Picturing Discipleship at The Moulin Rouge

Embodied Desires

A common “churchy” response to this cultural situation runs along basically Platonic lines: to quell the raging passion of sexuality that courses its way through culture, our bodies and passions need to be disciplined by our “higher” parts—we need to get the brain to trump other organs and thus bring the passions into submission to the intellect. And the way to do this is to get ideas to trump passions. In other words, the church responds to the overwhelming cultural activation and formation of desire by trying to fill our head with ideas and beliefs.

I suggest that, on one level, Victoria’s Secret is right just where the church has been wrong. More specifically, I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry—which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination—is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church. In other words, I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied, desiring creatures whose being-in-the-world is governed by the imagination. Marketers have figured out the way to our heart because they “get it”: they rightly understand that, at root, we are erotic creatures—creatures who are oriented primarily by love and passion and desire. In sum, I think Victoria is in on Augustine’s secret. But meanwhile, the church has been duped by modernity and has bought into a kind of Cartesian model of the human person, wrongly assuming that the heady realm of ideas and beliefs is the core of our being. These are certainly part of being human, but I think they come second to embodied desire. And because of this, the church has been trying to counter the consumer formation of the heart by focusing on the head and missing the target: it's as if the church is pouring water to put out a fire in our heart.

What if we approached this differently? What if we didn’t see passion and desire as such as the problem, but rather sought to redirect it? What if we honored what the marketing industry has got right—that we are creatures primarily of love and desire— and then responded in kind with counter-measures that focus on our passions, not primarily on our thoughts or beliefs? What if the church began with an affirmation of our passional nature and then sought to redirect it?

A Romantic Theology

The result would be what Inklings member Charles Williams called a “romantic theology.” Developed in a number of (unfortunately) forgotten little books, Williams’s argument is that the human experience of romantic love and sexual desire is itself a testimony to the desire for God. Williams would put it even more strongly: the person who experiences romantic love has experienced something of the God who is love. Treading a path opened by Dante’s meditations on Beatrice, Williams suggests that romantic love “renews nature, if only for a moment; it flashes for a moment into the lover the life he was meant to possess.” Love, says Williams, is a testament to the in-breaking or emergence of the divine in human experience, and thus to be affirmed as an expression of our deepest erotic passion, the desire for God:

Any occupation exercising itself with passion, with self-oblivion, with devotion, towards an end other than itself, is a gateway to divine things. If a lover contemplating in rapture the face of his lady, or a girl listening in joy to the call of the beloved, are worshippers in the hidden temples of our Lord, is not also the spectator who contemplates in rapture a batsman’s stroke or the collector gazing with veneration at a unique example of [a stamp]?

As we’ll see later hinted in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, the erotic—even misdirected eros—is a sign of the kinds of animals we are: creatures who desire God. As Augustine famously put it, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This is not a matter of intellect; Augustine doesn’t focus on the fact that we don’t “know” God. The problem here isn’t ignorance or skepticism. At issue is a kind of in-the-bones angst and restlessness that finds its resolution in “rest”—when our precognitive desire settles, finally, on its proper end (the end for which it was made), rather than being constantly frustrated by objects of desire that don’t return our love (idols). But this means that even desire wrongly “aimed” is still a testament to our nature as desiring animals. Operative behind Williams’s “romantic theology” is a picture of the human person that appreciates affectivity and desire as the “heart” of the person.

An Augustinian Anthropology of Desire

An Augustinian anthropology of desire primes us to adopt just such a romantic theology. And this entails, I think, an interesting implication for how we’ll think about learning and discipleship. I have in mind The Moulin Rouge—a film set in that den of iniquity, Montmartre, at the turn of the twentieth century, during the fervor of the Bohemian revolution. A starving artist named “Christian” has rejected the “respectable” and bourgeois lifestyle of his father (as a clerk or salesman) and instead sought to pursue a life devoted to literature and drama, all in the pursuit of beauty. He rejects the nine-to- five machinations of “normal” people, refuses to be reduced to a middle-class producer and consumer, and instead takes up residence with the colony of artists clustered in Montmartre—infamous home to burlesque shows and the red-light district, but also home to painters and artists like Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and van Gogh—all taking place under the watchful eye of the Basilica Sacré-Coeur perched atop the hill. Thus Montmartre represents a certain mix of the sacred and the profane—both of which seem to be at odds with the bourgeois life of production and consumption that the young artist, Christian, has rejected. The proximity to Sacré-Coeur almost invites us to look for parallels and comparisons between the bohemian artists and the mendicant friars, the decadent painters and the celibate priests, both of whom reject a life of moneymaking for the sake of very different visions of the kingdom, of the good life. But if both the bohemian and the friar desire a kingdom that rejects the pursuit of comfort and wealth, could it be that there are some covert similarities between their visions of the kingdom? Does the Moulin Rouge already point up the hill toward the Basilica? What, at the end of the day, is Christian after?

Above all, Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge is a “spectacular” love story revolving around the play within the play—a production of another love story, “Spectacular, Spectacular.” It is desire that brings the young man to art, to commit himself to the voluntary poverty of a bohemian literary existence. And it is in pursuit of this desire that another desire flames: his passion for Satine, a courtesan who reigns at the Moulin Rouge. Oddly, Satine herself represents the moneymaker, concerned primarily with acquisition, as attested in her hymn, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” (Indeed, her profession represents the very commodification of love.) Thus she resists his advances; above all she rejects his bohemian ideal, his naive commitment to love (played out in the “Elephant Love Medley”). But love wins. Christian’s evangelistic commitment to love captures the heart of Satine, and the effect is transformative: rejecting a lucrative offer from the duke, she too becomes a bohemian, and the desire for acquisition gives way to a passion for love and beauty. Love even has a kind of epistemological or perceptual effect, as indicated in their anthem, “Come What May”: “Never knew I could feel like this, like I’ve never seen the sky before.” The world is “seen” differently because of love. By the end of the film we learn that all of this has constituted a kind of education: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”

On the one hand, this seems to be the very antithesis of the kingdom of God: a realm of prostitutes and addicted artists given over to wanton pleasure-seeking. This criticism is embodied in the figure of Christian’s bourgeois father, who berates the bohemian culture for its sinfulness, which seems to be most linked to its failure to be “productive.” But to “the children of the revolution” (try to hear Bono crooning the song from the sound track), our highest calling is not to simply be producers. Instead, they are committed to the bohemian ideals of “beauty, freedom, truth, and above all, love.” And the spectacle of the film is ripe for analysis in terms of Williams’s theology of romantic love—a love that is revelatory, that breaks open the world (“Never knew I could feel like this, like I never saw the sky before . . .”). Christians will tend to say, “Ah, but that’s not love—that’s eros, not agapē!” But a romantic theology refuses the distinction because it recognizes that we are erotic creatures—that agapē is rightly ordered eros. And so one could suggest that the kingdom looks more like Montmartre than Colorado Springs! The kingdom might look more like the passionate world of the Moulin Rouge than the staid, buttoned-down, talking-head world of the 700 Club. The end of learning is love; the path of discipleship is romantic.

James K. A. Smith (PhD, Villanova University) is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he also holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the editor of Comment magazine. Smith has authored or edited many books, including Imagining the Kingdom and the Christianity Today Book Award winners Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? and Desiring the Kingdom. He is also editor of the well-received The Church and Postmodern Culture series (www.churchandpomo.org).

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2009. Used by permission. http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com