In the April 1994 issue of The Cresset, Janet Larson reviews Lee Griffith's The Fall of the Prison: Biblical Perspectives on Prison Abolition. The review essay, which outlines Griffith's book, provides a way to watch the recent film The Shawshank Redemption. Viewed as having as its basis liberation theologies like the one developed in Griffith's book, The Shawshank Redemption reconsiders our understanding not simply of God, but of the powers surrounding us that define God in our lives. In beginning her article, Larson quotes Martin Luther from "Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed." Luther writes, "If you see there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges, lords or princes, and you find that you are qualified, you should offer your services . . . that the essential governmental authority may not be despised and become enfeebled or perish. The world cannot and dare not dispense with it." Luther also wrote "A Mighty Fortress is our God," a hymn with lines calling Christian faith a "weapon of the spirit" and glorifying in its immovability. The hymn is used only once in The Shawshank Redemption, but the one whistled line, almost subtle enough to be missed, demands reflection on the spiritual repercussions of defining one's faith and one's God as an immovable, unshakable fortress. The Shawshank Redemption and Anchoress, a lesser known film but nevertheless one which can be considered a companion piece to Shawshank, give us on the screen what Larson's reading of Luther's words and The Fall of the Prison indicate, that the vision of faith as a fortress can also be used as "the oppressor's rod" against the children of God.
The Shawshank Redemption is actually a Christological argument about Christ's descent into Hell, as 1 Peter 3:19 records, to preach to the damned "in prison." Narrated by Red (Morgan Freeman) , a convict imprisoned for life at the Shawshank Correctional Facility for Men, the film follows the prison career of Tim Robbins' character, also imprisoned for life for the murder of his wife. Like the other prisoners, Robbins' character wound up in Shawshank by pleading not-guilty, and like them he maintains his innocence. But his behavior sets him apart from the other prisoners.
At first we don't believe he's innocent, and are suspicious of his actions, but then we begin to see them as possible acts of penance. Having been an educated man and a banker on the outside, he eventually masters the unofficial and often illegal rules of prison life and trades the guards financial advice for special favors for his fellow prisoners. Robbins' consulting business, so to speak, grows into a prison industry as he helps the prison warden misappropriate funds for the warden's own use in exchange for better living conditions and educational opportunities for the prisoners.
The film condemns the concept of an institution built to keep goodness out and evil locked in. A prison is, after all, a place we send people to forget them, not to exact punishment or force repentance. It is a warped atmosphere, a place for human beings to rot. The separation from the world that in reality characterizes prison life in The Shawshank Redemption makes possible a second reality in which the men considered society's menaces develop deep friendships, form a community, and live lives structured by laws they themselves create, administer and uphold.
The absence of good where it should be and the absence of evil where it is expected is crucial to the film. Even from the outset, when the forces of good and evil meet the define the terms of their battle at the Shawshank prison on the first night of Robbins' incarceration, goodness and evil locate themselves in unexpected actions. The warden quotes scripture like only Baal-Zebub can, and presides over a corps of demons in the form of human guards. The warden and his legions are the cinematic equivalent of gargoyles on Gothic cathedrals, their presence acknowledging that evil can invade heaven's realm. His corruption, downright cruelty, and utter lack of respect for the men of his prison contrast with Robbins" desires to instil hope in the men, so intense in himself that he at one point credits it with his surviving two months of solitary confinement.
Shawshank's warden takes sadistic pleasure in his reign over the prison's inmates. His orientation for new prisoners includes Bibles and strong admonition to read them. But a quotation form the bible hides this churchgoing man's wall safe which contains the doctored account book that hides his misappropriated money. When he whistles "A Mighty Fortress" we begin to understand that the film indicts the very laws by which the warden justifies his cruel treatment of the men under his stewardship. We begin to understand how vulnerable to evil institutions are, how seductive the power they hold over others is. The walls of the prison are so unmovable, so impenetrable, that they are a fertile place for evil to take root. In the case of the Shawshank prison, the Word is used to hide evil, make it look legitimate, and oppress whole populations.
The corrupting influence of power, of course, is something the church has been wrestling with for the entirety of its existence. Within three hundred years of Christ's death it was enjoying its privileged position as the official state religion of the Roman Empire. There followed the Inquisition and the European witch hunts. Indeed, the concept of a God who might want a Crusade in his name haunts the Church to this day. Luther, obviously a man who knew on which side his bread was buttered politically, embraced theologies of benefit less to the meek than to the lords and princes who rule over them.
Anchoress questions the motives of the Church more directly than The Shawshank Redemption does. The movie's almost tactile imagery, its black and white cinematography, and its near soundlessness recall the coolness Bergman gave the middle ages in The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring. Though Anchoress—populated as it is by lots of superstitious peasants and priest that looks like a young Max von Sydow—evokes the Swedish director's work, Anchoress counters Bergman's cold, hidden, and oppressive God with a God full of possibilities but rendered cold, hidden, and oppressive by the human beings who have taken it upon themselves to speak of him on earth.
Anchoress is the story of Christine, the Anchoress of Shere, a young medieval woman so devout she allows herself to be enclosed in the wall of her local church as a symbol of her piety and her religious purity. She is encouraged by a priest whose own understanding of God and religion is so archaic and narrow he might find a home on one of the religious programs that now seem to dominate cable television. He entombs Christine against the will of her mother, Pauline, a midwife and a pagan who feels that a place in the wall is not home for a woman barely out of girlhood. Of course, it isn't long before the visions of the Virgin that warranted Christine's imprisonment threaten the authority of the Church. Christine sees the Virgin robed in red, the Church maintains her ensemble is blue. Suddenly the film is less about faith than a large institution's corruption of it. We begin to recognize what Pauline's opposition indicates—that there is danger present in a faith so immobile it must imprison its most faithful and clearheaded lest they make trouble by coming to discoveries about the mysteries of God before the Church can.
With the center of action in the film revolving around Christine's living tomb, the film becomes an exploration of the issues of women's place and voice in the Church. Christine is entombed, we come to understand over the course of the film, not because her faith requires it, but because the priest wishes to use her to establish power in his parish, (the majority of whom hold religious views as narrow and superstitious as the priest's itself) and win favor with Rome, which he can only do by exercising power over the local living saint. Christine might literally be attached to a place, but as she realizes her position relative to the priest, she grows discontented with her situation. She realizes that a wall is not place for her faith to grow.
Anchoress is unabashed about its feminist stance. Like the women members of a church body that refuses them the full participation in their faith through ordination, presiding over the Eucharist, or even preaching in certain large chapels on Sunday mornings, Christine is a deeply religious person at a loss for a place to call a home to worship. She has found truth that shakes foundations, but the Church, whose power lies in its members’ unshakable faith in those same foundations, fears and wishes to quell them.
For women, the film says, such mandated silence is death. When Pauline drowns in a well while hiding from the Christian mob that seeks to kill her in the name of God, the film inverts the ritual of baptism. Instead of conferring life and re-birth, the waters suffocate. In the end, slain by baptismal waters, Pauline's blood is on the hands of the Church.
The films state clearly that the understanding of God as a fortress can only be used as a weapon against the faithful. Fortresses, they say, limit the growth and enjoyment of faith. In a fortress, faith becomes not a journey, but a punishment. Such inflexibility reflects poorly on the Church in the eyes of non-Christians, as Pauline's presence in Anchoress suggests. The Church should pay attention to this. Adherence to fortress-like faith makes the Church look its ugliest—oppressive, repressive, divisive, and irrational. One could become very depressed about the future of faith by the end of both films if they didn't also illustrate faith's resiliency. Though both films question the viability of the foundations of our faith in fortresses, they nevertheless suggest a hope for the Church, that it can rid itself of corrupting powers that encourage superstition and ignorance, stunt growth, and limit participation. They also suggest that these changes will come only at the price of radically re-thinking our understanding of God as fortress and weapon. At the end of The Shawshank Redemption, we find Tim Robbins on a beach in Mexico, building the boat he dreamed about throughout his sentence. We saw that he is not only the Christ figure we came to see him as over the course of the film, a fisher of men, but he is also the incarnation of St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, whose symbol is the boat. To men and women who love the Church and need it as their home, the image restores hope that not only can sinners be redeemed, but so can the Church, their Ark.
The prisoner and the Anchoress are both liberators of fortresses in this sense. They see an overabundance of hangmen, lords, and princes, and they find ways of correcting the balance.