Joyeux Noel is a corny movie. It tells the story of how, during World War I, German, Scottish and French troops agreed to a truce to celebrate Christmas. Although it is based on real events, the movie is corny because it contains schmaltz that isn’t believable. A German private in the trenches just so happens to be a world class opera singer and his wife (another opera singer) connives her way to the front to sing carols with him. In scene after scene, the soldiers of opposing armies share cigars, play soccer, exchange alcohol, offer one another chocolate. It is too much.
But strip away the schmaltz, and the movie is riffing on stories that are fundamentally and genuinely inspirational. World War I was as horrible as it was absurd. Young men killed and maimed other young men with whom they had more in common than the elites who created the treaties that led to the war. But for brief periods of time, troops literally in the trenches were able to transcend their social context to act on what they fundamentally had in common.
The soldiers’ logic has an undeniable appeal. It is obvious that innocent young men shouldn’t massacre one another. Call it an ideology of love, call it religious radicalism, call it true Christianity. Call it what you want. There are times in which acting on simple and powerful imperatives like love and kindness transcend the disempowering jumble of the status quo. There is ultimately no reason not to use these flashes of idealism as a general imperative for kindness in one’s personal and societal lives. People can and do center their lives around these ideals all the time. This is real stuff we’re talking about.
Which brings us back to Joyeux Noel. The movie tells an incredible story of choosing these idealistic values, and yet the movie comes across as schmaltzy and insincere. It comes across as Hollywood.
The problem of corniness when trying to describe a love-based (or religious) radicalism extends far beyond this movie. In our society, feel-good stories are often portrayed in a Hallmark/Hollywood style. And the purest form of discussing this kind of idealism — religious discourse — loses a wide swath of the population as soon as the words “Christ,” “mercy,” “love” or “God” are mentioned.
Part of problem, it would seem, is that moments of true love and compassion are decontextualized. Life is portrayed as too rosy, too dark or people retreat altogether from ethics. Meanwhile, religious discourse becomes too abstract or too stale. We lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about real choices in our lives.
The true radicalism of choosing love is watered down in different ways. So often art glosses over the facts that acting on love is both incredibly difficult and often fruitless. We need to say in the most direct terms that acts like the Christmas cease fire of World War I are shots in the dark of night, but they are also what we are called to do. They are heroic, tragic and worth living for.
If we were more honest about what spiritual radicalism is, perhaps more people would choose it.