Bullies and Shrinking Violets
or What’s Wrong with this Picture?
“When I began to edit the film, something happened. I found I was being educated. And not just with arguments. I was watching a Christian life. I was seeing a Christian man.” —Darren Doane
Just watched The History Boys, a film based on an entertaining but self-indulgent West End play by Alan Bennett. Despite the fact that under Course Language and Sexual References it should also have a “gay theme” warning (but I guess that’s not politically correct), the film is hysterical is places and unwittingly highlights a fatal flaw in our culture.
I was expecting a sort of British Dead Poets Society, which it is, but from a different angle. In DPS, a heartless military-minded “bully” of a dad led to the suicide of his son who wanted to be an actor. In THB, the teacher again becomes a substitute for a father figure, but in this case there are two teachers, one at the end of his career and one at the beginning. Both are brilliant, but both are what the school’s headmaster might politely refer to as “shrinking violets.” One loves poetry and old movies and the other loves history and “devil’s advocate” debate. The students initially find it difficult to reconcile these two approaches to learning.
The history boys are a deliberately varied bunch. At least in this one there is a token Christian, and he’s not a hypocrite. But his faith is basically ineffectual, of no real benefit. The main focus is on one student who, due to his looks and his brazenness, is always the centre of attention. Every film has a message to preach, and in this picture, it mostly boils down to courage. What is wrong is that his boldness is demonstrated in destructive ways: sleeping with the school secretary and blackmailing the bullying, philandering principal. He also (absurdly) attempts to “reward” the gay teacher whose intellect he admires, with the argument that he should not just debate courageously but live courageously. Just as those Christian films where the “preachy” scene makes you cringe, the gratuitous preaching of perversity in this one is just as artificial and cringeworthy. And the student’s weak-willed “human projects” capitulate in pretty much every case. (The one true victory of the film is when the younger teacher perceives that the central student’s academic mindset is a sublime meld of the strengths of the opposite approaches of the two teachers.)
The only character with any real balls is the female history teacher, who regards history as a sad record of male incompetence. Ian Smith writes:
Francis de la Tour is in many ways the traditionalist amongst the teaching staff, somewhat worn down and disillusioned by the misogynist world she lives and works in. She’s achieved success in getting the boys to the point where they’re being considered for Oxbridge, but there’s a recognition that she can achieve no more because her strict regimen of learning the facts, writing the essays and doing the hard work of learning the basics is not enough in a world that wants original thought and ideas.
Her sharp eyes and measured wit cut through the smokescreens the various males use to excuse their spectacular failures in character, but she knows they won’t listen. In Western Culture, the best man for the job sometimes is a woman, but that’s not how the world is meant to be.
We all need to see films where people, men in particular, are seen to make costly decisions to do what is right, and despite their character flaws. That is true heroism. Courage, like love, is not an end in itself. It must be discerning and selfless. We need father figures who are neither bullies nor shrinking violets nor the cardboard cutout examples of “perfect fatherhood” from old TV shows. We find these true father figures in the Bible, but there are rare examples of this protected species alive today.
…I came to Christ about six years after I graduated high school. I was a budding young filmmaker fully steeped in the ways of the world—Hollywood to be specific. That means I was a very bad man. Through God’s grace He grabbed me one day, threw me to the ground and claimed me as His own, and commissioned me to keep making films and talk about Him. (For those of you already assessing my potential run-on sentence, I would appeal to the Pauline epistles for my defense.)
Within the first few months of my Christian life I was given an audio debate between Greg Bahnsen, a Christian apologist, and noted atheist Gordon Stein. I was amazed at what I heard. Greg’s defense of the Christian faith was just music to my ears. I loved it. Some people love football or gardening or Halo3. I just loved hearing people argue. A mentor later in my life would say arguing is a virtue when done with respect and kindness. So back to that audio tape. Over and over I listened to it. It became my new Christian Led Zeppelin. This was my “Stairway to Heaven.” I would imagine what it would have been like to film the debate. How I would have done it. The music, the angles, the back-story. As the years rolled on I began to think about recreating the debate with actors. They do it with those Lincoln/Douglas debate things, why not this?
About a year and a half ago I was having dinner with David Hagopian. I had met David at a memorial dinner for Greg Bahnsen. We were at the same table. David was the moderator for the Bahnsen-Stein debate. So that put him in the rock star category for me. I knew his voice from those tapes, and now I knew his face. Around that time my wife and I began to have children. This led quickly to books on children, marriage, education, church, etc. I ran into Doug Wilson’s books and had my life shattered. But that’s another story. Then education. I knew David Hagopian had experience in this area and was the closest guy I could get some advice from. We met and started talking debates and how boring they are. I had suggested that a pure cross examination debate style would be really what people want. Get to the good stuff. See people defend their positions.
Jump Ahead a Few Months.
David and I keep talking about filming debates. We start talking about Doug Wilson and his online debate with Christopher Hitchens, and before we know it, we are all talking about making a film. Wilson, Hagopian, Gary Demar, Aaron Rench, and Nate Wilson quickly became the players. Aaron Rench had set up the original debate with Doug and Christopher and was continuing to develop a relationship with Hitchens. Aaron lays it out, and Hitchens agrees to spend three days with Wilson, debating, hanging out, eating, and traveling. So the film is ready to be made, and the players are lined up.
When I began to edit the film, something happened. I found I was being educated. And not just with arguments. I was watching a Christian life. I was seeing a Christian man. I was experiencing interaction with ungodly men who want to see Christianity destroyed and exposed as ancient Stone Age myths. I could see Doug’s reactions, his temperament, his smile, his grace, his picking and choosing, and the outcome of what he did. I was being educated in a way that a book had never done. It was like meat being applied to bones. I did not have a Christian upbringing. A godly man to imitate was hard to find.
The triune Christian life is earthy and dirty. It is action. It moves and gets involved. It engages. And it takes dominion. I have spent more time with Doug Wilson by way of an editing bay and looking at footage of him living the Christian life than I have in person. But what has been captured in the film is Doug Wilson loving anti-theist Christopher Hitchens and looking to win the man, not the argument. And that is something I needed to learn—something I needed to be educated on how to do and what it looks like.
It is interesting that Doug Wilson has not only been accused of being a bully, but also of not dealing with certain situations harshly enough. He’s a leader without being a militaristic bully and he’s a man of letters without being a shrinking violet. He lives, writes and debates boldly, and sings and laughs just as boldly. He’s the full picture. Our culture really hates him sometimes, but he shrugs off criticism that would keep lesser men (like certain Democrat Presidents) up at night. I think he’s a great example of what they are looking for, a signpost to the only real Man, Jesus Christ, the perfect image of the Father.
Someone should take the ideas in Wilson’s wonderful book, Future Men, and make a movie. Imagine the West revived by godly fatherhood, where the problems in sad films like these are not just communicated in confused rhetoric but also seen to be solvable. As “old movies” they will be the history of a broken culture that had no future and is truly dead.