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The Shape of Water won the Oscar for best film last February. It tells the story of a mute woman who falls in love with an amphibious creature held captive by the U.S. government. The films of director, Guillermo del Toro, tend to incorporate fantasy into the everyday world through mysterious and fairytale like creatures. A former Roman Catholic, Del Toro kicks against religion, abhorring the way it has been complicit in many of the horrific events in history. But like Paul Schrader, it seems Del Toro has also been deeply imprinted by the biblical imagination. In The Shape of Water, for example, he can’t shake the idea of incarnation, death, and resurrection. More importantly, a religious reading of The Shape of Water rightly recognizes what Slavoj Žižek refers to as the monstrosity of Christ. The villain is a white male who works for the government. He torments the creature, abusing it because it’s not human—it’s an affront to the image of God, of which he is the ideal representation. The main character is a young woman who is mute, her friend is a lonely artist who is rejected because of his sexual identity. An undercurrent of the film, set during the cold war, is the racism and bigotry of the status quo. Into this world, the mysterious creature comes. He shows that he is not a tame creature—at one point he eats a cat—but into this chilling world of hatred and violence, he brings love and healing. “You are a god,” the villain, like the Roman centurion, confesses when confronted with the monstrosity of a creature that does not fit into the social and cultural categories.

It’s graduation season, and this past Wednesday night my son graduated from the 8th grade. He goes to a Christian school, which I’m mostly thankful for. I’m a supporter of Christian education, not over and against public education, but alongside and in support of. I happily pay my taxes to help the public school do it’s good work, and in our community we have really good public education. As I sat in the graduation ceremony and listened to what was said, I couldn’t help but think that the whole thing was about affirming what the adults in the room believe, or at least what everyone thinks they believe. It was an exercise in confirming the status quo, so we, the adults, could pat ourselves on the back for the faithfulness of our kids. I know many of these kids, they are my son’s friends and classmates. I’ve coached them, I’ve had them in my home, I’ve listened to them talk about their hopes and fears. That night, I couldn’t help but think the language and platitudes they used were not their own, but came straight from a community that so badly wants them to be assimilated into a so-called Christian way of life. But this is not the gospel. In Jesus Christ God doesn’t come to confirm our way of life, God comes to upend it. Christian Education, done well, doesn’t confirm the status quo by saying “Soli Deo Gloria” after everything, as if the sound of our own clapping conjures up God’s glory. Maybe God is glorified when our young people give voice to what they really believe, what their concerns and fears really are. Maybe God is glorified when young people are able to express their hurts and doubts so they might encounter the crucified Christ who confronts the systems and powers of this world. Maybe, what Christian education needs, is a little less status quo, and little more monstrosity. Or, maybe I should quit watching movies the night before graduation.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

6 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Indeed, monstrosity. Consider the Behemoth, God says to Job. The monstrosity of the good.

  • Niki says:

    The consideration is good. I would love to hear your thoughts on how to do it better.

    • Jason Lief says:

      Niki, I believe in the promise of Christian education because the gospel is a powerful message for the world. It’s not just about personal salvation or living moral lives, it’s the undoing of powerful social and cultural forces that dehumanize and exclude. I spent a year volunteering at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis. The purpose of the school is to help young people from economically poor neighborhoods get to college. Tuition was paid for by businesses, and the students spent a day working at internships. It wasn’t perfect, but I witnessed up close powerful stories of transformation. I, personally, was invited into the lives of young people who were very different from me, held different religious beliefs, and yet they showed me grace and love. This is what I want for Christian education—to challenge the dominant culture of the status quo by loving the poor, the vulnerable, the weak, and the different.

      As someone who has taught in Christian schools, and teach at a Christian college, I have many more ideas and thoughts… but nobody likes to read long comments in the comment section, especially from academic types. Maybe we can grab coffee sometime?

  • Mike Kugler says:

    I saw this movie as del Toro’s most morally obvious story, much less ambiguous and therefore with less of a sense of the hope of redemption than (say) The Devil’s Backbone. On just moral terms, del Toro challenges the nature of modern democracy, which he takes to be fascism in fact or in embryo, with his vision of a much more tolerant and free society. Does the Good News offer a political alternative, in a version amenable to the state, to that authoritarianism? I guess I see the Gospel as a vision of hope lived out against the powers and principalities, but without beating them at their game.

    • Jason Lief says:

      Yes, I love Del Toro. I use Pan’s Labyrinth in Christian Story I – not the entire film, just a couple scenes. I believe he represents the power of a Catholic imagination, even if he no longer identifies with the Roman Catholic tradition. I agree with your vision of the gospel. I’m starting to explore it in the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but really like to read Ellul. My next project will try to bring the two together….?

  • Phil says:

    What a perplexing and disappointing blog post. I’m not really sure what you were hoping an 8th grade graduation to be about, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t about the adults patting themselves on the backs as they were “confirming the status quo” and it wasn’t supposed to be some upending event that rises above the culture and tears down the sinful institutional structures of this world as the students spill out their “hurts and doubts” to the parents of their peers. There is a time and a place for everything, and an 8th grade graduation is neither of those for students to voice “what their concerns and fears really are”. Several students gave a faith statement, which is far more fitting for this type of event than a morbid list of fears. We’re talking about elementary-aged children, and part of the process of getting young minds to eventually think on their own and to encounter Christ as they get into high school and college and beyond is to first give them those Biblical foundations through catechesis, memory work, and repetition of fundamental Christians truths. The faith statements that were given shows that they are learning how to articulate what they have been learning in a Christian school. To write those statements off as platitudes is unfair to those students.

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