Faith and Film 4: Saints and Sinners

Martin Luther, the spiritual parent of all Protestants (and crazy uncle to Roman Catholics) used a handy little phrase to summarize the Christian life: Simul justus et peccator. Loosely translated, it means “saint and sinner at the same time.” Luther knew that being a Christian doesn’t render one immune to the effects of sin (no great insight there; an hour spent with your eyes and ears open in almost any church will lead you to the same conclusion). As I’ve noted before in these blogs about the movies, Hollywood’s moral vision usually boils down to good guys and bad guys: you’re either one or the other. But Luther’s take on saints and sinners was far more subtle, and hence more realistic. On the same day, within the space of a few minutes, we Christians are liable to be vessels of God’s grace to someone, and to grievously wound someone else with our words and deeds. The hurtful things we do don’t negate the good we can accomplish, but neither do the good things we do excuse our sinful and destructive actions.

A similar problem arises when we talk about our relations as Christians to the society in which we live. To be a Christian is to live with separate, and hence conflicting, loyalties. We are born and spend our lives within a specific society and nation; that society accordingly asks of us our loyalty. But we are reborn as citizens of the Kingdom of God, a community whose values are often at odds with those of the earthly society in which we live. This means that our loyalty to God’s kingdom will inevitably conflict with our loyalty to the earthly nation and society into which we were born.  Jesus described this situation as being in the world, but not of the world.

The movies generally reflect our culture’s attitude toward those who have a strong sense of the difference between being a Christian and being a normal member of society. They usually depict such Christians as out-of-touch and weird, practicing a cultish devotion to a religion unworthy of their faith. But every now and then the movies grasp the kind of quiet courage that living a life of genuine Christian conviction requires.  At their best, such films recognize that these Christians aren’t heroes, just sinners like the rest of us living faithfully in a world badly in need of saints.

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