Prejudice, Positioning, and the Power of "Doubt"

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

If you’re in the mood for a great conversation, I recommend that you gather together some friends and watch the movie “Doubt.” The acting is great, the story compelling, and the writing spot-on. I especially loved it because the characters had so many layers. Just when you think you’ve figured one of them out, circumstances change and he or she does something that surprises you.

Based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by John Patrick Shanley, the story is set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, a time of great change for the Church. The conflict between a charismatic priest—Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman)—and a strict, old-fashioned nun—Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep)—comes to a head when Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn of taking too much interest in a young black student.

There are so many angles we could take in a discussion about this movie. It touches on themes of change, doubt, certainty, faith, community, epistemology, prejudice, and authority. One thing I noticed as Dan and I talked about the movie afterward was how much our personal backgrounds affected how we saw the characters.

For example, I had more sympathy for Sister Aloysius because I felt frustrated by the way she and the other nuns were often sidelined by male authority. I was more open to her intuition-based suspicions than Dan was, probably because my mother has always had good instincts about people and I’ve learned to trust that some people (particularly women) just know when something is wrong. On the other hand, as a skeptic and a progressive, I identified with Father Flynn’s stirring sermon about religious doubt and his desire to see a more progressive attitude adopted in the school. And as an American, I remembered that I should presume someone innocent until proven guilty.

But in the end, I remained more suspicious of Father Flynn than Dan did. I think it’s because Sister Aloysisu reminded me of my mother—not at all in her harshness toward the students—but in her strong sense of intuition and her fierce sense of protection over the children in her care. I often think that, of all my affiliations and allegiances, what shapes my perceptions the most are my impulses as a woman.

How do you think your background/positioning affected your perspective of the movie and its characters? I’m curious to see how positions might differ in considering a mother’s perspective, a man’s perspective, an African American’s perspective, a gay perspective, a Catholic perspective, a teacher's perspective, and so on.

What did you like/dislike about the movie? And even if you haven’t seen the movie—what part of your identity or your story do you think most shapes your impressions of other people?

Doubt writer/director John Patrick Shanley recently said:

We are living in an age of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment and verdict. Discussion has given way to debate. Communication has become a contest of wills. Public talking has become obnoxious and insincere. Why? It’s because deep down under the chatter, we have come to a place where we don’t know anything. But nobody’s willing to say that.

I think he’s on to something, and the movie speaks powerfully to this sentiment.

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