain in these historical pieces.
Reality is quite different than King Arthur. There are many historical errors, but I’m going to focus on the religious ones. The natural death of Pelagius was in c. 418 AD. His error was his theological teaching, a teaching that never spilled over into the social realm and had nothing to do with the freedom of serfs. Bishop Germanus is portrayed as arrogant and cruel in the film, though historical evidence seems to indicate quite the opposite. The bishop is able to command soldiers in the film, despite the fact that the Popes would not wield that power until much later when the Roman Empire had fallen in the West.
All of these choices were intentional deviations from history. If they had wanted to do a different time period, say, the late middle ages, then they could perfectly well have had the church burning heretics and bishops commanding soldiers with perfect historical accuracy. Instead, they changed the character of the earlier church. Why were these choices made? These are themes we see over and over again in modern storytelling. King Arthur is not alone in its portrayal of Christian religion. Very often, Christianity in films is used to voice absurd points of view or to give motivation to villains. Occasionally, religion also plays a limited role in the life of the hero. In the case of this film, it is a genuine motivation for the hero, Arthur himself.
“His holiness is eager to know about your knights,” Bishop Germanus says in one scene, “Have they embraced the holy faith?” Arthur responds, “They have their own beliefs, and I’ve never questioned that.” (loosely quoted)
That is the difference between Arthur’s good religion and Germanus’ bad one in the eyes of this film. Arthur’s is personal. He’s not a bishop or a monk (boo, hiss!) and he isn’t worried about converting his men to his faith. He’s just quietly concerned with being a good person, and carrying Western social values like freedom, equality, religious plurality, harsh justice and the abolition of slavery to the late-Roman world. Therein lies Hollywood’s religious message: to be a good Christian, you need to be an individualistic person with values that correspond to “timeless, objective” western ones.
The problem is that Christianity is different, and better. Christianity operates as a community, charged with the Great Commission: making disciples of Christ from every tribe and nation. It’s not about getting others to embrace our beliefs, its about getting others to follow Christ. Christians have a call to social justice, but it doesn’t correspond to Western or modern values. It values life higher, and convenience lower. It favors responsibilities to others over personal rights. On an individual level, it’s not even particularly concerned about meting out justice. We’re told to pray for our enemies, and to forgive people who wrong us- not seal them up in a crypt like Arthur does to the evil monks he meets. We’re called to form an institutional body of Christ, one with structure and discipline. It’s not very Hollywood, and its not something people easily accept.
So we return to the opening question: why mischaracterize the church as a villain in historical periods where that role makes no sense for the church? Just like Arthur’s social values are imported from the modern era, so too I think is the perceived character of the church. The media is full of reports of priests who molest children, religious bigotry, religious terrorism, religious opposition to “equal marriage” and abortion and a church that hasn’t “gotten with the times.”
Hollywood, as part of the media, exports this conflict to history, to the future and to fiction. They aren’t necessarily trying to get Christians to loose their individual faith; they just want the church to die. By painting a picture of a church already dead throughout history, clearly out of step with society and clearly a force for evil, I think they hope we will abandon our church even if we won’t abandon our God. They’re on a mission.
Unfortunately for Hollywood, they’ve (intentionally or unintentionally) misunderstood the situation. The Church continues to make mistakes, as it has in the past, but the Holy Spirit continues to work through the Church as a force for good in our world. The Church isn’t an accidental byproduct of faith, created by arrogant and corrupt bishops and monks; it is the house that Christ built. Christianity is not a buffet table; it’s an all or nothing package that includes evangelism. Christian leaders don’t exist to exert power but to exhort and encourage those under their care to follow Christ more closely and to grow spiritually. Good people become great people in the context of a Christian community.
The more Hollywood builds their case on a revisionist history that paints the institutional church as a villain, the more people will ignore what they say when they meet a church where Popes wash the feet of prisoners and Christian communities offer comfort and aid to the poor. When those same Christians share their faith, those who know them will not see anything in common with the church of Hollywood. They’ll see a Church established by God.