It has been on my heart lately to write down some thoughts on the legalistic nature that so much of Christianity seems to practice. I’ve been exceedingly busy, so these have just been thoughts the past few weeks that I am now finding some time to get typed up in a more coherent format. I wanted to start this series by pointing you to the movie Chocolat, released in 2000 with Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina, Johnny Depp, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Judi Dench (all fabulous actors).
The movie Chocolat takes place in a small French town, where “everyone knows what is expected of them. And if anyone should forget, someone would be quick to remind them.” The town is very dark and gray with very little color. It is controlled by the Comte (Count) de Reynaud, who is the mayor and who demands a strict adherence to the Catholic services and to the traditions of the town. He even writes and critiques the priest’s sermons. The town is held together through rigid obedience to rules and tradition.
One day, a lady, Vianne, and her daughter, Anouk, relocate to this town, coincidentally during the season of Lent. Vianne and Anouk move from place to place as the “Great North Wind” directs them. They immediately bring some color into the little town, wearing bright red cloaks. She rents a shop and opens a chocolaterie (again, during Lent). Reynaud immediately marks her as an enemy to the way of life he has sought to preserve. He even tells her that his predecessor had successfully dispelled the Huguenots from the town and that she and her truffles presented much less of a challenge. Reynaud spreads rumors through the town to poison anyone from associating with her.
Vianne, on the other hand, does not live in such a rule-oriented, legalistic manner. She tries to get to know the people in the town and tries to help where she sees needs. She accepts the people as they are, even when they have obvious problems. She encourages them to restore relationships and to enjoy life. Her presence in the town begins to awaken various passions in the people there who were otherwise, well, quite boring.
A lady in the town who is physically abused by her husband comes to Vianne for help. Reynaud comes to retrieve the lady, defending the husband until he sees the marks left on the lady’s face. Vianne proceeds to restore and heal this woman by befriending her and sharing life with her. Reynaud on the other hand is determined to convert the husband into a gentleman through coerced repentance and classes on manners and religion. While the husband struggles with strict rules, his wife flourishes in a place of love and acceptance.
At this point in the movie, Count de Reynaud is further frustrated by river drifters who port at the city. They live on houseboats and sell various trinkets to the townspeople. Again, the Count sees a challenge to the way of life he is preserving in the town. They call them River Rats, and Reynaud begins a campaign in the town to “boycott immorality” and abstain from doing any business with the River Rats so that they will move on. According to the Count, these “ruthless, godless drifters” would “contaminate the spirit of their town”. Again, Reynaud reveals his legalistic mindset by only being willing to accept someone else according to how willing they are to keep his rules.
I won’t spoil the ending in case you haven’t seen the movie. I encourage you to watch it with these ideas in mind. I have found Chocolat to be a rich picture of the life of rule-oriented legalism versus a life of loving, accepting, and forgiving others. I’ve been unlearning my tendencies to be legalistic and judgmental the last few years. These are usually not easy things to lay down. (At least it hasn’t been easy for me.) Some Christians are determined to rule over others by forcing them to maintain a set of “laws”. These may be particular behaviors to perform or avoid, or beliefs that must be shared. Regardless the form that these laws take, they are completely inflexible. Breaking of the laws is grounds for ending relationships and often slandering the person seen as the offender. And the legalistic lifestyle leads directly to self-righteousness, which Jesus clearly detested in the gospel stories.
I’ll post a follow up to this article soon, which will be a look at why Jesus was called the “Friend of Sinners” and why he was often harsh with the religious legalists of his time and culture.