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Orthodox Beauty in the Face of Religious Abuse

May 23rd, 2023 | 9 min read

By Joseph Honescko

If there were an award for getting audiences to live out the title of a film, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking would win in a landslide. The recent Academy Award winner for Best Adapted Screenplay has accomplished what good film–and good art, for that matter–is meant to do: provoke thought and response. It has indeed led to women (and men) talking about the movie itself and the themes it explores.

The conversations have largely and understandably revolved around the difficult storyline of religious abuse. Our unfortunate cultural moment has made these kinds of narratives necessary. Many people have grown frustrated with religion as they continue to read stories of abusive leaders and broken systems. Women Talking enters into this dialogue in a unique way. While the film certainly pulls no punches on the evils that religion can bring, it also portrays its potential for beauty and hope. Polley explores the full, complex power of Christianity: how it can tear down and build up. And in a moment when many choose to emphasize the escape of religion, Women Talking reminds us that true faith is worth developing and that it can ultimately aid us in our suffering.

The road to religion’s beauty, however, is dimly lit. Viewers enter a dark situation where a group of women within an isolated Mennonite community have been drugged and sexually assaulted in their sleep for years. The elders of the community have brushed it off as the work of ghosts or Satan or have called it “an act of female imagination.” All this is believed until some of the younger girls catch the actual human perpetrators and report them. The elders eventually move the three men from their internal holdings to the city jail, though this is notably done to protect the men from the women and not the other way around.

This is where the film (and the source novel by Miriam Toews–itself inspired by horrifying true events) begins. Nearly all the men of the community have left to post bail for their incarcerated brethren, save for August, the lone male figure in the film who himself is an outcast in the community. As they left, they explained that the women would have to offer forgiveness when the men returned if they wanted to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The women have other ideas and take it upon themselves to vote on what they see as their three choices: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave the colony. As Autje, the narrator who is recalling the events we’re witnessing unfold, says near the start of the film, “we hardly knew how to read or to write, but that day, we learned how to vote.” The results are split between fighting and leaving, so a small group of family representatives gathers in a hayloft to make the final decision: they will leave the colony.

The decision comes as they recognize that the men have attacked every part of their being: physical, emotional, and mental. The fact that this happened in a religious community creates a fracture in their spiritual selves and their understanding of God, prompting them to wrestle with theological ideas, possibly for the first time.

And what they arrive at looks closer to orthodoxy than one might imagine.

Not Another Deconstruction Narrative

The film’s religious themes are obvious, so it makes sense that publications like The Gospel Coalition and Christianity Today have given space to recent articles about the film.

At the former, Brett McCracken explains that the film “asks hard questions about Christianity without using those questions to discredit faith entirely” and that viewers “sympathize with these women and rage against the evil perpetrated against them by men who claim to serve Christ.” He sees the value in asking these questions yet still considers the film to portray a type of “villainous Christianity” because of the way it “fits into a larger narrative that says patriarchy and abuse are not a bug but a feature of conservative Christianity.”

Mia Staub, Christianity Today’s content manager, is more charitable to the film’s overall project. She explains how Women Talking has the potential to start more conversations within the church about how to care for survivors. She notes how the movie “gives us the opportunity to see a spectrum of responses from those abused and provides representation of the survivors behind the scandal” and that it “could not come at a more opportune time for those in the Christian community.”

While both articles provide thoughtful treatments of the film, neither one particularly emphasizes how the film portrays the beauty and power of Christian theology. The women choose not to abandon their faith despite the abuse of their community and leaders. In fact, the idea hardly comes up.

Instead, they take the opportunity to wrestle with their theology and reimagine how they can relate to God themselves rather than through the male leaders who have always been their mediators. A fully postmodern worldview would understand that these women had every right to rip apart the religion that seemed to be the root of their pain. Who would blame them?

But this is not yet another story of deconstruction. This is a story of what happens when people are given enough space to wonder openly about God and genuinely seek him for themselves. Much of this is led by Ona Friesen, who stands as a sort of prophetic figure in the film and the novel. She is the one who suggests that as part of their exodus, the women should develop “a new religion, extrapolated from the old but focused on love” wherever they go. Like most prophets, she is generally brushed off by the others in the moment, though her influence proves to be essential as the story moves forward.

The idea of a new religion focused on love can sound very much like the kind of new-age-21st-century-post-modern kind of religion that makes evangelicals squirm. The love gospel, after all, has been a foundational part of many deconstruction stories as more and more exvangelicals exchange the Christian vision of love with its more contemporary and secular counterpart. This is exactly the kind of anti-evangelicalism embedded in another recent popular film, The Whale. Perhaps this is why Brett McCracken categorized the two films together and cautions us from fully buying into Women Talking as a win for religion.

But this film does not have nearly as much anti-religious rhetoric at its core. Though the author and filmmakers may not recognize it, the women’s proposed “new religion” has deep, orthodox roots. This is not much different than the situation Chesterton found himself in through his own encounter with Orthodoxy. In the first pages of Orthodoxy, he describes his attempts to discover something more original than Christianity, to be “in advance of the age” only to find himself right in line with the beliefs that Christians have confessed for centuries. As he puts it, “I did try to found a heresy of my own, and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered it was orthodoxy” (8).

A similar irony unfolds in Women Talking. While it may be trying to offer a critique of Christianity, it actually finds itself longing for the same things Christians throughout the ages have. The love Ona wants to use as a differentiator in her new religion is nothing new in Christendom. Indeed it is actually its differentiator. Think of all the verses one first learns in Sunday School: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” (John 3:16). Or “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37-39). Or what about “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8)?

I could go on to mention Philippians 2:1-11, Ephesians 1:3-14, the entire book of 1 John, the prophets, the Psalms, and any number of other texts from both testaments. The love displayed is others-oriented, sacrificial. The women are looking for this kind of love. As people who have lived their whole lives in a Mennonite community, they have heard of this biblical idea of love, yet their experiences have shown a disconnect between the colony’s lived theology and this root metaphor. As they begin to process their theology themselves, they, led by the prophetic Ona, come back to this root metaphor of love.

In one conversation the women have about forgiveness, Ona poses the question, “Is forgiveness that’s forced upon us true forgiveness?” This is not a hypothetical question as they have been told by the men that they must forgive so God would forgive them and they could enter the Kingdom of God.

Ona specifically questions the validity of this theology, wondering if there can be a category of forgiveness that is up to God alone where he would bear the burden of forgiveness. She roots her theology of forgiveness in a certain understanding of God’s character, namely his eternal wisdom and others-focused love. We see something similar with Salome. When another woman suggests that they might find new men of God to forgive them after leaving. Salome argues:

We do not have to be forgiven by the men of God… for protecting our children from the depraved actions of vicious men who are often the very same men we are meant to ask for forgiveness. If God is a loving God, He will forgive us himself. If God is a vengeful God, then He has created us in His Image. If God is omnipotent, then why has He not protected the women and girls of this colony?

Salome’s questions interweave doubt and confidence. She may not know why God did not protect these women, but she does know that a loving God would not condone the evil actions of the men. She, like her sister Ona, finds these ideas irreconcilable with the root metaphor she holds fast to, the core idea she has of God once she has the space to finally discover her theology.

The Value of Having Space to Explore God

The key to this group of women’s theological development is having the physical and spiritual space to explore what they believe about God. It is in their hayloft that they ask questions and seek to understand the God they’ve believed in for so long.

To be sure, the hayloft conversations are messy. They remind me of my rocky years as an undergrad, struggling through my state-school literary education while trying to maintain my faith. There is angst. There is doubt. There is fear and anger and all sorts of uncomfortable things said in a moment that you need to repent for later.

I never lost my faith in that season, though what I went through could have very likely looked like deconstruction to many. When I look back on that time, I often think about a conversation I had with an influential pastor and now close friend who essentially gave me permission to explore the questions and ideas I had. He explained that his faith was rooted in a God that was unintimated by such things and that if I earnestly pursued truth above all else, I would find myself firmly grasping to the Christian tradition. Today, years removed from that conversation, this has proven to be true.

It seems to be true for the women of the colony as well. Despite the wounds they carry from the hands of religious leaders, they maintain a love for the God of justice who understands their suffering and meets them within it. Interspersed throughout the film are scenes where the beautiful power of religion is made clear. Different members pray aloud. They quote scripture. On one occasion, a sick child comes into the Hayloft and the women stop their tense debate to sing the hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father.” Again, right before they leave the loft and head out into the unknown, they sing “Nearer my God to Thee.”

The women do not hate the religion of their community. They hate the abuse of it. By the end, Mariche–who was amongst the most skeptical about leaving–has an epiphany that revealed three things the women want:

  1. The safety of their children.
  2. The ability to think.
  3. And to remain steadfast in their faith.

Indeed, the women realize that staying would jeopardize their faith as they would not be able to forgive and may end up inflicting violence on the men. They leave the abuse behind but take their faith with them, and their faith empowers their journey.

Certainly, by the end, they have deconstructed or even villainized aspects of their faith community. But the faith itself remains intact. They are eager to escape an abusive system where male leaders function as intermediaries between themselves and Christ. They are eager to develop a theology for themselves, and their habits throughout the film suggest that this theology will have roots in Christ, prayer, worship, scripture, and love for one another. That sounds like pretty firm foundation to me.

None of this is to say the film is a triumph for Christianity. It does indeed portray the horrors of the unfortunately all-too-familiar overlap between religion and abuse. It pushes against traditionally-held gender roles. It gives a subtle, approving nod to non-binary gender ideology through the quiet character of Melvin – a young girl who was among those abused and who now refuses to speak to those who use her birth name “Nettie” because she “no longer wants to be a woman,” as Toews puts it in the novel (59).

Despite these differences, the main themes that drive the film sound a whole lot like orthodoxy. This is fundamentally a theologically reconstructive narrative in a moment where deconstruction plays all too well. In the end, it shows how powerful it can be when people who are rooted in Christ, prayer, worship, scripture, and love have the space to theologize freely. This is how these women come to know God more fully. This is how they make sense of their suffering. And this is, ultimately, what living in the freedom of Christ looks like for all of us.