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Is Chocolat a remedy for what ails Christianity?

It's only a movie, but ...

I doubt that Lasse Hallstrom's Chocolat will break any box office records, but it may garner an Academy Award nomination or two. If you were a fan of  Babette's Feast, you'll love Chocolat. It's a feast for body, mind and spirit.

To be sure there is enough eye candy in this one to please those who go to the movies for pure visual pleasure: the sensuality of Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, the picturesque French village of Lansquenet, and the assortment of characters who move in and out of the village church, chocolate shop, medieval castle and surrounding countryside where most of the action takes place. There is a strong story line that begins when Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk arrive in the village to open up a "chocolatier."  No ordinary cook, Vianne draws upon some  prodigious intuitive powers to discern the thoughts and feelings of those that surround her and suggest exactly the right combination of candy and counsel to address their deeper hungers. Vianne is part French and part Mayan, but it is her Mayan blood and near magical powers of perception that seem to color her very being, making her the perfect alter ego to the film's chief protagonist. Presiding over Lansquenet is the overly pious Comte De Reynaud. He rules over the political, social and religious life of the village like a benevolent despot. The Comte's main vehicle for exerting his will over the townspeople is the young priest of the village church who is so anxious to please that he allows the Comte to rewrite his sermons.  Lansquenet is, then, a miniature theocracy. Imagine an America ruled by an all powerful Jerry Falwell. 

As it happens Vianne opens ups her chocolatier during the middle of Lent and in a variety of ways succeeds in "tempting" a number of the villagers to break their Lenten fasts and indulge in both chocolate, and the more powerful sensual pleasures that it unleashes.  Vianne, it is clear, functions as a kind of earth mother, offering a taste of the passionate life that the Comte finds so powerfully unsettling.  Vianne's charms are powerful enough; when she teams up with the gypsy-like Roux (Johnny Deep) who arrives by river boat, it is clear that events in Lansquenet are beginning to spin dangerously out of control. 

Chocolat functions as a parable. It's the repressive Christianity of the Comte and his church, locked in combat with the passionate paganism of Vianne and her growing community of liberated misfits and outcasts. This movie seems to be suggesting that the remedy for a repressive Christianity is exposure to the warmth, charm, and sensual beauty of paganism.  It's the cold hearted and immovable Father God of the Comte's Catholicism thawed by the passionate Earth Mother of pantheism. But is this recipe for the greening of Christianity as much of a cure all as Hallstrom and crew seem to believe?  I have some major reservations. A casual, feel good Christianity may prove to be far less durable than the strong minded orthodoxy it seeks to replace. The warming up of the faith can also be its dumbing down. In truth, this movie is not so much a prescription for what could be, as it is a description of what already is. 

I must report from the frontlines of change within churches all across America and, indeed, the world, that this film's program for a post-modern Reformation is already well underway.  One sees it everywhere as worshippers come to church in casual dress, participate more actively in worship, and sing praise songs that borrow expansively from pop music genres of every kind. Today a good number of priests and ministers no longer feel it necessary to hide their personal interests, like the Elvis loving prelate in this movie; they are now unabashed in their embrace of many features of popular culture, from rock to rap. Likewise, many churches have long welcomed women into leadership positions, affirmed gay and lesbian persons as legitimate members of the body of Christ, and joined with environmentalists to save the planet. And while I share the view that Father God has a lot to learn from Earth Mother, and would welcome the news of a more permanent union between them, still, it is crucial to remember that the Holy One remains above and beyond our understanding, and at the same time, is closer to us that we will ever know. Hence, even Chocolat, however delicious and delectable, does not provide a cure all for the ailments of institutional religion, let alone the larger woes that afflict the human family on the face of this troubled planet.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.