The Green Pastures


May 9, 2009

The Green Pastures

The picture above shows Rex Ingram as De Lawd in the movie The Green Pastures. This film is a retelling of several Bible stories through the eyes of a little black girl. What is provocative about the film is that it deals with a really quite basic issue: the image of God.

It is possible to dismiss the movie as a simplistic vision of a group of uneducated blacks, but that would be doing it a disservice. It is the Bible as seen through the eyes of a little girl. So we have heaven pictured as a perpetual fish fry, and De Lawd as a paternal figure. Adam is created wearing trousers, a bow not only to the Hayes office, but also to the little girl’s uncorrupted innocence. God is shown changing from a God of justice to a God of Mercy. Whether this shows a change of God or a change of the conception of God is arguable.

So the little girls shows, possibly, a change in her conception of God as she learns about Christ.

The commandment against graven images isn’t necessarily about showing people, but about creating idols. Now an idol, as readers of Eco’s The Name of the Rose might remember is not necessarily a statue, but an image.

William Blake, in the opening of The Everlasting Gospel, wrote about this issue:

The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy.
Thine has a great hook nose like thine;
Mine has a snub nose like to mine.
Thine is the Friend of all Mankind;
Mine speaks in parables to the blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates;
Thy heaven doors are my hell gates.
Socrates taught what Meletus
Loath’d as a nation’s bitterest curse,
And Caiaphas was in his own mind
A benefactor to mankind.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.

If we leave aside the issue of Blake’s religious views, which are a separate topic that someone else should deal with, we can look at this in terms of our image or conception of God. In a post that I wrote long ago for a Carmelite group in DC, I asked people to say what came into their mind with the words “Our Father.” I got 0 takers on what I thought would be an interesting group meditation, but the idea was to ask people what their concept of God the Father was. Did the image of God as the Ancient of Days, in Blake’s picture, resonate, or was it some other image. The point of the exercise is that each image is false, it is not God, it is an image of God. That image has to be dismissed. It is not the humanity of Christ that we get rid of, but the concept of God to which we cling. I invariably picture Christ as looking like Renaissance pictures of Christ. I never picture Him as looking like Christ in Dali’s Last Supper. (Who is supposed to be a picture of Dali’s wife Gala.) Other people see Him as black, or as something else. All of those images are false. Just so any conception of God as just, or merciful, or any other attribute.

Here is where negative theology comes in. The basic premise, which is represented on this blog by Pseudo-Dionysius, is that whenever you assign a quality to God, he exceeds it some way. So to say God is just is not enough, He is just in some way that far exceeds our concept of justice. When John of the Cross in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, cautions against attachment to sacred images he doesn’t necessarily mean just paintings and statues and stained glass, but also the images that we carry in our hearts and minds.

Not to leave the concept of God entirely alone, there is also a question of developmental psychology. As the little girl grows up her image of God will alter, she may even reject one image and think that she is rejecting all images of God and God Himself. But lets go with the premise that she adopts a more mature, more sophisticated image of God. Is that necessarily a good thing as opposed to more naive faith of the child? Arguably it’s not.

So is the movie, qua movie, worth seeing? It has good performances by an all black cast, decent music, and raises some interesting questions.