Friday, December 26, 2008

"Doubt" About The Church's Future

You may have to love the church really to enjoy "Doubt," starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep as a priest and nun who clash over whether love or authority will prevail in Christ's earthly home. The story is set the year after JFK's assassination, as the world begins to go mad. You can't quite hear the guns in Vietnam, but the winds of change are gusting all around the parish school in the Bronx where she is principal and Fr. Flynn, played by Hoffman, is priest. (That's Hoffman above with Amy Adams, who plays Sister James, a young teacher who is tortured by her own uncertainty about him.)

Sister Aloysius Beauvier, Streep's character, is shown closing her office windows to keep the wind out. As far as Fr. Flynn is concerned, as he tells his congregation, the wind is propelling him toward new challenges. Whether those doing the huffing and puffing are church leaders covering up sexual abuse, the viewer never quite knows, which is what helps give the movie its power. The rest comes from John Patrick Shanley's story and script, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, as well as the work of two of the greatest actors in the world.

The post-Vatican II priest stands for "progressive education and a welcoming church" as well as the transcendent power of love. Complicating the picture is ambiguity over whether his enlightenment extends to man-boy affairs. Sister Aloysius is ambiguous as well -- slapping the boys upside their heads at mass while showing exceptional kindness to an aging nun as well as prophetic passion about protecting Donald Miller, an African-American 8th grader, from Fr. Flynn. She's convinced he's abusing the boy or planning to, and it's not just that Flynn's reform-minded and she's not. She really believes it; and yet you're never sure she's right. All you know for sure is that he's hiding something from his past. Then again, as it turns out, so is she.

The movie just won't let you take sides, even when it comes to civil rights vs. feminism. There's a powerful scene between Streep and Viola Davis, playing Donald's mother, who's desperate to get him into a decent high school and college and away from his abusive father. Her shy, isolated, sometimes bullied son is the first black child in the school, and he's come to depend on the priest's support. For complex reasons, even after Streep tells her that Fr. Flynn may be abusing Donald, Mrs. Miller can't bring herself to despise him. I was aching for the nun and mother to bond. Both were second-class citizens and victims of unjust systems. And yet Davis finally tells Streep, "I don't know if you and I are on the same side. I'll be standing with my son and those who are good to my son."

It's not just whether Fr. Flynn's love for the boy is appropriate. The movie also tangles with the question of whether God is just love, as some progressive Christians will tell you. Streep's character stands for the sometimes under-emphasized godly values of righteousness and discipline. As for deciding which values are supreme in the church, now, as 2,000 years ago, it's all about the sources of authority. Who decides what the rules are? Do we look to the Bible, the pope, or the General Convention of the Episcopal Church? Who's right, the progressive priest or the stern nun? It no doubt bespeaks Shanley's deep church roots that the movie won't say.

The story is set in the moment in American history when national authority also began to be up for grabs, as an accidental President is decisively elected in his own right and is preparing to escalate the war whose consequences are with us still. For most in the audience, the movie was a fascinating if frustratingly inconclusive struggle between two stubborn characters as they lived through the tensions between tradition and modernity. It's also about the continuing struggle over the governance of Christ's church. We don't quite believe in authority anymore ourselves; and yet we can't survive without it.

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