Villainous Christianity in ‘The Whale,’ ‘The Wonder,’ and ‘Women Talking’ – Brett McCracken

The “Christian villain” trope is nothing new in Hollywood. From sociopathic Christian killers (The Night of the Hunter, Se7en) to prudish, sexually repressed fundamentalists (Footloose, Carrie, The Virgin Suicides) to blood-sucking vampire priests (Midnight Mass), vengeful church ladies (Mrs. Carmody in The Mist), and Bible-toting tyrants (Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption), loathsome Christian baddies are everywhere in Hollywood and have been for some time.

We can understandably feel defensive about how Hollywood depicts Christians (heavily weighted toward the negative). But rather than simply shouting “Unfair stereotype!” we ought to consider the nature of the critiques. How are Hollywood’s narratives expressing the larger culture’s angst and grievances about Christianity? What might we learn from this about the obstacles we face in evangelism and apologetics?

To that end, let’s look at three 2022 films—The Whale, The Wonder, and Women Talking—that wrestle with faith and depict Christians largely negatively. Though their emphases are slightly different, the three films share an overall view that institutional Christianity is an oppressive system from which victims must be liberated.

The Whale: Christianity Suppresses Authenticity

Darren Aronofsky is no stranger to exploring faith in his films, often in disturbing ways (see Noah and Mother!). His latest, The Whale (written by Samuel Hunter and based on his 2012 play), offers a characteristically provocative look at faith through the story of a morbidly obese gay man living in Moscow, Idaho. Played by Brendan Fraser in a role likely to earn him a best actor Oscar, Charlie is a thinly veiled Christ figure whose story plays out during an “unholy week” of sorts, culminating in a predictable way on Friday.

The Whale depicts Charlie as an outcast whose repulsive appearance is probably meant to nod in the direction of messianic imagery in Isaiah 53 (“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him”). The church, meanwhile, is framed as a homophobic, pharisaical institution that preaches love but practices hate. Charlie’s late boyfriend, Alan, grew up in the local evangelical church but was driven to suicide after he was exiled on account of his sexual choices. For Charlie, then, the church has LGBT+ blood on its hands.

How are Hollywood’s narratives expressing the larger culture’s angst and grievances about Christianity? What might we learn from this about the obstacles we face in evangelism and apologetics?

When a friendly young evangelical missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins) starts visiting and proselytizing Charlie, it briefly seems Charlie might soften a bit to the gospel. But it doesn’t go well when Thomas implies—quoting Romans 8:13—that Alan died because he chose flesh (illicit relationship with Charlie) over Spirit (faithfulness to God).

“You think Alan died because he chose to be with me?” Charlie responds. “You think God turned his back on him because he and I were in love?”

If Charlie is meant to be a sort of Christ figure, his gospel message is one of authenticity and “love is love” sexual freedom. He teaches a writing class online and repeatedly tells his students to write “honest” things. Honesty is the ultimate value in Charlie’s gospel—in the “honesty to self” sense. If honesty to self leads a man to abandon his wife and daughter to run off with another man (as Charlie does, basically ruining his daughter’s life), so be it. If honesty to self leads someone to flee his family or church or eat two entire pizzas a day to the point of congestive heart failure, all in the name of “authenticity,” so be it.

If honesty to self trumps all other values and commitments, then whatever hinders authenticity is villainized. In The Whale, the church—and its privileging of God’s revealed truth over our subjective authenticity—is thus the biggest villain. The heroes, meanwhile, are those willing to be brutally honest about “who they are,” whatever the cost to themselves or others.

The Wonder: Christianity Rejects Science

In The Wonder, an agnostic nurse named “Lib” Wright (Florence Pugh) is summoned to a rural Irish village in the 19th century. She’s asked to observe a young girl, Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), who hasn’t eaten in four months but is somehow still alive. Anna claims she’s living off “manna from heaven,” and her devout Catholic family and village believe her miraculous account. Representing science, reason, liberation, and being factually right, the appropriately named Lib Wright is naturally skeptical. She sets out to investigate the truth behind Anna’s supposed miracle and uncovers what in her mind is dangerously deluded religious fanaticism.

In Lib’s view, Anna is a victim of an oppressive religious regime that ignores science if it might undermine their faith. Though set in 1862, the film is obviously colored by today’s political dynamics, wherein secular progressives claim the “party of science” mantle and religious conservatives are accused of being dangerously antiscience. Even if the reality is more complex (progressives appeal to science on some issues but ignore it on others, especially on gender and procreation), the popular narrative nevertheless persists: Christianity’s supernatural bent is an enemy of science.

Adapted from a 2016 novel and directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, The Wonder at least acknowledges that Lib’s materialistic scientism is itself a sort of faith. A dialogue scene between Lib and Kitty (Anna’s older sister) is telling:

“What was the last thing Anna ate?” Lib asks.

“The flesh of our Savior,” Kitty responds, referring to the Eucharist.

“So just water and wheat?”

“No, missus. Not just water and wheat. It’s the body and blood of Christ.”

“That’s a story, Kitty. I’m looking for facts.”

“You see, you also need your stories. You write them down in that little notebook of yours. It’s quite the Bible you got going.”

The film tacitly frames faith and science as both “stories” with sincere, devoted adherents. But it leaves no doubt as to which story we should prefer.

The Wonder tacitly acknowledges that faith and science are both ‘stories’ with sincere, devoted adherents. But it leaves no doubt as to which story we should prefer.

By film’s end (spoiler alert), Lib lives up to her name by liberating the brainwashed Anna from the constraints of her spiritually oppressive (in Lib’s view) family and community. She essentially kidnaps Anna and takes her to live as her own daughter in a faraway place (Australia). To religious conservatives watching, this will look like a harrowing example of progressives disregarding parental rights as an act of justice. Progressive viewers, meanwhile, will likely cheer for Lib as a heroine willing to advocate for and ultimately extract children from backwater religious delusion.

Women Talking: Christianity Enables Abuse

Sarah Polley’s Women Talking is more nuanced in its treatment of Christianity than the “hit job” approaches of other films. Yes, Christianity can become a front for unspeakable evil. But for the vulnerable female victims in Women Talking, it’s also a source of incomparable hope.

The film is based on a book about a harrowing true story of sexual abuse in a Mennonite colony. It follows a group of women who discover they’ve been repeatedly drugged and raped by men in their own community: men they trusted, their husbands and brothers and spiritual leaders. Upon making this horrific discovery, and while the perpetrators are temporarily away, eight women meet in a hayloft to discuss their options. Should they do nothing, stay and fight, or leave to pursue a new life elsewhere?

True to its name, Women Talking is essentially one long dialogue scene as the women (played by talented actresses like Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, and Claire Foy) grieve together, argue together, and comfort one another with Scripture and hymns. Unable to read and write (in their colony, women aren’t allowed to be educated), the women can at least talk in secret—hatching plans for their own emancipation.

To Polley’s credit, Women Talking asks hard questions about Christianity without using those questions to discredit faith entirely. “If God is omnipotent,” one character asks, “then why has he not protected the women and girls of this colony?” It’s a heavy question, but none of the women appears to lose her faith on its account. Over the course of the film, they wrestle with forgiveness, justice, and the trauma they’ve endured. But through it all, they manage to keep repeating, in faith, “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in loving kindness.”

We absolutely sympathize with these women and rage against the evil perpetrated against them by men who claim to serve Christ. But even as it tells a very specific story, Women Talking is clearly aware of how it fits into a larger narrative that says patriarchy and abuse are not a bug but a feature of conservative Christianity.

The film’s progressive worldview is apparent in the character of Melvin (played by nonbinary actor August Winter), a biological woman turned trans man who goes mute out of protest for the trauma she’s endured. Only when the other women stop “deadnaming” her and call her by her preferred name (Melvin), does she speak out loud: “Thank you.” Would contemporary trans politics have been part of an isolated Mennonite colony in real life? It’s unlikely, but Women Talking is attempting more than mere history-telling here. It’s also an advocacy piece—celebrating the virtues of feminism, collective action, and liberation for women and LGBT+ people in a cisgender, patriarchal world.

Self-Secured Liberation

Believers should pay attention to the “alternative gospels” on offer in contemporary pop culture. If Christianity is seen more as an oppressor than a liberator, after all, something else must play the part of liberator. In each of the films discussed above, that “something else” is the empowered self, through which salvation and “rebirth” are achieved without appeal to the supernatural.

In The Whale, the final magic-realist shot of Charlie evokes a blissful resurrection scene, as he lifts off the ground and ascends into light. In that ending sequence, Charlie is finally “liberated,” according to Fraser. At the end of The Wonder, in a sort of secular declaration of resurrection, Lib pronounces “Anna” dead and reborn as “Nan”—liberated from her previously toxic, caged existence.

Believers should pay attention to the ‘alternative gospels’ on offer in contemporary pop culture.

Women Talking similarly concludes with imagery of leaving the old and beginning anew, with previously silenced women now having the power to speak into being whatever reality they desire. Ona (Mara) tells the other women, “When we’ve liberated ourselves we’ll have to ask ourselves who we are.” She calls the women to join in creating “a new religion,” which is taken from the old “but focused on love.” The Exodus imagery at the end and the last shot (of a newborn baby) visually emphasizes these themes of liberation from the shackles of “old religion” and rebirth into something new.

Engaging the Push and Pull of Post-Christian Culture

Insofar as these three films each pitch a “new religion” built on the old but more focused on love, inclusivity, and science, they’re perfect fables of our post-Christian age. They’re expressions of a generation that seeks to take from Christianity what’s useful and inoffensive while scrapping what’s seen as offensive (sexual ethics), outmoded (supernatural), or oppressive (male leadership). Indeed, especially in The Whale and Women Talking—where Christianity still has some moral and aesthetic value—we see how the “post” part of post-Christian culture works: the goal isn’t abandoning Christianity entirely but moving beyond it only with the parts we wish to keep.

As we seek to reach this post-Christian culture with the true gospel, we’d do well to notice the prevalence of these narratives. We should pay attention to how Christianity is framed as oppressive or villainous in the popular imagination (e.g., antigay, antiscience, antiwomen), owning what we can own and apologizing when appropriate. We should also note the aspects of Christianity that are still celebrated and retained by a secularizing culture, even if the Christian roots of these ideas are increasingly unacknowledged (or unknown).

Effective apologetics in a post-Christian culture will thoughtfully exegete cultural artifacts to discern (1) what today’s culture makers find abhorrent about Christianity and (2) what they find attractive about Christianity. Our response should not be to then diminish (in embarrassment) the former while we rush to highlight the latter. Our mission fails if we’re hiding the parts of the gospel unfavorable to the zeitgeist and focusing only on what “plays well” with the desired audience.

Films like The Whale, The Wonder, and Women Talking shouldn’t spur Christians toward reactionary “rebranding” of faith but rather toward more effective apologetics—taking seriously the “push” and “pull” perceptions of Christianity as two unavoidable, interconnecting dimensions of our mission in a post-Christian culture.

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