The Shape of Water and the Shape of the Church

If I spoke about it—if I did—what would I tell you? I wonder. Would I tell you about the time? It happened a long time ago, it seems. In the last days of a fair prince’s reign. Or would I tell you about the place? A small city near the coast, but far from everything else. Or, I don’t know … Would I tell you about her? The princess without a voice. Or perhaps I would just warn you, about the truth of these facts. And the tale of love and loss. And the monster, who tried to destroy it all.
—Opening lines to
The Shape of Water

 

There is a sort of madness in Christianity these days. And not just the fact that everyone seems to be mad. That’s another thing. No, the sort of madness I’m speaking of is the inability to see. Some of the more interesting characters in television and in film have this same problem. Mr. Magoo and Thelma from Scooby Doo spring to mind. But those are comedic, playful examples. Those are funny. In some ways, those are literal. But having eyes that can see and still not seeing, well, that’s not very funny it all. It’s one of the things Jesus warned about the most. [1]

To that end, I wonder if this very article isn’t an exercise of sorts in that vein. The Shape of Water [2] is a dazzling movie that won four Oscars this year, including one for being the Best Picture of the Year. It’s a genre-bending film, with director Guillermo del Toro weaving together homages to love stories, monster movies, and spy thrillers. The acting is top notch, the story wholly original, and the cinematography world class.

Yet, many Christians have taken umbrage with the film’s central players—Eliza Esposito, a mute maid who works in an experimental government facility, and a character named Amphibian Man, who is being held in captivity so the government can glean knowledge supposedly useful in the space race with the Soviets—falling in love.

And while there are, no doubt, unnecessarily explicit scenes, they hardly make up the core of the film. In truth, these scenes are much less explicit than most Hollywood award-winning films (which is another conversation altogether and one worth having). Are there limits? Of course. Should we be wise and sometimes not watch? Certainly.

But as long as we’re asking, why don’t we find the constant barrage of violence on our screens as offensive? No one is refusing to review any Marvel movie because of its outlandish violence. In that way, del Toro’s vision in The Shape of Water does for love and sexuality what Marvel does for violence in every movie: it takes a ridiculous premise and asks the audience to play along. It’s Beauty and the Beast, but the white spaces between the text are filled in for you. This is not Hollywood promoting bestiality, or the collapse of all sexual standards; it’s using a fairy tale to ask the most important questions about real life. That’s usually what good art does; what it should do.

Christians have a long history of censoring things, and sometimes for good reasons, but if we apply the gospel, shouldn’t we ask, as we would of any person, what the good things are about that which is in front of us? Would we dismiss another person completely and entirely because there are a couple of things we find offensive about them? Surely not. [3] In doing so, we might just be guilty of making monsters out of people instead of people out of monsters, which happens to be one of the points del Toro makes with this film.

Thus, I submit that The Shape of Water has much to teach us. Especially us church leaders. The movie is rife with Biblical themes and outright quotes from the biblical text. Del Toro is no doubt using these to make a point, but he’s not heavy-handed about it. It’s artful critique, and it’s worth listening to, worth seeing.

Seeing the Monster                                                        

In many ways, the most mesmerizing character in the film is Strickland, played by Michael Shannon. Strickland incarnates and interacts with many of the key themes in The Shape of Water, whether it be a critique of masculinity, leadership, religion, or, you guessed it, blindness.

Many of Strickland’s scenes are pushed just enough to the edge to be believable, so the audience doesn’t miss the point. Strickland is cruel and misogynistic. He tortures both a man near death and the Amphibian Man, the so-called monster of the movie. His dialogue with female characters is more monologue than dialogue, with one scene in which no one but him says anything and he calls it a “good conversation.” He also makes it known that he finds the protagonist Eliza attractive because she can’t speak, and also misses his first chance to catch the Amphibian Man’s kidnappers because he thinks women incapable of kidnapping. Moreover, he suggests that he is more made in the image of God than the women in the film, an idea he also applies to the “monster.” But he is also driven and successful, at least in the ways that matter to him.

Indeed, Shannon’s over-the-top portrayal is so believable that it becomes quite clear Strickland is the monster in the film. But what makes him so dangerous is that he doesn’t see himself that way. He sees himself as noble, upright, and doing the right thing, even when he’s obviously doing the wrong thing. These are the sorts of characters every church leader should study, but especially men in roles of authority. Have we followed Jesus’s pattern of selfless leadership, or gotten lost in the mire (as Strickland does in the movie) of self-help books and utilitarian means?

In truth, most of the movie in general, while centered on a supposed “monster,” is about how many of the characters are losing their humanity in their pursuit of various ends and means. Strickland, in a rare moment of clarity, says as much when arguing with a scientist about whether or not to kill the creature because he is intelligent and can understand language. Chillingly, he posits, “So are the Soviets and the Gooks and we still kill them, too.” Oh, he’s also racist, by the way.

Seeing Love

Again, it must be said this is a very strange film. It’s genre-bending. One can only guess what del Toro’s intentions were with how he told the story, but here’s one possibility.

Maybe del Toro is making the point of how strange love is. That we, the audience, find this love weird because we don’t really know what love looks like. If this is his move, it’s genius.

The two characters who fall in love do so in ways that makes them more themselves and not less. Love takes risks and is willing to do whatever it takes for the one who is the object of love. And again, love is also very weird, very unnatural. It goes against our evolutionary need for selfishness and survival. But it can’t be denied. In its own way, you could say that love itself is monstrous.

To that end, the audience watches as the Amphibian Man becomes more human in every interaction with beauty and unselfishness. He thus serves as a strange sort of mirror, responding to violence with violence, love with love, healing with healing. In the end, the “monster” and his love are shot to death by Strickland, only to rise again, kill Strickland, and heal Eliza. That story should feel strangely familiar to Christians this time of year. And in an added touch of grace, the scars that took Eliza’s voice away become gills by which she can breathe. I told you it was weird. But weirder than a man rising from the dead? I’ll let you decide.

So what if love really did have the power to change even the most monstrous among us? What if that was true in a church? What if we embraced the weirdness that went along with that? What if we all are just a reflection of what has been done to us? How could this change our leadership styles? Our goals? Our meetings? Our approaches to conflict?

Whatever his motivations, del Toro has made a wondrous film, replete with themes that are worth meditating on again and again. But if the church and its leaders only took these two things seriously, it might begin to actually see the kind of otherworldly change it always seems to be talking about. That is, after all, what Jesus seemed to have in mind. He could see that possibility in us as clearly as he saw anything. Yes, even in monsters like us.

[1] Mark 8:18
[2] Rated R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language).
[3] I hope you are picking up on the sarcasm here.

 

Adam Daniels is a freelance writer who has worked in ministry for 12 years, most recently as the Campus Minister at the Campus View Church of Christ in Athens, Georgia. Despite his years of experience in full time ministry and working through a couple of theological degrees, he still has more questions than answers. He is a husband to Jessie, a lover of books, a stumbling disciple of Jesus, and the worst player on his church league softball team. He blogs occasionally at https://idlefaith.wordpress.com.

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Author:  Publish Date: April 13, 2018

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

2017-18 CHARIS Editorial Board:
Dr. Carisse Berryhill
Dr. Jason Fikes
Karissa Herchenroeder
Mac Ice
Chai Green
Tammy Marcelain
Molly Scherer
Dr. John Weaver

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