Monday, September 26, 2011

The Story Behind “Of Gods and Men”

If, like me, you have seen “Of Gods and Men,” you may be drawn to The Monks of Tibhirine, a work of nonfiction about the Trappist monks martyred in Algeria in 1996 who were the subject of that film. Perhaps like me, you will find the book informative, inspiring, and frustrating, too.

Informative: For me, there was information here, too much, in fact. I was interested in the long background of France's presence in Algeria and the early life of Christian le Chergé, the abbot of the Trappist monastery at Tibhirine. But by the midpoint of the book I had more information than I wanted about the complex politics of Algeria after the French were forced out in the 1960s, and by the end of the book, I realized that Kiser simply did not know enough about the monks themselves. So to make of their story a book, not an essay, he needed to cram it full of everything else. I skimmed long portions of the second half.

Inspiring: Still, The Monks of Tibhirine inspired me by suggesting that the monks’ martyrdom was even more courageous than its portrayal in the film. “Of Gods and Men” makes little of other Christian martyrs—White Fathers, women religious, and others—killed in the run-up to the monks’ 1996 kidnapping. The book fills these in (some were shot, some had their throats slit) along with the departures of several Christian communities in Algeria who decided to get out when they still could. These historic facts, missing from the film, make the monks of Tibhirine stand even taller in my mind's eye. Yet, ironically, the courage of the monks portrayed in the film is more inspiring still.

This is because the film dramatizes the monks’ decision to stay by repeatedly giving us chapter meetings in which they discuss and vote on whether to leave or not. Kiser’s book tells us that these chapter meetings occurred, but it also suggests that the monks decided early on that they would remain in Algeria. The movie, then, gets closer to the (inner) truth of their plight while effectively misleading the viewer about, or at least stretching the drama of, how readily the monks accepted their fate. They did accept it readily. The movie suggests that not all of them did.

Frustrating: The frustration I experienced reading the book is only that of someone who would like to know, really, what happened to the monks after their capture. More may have been learned about this since the book was written in 2002, although the film, made in 2010, does not clear up the mystery.

I have seen “Of Gods and Men” three times and would see it again. I skimmed large portions of The Monks of Tibhirine, do not regret skimming, and will not read it again. Five stars for the film, three stars for the book, is about right.

A final note: The proofreading of this book by a major New York publishing house, St. Martin’s, is appallingly bad.

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