Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film
By Joseph Cunneen
Continuum, New York: 2003
200pp. $29.95 (cloth)

As the Sixties rolled in, not the least of the revolutionary cultural forces crashing onto American shores was the remarkable collection of French filmmakers known as La Nouvelle Vague, with the still-familiar names of Claude Chabrol, Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, François Truffaut, Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy, and Erich Rohmer. But one great French director had started out fifteen years before the New Wave (and was still active into the 1980s): Robert Bresson (1901-1999). An impossibly painstaking artist, Bresson made only thirteen movies over forty years, and he never became very popular in this country. But there’s no doubt that, even if you can’t find his work at Blockbuster, he was one of the supreme filmmakers of the 20th century; and Joseph Cunneen has now produced a fine general introduction to Bresson’s austere oeuvre.

Newcomers to Bresson will appreciate Cunneen’s clear, sensible style, his detailed plot summaries, filmography, and solid bibliography (though an index would have helped). Cunneen ably addresses the many eccentric features that combine to create Bresson’s strangely severe and haunting style: the consistent use of non-actors (B. spoke of “models,” rather than actors), the endless retakes, the absence of psychology (critic Vincent Amiel called it “the primacy of the body over consciousness”), the discontinuous narrative flow, the obsession with hands, the weird insistence that the “models” speak as if to themselves rather than to the other characters, etc.

But what does all this add up to? Cunneen argues that Bresson is not a “religious” cinematographer in any obvious sense, although religious themes naturally come to the fore in Angels of Sin (1943), Diary of a Country Priest (1951), The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), and Lancelot of the Lake (1974). Still, Bresson is neither a theologian nor a preacher. A Man Escaped (1956) retells the true story of a French POW’s escape from a Nazi prison. Of the two films frequently acclaimed as Bresson’s finest, au hazard Balthasar (1966) is about the life and death of a mistreated donkey, and Mouchette follows the path to suicide of a poor and utterly wretched young teenage girl. Similarly, less celebrated works, such as The Ladies of the Bois du Boulogne (1944), Pickpocket (1959), and Four Nights of a Dreamer (1972) have what looks like a plainly “secular” content.

True, Bresson did say, “The more life is what it is—-ordinary, simple—-without pronouncing the word ‘God,’ the more I see the presence of God in that . . .” But this “presence” is much closer to a well-nigh ineffable intuition than to any traditional formula. As Bresson wrote in 1988, his overriding intention was, “Not to shoot a film in order to illustrate a thesis, or to display men and women confined to their external aspect, but to discover the matter they are made of. To attain that ‘heart of the heart’ which does not let itself be caught either by poetry, or philosophy, or by drama.” (But isn’t film a form of drama?)

That is what Cunneen means by Bresson’s” spiritual style—“method,” somewhat like Descartes’ method, namely both an approach and a complete worldview. And if it defies definition, Bresson’s vision can be both illustrated and appreciated, as Cunneen does with careful analysis and support from a host of first-rate critics. Thus, while not completely agreeing with his assessment, Cunneen cites Alberto Moravia’s stark summary, which dovetails with his own: “Bresson sees ‘the good’ in the Attic basis of French civilization-—that is, its traditional mixture of rigor, restraint, and rationalism [the three r’s, pour ainsi dire—-PH], the distinctive sign of its national genius. In other words, ‘the good’ would be ‘style.’ This leads to the curious conclusion that evil exists in life, and good in the way that it is represented. The real axe, stained with blood, with which the assassin kills his victims is a baleful object; but the image of the axes is somehow beneficial.” If nothing else, that would explain the bare, classical purity of Bresson’s scripts, a language one can find in authors as radically different as Jean Racine and Samuel Beckett.

But the last word in the baffling attempt to pin Bresson down should go to Cunneen himself. In discussing Diary of a Country Priest he notes that its aesthetic form “depends on the duplication of sound and image, emphasizing the interiority of all action.” That is, the scene portrayed coincides with the words of the diary—and the doomed curé d’Ambricourt’s reflection on that moment. But does this actually take us inside the priest, into “the heart of his heart”? (Does anything?) Probably not, since all art, including the cinema, the most beguilingly “real” of all the arts, is still an illusion.

Still, Bresson carries us a long way in that direction; and Cunneen helps us to see where this subtle, understated yet passionate master is heading. Perhaps it’s time for a Bresson renaissance.

Peter Heinegg



Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas
By Elaine Pagels
Random House, New York, 2003
257 pp. $24.95 (cloth)

In this attractively written, very accessible book, Elaine Pagels weaves together remembrances of poignant episodes in her own life with aspects of the history of second and third century Christianity to make the case, somewhat wistfully, that in its earliest beginnings Christianity was less dogmatic and more varied, inclusive, and experiential than it later became. In addition to her argument for this historical thesis, her account includes a strong, implicit suggestion that contemporary Christians would do well to recover what has been lost in these earlier traditions. There was much the same suggestion in her The Gnostic Gospels. But, in the present book, she draws upon a richer account of an emerging Christian orthodoxy to motivate the reflection that contemporary Christians might want to wear their beliefs more lightly.

In Pagels’s view, and in this reviewer’s too, commitment to religious dogma encourages the wrong attitude toward religious diversity. Such commitment encourages the idea that certain religions, or even certain interpretations of a single religion, have a stranglehold on religious truth. The world has outgrown the luxury of this conceit. Pagels is on the side of those who would replace such an “us-and- them” attitude, which tends to separate people from each other, with a “we” attitude, which contributes to bringing them together. Thus, a great virtue of her book is the contribution it makes to fostering unification and tolerance.

Beyond Belief is primarily about how, especially in the second century, Christianity narrowed and became more creedal. Pagels assumes, without arguing for it, that the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and the New Testament Gospel of John were written at about the same time, toward the end of the first century. Of course, many traditional New Testament scholars would be loathe to grant this assumption. She also assumes that both Thomas and John were candidates for inclusion in the New Testament. She even speculates, as others have before her, that John may have been written specifically in order to refute Thomas, or at least to discredit a kind of perspective which she takes to be central to Thomas. However, neither her assumption nor her speculation is essential to her historical thesis. What is essential is, first, her account of the ways in which John and Thomas are at odds and, second, her claim that John was included in the New Testament and Thomas omitted importantly because Irenaeus, a mid-second century bishop of Lyons, who was impressed by these contrasts, lobbied hard in support of John and against Thomas.

Pagels claims that had Thomas been included in the New Testament as its fourth Gospel instead of John, or had both been included, Christian faith and practice, from earliest times to the present, would have been profoundly different. She thinks that the inclusion of Thomas would have mattered not only because, in her account, Thomas and John, taken on their own, are crucially different, but because of the ways in which she thinks that reading the first three Gospels, the Synoptics, through the lens of Thomas, rather than through John (or rather than through John exclusively), would have cast these Gospels in a different light. She thus sees the triumph of John and the demise of Thomas as important determinants of what would subsequently become Christian orthodoxy.

How are Thomas and John crucially different? And how might these differences make a difference to how the Synoptics are understood? Pagels focuses on three contrasts. First, Thomas encourages the idea that what primarily distinguishes Jesus from most other humans is that Jesus, while fully human, is more spiritually evolved. Hence, Jesus is portrayed as a model of what other humans might become. For instance, in Thomas, when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who Am I?” and Thomas answers, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like,” Jesus replies, “I am not your master, because you have drunk, and have become drunk from the same stream which I measured out.” In Thomas, Jesus also says, “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the mysteries will be revealed to him.” The Gospel of John, on the other hand, encourages the incompatible idea that Jesus is God incarnate and completely unique. So, in John, rather than Jesus being a model of what other humans might become, Jesus is wholly other.

Pagels claims that reading the Synoptics through the lens of Thomas, rather than, or in addition to, John would have affected how the Synoptics were understood. According to her, the authors of the Synoptics used titles in referring to Jesus, such as “son of God” and “messiah,” that to first-century readers designated merely human roles. That is, in her view, first-century readers of the Synoptics who were uninfluenced by John would have understood these titles as claiming that Jesus was just a man, albeit one who was gifted “with the power of the holy spirit and divinely appointed to rule in the coming kingdom of God.” In contrast, readers today, who tend to read the Synoptics through the lens of John, typically take these titles as indicating Jesus’ divinity. So, in Pagels’s view, Thomas’s inclusion in the New Testament would have reinforced a historically more accurate and also more modest understanding of what the Synoptics claim on behalf of Jesus’ status, which the presence in the New Testament of John effectively overrides in favor of a more grandiose interpretation.

A second crucial difference between Thomas and John has to do with the path to salvation, or to God. In Thomas, it involves getting in touch, through self-examination, with the “light within.” In the initiate, this looking within can set in motion a spiritual transformation. It is this transformation that matters most. For instance, in Thomas, Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” John, on the other hand, rather than encouraging spiritual transformation, recommends that humans save themselves by believing rightly. In John, Jesus declares that “you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.”

A third difference is that in Thomas, humans are portrayed as having been made in the image of God and hence as having an innate capacity through self- investigation to know God. In John, humans are portrayed as so different from God that the only sort of spiritual truths to which they have access are revealed. Humans, thus, have no innate capacity to know God. Pagels says that “what John’s gospel does—and has succeeded ever after in persuading the majority of Christians to do—is claim that only by believing in Jesus can we find divine truth.” In sum, whereas Thomas encourages the idea that what matters most is what you are, that is, how spiritually evolved you are, not what you believe (hence, Pagels’ title), and that one can evolve spiritually by looking within, John encourages the idea that what matters most is what you believe, not what you are, and that the crucial beliefs are beyond self-discovery and must be revealed.

According to Pagels these differences between Thomas and John reflect a difference in attitude toward theological inventiveness between second-century and third-century “Thomas Christians,” on the one hand, and “John Christians” on the other. Thomas Christians encouraged creativity, supposing that what matters most is not getting it right, where “it” is a set of beliefs, but drawing closer to the “light within.” The initiate draws closer to the light by opening up and allowing the spirit to speak through him or her. For instance, Pagels tells of Irenaeus’s opposition to a self-styled prophet named Marcus, who at his services would place his hands on each initiate’s head and say, “Behold, grace has descended upon you; open your mouth, and prophesy.” According to Irenaeus, the initiate would protest that he or she is not a prophet and does not know how to prophesy. But Marcus persisted until the initiate tried to prophesy. Ultimately, Irenaeus complains, Marcus’s initiates became so comfortable with the practice that they came to believe that the spirit speaks though them.

John Christians, on the other hand, abhorred theological inventiveness, supposing that such creativity invites mistakes in belief and that what people believe, as least as much as, if not more than, how they experience the world and how they behave, is the path to God and the key to salvation. So, in place of theological inventiveness, John Christians encouraged creedal conformity.

According to Pagels, Irenaeus, perhaps the preeminent John Christian, championed conformity because he believed that Gnostic inventiveness was having the negative effect of separating Christians into those who were less and more spiritually evolved—thereby dividing them at a time when their very survival required unity. Thus, for Irenaeus, a crucial issue was how to bring Christians together. Apparently it did not matter that what brought them together divided them from everybody else. Perhaps that separation from non-Christians and heretics was even a plus. Ironically, in today’s world, literal-minded Christians are not together, but divided amongst themselves into innumerable sects. Collectively, these sects then effectively divide them from everybody else. Irenaeus, if he knew, might be turning in his grave.

So, how did it happen that when the decision was made about which Gospels to include in the New Testament, John, but not Thomas, was chosen? Pagels focuses on the role of Irenaeus, who wrote extensively not only on the need to elevate John, but in favor of a particular interpretation of John. Basic to Irenaeus’s campaign was his lobbying to limit the officially sanctioned Gospels to just four. He did this on the basis of arguments that by today’s standards are laughably specious. For instance, he claimed that “it is not possible that there can be either more or fewer than four” since “just as there are four regions of the universe, and four principal winds,” the church must rely on “only four pillars.” He used equally specious arguments to argue in favor of “apostolic authority.”

Today, champions of the priority of the four canonical Gospels tend to appeal not to the four regions of the universe, or even to the four winds, but to the alleged greater historicity of these Gospels. However, recent advances in historical scholarship, to which Pagels herself has contributed, make it increasingly hard to defend the historicity of the four canonical gospels. So, for instance, whereas Irenaeus argued, as conservative Christians today still do argue, for the greater authority of the canonical Gospels, especially Matthew, on the grounds that their portrait of Jesus is confirmed by Old Testament prophesies, secular scholars today have made it harder to accept this argument. By appealing to the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, as well as to other aspect of the Gospels, contemporary scholars have shown how willing New Testament authors were to be inventive, which supports the thesis that Matthew constructed his narrative to fit the prophesies. Yet, so far, among rank-and-file Christians, Irenaeus’s version of what counts as good grounds for the historicity of the Gospels has prevailed. True Christians everywhere, he said, must share this faith: “One God, Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. . . . one Christ  Jesus, the son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation. . . . [born] from a virgin. . . . the resurrection from the dead,  and the heavenly ascension in flesh . . . of our beloved Jesus Christ.” And so they do share this faith, from shortly after his day right down to the present. The question, of course, is whether their sharing this faith, especially their sharing it on the grounds that they do, has been a good thing.

In suggesting that the rallying of Christians around a common creed may not have been, and still may not be, a good thing, Pagels invites us to reexamine how orthodoxy became established in the first place. Her account may contribute to loosening orthodoxy’s grip. Does that make her a champion of Christianity or one of its critics? Perhaps both. However, those who take her project in Beyond Belief to heart may feel that that is the wrong question. A better question might be whether loosening the grip of orthodoxy helps clear the path to a deeper and more authentic spirituality and to a more peaceful world. Pagels apparently thinks that moving beyond creeds to a more experiential and tolerant Christianity might facilitate such an outcome. Those who are inclined to agree with her about this, or even to have an open mind on the question, probably will like her book. There is a lot to like about it.

—Raymond Martin

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2004, Vol. 54,  No 1.