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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.