I recently watched two films (now on DVD) that were wonderfully inspirational. The first film was: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist and Nazi Resister (2003) The second was: Mother Teresa (2003). Both were worth the investment of my time.

Bonhoeffer is the story of the German pastor/theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died at the end of World War II as a martyr. He was indirectly connected to an underground movement that attempted the assassination of Adolf Hitler. (By the way this plot almost succeeded thus one wonders what would have happened had Hitler died two years sooner. How many lives would have been saved by this heroic, but ethically difficult, act?) The film is a riveting narrative on the nature of true faith and discipleship. Bonhoeffer has not become a role model to many modern Christians simply because he died at the end of the Second World War. He is a hero and role model of obedient faith because of the way he both lived and died as a faithful disciple of Christ. If you have ever read Letters and Papers from Prison you will understand how truly powerful his life can be as a model to the self-centered consumptive American Christian. While I’m at it, I recommend that you also read Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship too.

Bonhoeffer raises the kinds of questions missed when most people talk about German Christianity and the Holocaust. Where was the conscience of the land of the Reformation in the 20th century? The answer is to be found in the famous Barmen Declaration, written primarily by Karl Barth, and in the lives of martyrs like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an intellectual, a good German boy from a prominent home, who grew up in comfort and security. He could have easily escaped and known freedom and long life. But he was driven to obey his conscience and to seek the salvation of the German people in the most difficult of circumstances. His classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, speaks about “cheap grace.” Bonhoeffer plainly understood that if a church teaches “faith alone” and then drives this idea into peoples minds and hearts deeply enough the church will ultimately get “faith alone” and nothing else. This is why his concept of cheap grace is still important, now more than ever. And this is the personal and pastoral reason why I am so exercised about many modern arguments about "faith alone."

Mother Teresa is a more dramatic movie, not produced in documentary fashion. In this feature film the story of her life is told by the well-known actress Olivia Hussey, a Golden Globe award winner. Phil Boatwright, in The Movie Reporter, says of this movie: “The most spiritually uplifting film since The Passion of the Christ.” I agree. Honestly, I was disturbed by the simple story of Mother Teresa. Her dogged determination to follow God’s will in her life no matter what challenges me to my depths. As most readers already know she brought faith, hope and love to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.

Having spent about two months in India, on two different trips in the 1980s, I have a sense of what she faced and of how much grace it took for her to pursue this calling of God upon her life. The film brings this reality out wonderfully but it also reveals the “darkness” that she experienced while she gave to others and yet often suffered a sense of God’s absence in her own life.

The willingness of Mother Teresa to not aggressively pursue the conversion of Hindus and Muslims will trouble some viewers. (I am not completely happy with it myself.) I have resisted this approach for some time but after viewing the film I think I understand her context and her reasons more clearly, though I still believe a better approach can be taken in terms of verbal and personal evangelism. She was not so much making a statement about evangelism in her work with Hindus and Muslims as she was eloquently speaking about respecting cultures and peoples by not forcing them to be baptized in order to receive her love and care. After reading her writings for several years I have come to a different conclusion about the nature of her faith and even about how she expressed it.

Several years ago a well-known American fundamentalist minister told his audience that he had met with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. He assured his audience that she did not know Christ personally. I find such a public statement so ridiculous that I can’t imagine what kind of Christian would respect this comment but I know they do exist in the world of fundamentalism. Such individuals may be right to question my salvation if they wish but to tell the world that they know that Mother Teresa was not a true Christian is neither good Christianity nor a proper judgment to be made based upon what we know of this gracious woman’s faith and life.

Both films are highly recommended for all viewers. Bonhoeffer made me want to follow my conscience regardless of where it leads me. Mother Teresa made me want to love people, especially the poor, more deeply and to rely on God alone to meet all the needs that I have as well as those of this ministry. Both are salutary cinematic treatments that would benefit Christians in the West.

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  1. Nathan Petty May 8, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    I would recommend the book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” by Daniel Goldhagen if you would like an excellent contemporary treatment of the German people’s culpability in the Holocaust.
    Goldhagen’s book presents a more nuanced and comprehensive analysis of this important topic. Goldhagen does not ignore the issues mentioned in Shirer’s book, but it would be a mistake to characterize the church’s failing as solely Protestant in nature.
    It is a sad truth that the overwhelming majority of the church, Protestant and Roman Catholic, tragically failed in its witness during this time. This failure ranged from benign neglect to virulent anti-Semitism in the entire church.
    There were, as Dr. Armstrong points out, moments of Christian courage which often ended in martyrdom. They were, sadly, all too few in number and all too weak in effect. However, it is still a powerful reminder that God does inspire and animate His people in the worst of circumstances.
    Let us pray that we would be found as faithful as these brothers and sisters.

  2. John H. Armstrong May 8, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    This is a good balanced observation. Catholics did not do much better in Germany. The whole church tended to fail in the end, with those great exceptions you note and I referred to in my blog post.

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