[Beliefnet, March 19, 2001]
I’ve got an idea for a movie script guaranteed to win an Oscar. We’ll call it “Sizzle.” See, there’s a village in India where all the people think there’s something bad about eating beef. It’s part of their religion, which says they should repress their desires and hate pleasure.
Then this sexy young cowboy comes to town and opens up a grill. All day long it’s thick steaks frying, or maybe some tender filets, and sometimes he dishes up a few racks of barbecued ribs.
Well, pretty soon the fragrance is drifting through the town, and the people can’t stand it. They try to resist, but one by one they sneak into the grill and have a little taste. Imagine the closeups as their eyes water and a little shiny trail of grease slides down their chins. Sure, they feel guilty, but they just can’t help it. The village leader thinks he’s real holy and rails and rants, but it’s no use; that cowboy is so handsome and big-hearted and friendly, everyone can see he’s really the hero. He defies authority and sets people free.
At the end there’s this really funny scene where the stuck-up leader breaks into the grill late one night, intending to destroy it, but instead he eats hamburgers till he’s sick. The next day, the holiest day of the year, the local guru gives a speech about how they’ve been misunderstanding their religion all along. All that really matters, he says, is embracing life to the fullest. The movie ends with a big party where everybody chows down on the juiciest steaks ever to kiss a grill.
You probably recognize this as the plot of the Oscar-nominated film, “Chocolat.” Like “Chocolat,” my imaginary film has one fatal flaw: it is stupendously ignorant of the spiritual tradition of the community it’s presuming to chastise. Now, films that set out to criticize an unfamiliar faith might well tread cautiously, moving with appropriate hesitation and humility, if not respect. But not so “Chocolat.” As in my blockbuster, “Sizzle,” towering ignorance combines with invincible self-righteousness to form an impenetrable shield of condescension.
“Chocolat” blunders into a small French village in the spring of 1959 without a clue as to the meaning and power of Lenten sacrifice. It would not have taken exhaustive research to discover that Lent is a period of grieving for the ways humans mess up the world and hurt each other. It is a time that Christians turn inward and ask in the quiet of their hearts, “How have I been part of the problem?” In admitting these faults to God in the presence of a priest they gain profound peace and release, and the power to change their lives.
Since many of these sins are due to lack of self-control—lashing out at someone in anger, stealing something on an impulse—Christians do exercises to gain self-control, much as a weightlifter hoists barbells. Delicious things that might be enjoyed at any time are set aside for a few weeks, to make the willpower muscle stronger. Resisting chocolate today can help you resist an angry outburst tomorrow.
This simple concept is totally lost on the makers of “Chocolat.” They’re not alone; spiritual self-denial in any form is Moon Maid talk to Americans. Why is it so hard for us to understand the concept of spiritual discipline? The practice is present in some form in every world religion, yet we can fathom nothing but bigger, faster, fatter, more. Throughout the ages a universal principle has persisted that the person who seeks to enter the vast presence of God must do so by making himself smaller. Yet in America, dessert comes on a plate big enough for four. And America religion better follow suit, and promise a good time for all, all the time.
It’s not just Hollywood that teaches this message. As our political leaders fret over the economy, we’re told our financial well-being has come to hang on something called “consumer confidence,” otherwise known as indulging our will to spend. Many of us went to see “Chocolat” at a mall, then walked out into a land of tantalizing wonderments, each begging for a chance to fondle our plastic. Spending has become a near patriotic duty. Why hold back from desire? Why practice any self-restraint? Delicious indulgence is what makes the world—but especially the economy—go round.
Yet just about any major religion gives the opposite advice. Self-discipline is a universal, even though the details of, and rationale for, these self-limitations vary widely. The Hindu does not eat beef and the Orthodox Jew does not eat pork, but they have different reasons. The Orthodox Christian does not eat either one during Lent, with yet another rationale, then returns to both with gusto on Easter. People of various faiths practice differing disciplines with different goals, but everyone recognizes their value.
Is any spiritual force treated positively in “Chocolat”? Mayan culture provides a shadowy, seductive background for the chocolatier’s magic, but this is a tourist’s fuzzy, romantic view. Our tolerant, compassionate filmmakers probably wouldn’t be comfortable with the demands of Mayan spirituality, which went far beyond voluntary, temporary self-denial. A person—man, woman, or child—would be painted blue, then laid on an altar. Four priests would restrain him while the fifth swiftly sliced open his chest and pulled out the still-beating heart, smearing the blood on an idol.
So it wasn’t all chocolatey self-indulgence with the Mayans. When you have human sacrifice as the central act of worship, it’s unlikely that the preceding sermon is marked by flower-power giddiness.
It’s a bizarre touch that the narrator of “Chocolat” specifies at both the beginning and the end of the film that the evil thing that had to be destroyed was the town’s “tranquilite.” Who wants tranquility? Can’t we have more noise, more flashing lights, more TVs in the checkout line, more tinny radios in the gas pumps? Why are there so few blazing tabloids and garish cereal boxes? When I click the remote around the channels, why don’t I see more people shouting and arguing? What’s wrong with the world? Too much darn tranquility.
Could this cinematic rejection of tranquility possibly be an intentional allusion? The height of ancient Christian mysticism is called “hesychasm,” that is, “stillness”‚ — a peace laced with awe at beholding the Almighty. In the presence of that overflowing love there is a tranquility that passes all understanding.
But that’s not what a hip person would want, someone who wants to be free and to defy authority. What you want, buddy, is to pack another slab of chocolate cheesecake onto those rolling hips. C’mon‚ it’s the American way.