It is said that the intelligent and cynical Talleyrand, a French diplomat and Catholic priest who was later secularised, said to Napoleon when asked to devise a political message: “Sir, give me the idea and I’ll find the arguments myself…” If such an intellectual attitude is cynical and unscrupulous in politics, let’s imagine the consequences in the religious sphere.
After seeing the Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s film The Apprentice (in Russian: Ученик), I understood once again what religious illiteracy means in any society: that state of total ignorance—whether intentional or not—of religious ideas, beliefs, doctrines, rituals, traditions, and language. Against this background, everything becomes confused, misinterpretations are made, clichés are used as arguments, and people arrive at preferred conclusions from the outset.
This impression of confusion against a background of religious ignorance also emerges from the reviews and press summaries of both the film and the original work of the play Martyr by the contemporary German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, written two years prior.
Firstly, the title: the viewer may be confused as to whether this is the same Mayenburg story or not because the original title—which was adopted in English when the play was staged at London’s Unicorn Theatre as Martyr—ends up being changed to The Apprentice in the Russian version of the film script, referring to an apprenticeship in religious faith, not in the field of intellectual training or in a particular profession. Then, in Cannes, a review by an English film critic translates it as The Student, and in local Romanian cinemas it is given an audio advertisement that translates it from English as The Highschooler. So between martyr and student, the meanings get lost in translation.
In a nutshell, the story of the film is as follows: Benjamin, an endearing teenager from the Baltic city of Kaliningrad, is being raised by a divorced mother. He spends a lot of time in his room, quiet and withdrawn from some school activities (e.g. swimming in the pool during physical education). His mother is a simple woman with a placid, secular outlook on life, without moral dilemmas, confined to the daily grind of supporting the two of them and spending all her free time in front of the television. She does not really know her son and does not notice his contempt for her, or his religious “radicalisation.”
Somehow, he becomes a very fervent but not wise reader of the Bible; he interprets everything to the letter and confuses everyone—classmates, teachers, admirers, the school priest—by reciting biblical quotations from memory with great accuracy. He uses them as arguments in his protests against the depravity or secularisation he sees in the education he receives, whether at home or at school. The subjects he attacks with striking biblical quotations range from his mother’s adultery and his classmates’ revealing swimsuits to sex education, the teaching of Darwin’s theory or the economic process of the country’s industrialisation.
Although he causes a stir, he is met with understanding and even supported in his “pure and tough” stance by the school’s administration. Yet his radicalisation progresses in a pathological way. He develops grandiose paranoia, believing himself to be a chosen one, a miracle worker, and fails in repeated attempts to cure a congenital defect in a fellow student he has befriended and turned into a sort of apprentice. He tries to manipulate him into implicating his biology teacher in a motorcycle accident, as she is the only one who opposes him on religious matters because she is an atheist. She proposes to fight him with the same weapons and starts reading and summarising the Bible, at the cost of neglecting her relationship with the physical education teacher, who leaves her.
Unfortunately, against the background of an atheistic way of thinking, the conclusions she comes to are downright blasphemous, even to the point of suspecting the apostles of having homosexual relations. Benjamin ends up killing his apprentice when he senses homosexual tendencies in him and falsely accuses his teacher of making sexual advances towards him in front of his mother, the priest, and the headmaster. Surprisingly, in the aftermath of the scandal, the teacher is the only one to be accused and she is asked to leave the school. The film ends with the teacher refusing to leave the battlefield, with the symbolic gesture of nailing her shoes to the school floor.
The film keeps you in a constant state of false suspense by suggesting that Benjamin’s solitary and shocking protests, accompanied by biblical quotations that either frighten, infuriate or command respect, will result in his becoming a martyr. This doesn’t happen, and we are led to believe that the martyr was his “disciple,” or even his teacher, to whom a great collective injustice is done.
Plausible and implausible
The reaction of some “orthodox” characters, unfamiliar with Scripture but ready to take seriously any protest and any seemingly Christian symbol, even if it is spontaneous and precarious, is plausible to the point of irony and humour, as when Benjamin places on the wall of the high school’s assembly hall the large, twisted cross that has not even been consecrated in a church, prompting the staff to make the sign of the cross every time they pass it. Or when his unbelieving mother talks to the school priest and kisses his hand.
Equally plausible is the “solution” that the priest imagines he has found for the student’s unruliness: to channel his religious zeal into the priesthood as a career option, not caring that this would introduce a dangerous fanatic into the clergy.
The gap between today’s teenagers and their parents, the state of isolation, the lack of mutual respect, the loss of the moral authority of a parent overtaken by situations, trends and times, the rebellion, with or without cause, of a child who is disoriented, weak, without moral reference points, surrounded by tempting dangers, are all very plausible.
What seems implausible in this story is that, at a time when secularisation is a growing phenomenon, especially in Christian countries, and has been sociologically confirmed and written about, Benjamin’s school seems a perplexing exception. In this school, it is precisely the scientific or atheistic attitudes that are fashionable, vocal, and militant today that are incriminated, and an atheist who presents the arguments of science risks becoming a victim of the lenient and tepid orthodoxy of the 21st century. It’s hard to believe all this, especially if you know what devastating effects the decades of official atheism of the communist ideology had on our societies, in all the Eastern European countries that changed their political regime through revolutions.
What is striking about this story is that, at a time when secularisation, especially in Christian countries, is a pervasive phenomenon that has been sociologically documented and written about, Benjamin’s school appears to be a puzzling exception.
In any case, the feeling one gets from the film, which perhaps explains why some situations seem implausible, is that it is intended to awaken public opinion and bring it into line with the Western ideology of political correctness and liberal vision, especially in matters of religious life. Let’s not forget that the script was adapted for Russian Orthodox society from an original German Protestant context of the play. Therefore, the impression that it is trying to sound an alarm against religious fanaticism seems somewhat forced, as the script does not fit perfectly into the current Orthodox ethos (neither Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian nor Greek).
It isn’t in tune with the rather corrupt and compromising collective character or morals of today’s liberal and vaguely Orthodox youth. At least that seems to be the picture painted by other films, documentaries, and news reports about contemporary Russia. Therefore, the danger of Orthodox religious fanaticism or fundamentalism is unlikely, especially among the young hedonists confiscated by the consumer society depicted in the film. The viewer is always astonished when Benjamin’s protests in class do not elicit a disapproving reaction from his peers.
Another implausible aspect is that the character of Benjamin is supposed to appear to everyone like a teenage Rasputin, to sound like a stern and saintly John the Baptist, which would give him the moral authority to rebuke everyone else, but the course of events very quickly reveals that he is not saintly at all, but deviant. At every turn, he betrays hatred of others, irrational behaviour, weakness, cowardice, latent violence and then manifest violence, lack of empathy, lying, a need to dominate, and a certainly pathological intolerance. And yet we’re supposed to believe that Benjamin is going to manage to fool everyone by appearing saintly? The episode in which he vandalises the room in which he lives, to the point of peeling the paint off the walls and blocking the light from the window, was enough to warrant a consultation with a psychiatrist; or the shocking episode where he invited the apprentice to lunch, only to beat him up.
Nevertheless, the shortsighted message deciphered by some film and theatre critics is: This is the fundamentalism/fanaticism to which taking the Bible seriously leads! As if the mere assiduous reading of it would have a maddening effect on a poor young man who no longer enjoys life. This is what is suggested by the subtitle of the play Martyr: “How far will you go for what you believe?” This is a question that applies, one would hope, to mentally balanced people and not to a potential patient of a mental health clinic. Yet here the audience is shown the religious delusion of a young deviant, which is described with the following label: “Christian discourse of an abstinent believer, better acquainted with the Bible than the priest, intransigent with the sin of others, therefore possibly holy.”
I will try to explain where this kind of dangerous ignorance comes from.
First of all, the director’s own statement spares us many assumptions and interpretations, as Serebrennikov openly and rather obtusely says: “Religion always comes with pain and trauma. Originally, religion was love, but it doesn’t work in our life, in our world. Now, religion is a point of aggressive misunderstanding of different nations and countries. It’s a point of terrorism, of separation. It’s terrible.”
This explanation somehow trivialises the film, leaving no room for deeper interpretations. It can be dismantled even by a child who has studied the Bible with sincere interest, either at school or at home—firstly, because the rules of the mind’s natural logic are violated, and secondly, because unfounded judgements are made.
Moreover, on a subject as complex and emotionally charged as religion, it is advisable not to make generalisations: What religion is the director talking about? And since when and from where in the history of mankind has it “always” produced negative effects, if at least initially it “was love”? Also, what kind of love is it, among the many possible nuances, and towards whom? What is no longer functional today: love of any kind or religion of any kind? Has human nature changed so radically? What do anthropologists say? And what is the basis for the categorical statement that religion is the seed of misunderstanding between nations, since the film is about the particularised world within a single nation—in fact, an obscure school?
On the other hand, “trauma” is a psychiatric concept that is difficult to associate with the religious phenomenon as a whole, since there are so many contexts in which the opposite is evident, in which genuine religious faith has brought comfort, forgiveness, ennoblement of the soul, sacrifice for fellow human beings and much more—from the martyrdom of the first Christians to the forgiveness of communist torturers by their victims, from the beaming faces of the clergy to the social commitment of Christians to the service of the needy. We cannot lump these together with the Crusades, heresies or the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu and dismiss them as atavisms that we, the more advanced, have been getting rid of for twenty years.
There are several other problems specific to religious illiteracy: the assumption of the ignorant that the Bible is just a book and, as such, can be treated with the same carelessness or inattention that we treat any book we like or dislike, are attracted to or indifferent to. However, as true believers delve deeper into it (a process that can take a lifetime and never end), they find that the Bible is not only a unique book of unparalleled complexity, but also the revealed Word of God. The better their understanding of it, the better their character will be. Moreover, believers know that in order to understand it, it is necessary to pray to God, who inspired it, to open their minds and souls to it. Otherwise, as the prophet Isaiah so aptly warned more than two millennia ago, there is a risk that it will remain a “sealed book”: “For you this whole vision is nothing but words sealed in a scroll. And if you give the scroll to someone who can read, and say, ‘Read this, please,’ they will answer, ‘I can’t; it’s sealed.'”
Moreover, those who do not attribute any good effect to the study of the Bible have no criteria for distinguishing between true believers, improved in their human nature by what they understand and apply from the Bible, and hypocrites or fanatics, who do nothing but exalt themselves and exploit their fellow people, seeking acolytes, servants, or disciples, manipulating, passing judgement, perhaps even reciting verses, and literally or figuratively holding the Holy Book over the heads of others, regarding them with unrelenting superiority. In contrast, the beneficial effect of biblical teaching is to articulate in the conscience of Christian morality the noblest and most generous principles: love all your fellow people without judging them, show mercy and help to those in need, and the most beautiful Christic exhortation: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”
Moreover, the attitude and state of mind of a true believer is one of balance, temperance, serenity, detachment from the world, self-sacrifice, peacemaking, and self-denial, but all this against a background of humility. Without humility we do not have true Christians, no matter how many good deeds they display, how many verses they have memorised, or how intransigent and combative they are with others less well versed in theology. It is a common belief that Satan is the greatest theologian, given his antiquity, his interest in knowing and thwarting the plan of salvation, and his gifts from the Creator. Yet humility is the very virtue that he lost in his infatuation, and this brought about his downfall, his transformation from angel to demon.
So, if we have enough criteria to easily distinguish between true Christians and Pharisees, zealots, fanatics, and fundamentalists, just by studying their behaviour, can we not distinguish between a sane person and a disturbed one?
On the other hand, Biblical quotations taken out of context can and have been used to justify any reprehensible act. I am reminded of a film in which a criminal paedophile claimed to have followed Jesus’ words, “Let the little children come to me.” In this misuse of the Bible, by forcing logic and common sense, one can reach any conclusion, including that the biblical authors did not want the emancipation of women or that they promoted slavery, through Pauline or Petrine exhortations that wives obey their husbands “in the Lord” and slaves obey their masters (Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 2:18).
In line with this twisted thinking, the same accusation of pro-slavery attitudes can even be levelled at the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus, who was himself a slave and who urged detachment from the unfortunate circumstances of life. Could the philosopher, at that moment in history, have revolutionarily urged the abolition of slavery? Could he have lived in antiquity and seen centuries into the future? Obviously, it was only centuries later, in the modern age, that people’s views on slavery, marital relations, the role of women in society and much else could change. Nor should we blame the Apostle Paul for not “seeing” all the intricacies of human history, nor the Saviour for not leaving us a roadmap of changing political regimes and ideologies. The Bible contains enough prophecy for all times, up to the end of earthly history, but only what is useful for us to know, with salvation as our ideal; not inspired “hints,” not reactionary instructions, nor complicated riddles.
Furthermore, the perennial, transmillennial values of biblical teaching lie in exhortations such as, “Love your neighbour as yourself”; “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many!” Does this not include the noblest attitude towards slaves, women and every other human being, which transcends the petty conquests of our humanity, from the medieval clerical opinion that women too have souls, to the more recent and dysfunctional positive discrimination? As a public speaker, Jesus Christ managed to make the temple guards who had come to arrest Him retreat, declaring in amazement: “No one ever spoke the way this man does.”
Religious illiteracy is paradoxical: although it is a spiritual deficiency—precisely because the wondrous benefits of reading and studying the Bible remain unknown—it is held up as a badge of honour, a sign of recognition for serious intellectuals who have given profound thought to the matter.
Anyone who reads the Bible carefully and honestly will see that it contains these concepts only as a result of divine inspiration, precisely because the mentality of the time in which it was written made them inconceivable and inexpressible. Moreover, it would have made it impossible to articulate them coherently and without contradiction over a period of almost 1500 years, unless they were written under the inspired pen of more than 60 authors, so different, often explaining or complementing each other without knowing it, and who had as a common denominator their fervent faith in God.