Between God and the Pious

By Tim Winterstein

If you have never read (or heard of) Olov Hartman’s Holy Masquerade, it’s a book that you should buy and read now. (I like to read it during Lent because it takes place over the Sundays until Easter.)

I thought of Holy Masquerade as I watched The Other Side of Sunday (Søndags engler) (1996, streaming on Amazon Prime), a Norwegian film set in a small village, in the household of the parish (“Lutheran,” I assume) priest. They both take place in Scandinavia and there is in both hypocrisy, pietism, a rigid religiosity, and a pushing back against religious constraints. I think Holy Masquerade is the more profound, simply because it doesn’t offer the same sorts of predictable answers that The Other Side of Sunday does.

This wasn’t my favorite film to watch. And maybe I can’t remember 20 years ago, but this doesn’t feel like 1996 quality. It feels more like it was produced when it was set, which is at the end of the ’50s. And while the overall story is compelling, there were times I was bored. Even so, I’m always interested in cinematic (especially Scandinavian) depictions of churches, pastors, and their families. Also, I have a teenage daughter, which puts the story closer to home.

I always wonder about certain things that pastors do in movies, and whether the strange things are simply cultural differences, or if the filmmaker doesn’t know enough. This feels accurate, though, and it reminds me of aspects of The Hammer of God (another Scandinavian novel about pastors and churches). As a minor issue, I wonder why the pastor is wearing a chasuble when there is no communion. More significantly, the strict Norwegian pietism of these sorts of churches is foreign (in more than one way) to me. It is a strict moralism combined with a pietistic focus on “awakening,” or an experiential conversion, even of those who are, at least outwardly, members of the church.

Maria (the pastor’s daughter) chafes under the leadership of her father, and begins to be influenced by her friendship with Birgit and their friends’ “worldly” jokes and activities. Then, toward the end of the movie, Birgit says she is considering “becoming a Christian,” highlighting the pietistic difference between belonging to the church and actually being an awakened Christian. In turn, Maria—perhaps from guilt—tries to convince Birgit that she’s good enough and believes enough. She doesn’t have to go and kneel and “surrender her life to Jesus.”

I can feel the tension of the pastor’s house, especially when Maria’s mother is in the hospital. The pastor, who is also a father, is forced by his position to work out 1 Timothy 3:4-5: “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” It’s difficult, because everyone is watching, to walk the thin line between keep children submissive with dignity, while not being harsh (Paul, again, in Ephesians 6:4).

How much discipline is good and right, and how much crosses the line into trying to make children behave a certain way because of outside pressure? How does a pastor and father not lay down too heavy a burden, requiring of his children behavior that goes beyond that of a Christian to that of a Christian who is a pastor’s child? Maria senses the challenge when people report to her father that she had been in—God forbid—a cafe, with unbelievers. Her father says they did their “Christian duty” telling him what they saw. Maria, rightly, says “It’s not their Christian duty. It’s gossip!”

Though the story doesn’t really focus on her father, the pressure of being a father, pastor, husband to a sick wife, and public figure seems to be too much for him. The story hints at, but doesn’t explicitly say, that the pastor and the organist (there’s a cliché for you!) are having an affair. And this is the same lady who takes Maria under her wing, and tells her to live her life “proud and stubborn in honesty,” paraphrasing a hymn. But in the hymn, being proud and stubborn are the marks of the unbeliever.

Both she and Maria feel the pressure of the dour religious hypocrisy around them, much as Klara does in Holy Masquerade. But while Klara explores it, and ultimately (I believe) finds the truth, Maria and Mrs. Tunheim reject it all as false. But I don’t get the impression that Maria’s father doesn’t believe what he preaches. He is certainly a moral hypocrite, but not an unbelieving one.

The Other Side of Sunday does show how damaging an unbending—and, finally, unforgiving—moralism can be. Not only do people reject the entirety of Christianity, thinking that there is nothing beyond the morality and man-made rules, but they can also put up moral facades, in order not to be exposed as sinners.

This is, I think, the challenge for congregations. Certainly, the law of God cannot be rejected, even less because we simply don’t like it. But because it’s so easy to substitute human rules for the divine law, it is dangerous not to distinguish between them. At the same time, we dare not give the impression that Christianity is about keeping the law. That ends in only three outcomes: a hypocritical Pharisaism, despair under the weight of an impossible and unending task, or the pretense that freedom will come when you reject religion altogether.

It is far more difficult to preach the unbending law of God in all its force, while preaching the unconditional Gospel of Christ in all its sweetness and comfort. That requires applying the law to unbelief and sin and applying the pure forgiveness of Jesus to those who are broken by their sin under the law. It’s relatively easy to fall into either ditch: a moralism that places human conditions on salvation and forgiveness (don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t wear makeup, and then you’ll be holy and a “real” Christian); or a gutted “gospel” that makes acceptance and “being yourself,” rather than Christ, the savior.

But there’s another lesson here as well, and that is that perception is not always reality. Maria’s teenage judgmentalism appears to be lauded in the final scene of the film. But anyone who’s ever been a teenager (and has grown out of it!) should know that not enough living has been done to come to real conclusions about things.

Besides that, it’s not only the children of harsh disciplinarians who leave the faith. It is just as likely (more?) that the child of an apathetic, lazy pastor or parent (or those who are both) will find that the faith simply doesn’t matter enough to continue in it. Whether the wrong thing (pietistic moralism) or nothing much (just be happy and be a good person) is emphasized, there is an equal chance of rejection.

It is a fearful thing to be both a pastor and a father.

Further—and here’s something pietism gets right—just because someone is a member of an outward congregation, that doesn’t make them a believer, and it certainly doesn’t make them any more holy than anyone else. So expectations matter upon entering a congregation. If one expects to find holiness, but instead finds hidden sin, that affects perception. And the seemingly intractable idea that people who join churches do so because they have their lives in order and everything is—or soon will be—great and wonderful should be destroyed root and branch.

Hence, another fine line: Christ has died and risen for those who can’t fix their lives or themselves. But will the Holy Spirit have any effect on the person’s actions? Will good works increase? Will the believer struggle against sin? (See Luther in the Large Catechism on the effects of Holy Baptism.) Neither of those can be the basis for anyone else’s judgment of that person, but the Holy Spirit’s action is in two directions: He drives the person to Christ even as He drives a wedge between the person and his or her sin.

So while I find the ending of The Other Side of Sunday distasteful, the movie does highlight the struggles, mistakes, and misunderstandings of pastors, fathers, children, and Christians.