God gave Noah the rainbow sign:
No more water, but fire next time.
— “Mary Don’t You Weep”, African American Spiritual
Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Mother!, is already causing quite a stir. From reports of fans booing it at festival screenings to (particularly Christian) critics declaring to be “vile” and “nauseating” and an attack on Christianity. Causal filmgoers may not realize Aronofsky’s last film also enraged Christians (it was Noah, a film I loved).
I should say up front: I loved Mother!.
It may well end up being my favorite film of this year. And you really should go see it having watched as few spoilers as possible. This isn’t going to be a review as much as a defense of why the film’s critique of Christianity is one we should hear – and one that offers a helpful corrective to a shallow (and sometimes functionally non-existent) theology of the Trinity in our churches.
Spoilers for Mother! beyond this point!
It becomes clear pretty early on that Mother! is a sort of allegory for religion. Him and Mother live alone on acreage with no roads – and no apparent reality beyond the treeline. He is a poet whose first work was a masterpiece, who is laboring over his second work. She is painstakingly restoring the house in which they live – a house that burned to the ground with his previous wife inside. Mother insists she’s building a ‘paradise’
Then a man shows up. Then a woman. They soon act like they own the place, and they disregard the one rule Him and Mother gave them (not to go in his office and touch his prized stone). Then, nearly out of nowhere, their grown sons show up, feuding. The older kills the younger, and then the house becomes host to his funeral, which quickly gets out of hand. The guests repeatedly ignore Mother’s warnings about the house, and end up breaking some pipes, flooding the house and driving everyone out. Mother calls it an ‘apocalypse’.
The first half of this film is the first 7 chapters of Genesis, retold swiftly and deftly.
Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Flood – it’s all there, subtle enough that it didn’t click for me until much further into the film. The image of God here is subtly disturbing. The Man seeks Him out because he’s a ‘big fan’. And Him clearly enjoys all the attention. It becomes clear that he enjoys the worship of these acolytes more than he cares about how their disregard of Mother affects her (or the house over which she’s labored so painstakingly). It’s disturbing for its subtlety.
The last half of the film is Aronofsky’s critique of a form of Christian faith. It’s not just that – to reduce this film to anything too simplistic is to do a grave injustice. But the parallels are, once again, unmistakable.
Mother announces she’s pregnant, which unlocks something in Him. Him produces a second work (a… ahem… new testament, perhaps) that Mother declares to be ‘beautiful’. She then learns Him has already sent it to his publisher, who is just crazy for it.
Before hardly any time has passed, new acolytes begin to come, at first staying outside the home, but quickly, in what feels nearly like a fever dream, take over her house. Soon, thousands inhabit the house and the whole of human history plays out in the space of minutes.
Adoration of Him turns to plundering Him’s house and wholesale disregard of Mother. One of Him’s blessings leaves a smudge of ink on a woman’s forehead; in moments, priests arise to offer the smudge as a sacrament to followers. War erupts as the house becomes a dystopian nightmare.
And then Mother gives birth. To a male child. Him wants the child, to show him to those gathered outside the room, but Mother refuses. The child belongs to her and Him. Finally, Mother drifts off to sleep, only to discover Him has taken the child, given him to the crowds. They kill the baby (accidentally?) and Him insists they be forgiven (“They didn’t know what they were doing!”). This proves too much for Mother, who descends to Hell the basement to destroy the world the house in a fiery apocalypse.
In Aronofsky’s terrifying allegory, Him becomes a villain because he is so self-obsessed. It’s a potent critique of a recognizable incarnation of Christianity.
Him clearly cares more for himself than for Mother. He is blinded to her suffering by his own desire to be worshipped by the masses teeming in their home. She insists again and again that Him send the people away, until he finally shouts, “I don’t want to.”Him likes their worship, their adoration. He likes it so much that he cannot – or will not – see how they destroy the home, how they abuse and disregard her. He can’t even muster anger at the death of the very son who inspired his greatest work.
In the end, Him can only lament, “It’s not your fault. Nothing is ever enough. That’s why I create. It’s who I am.”
Aronofsky rightly critiques a picture of God that is masculine and singular. Him is not three; only one. And Him is essentially masculine (obviously). Too often, Christians talk about God in exactly this way. God is a Father who gives his only Son to the world, ultimately to gain worship. An entire strain of popular, influential American Christianity insists that God is primarily concerned with God’s own glory. Not coincidentally, these same thinkers and theologians also insist God should only be imagined as male.
Aronofsky illustrates what happens when we take these claims seriously. By condensing the Biblical story into a feature-length story, and by wrapping the story back up in mythological clothing, he invites us to see exactly what kind of being such beliefs actually point to… and it’s not pretty.
Whether Mother represents the Earth, Womankind, Israel or Mary (and to be clear, it’s all of these and more in Mother!), we ache for how she is abused by Him who claims to love her. We see how casually he disregards her love and work in favor of the anonymous masses who seem wholly unable to love him back. And more importantly, Him will always lack. Him’s creative impulse comes from a lack within himself – a void as infinite as his essence that can never be filled by any amount of finite things, persons, babies or worship.
A deep, rich Christian theological confession offers an alternative to the god Aronofsky rightly criticizes.
What is surprising in the Christian Scriptures is not how often God is referred to as male, but how often God is addressed as a female or described using female metaphors. God is addressed frequently as El-Shaddai, which is often mistranslated as ‘God Almighty’ but literally means ‘God the Double-Breasted One. It’s an obvious motherly image of God (and if you believe in girl power, maybe ‘Almighty’ isn’t such a bad translation). God offers a number of matronly metaphors for Godself to populate the Israelite imagination.
In other words, God, within God’s own divine nature, expresses both masculine and feminine traits. Or, given that we’re understanding gender as more of a spectrum than a binary, we could say the Bible reveals God to be genderful, not genderless. It takes both male and female to bear God’s image fully, according to the first creation story. We teach a masculine God to our own detriment (and shame!). A more fully genderful Christianity would doubtless temper some of the violent, masculine impulses obvious in our history.
Further, Christians need to take the Trinity more seriously. Without a God who is three persons in one, we have no better picture of God than Aronofsky’s Him. Without the Trinity, God cannot be other than self-absorbed, ultimately self-obsessed. Claiming it’s okay for God to be self-obsessed because God is God just doesn’t cut it.
But beginning with the Trinity offers a better image of God. We insist that God is eternally three persons in one being, that from eternity past, God has existed entirely self-contained and self-sufficient. That – because God’s essential nature is self-giving love – within the Trinity God is continually giving to and receiving from Godself. God doesn’t need to create something outside of Godself to give Godself to (or to receive worship from). God is wholly capable of being God without anyone else.
Creation then becomes an act of love. God creates the world from an overflow of loving, not a need to be loved.
Beginning with a Trinitarian God who is genderful offers a very different picture than Aronofsky’s Him. Unfortunately, too often our Churches teach theologies that look more like Him than Yahweh. No wonder, then, we get upset by a film like Mother!. No one likes to see their own failures brought to light. But this is one function of good art. It can help us see our shortcomings. And, hopefully, we can pause in our anger long enough to see the seed of truth.
I loved this film (obviously). While I would never want to reduce it to a critique of American Christianity, I think that’s certainly in there, along with everything else. And since I am an American Christian, I’ll receive Aronofsky’s critique with open hands and do some serious self-reflection. This film is a marvelous gift to the Church.