Saturday 1 June 2019

"We don't do God" by Mary Hoffman

No, not a post about Alastair Campbell. We try to keep this site a politics-free zone.

Two things I've seen recently have got me pondering about how difficult it is to show faith, or religious calling, in a work of art.

The first was a relay (in the cinema) of Francis Poulenc's opera  Dialogues des Carmelites from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The second the film called simply Tolkien, which traces the life of the author of The Lord of the Rings from childhood to the life of a don at Oxford, writing the fateful sentence (in particularly beautiful script): "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." The postwar life is just sketched in.

Francis Poulenc

The Poulenc opera is all about the faith of the Carmelite nuns of Compi├Ęgne, whose resolution on martyrdom led them to the guillotine in 1794.

At the finale (SPOILER ALERT) nearly twenty nuns walk voluntarily through the crowd, singing Salve Regina, up to a scaffold where, one by one, they are beheaded by the guillotine. There can be no finer test of faith than willingly to be killed for it.

And yet, how does the opera portray this?

The story is relatively simple. A young aristocratic woman named Blanche de la Force, the daughter of a Marquis, joins the Carmelite order of nuns because she is afraid of the violence of the Reign of Terror. There she meets another young novice, Sister Constance, who has a dream that the two of them will die on the same day.

The Prioress is dying and does so in agony, believing God to have forsaken her. The new Prioress goes away and, in her absence, with the convent's Chaplain having been forbidden to carry out his office, another nun, Mother Marie, holds a secret ballot in which all but one of the order votes for martyrdom.

Sister Constance reveals herself to have been the one who held out against death but says she has changed her mind. Meanwhile, Sister Blanche runs away back to her old home. Was she actually the one who voted "no"? Officials of the Revolution come to the convent and take the nuns to prison, where the sentence of death is passed on them all.

At the climax, Sister Constance, who is the last of the nuns to take the fatal journey, falters and is comforted by the sudden appearance of Blanche, who follows her to the scaffold, singing.

The composer, unrecogniseable here from the exuberant, joyful Poulenc whose Gloria I have sung, along with most amateur choristers in the UK, does have the advantage of being able to convey in music what can't be demonstrated in words.  But does that help?

Not for me. The agony of the dying Prioress is more convincing than the death wish piety of Blanche at the end. Her father has already been guillotined, her brother has escaped (we assume) to another country. She is working as a servant in her old home, now owned by her former servants. It's enough to make anyone feel she had nothing to live for.

Plenty of religion is portrayed in Dialogues des Carmelites, even if not - to me - convincingly. The argument against Dome Karukoski's film about Tolkien is that he leaves religion out altogether. When Tolkien's mother died, he was twelve (having been four when his father died) and she put his and his brother Hilary's welfare in the hands of Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan. Mabel Tolkien had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1900, four years before her death and her faith was as important to her son as it was to her. Her Baptist family cut her off because of her conversion. Father Francis was her close friend in times of trouble and poverty.

Karukoski's defence at leaving Tolkien's faith out of the film was:  "[W]e have scenes where he attends communion and helps Father Francis to show that he was a man of faith. There are also layered scenes, where he looks up to the heavens for an answer as if asking God for help. There's another scene where a figure is on a cross. Many people won’t notice those hints because they’re so eternal" Leah MarieAnn Klett (May 10, 2019). "'Tolkien' director on honoring life, legacy of famed 'Lord of the Rings' author (interview)". The Christian Post.

That's pretty feeble, isn't it? Looking up at the sky from the WW1 trenches? Anyone might do that. But I do have some sympathy with both creators. Religious impulses are essentially internal and can't easily be shown in pictures or music. Novels might do better, with interior monologues, but I could think only of Rumer Godden's In this House of Brede and The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader, reviewed on this site here. 

Please give me examples of works of art which convincingly demonstrate a person's faith (any religion) or vocation.

J R R Tolkien in 2016

Nicholas Hoult, who plays Tolkien in the film


  1. There is some amazing art that depicts the true religious feelings, some of the galleries in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence made me want to sit down and pray or cry at the feelings form them but you have to see the originals and not the images online, something is lost in the capturing of the pictures. Also when you walk into the various churches in Italy the pictures are part of a wider religious experience. The modern act of not causing offence limits so many forms of expression and social media most of all, and I do include film in this, (or streaming or box sets etc)

  2. I consider a so-called "choice" of martyrdom as an exercise in narcissism and hubris. I studied mostly ancient and mediaeval history when I was a history major so many years ago (almost 50) at Muhlenberg College. I do not admire "martyrs." Martyrdom is another form of suicide in my opinion. I will not go into all the reasons why the Romans have laboured under false accusations at this point. JRR Tolkien is another subject entirely ;-). I loved reading the saga aloud to my birth family aloud during one of my summer breaks while at college. (I do admit that I do take on each character with my voice, so it was a lot of fun!). He was very sophisticated with the use of myth and did not hammer people over the head with his own beliefs. I am not Chrisitian myself, yet I felt perfectly comfortable in the world that he created. His colleague Lewis was NOT as sophisticated and as such his writings are far thinner in quality and more insistent on a certain type of belief, which I find to be very narrow.


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