written by Michael Toy
Note: If you have not seen the movie yet and do not want the 150-year-old story spoiled, be advised I will be discussing plot points from the movie in some detail.
At the beginning of February, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece, “God Goes Missing in Little Women” written by Charlotte Allen. The chief concern of this article is summed up at the start of her piece: “Unfortunately, the latest film leaves out an important theme from the original text: faith.” Allen continues by describing the many allusions to the Christian faith and John Bunyan’s allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress in Louisa May Alcott’s novel and the earlier seven film adaptations, contrasting these themes of Christian faith to Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation. The most recent iteration of this beloved novel has indeed eliminated the fact that Mr. March, the girls’ father was a chaplain in the Union army and a minister upon the war’s end (save for one scene where he officiates a daughter’s wedding). Allen also points out this film leaves out any references to John Bunyan’s classic work. Indeed, most of the invocations of “God” in the film’s dialogue are a half dozen “Thank God” references peppered through the script.
That Gerwig’s film is godless and betrays the faith-based pedagogical work of the original is one interpretation of the work and perhaps even a valid one. However, with all art, there is foreground, background, context, and subtext. Even if Christianity and faith are not explicitly in the foreground, themes of morality, and Christian faith were certainly in the background. We are a long way from 1868 United States when Alcott was writing, and Gerwig’s film engages in a healthy conversation with the source material’s Christian roots.
Perhaps the scene with the most obvious reference to Christianity is a flashback to a Christmas Day. The scene starts with the girls trying to make peace with the fact that they are not receiving any presents that year. As they sit down to a breakfast table set with a Christmas spread, their mother comes in and tells them that their fatherless German immigrant neighbors, the Hummels, have almost nothing to eat. Clearly disappointed but acquiescing to their mother’s request, the daughters pack up their breakfast and their march through snow across town turns into a joyful pilgrimage.
We see the family walk right past the church, where people are filing in to attend a Christmas service. There’s a deliberate contrast between church-attendance and putting faith into practice. The scene paints the same exhortation given in James 1:27 (NRSV), “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The March women are actively living out the pure and undefiled religion of caring for the marginalized, poor, and hungry. In a 21st century context, Gerwig asks through her film, “Where is the church? Where are the Christians? Who is really loving their neighbor?”
This has been a question central to Christian living since Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and it remains a valid question within both the context of the film and in our present 2020 United States. Over the last four years we’ve seen white, evangelical Christians commit unwavering support to President Trump and his policies. And white evangelical Christians are not the only religious group lending support to Trump. According to a Pew Research report, “In most of the 11 surveys conducted by the Center since Trump’s inauguration, between 46% and 55% of white mainline Protestants have approved of the president, including 48% in the January 2019 survey.” The policies of President Trump have torn families apart, weakened the U.S.’s global fight against AIDS, and cut unemployed people’s food stamps. Quite literally these policies have abandoned the sick and the hungry. It’s little wonder why people question the institution of the church when half of Christians in the U.S. support these policies.
Moving beyond federal policies, it is a fair question to ask: Where are the churches and the Christians in my local community? Have we as Christians stepped up to visit, feed, and care for the Hummel’s in our neighborhoods and cities? I see this scene not as a snarky secular critique of Christianity but an honest question and a constructive challenge. Gerwig is not trying to slam-dunk on the church or shout, “Hypocrites!” Instead, she shows what true Chrisitan faith looks like to her, and asks, “Is there more to church-goers than church-going?”
Scripture is full of critiques of religion without praxis. James writes that faith without works is dead. Hosea writes that God wants mercy and justice not sacrifice or ritual. Jesus had very strong words for those he perceived to be performing empty religious rituals without seeking justice for the sick and poor. When that challenging voice comes from outside the church, we should be paying even more attention. Living out the Christian life is not about winning a culture war. It’s not about winning a PR battle. It’s about letting the love of Christ operate through our lives in a way that is so transformative that it becomes a light, shining before all, pointing to the grace and glory of God.
Charlotte Allen asks where the Christian faith is in Little Women. The 2019 Little Women film may not have the explicit references or the pedagogical morality of earlier iterations of the novel, but Greta Gerwig has turned this question to the church – where is the Christian faith and praxis in the church and in Christians? In Matthew 25, Jesus says that at the last day, on the Day of Judgment, God will ask, “Where were you when I was hungry, sick, a stranger, and imprisoned?” Gerwig’s Little Women asks: Are you there now?
Image: Photograph of a Broadway production of Little Women, 1912;The Ridgway Company, New York; photograph by White Studio / Public domain.
Michael Toy, an alumnus of Princeton Theological Seminary, has worked in Christian formation since 2013. He now spends his time writing, blogging, and trying to live out the radical call to love our neighbors.