In humanity’s search for the transcendent, Sacred reveals the uniqueness of the Christian gospel.
The film Sacred is a unique cornucopia of colors, sounds and languages. The director, Thomas Lennon, procured footage from more than 40 different filmmakers to show people from different cultures and nations practicing their religions. There are some excerpts of interviews, but much of the film is simply visual and only portrays people living life according to their beliefs. There is no editorialization, no narrative, no plot and no obvious agenda, other than to show these people and their faith. Besides some brief subtitles explaining specific locations and celebrations, the viewer is given no explanations to any of the happenings on the screen. The viewer is left to bring his or her interpretation to the film.
No ceremony is ridiculed; each is presented with utmost honesty and respect. One example is an Asian couple trying for a baby. They go to a shrine surrounded by phallic symbols. They purchase a small one and write their desire on it. The husband and wife then place it in the shrine (among many others), and express their hope to each other that it will work. Besides the giggling embarrassment as they discuss whether anything will come of it, the whole ritual is recorded in solemnity.
However, for me, that particular segment cast all other segments in a different light. Writing a prayer on a phallic symbol, hoping that the prayer will be heard and the couple will be blessed with a baby…it seems hokey, to say the least. How is this ceremony different from the young Hindus burning up their bad deeds in holy fire? Or the young boys in Myanmar who leave home for a week to become young monks in hopes, as one boy put it, to become “a good boy”? Or the women holding up their babies to receive blessings from the Pope?
All of these people ardently believe that these ceremonies will bring them the results they desire. Absolutely dedicated, they pour their souls into these ceremonies until they are breathless. At an elaborate Easter parade in Spain, a young man says, “Faith helps solve your problems.” Faith in what? Is there one true God?
Many followers of faiths contemplate these questions in various ways. The film opens with a monk in Japan on a journey to circle a mountain for 1,000 days. Near the end of the film, he has completed 700 days (that’s about two years of walking around a mountain). He says, “If I don’t continue the ascetic practices, I won’t reach priesthood.” I could hear the fatigue in his voice.
In Sierra Leone, a man who buries those dead from the Ebola virus states that he feels God is really angry at them. A woman is shown picking mangoes, carrying them in a bowl on her head to sell them in the marketplace. This woman says, “If God is here, he would not allow poor people to die.” She later says, “The mosque and the church are all the same. I see no difference.”
Many people seem to feel that God is angry and we must appease him. An Ethiopian minister says, “When God is angry at his children, he will discipline them.” In the Philippines, many people participate in a gruesome reenactment of the crucifixion, even though the church leaders have tried to get them to stop this practice. One of the men is recorded as saying, “Most people who let blood flow have a sick child or wife,” implying that the men believe if they are nailed to a cross, then God will relent and heal their loved ones. Obviously, even those who know Christ can believe that we must somehow make retribution to God to find his favor.
Carolyn, a terminally ill woman from Connecticut, says, “Prayer in my early life was always asking for something… [but] God wants a conversation.” When we are trying to appease God, trying to jump through the right hoop, we aren’t having a conversation with God. We are putting on noise-cancelling headphones and are trying to blast through everything, hoping that we are doing something that will make God relent. Through our blindness and deafness, we can’t see that what we need to do is lay all that down and come to him, empty handed. It’s difficult. It’s not in our nature. But it’s what we need to do…and on a daily basis.
The most interesting interview comes from George, an inmate at Angola Prison in Louisiana. He says, “Everyone is running a race. You can’t run when you are chained to something. . . . My ticket has been punched for heaven—that makes me free.” George speaks something different. He speaks of freedom—even in prison—found in Jesus Christ. He is not trying to do something to appease God so he can be released. Like Paul in Philippians 4, he has found his freedom, even in his chains.
For me, seeing these ceremonies and beliefs juxtaposed put a searing spotlight on what I already know… what makes Jesus different. To win his favor, I don’t need to bleed in a crucifixion reenactment, burn a piece of paper, stand in a waterfall or visit Mecca with thousands of other people. In fact, there is no way to win his favor at all. He loves us because of who he is, not because of who we are or what we do.
My brain says, “Yeah, yeah, I know this,” but I need pause, to marinate in this truth, so that it soaks into my very bones. What a freeing truth this is! The stress is off me. I am free to serve Jesus and am not bound to some ceremony to try to make him obligated to do my will. George’s and Carolyn’s words reminded me that “freedom in Christ” isn’t just some pithy saying; rather it’s a real truth that I need to believe in.