Christian Century, 5/24/67
This article was originally published by The Christian Century Foundation, Chicago, IL, in The Christian Century, on May 24, 1967. It is reproduced here with their kind permission.
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Recognition is due the fact that the fight for the new morality is being largely carried on by one particularly dedicated band of film critics--such Dave Pomeroy (Internationo1 Council of Religious Education and elsewhere), Ludo P. Ruotolo (Christianity and Crisis), and Al Carmines (motive). A memorable example of their work is Alfred Edwards' review in the November 1966 motive. But perhaps the best summary of the position is to be found in Malcolm Boyd's article, "Which Are the Moral Films of Hollywood?" in the "Calendar" the section of the Los Angeles Times for Feb. 26.
Boyd says nothing new or exceptional. But he does list the films that appear to him and to critics of a similar ilk to be making "honest and significant moral statements": Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (inevitably something of a poor case for this point of view), Darling, The Pawnbroker, Blow-Up, Georgy Girl and Alfie. And it was while reading Boyd that I was struck by the fact that the great defect of contemporary moralism is that it ignores precisely what is most fundamental to our human context.
The key concept at stake here is nudity or, more accurately, the process of getting that way, "stripping to the buff." Because it can help me say what I want to say, I will use the "stripping" image throughout the following comment. But the reader must keep in mind that I am not thinking exclusively or predominantly of the mere physical act of taking off one's clothes. The nude morality is much more interested in people who strip themselves bare psychologically, spiritually, or humanly. Thus though my topic includes sex, it goes far beyond it.
What Boyd's summary makes quite clear is that the value most highly prized of the new moralists is nudity--being open, honest, frank, and bare. Conversely, the sin most detested by them is whatever smacks of (or whatever they can interpret as smacking of) cover-up, façade, or sham. Apparently it should not be going too far to suggest that for many of them nudity is redemption or, better, that stripping is the way to salvation.
My thesis is that, although there is a valid connection between nudity and redemption, these critics have over-looked the matter of context. There are two situations in which nudity is right and moral. The first is innocence. Clothing was unnecessary and would have been out of place in Eden, as the biblical author well understood. When man was true man, man as God created and intended him, nude was the way he could, should and did stand before God and his fellows.
But after man corrupted and falsified himself by perverting his God-relationship, he felt a need for clothes. Interestingly enough, God confirmed this judgment: "And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them." The nudity appropriate to Eden is not appropriate east of Eden. And we dare not forget that our present context is outside Paradise, from which place we are barred until, through his grace, God restores us to innocence.
Nudity outside Eden signifies something different from nudity in Eden--which leads us to the second context within which nudity is right. This is at the spot where we come closest to our lost innocence; namely, "before God." The Bible describes (and approves) several awesome scenes in which men strip themselves utterly naked before God. Moses is so bold as to complain that he would rather be murdered by God than carry out the assignment given him by God; yet God says there is no one like his servant Moses with whom he speaks face to face. Job curses God in Woolf- type language; yet God tells Job's friends that they have not spoken of him what is right, as has his servant Job. Jeremiah accuses God of having deceived him and made him a laughingstock; yet God sets him over nations and over kingdoms to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant. Jesus screams, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"; yet this man is truly the Son of God. These were men who stripped to the buff before God. As Martin Buber put it well: "... if only man truly speaks to God, there is nothing he may not say to him."
But for man to strip before man, a sinner stripping before a sinner--this is a situation of another sort, a context that points toward another ethic. With God there is no possibility that the stripping might be motivated by and used for unworthy ends. Let anyone strip as he will--whether he be the exhibitionist jailed as a pervert or the one Hugh Hefner publishes as a gatefold—fold--there is little chance that he can impress, shock, titillate or entice God. And don't try to say that the so-called moral films are above these things. In them we have an exhibitionism of the psyche as well as of the body, of the anal as well as of the sexual, of what is depraved as well as of what is alluring. The advertising and promotion that surround Woolf, Darling, et al., make their pitch toward that within us which is farthest from Eden. Most moviegoers attend out of this sort of curiosity, and most of them get what they pay for.
To strip before God is different in still another way. With God there is a second step, the possibility of true redemption. All who strip before God come away new men. But with sinner nude before sinner, what's to be done? Either they can go to bed together (enjoy their nudity for what it is worth as an end in itself) or they can put their clothes back on and go home (nothing changed).
Again, in the context of these "moral" films no stripping deserves the name unless it exposes a filth-encrusted rump. Now the Bible knows all about the dirty bottoms of men, but because its context is "before God" it also knows a stripping of another sort: "My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God"; "Let the word of Christ dwell m you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to; God"; or again, as Paul wrote to the Christian community at Corinth: "Open your hearts to us.... I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts to die together and to live together. I have great confidence in you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. With all our affliction, I am overjoyed." In how many of today's "moral" movies is there the remotest hint of what stripping can be?
I would seriously suggest that the only people who find true moral edification in films like Woolf are those who, like the theologian-critics, have such a supply of sophistication and Christian knowledge that they can disregard the exhibitionism and write into the script the "before God" context of which the film itself displays nothing.
What happens, you see, is that we turn an important relationship head-end-to. Nudity and redemption do belong together, but not as though nudity was redemption or stripping a way of getting ourselves redeemed. We cannot become innocent simply by acting as though we were innocent; nor can we get back to Eden by going nudist. The fact is that we are not free; and we cannot become free simply by acting freely. It may be that any stripping--even the exhibitionism that takes place in the godless context east of Eden--affords a certain catharsis. But it is a sad thing if this is all we intend by "Christian morality."
No, the freedom to strip, to enjoy, godly nudity, is a gift that comes with redemption, not a method for attaining redemption. Therefore the proper context for Christian stripping and the only sort of stripping that deserves the adjective "Christian" is that which, done before God, consciously oriented toward him and dedicated to him as an act of worship, has been enabled by him. It is in the Christian community that this can best take place, in the redemptive fellowship where, with our brethren before God (before God but with our brethren, not before them), we can be bold to undress and in so doing have our nudity hallowed.
King David stripped to the soul when, condemned by the Lord through Nathan, he lay on the ground for seven days. He stripped to the shin when he danced in ecstasy before the Ark of the Lord. But if I may say so, what Liz Taylor did in Woolf and what she promises to do in Reflections in a Golden Eye are scenes from another picture.
Now for comment in more detail on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?--the one among the films listed by Boyd which I have attempted to study seriously by referring to the playwright's own script. Not only is the "before God" aspect completely foreign to the play, but the evidence is that playwright Edward Albee's understanding of existence is such that the very concepts of "honesty," "reality," "truth" and "morality" go limp and slippery.
In the first place, I take it as obvious that Woolf is intended as a portrayal not simply of four individuals but of mankind in general and in essence. But the striking thing about Albee's human race is that every member of it (not only the four principals seen on the screen but also, offstage, Honey's and Martha's fathers) is a fake, a living lie whose outward respectability clothes self-aggrandizement, greed, rapacity, callousness, indecency--you name it. It would be hard to point to an event, gesture, word or deed in the play that represents anything remotely reminiscent of agape, the only quality that the New Testament recognizes as "love." Let the admirers of Woolf herewith cease and desist from criticizing neo-orthodoxy's view of man; behold, rather, a picture of depravity that would make John Calvin throw in the towel--out of admiration if not out of disgust.
Albee's is a rather rough judgment on the human race. But thus far we have not established that his play is any more immoral than are Calvin's Institutes. It all depends what is taken to be the significance of and the solution for mankind's sham. Calvin conceived of the sham as signifying man's disorientation from God and as being solved when God, in his grace, steps in to rectify the relationship. We would not expect a secular playwright to come to precisely this answer, and Albee does not disappoint us. But Albee's is no answer at all.
One thing Albee does very effectively (nothing I say is intended to detract from his eminent skill and power as a playwright) is to dissolve the distinction between illusion and reality. What is first presented as fact (maybe)--Nick's story of his marriage--is later presented as fiction--George's second novel. What was originally presented as fiction (maybe)--George's account of a boy he knew--becomes his first novel, which becomes his autobiography. Martha's fiction of her son becomes George's fiction of their son killed in the same way he had killed his father (if he had in fact killed his father).
The evening fun-time, which had started out with the game of Strip to the Buff (i.e., get to the truth about ourselves), winds up next morning with the game of Peel the Label (but a label is not a façade to hide the contents but a precise identification of those contents). George is determined, he says, to go through the skin and the muscle to the bone and then to the marrow. But by what definition is marrow more real than skin? By what standard can one aver that what people say to each other in Woolf is obviously much more honest than what they say to each other in church? Strip, strip, strip! But without God and without God-defined love, who is to decide when one has reached the "honest" level or perhaps gone past into anarchy and nihilism? To rip away the truth of human existence is just as dishonest as to fail to rip away the sham.
Morning brings also the game of Snap Went the Dragons. Snap go the illusions! Yes. But when the distinction between truth and illusion is gone, snap go the truths as well; snap goes every string that had held the whole ball of wax together. Heads off all around--mine included! Nick complains, "I don't know when you people are lying or what." Martha pleads, "Truth and illusion, George; you don't difference"; to which George returns, "No; but we must carry on as though we did." Whereupon Martha injects, "Amen." Again, Martha: "Truth or illusion, George. Doesn’t it matter at all?" "SNAP! [Silence.] "You got your answer, baby?"
I would have to be convinced from the script that anything else is Albee's last word. The night of honesty arrives with the finding that all is sham. But to expose everything as false is not to arrive at the truth--and far less at the Truth of which John has Jesus speak--the Truth that shall make you free. Jesus too knew about the game of Peel the Label, the ultimate sin that labels the distinction between honesty and deception, reality and illusion. I am not accusing Albee of the unforgivable sin. I am saying that his play accuses the universe of having committed that forgivable sin against mankind. Woolf’s search for honesty comes out in the same cynical non-question that put Jesus on the cross: "What is the truth--if there is such a thing?"
Yes, the language of Woolf is immoral and filthy--the play's characters themselves call it so. But this is minor consideration. A major consideration is the morality of the play itself. What the play's characters do to each other would be immoral even if they did it in the language of little ladies and gentlemen. It is immoral to lash another person with hate, vituperation, and vindictiveness, to seek to humiliate him by making him look at himself in the worst possible light--even if it is a true light.
This immorality is, however, somewhat beside the point until we find out what the author does with it--where it leads. Since the denouement of the play suggests that the universe itself, the very nature of human existence, is immoral - i.e., opaque to the distinction between good and evil, truth and falsehood, reality and illusion--there can be no hint of redemption because there is no place from which redemption could come. Thus the play is immoral in the most solemn and sense of that word. And its message is that not only Martha, but also everyone would do well to be afraid of Virginia Woolf.
True, some critics and viewers have found implications of Christian morality in Woolf. But I contend that in so doing they have read into the play suppositions and interpretations which cannot be supported by the text. That they have found moral edification does not mean that Albee deserves credit for having written a moral play. The Vietnam War, too, has aroused deep moral reflections in the minds of men who bring to it their own sense of Christian morality, but the war does not thereby become moral.