by Al Maxey

Issue #198 ------- July 10, 2005
Timid men prefer the calm of despotism
to the boisterous sea of liberty.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

A Cinematic Parable

Pauline Kael (b. 1919) once insightfully noted, "Good movies make you care; make you believe in possibilities again." Clint Eastwood (b. 1930) observed that the best movies were not made with the goal of amassing vast amounts of money, or even to draw huge crowds. Rather, one should "make a movie for the values it has." I think both of these statements show a depth of wisdom often sadly lacking in the world of cinema. Promoting values; making people care; instilling hope for the future. Quality films speak to us; they touch our soul. Such a movie is Chocolat.

This film was released in the United States by Miramax on December 15, 2000 and given a rating of PG-13 for "a scene of sensuality and some violence." The screenplay was an adaptation by Robert Nelson Jacobs of a novel by Joanne Harris, and was directed with great sensitivity and care by Swedish director Lasse Hallström, who has gained quite a reputation in the film industry as a director very fond of creating movies designed to make his audiences think. This movie began as a "sleeper," only bringing in $157,624 the first weekend (the average first weekend receipts on movies directed by Hallström being well over $3 million). However, by the end of its theater run, Chocolat had grossed well over $71 million, Hallström's largest grossing movie to date. Chocolat was also nominated for five Academy Awards, including the top honor: Best Picture.

The cast of the movie Chocolat includes some very well known film stars, such as Leslie Caron, in supporting roles, as well as outstanding performances by lesser known actors and actresses. The film largely centers around a particular woman who is a free spirit, and her interaction with two equally spirited men. Juliette Binoche (pictured above) plays the leading role in this movie: a character by the name of Vianne Rocher. Juliette was born in Paris, France on March 9, 1964 and has appeared in numerous movies. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1997 for her role in The English Patient. The actor pictured with her above is, of course, Johnny Depp, a fabulous performer who has appeared in countless films. Although he is currently one of our most successful and sought after actors, it was not always so for Johnny. He was born in Kentucky on June 9, 1963, dropped out of school at age 15 after becoming involved in vandalism and drugs, tried to start a rock band, and eventually resorted to becoming a ballpoint pen salesman to support himself and his wife. A series of fortunate encounters with famous stars, including Nicholas Cage, eventually propelled him into the acting business. In the movie Chocolat, Johnny plays the character Roux, the leader of a band of roving gypsies.

One might be wondering WHY I would "waste" an issue of these Reflections on a movie review. Well, there are several reasons. One, I've always had a love for, and fascination with, the cinema ... all aspects of it. I tried my hand at screenplay writing back in my university days, and even had an interview with some of the people from the hit television show The Twilight Zone who showed an interest in one of my pieces (it never made it to final production, though). I took a course on the subject "History of Cinema" at the university under Dr. Jack Williamson, who was a well-known science fiction author. It was great. I also used to think, as a kid, that it would be "cool" to one day marry a cheerleader and movie star (all in the same person, of course!!). Well, my dream came true! Shelly was a cheerleader in high school, and she also was in a movie (as an extra). Her dad, though, actually had a major role in that movie (his name even appears in the credits); he is pictured here in a scene with Johnny Cash (that's her dad standing on the left side of the picture looking down at and talking to Johnny Cash). The movie was A Gunfight, which was released in 1971, starring Johnny Cash, Kirk Douglas, Jane Alexander, Karen Black, Keith Carradine, and Dana Elcar. Shelly's dad, Don Cavasos (who served as an elder in the church for many years), played the part of Newt Hale. This movie came out exactly one year before Shelly and I met --- it was released in August, 1971 and we met for the first time in August, 1972 after I got out of the service and returned to the university where she was attending.

But, I digress! I also decided to do a review of Chocolat because I believe this film truly has a message that needs to be heard by a great many in the church today. Jeff Shannon, a noted film critic, commented, "The film covers familiar territory and deals in broad metaphors that even a child could comprehend." There is nothing deep or complex about the message, and yet the cinematic metaphors are indeed so broad that countless applications are possible. Some see it as a fable or parable of the eternal cosmic battle between good and evil. Although that is certainly evident, I think such is too general. The film is far more specific. Others see it as a commentary upon the struggle between Christianity and paganistic, worldly values. That too can be discerned, the latter being seen in the lifestyle of the band of roving gypsies who are not received favorably by the very religious townspeople. But the film is even more specific than that.

Others regard Chocolat as a morality play, depicting the horrors and excesses of immorality, as opposed to the strong stand for traditional religious values and practices. This too is clearly manifest in the movie. Vianne Rocher is most certainly a "woman of the world," and has no use for the church. She indulges the pleasures of the flesh without apology, and her daughter is born out of wedlock. At one point in the story, when the daughter, Anouk Rocher (played by Victoire Thivisol), is accused of having no father, she responds that she does have a father, she simply does not know who he is. One would most certainly never hold up the lifestyle of Vianne as a model of godly morality, even though she is the film's heroine. It is not her lifestyle that commends her as much as it is her love for others, her love of freedom, and her passionate concern to help others find joy in living, even though from a Christian perspective that joy is often misdirected to less than godly behavior. Thus, one must take care to perceive the message within this morality play, looking past Vianne's obvious moral shortcomings in certain areas to the godly passion within her heart for ennobling and liberating the lives of others.

You see, after all, this is a film contrasting the tyranny of religious oppression and the freedom that comes when one simply seeks to practice our Lord's command to "love one another." A woman who is free finds herself surrounded by a village enslaved. The story shows the leavening power of a love for freedom and how it affects one person after another as it spreads throughout the village. As the movie unfolds before my eyes, I see all too clearly the battle being waged even today within the community of the redeemed. Many are enslaved to the tyranny of legalistic, patternistic theology (clearly portrayed in Chocolat), while a few, who truly know and appreciate their freedom in Christ, seek to bring the leavening power of liberty to those captives who live all about them. This is what Vianne, in her own way, sought to bring to this village of oppressed, repressed souls, and the struggle portrayed in Chocolat is a stirring commentary on our own struggle to proclaim and portray in love our liberty in Jesus. One reviewer of the film praises Hallström for "driving the stake down into the heart of human traditions that pretend to be godly."

As the story opens, Vianne and Anouk are carried by a strong north wind (perhaps symbolizing being led by the Spirit) to a small, quiet village in France around the year 1959. As they arrive, most of the citizens are assembled at the local Catholic church. It is the season of Lent, and the restrictions of that religious season are strictly enforced in this village. The citizens are ruled with an iron fist by the mayor -- the Comte de Reynaud. He lords it over the village and the villagers, even spying upon them to make sure they stray neither to the right nor to the left from the "straight and narrow." There is little joy in this village. They are slaves to the religious tyranny of the Comte de Reynaud. Even the young Catholic priest, Pere Henri (played by Hugh O'Conor), is controlled by the mayor. The priest is forced to read sermons written for him by the Comte de Reynaud, sermons designed to instill fear into the hearts of the people and increase the control of the village lord. The young priest longs to be free, but hasn't the courage to oppose the intimidating mayor. Thus, he is a puppet on a string, and the people sit stoically within their pews enduring the service, too fearful to do otherwise. The mayor even tells Pere Henri at one point, "If you haven't seen the chocolaterie, you might want to take a look. It's important to know one's enemies." Thus, anything and anyone who opposes this man's rigid religious tradition is "the enemy" .... an attitude often seen even to this day among religious extremists and legalistic patternists.

Into this village comes Vianne and her daughter. They locate an empty shop, lease it, and begin working to open a chocolate shop .... during LENT. The townspeople are cautiously curious, not daring to show too much interest, however, lest the spies report them to the village mayor. However, their hunger for something sweet and pleasant grows within their hearts. The mayor is greatly troubled by this "heresy" that has crept into his town, and he employs the typical "smear and fear" tactics of such tyrants, seeking to rid the village of this godless spirit that has come among them. Chocolat presents in compelling fashion, through memorable character studies, the unfolding struggle between religious dogmatism and the yearning within the hearts of the oppressed to simply be free. NOT free from God, but free from those who would lord it over them and quench the spirit within them. The interactions throughout the film, quite frankly, parody some of the very struggles and squabbles found within the church today. In particular, it visualizes for us the magnitude of the clash when GRACE comes within the walls of the village known as LEGALISM and opens shop!

I am so tempted to recount in detail the struggles portrayed in the lives of various characters, and the outcome, but that would ruin the movie for those of you who have not seen it. Vianne, also, like many of us who seek to bring the joy of freedom to a village enslaved, must make the choice whether to stay and fight, or to leave the village for her own peace of mind; leaving the villagers to languish under the hand of their little lord. I think she makes the right decision! The victories won and the freedoms found make this a powerful movie for those who are seeking to share Freedom in Christ with others, and also for those who are presently enslaved, but who, in their hearts, are secretly longing for liberty. Without giving away the details of the movie, suffice it to say -- Grace triumphs in the end. How those steeped in legalistic patternism could ever watch this movie and not hang their heads in shame is beyond me. My guess is that most legalists would never watch this movie, or would walk out before it was over .... it would simply be too uncomfortable for them, for it indicts them in virtually every scene.

There is one victory that I will share, however. The young priest, Pere Henri, at the end of the movie finally finds the backbone to cast away his "prepared lesson" (written for him by the Comte de Reynaud) and delivers his own sermon to the assembled townspeople. After witnessing the struggle in this village between these great forces, that sermon hits one's heart like a hammer and leaves one breathless; it brings tears to the eyes to hear this message of grace from a young priest who has finally found the courage not only to be personally free, but to proclaim that freedom. Hear his words, and may they live long in our hearts and minds --- "We can't go around measuring our goodness by what we don't do, by what we deny ourselves, by what we resist and who we exclude. I think we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include." The narrator (who is the daughter, Anouk, many years later reflecting upon the events within that village) then interjects, "The parishioners felt a new sensation that day: a lightening of the spirit; a freedom from the old tranquility." May our God help us all to feel the same!

Reflections from Readers

From a Minister in Khon Kaen, Thailand:

Dear Al, We have received the Reflections for over two years now. We in Thailand, especially in Khon Kaen, have a second serving of the Lord's Supper on Sunday evening. Our members go to help smaller and new churches in other cities who meet only on Sunday evening and our members partake a second time of the Lord's Supper with the new local church members. I have nothing against taking the Lord's Supper twice on Sunday.

From a Minister in Hyderabad, India:

Dear Brother Al, I have gone through your website and wonderful articles. I would like to translate them into Telugu language. Would you please permit?

From a New Subscriber in Florida:

Brother Maxey, I have been reading on and off for a month or two now and have really enjoyed your Reflections. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I have been coming out of my Pharisaic, Patternistic, Legalistic mindset. I grew up in a Non-Institutional church and have now basically cast off many of those interpretations that lead to division. I have spent much time in study and thought about the Restoration Movement, CENI hermeneutic, patternism, and other aspects of the NI groups I was raised in. Your Reflections put my own thoughts into words and arguments that are exactly how I wished to articulate them, but could never do so. I am currently working with a NI group, and my father and grandfather were both NI ministers. I went to Florida College for two years, but am transferring, hopefully, to Lipscomb University this fall. You and Edward Fudge have been a great influence upon me, and are voices I so very much resonate with. I appreciate it. Many thanks and blessings from our Father be upon you! Also, I would love to be added to your Reflections mailing list. Thank you so much!

From a New Subscriber in Virginia:

I want to be added to your mailing list. I received your e-mail address from a mutual friend and brother in Christ Jesus. He highly recommended you as a good teacher of the Word. Thank you for your dedication and commitment to the Gospel. God bless you, brother Al.

From a New Subscriber in (Unknown):

Dear Mr. Maxey, I enjoyed your article on "A Christian Affirmation 2005," and appreciated the balance that you and Leroy Garrett have added to the discussion. That article was emailed to me by a friend. Will you please add me to your Reflections email list? Thank you.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, Somehow your Reflections always seem to arrive just in the "nick of time." We both attended Harding University, but left the ministry and our faith for a time. Then ------- (a good friend who was an active member of the congregation I preached for in Germany over 20 years ago -- Al Maxey) e-mailed a Reflections to us and hope once again entered our lives. My husband and I have been having bi-monthly studies with other couples, sharing and re-examining our faith and the patternistic ways of our Christianity. It has been an eye-opener, to say the least. We have decided that we are coming to Alamogordo, and we would love to have the opportunity to meet with you and your wife. What does the remainder of your summer look like, and would you be interested in meeting with us? Thank you, Al, for your fervor for the Truth and your dedication to our Lord. You inspire me to become what I know I can be. May God bless you and Shelly!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, Love your articles, especially the last few! Your latest about the Lord's Supper came to mind yesterday. We were visiting a large Church of Christ, and my parents went with us. I was interested in finding out what they would say about the service. I thought for sure they would mention the praise team standing up on the stage, or the use of videos (one even had instrumental praise music to accompany the video). But I was shocked at what my mom mentioned bothered her. She was disturbed that they only said one prayer and then passed around both the bread and the juice, one right after the other, without a separate prayer for the juice. She said that was NOT the way Jesus did it, and the least we could do was follow the example of the way HE did things. I asked, "Where was Jesus baptized?" She said, "A river." I then asked, "Where were you baptized?" She said, "A cow tank." Then she knew I had "got her." I just thought it was amusing that she realized her patternistic thinking could not get everything right, no matter how hard we might try. Keep up the great writing!

From a Minister in Georgia:

Al, While we have various differences, I believe you are right in your assessment of "faith" in Romans 14. On another plane, you stated in your last Reflections that while you have chosen to be a part of the Churches of Christ, you intimated that there were various other groups that you believe would be acceptable to God. Could you be more specific and name a few of them?

From a Minister in California:

My dear brother, I just spent the better part of my early morning in your writings -- even linking to the web sites of your adversaries -- and I must tell you (again) how much I appreciate your spirit. Your intellect. Your commitment to the Lord Jesus. Your commitment to our part of the Lord's Body. I must also tell you I get so very tired of it all and am amazed that you can keep the dialogue going with mentalities and theologies that I've finally chosen to simply ignore. You have my utmost respect! Al, I'm also tiring of pouring energies into a segment of the Body of Christ that seems to want to die. I've spent 30 years preaching in Churches of Christ. I began in the conservative ("anti") side and have since moved to the more progressive ("liberal") side. I really don't have much hope for Churches of Christ, and am giving serious thought to "retiring" from ministry. I'd love to be the guy who comes to an assembly to worship and leave all the leadership headaches and constant complaints to someone else for a change. On the other hand, I know that when all is said and done I'll probably stay in the pulpit and try to remain as focused and faithful as I can as I move through this lifelong process of relying more and more on the Spirit of God within me. Just wondering -- have you ever been where I am right now? Just tired of it all? I love and appreciate you, brother! More than I could possibly express in words.

From a Reader in Florida:

Dear brother Al, Thanks for your continued writings to encourage and inform. I would like your "opinion" concerning these two questions: 1) With all of the communication that you receive from brethren across the nation and around the world, where do you think our "faith heritage" is in the year 2005 as compared to where we were 20 years ago? 2) Do you have any ideas that are different now than 20 years ago, relative to reaching an urban, multicultural generation with Jesus? Your ear seems to be to the proverbial ground, so what are you hearing from our fellowship? Thanks again for your work.

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