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Monuments Men – Movie Discussion

Stacey Tuttle on February 26, 2014 - 5:18 pm in Books, Christians and culture, Missions, Movie Responses, Movie Reviews 2014

Monuments Men is about the men who risked (even gave) their lives to protect the art and artifacts from cultures around the world that Hitler[1] wanted to destroy.  (To be thorough, he wanted to have it all to himself, but when he knew he was losing, he decided to destroy it all—because, you know, if he couldn’t have it, no one could.)  The mission started out as a “let’s see what we can do” kind of thing, with Frank, the leader of the troop cautioning them to be careful.  As they progressed, however, they began to see just how important the mission really was.  Frank said, “From the beginning I told you no piece of art was worth a man’s life.  The last few months have proven me wrong.  History is not to be stolen or destroyed.”  But why is that?  Why is art worth risking lives?  Why was Hitler so determined to have it all, and then to destroy it all?  Does art really matter?  Believe it or not, these are actually important questions for the Christian as well. 

Without any scenes of concentration camps or slaughtered masses, in the midst of a movie with a caper-heist-like feel , in a story about the holocaust with a surprising lack of horror, it still struck me fresh as I was watching just how unbelievably, deeply, horrifically evil Hitler was.  But why?  Why should the destruction of art seem even more base than the destruction of human lives?  I wrestled with this.  Have I just become callous because I’ve heard it so many times, that this was a fresh, new perspective that reawakened my eyes?  Maybe.  I suspect it’s more than that though. 

I think we instinctively understand that there is something evil about harming something that is defenseless.  So, when a man harms another man, it’s a bad thing.  When a man harms a woman, it seems a worse evil.  When he harms a child, worse still… an infant[2]…  But then, if that same man were to harm a puppy—it’s as if suddenly everyone realizes just how evil he is.  It’s strange, because surely the baby is worth more than the puppy in terms of the value of life, but maybe that’s just the reason why, too.  As unthinkable and wrong as it is to harm a child, that child has value and may pose a threat—if not now, then later.  This is why Pharaoh killed off all the Israelite babies—because they posed a future threat.  It’s evil, but understandable in some twisted way.  To slaughter a puppy though, he poses no future threat—that’s just evil for spite. 

So, when Hitler went after all the art, it had that same impression that he was just being evil for spite.  As James said in the movie, “Hitler really wanted it all.”  And if he couldn’t have it, no one could.  Just to give you some perspective of the magnitude of what he took, the Monuments Men recovered 5,000 church bells, 3 million books, 5 millions pieces of art—and that’s just what I was able to jot down in the movie, there was more that I missed.  (Not to mention, there were large wooden barrels, kegs maybe, filled to the brim with golden nuggets— millions and millions of pieces—from the mouths of the slaughtered.  It wasn’t “art” but it was unforgettable.  He wanted it ALL.)

All that being said, even though art is defenseless, that doesn’t mean it’s powerless.  Hitler went after the art for a multitude of reasons, I believe.  Frank said, “Destroy their achievements and their history, it’s like they never existed.”  I agree.  Hitler wanted to make it like they never existed.  But why?  Part of that was for spite, I have no doubt.  But I think the other reason is that he was afraid.  If a people group has their own culture, artifacts that remind them of who they are, then they have a sense of identity that is their own.  That can be a very powerful thing…a dangerous thing, even, especially if you’re Hitler.

Culture is a powerful thing.  It shapes people, moves people, defines people, motivates people, inspires people—for better or for worse.  One definition says it’s the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought; another, the predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group or organization.  As a verb, it means to cultivate or to grow.  Art captures a people’s culture, their socially transmitted behavior patterns, beliefs, tastes and preferences.  It encapsulates the predominating attitudes and behaviors of a people group, and, as it has encapsulated them, it can also grow, cultivate and shape them.  So culture, and the art of that culture, is a very powerful thing.  It’s no wonder Hitler wanted to destroy it.  It’s also no wonder the Monuments Men deemed it worthy of their lives. 

That’s all great when it has to do with Hitler and this movie, but what does it have to do with Christians?  The reality is that Christians are, and really have always been, in the middle of a culture war—some of which is necessary, some of which is not. 

The necessary part:  God tells us to live lives, set apart and holy[3].  He has prescribed, for us, what our “culture” should be.  We are to live like Christ, generous lives, loving our neighbor and, including, our enemy, lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.  We are told to “rid [ourselves] of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips,” and “not [to] lie to each other”[4].  We are also warned no to “conform any longer to the pattern of this world”[5].  As Christians, we are to create and live in a culture that honors God.  AND YET, we find ourselves living in the midst of a culture that is oftentimes dishonoring to God, contrary to the culture (the way of life) He commanded. 

THIS is why we are in a culture war—because God did not take us out of the world when we became Christians, but sent us to it.  Why?  To sanctify us[6], and that we might sanctify the culture.  We are left here so that we could influence, for the better, the lives and the culture around us.  That means that, like it or not, we ARE in a culture war.   

The unnecessary part:  We are supposed to sanctify the culture, not obliterate it. Unfortunately, throughout all of history, we can see examples where Christians, meaning well, threw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.  There are countless stories of missionaries who came to tribal nations, bringing them the good news of Jesus, but with it, high tea, formal churches ties, jackets and hoop skirts—because Christianity was civilized, and that meant the natives needed to be civilized in fashion and custom, too.  They confused their British culture (or American, or whatever culture they came from) with their Christian culture, and enforced both on the natives, consequently obliterating the good things from the native tribe’s heritage as well.  The natives surely needed to forego cannibalism and witchdoctors, but they didn’t have to embrace high tea along with communion.  Their culture was their heritage, and much of it could have been, should have been redeemed. 

It happens today as well.  Christians see much in the pop culture that is wrong, evil even, and rightly so.  Abortion.  Suicide.  Sexual perversion.  Love of money.  Sexual trafficking.  Gangs.  Drugs.  Abuses, excesses and perversions abound all around us.  Things we are commanded to hate and to be far from.  AND YET, those things are part of the culture, but not all of the culture, and if we are to redeem the culture, we need to dig a little deeper and find out what is motivating the culture.  You see, the culture will also tell you why—especially if you pay attention to the poets, the artists and the musicians. 

Why do people tend toward the excesses?  Why are drugs so alluring?  Why are girls turning to abortion?  What are the lies the culture is feeding them?  What are the needs they are trying to fill?  What is it that people are ultimately searching for?  Answer those questions, and you can start to show them how Jesus answers their questions, eases their pains and fills their needs so much better than all the hollow avenues they are exploring.

When hearts begin to turn away from the perversions, what we have left is the thing itself—and that thing (not the perversion of it) is almost always a thing worth keeping.  There are beautiful things in our culture that make us who we are.  We have a growing and compelling sense of stewardship for the earth.  We love music and creativity and beauty and the supernatural and miraculous.  We also love science and knowledge and learning.  We are thirsty to explore and to know, as well as to be amazed and confounded.  We care for the underdog and the helpless.  We have a sense that life should have a purpose, and a desire to help others, but tempering that sense of duty (which was much stronger, perhaps overly so in previous generations) is a desire to enjoy life—to name a few. 

Christians are caught in a terrific tension—one that requires much discernment.  When we attack the culture as a whole, it’s offensive.  It’s offensive, and it’s wrong.  It’s the old adage, love the sinner; hate the sin. The culture has a lot of sinful elements, to be sure, and we need to hate those as the affront to God and the harm to man that they are.  Beyond that sin though, the culture is a reflection of the people within it and almost certainly has much within it to love and protect—much that can yet be redeemed.  It is so much easier to just embrace or reject it all, as a whole, but that isn’t our calling.  Our calling is a far more difficult one.  Our calling is to sanctify it. 

Honestly, I find that when we do that, when we learn to discern, we earn respect.  People may not agree, but they will respect us.  It’s when we make simplistic sweeping judgments that we become a cultural caricature and laughingstock.  If we embrace it all, we may not offend anyone, but everyone knows we are hypocritical and our “religion” is just lip service.  They know that God is supposed to make a difference in our lives, and change the way we live, and when He doesn’t (our fault, not His), we lose credibility with our culture.  On the flip side, when we just reject it all, we not only lose our impact with those in the world, but we also hurt them.  They know that we haven’t just rejected the “bad” parts of their culture, but all of that, and that feels personal.  We’re rejecting what makes them them, those things that distinguish them and define them and set them apart from other peoples in other places and times.  You’re rejecting the good things about the culture and about the people in that culture, along with the bad.   We must to learn to discern, to distinguish the good from the bad, if we ever hope to redeem.

Questions for Discussion:

  • Did Monuments Men awaken you again, or perhaps even more, to the horror of Hitler?  Why or why not?  
  • Why do you think Hitler wanted to take all the art? 
  • Do you think art has a sort of power?  How so? 
  • When you think of Christians in culture, how do you think they respond to culture?  Do you think they embrace it?  Want to destroy it?  Or something in between?
  • Why do you think Christians might reject culture?  Do you agree or disagree?
  • What parts of the culture do you think Christians, if they are trying to follow Jesus, should reject?
  • What parts of our culture do you think Christians should accept (assuming they are also staying true to what God says in the Bible)?
  • If you are a Christian, how do you strive to redeem / sanctify the culture?  How do you discern between what’s good and bad in the culture?
  • How can parents help their children learn to discern?

I wanted to close with this Psalm of David.  You can hear his desperate war with the culture in his resolve.  His commitment to being set apart and holy is convicting.  How does this challenge you?

Psalm 101 English Standard Version (ESV)

I Will Walk with Integrity

101 I will sing of steadfast love and justice;
    to you, O Lord, I will make music.
I will ponder the way that is blameless.
    Oh when will you come to me?
I will walk with integrity of heart
    within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
    anything that is worthless.
I hate the work of those who fall away;
    it shall not cling to me.
A perverse heart shall be far from me;
    I will know nothing of evil.

Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly
    I will destroy.
Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart
    I will not endure.

I will look with favor on the faithful in the land,
    that they may dwell with me;
he who walks in the way that is blameless
    shall minister to me.

No one who practices deceit
    shall dwell in my house;
no one who utters lies
    shall continue before my eyes.

Morning by morning I will destroy
    all the wicked in the land,
cutting off all the evildoers
    from the city of the Lord.

 



[1] Interesting tidbit – did you know Hitler was a failed art student (according to the movie anyway—I assume it’s true)?  I wonder how much that motivated his war on art.

[2] Don’t you know this is why (or at least part of the reason why) abortion is so heinous, and why they have to argue a baby isn’t a real human, because if he is…their actions are unthinkable.

[3] 1 Peter 1:15-16, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’"

[4] Colossians 3:8-10

[5] Romans 12:1-2, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is, his good, pleasing and perfect will.

 [6] John 17:15-18

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