The Theological Challenge of ‘mother!’ | Sojourners

The Theological Challenge of ‘mother!’

For all the ways Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is shocking, it’s perhaps most so in its profound and disturbing exploration of human depravity and Christian theology.

The film tells a simple story of a married couple whose relationship begins to break down as they respond differently to the arrival of guests in their home. The man (Javier Bardem), a successful but somewhat waning poet, and the woman, or mother (Jennifer Lawrence), “rebuilt” their house, live together in isolation. The two seem centered on the man’s goal of creating new, powerful art, and the woman busies herself with domestic duties while he tries (and fails) to produce. One day, a stranger shows up at their door, and the man welcomes him in for the night, providing the framework for the first act of the film. The tension between the couple mounts as the man continues to welcome more and more strangers into their home, repeatedly sacrificing the woman’s needs and desires for theirs. [Warning: Spoilers follow.]

For the majority of the film, mother! appears to be a critique of the subjugation of women in society and marriage. The woman has practically built their house, spending her days refurbishing and renovating it, but the man and his guests consistently disregard and destroy elements of what she calls her “paradise.” She has no sexual agency, and he speaks to her as to a child. In one scene, he leaves her to give interviews to the press when she’s nearing the end of pregnancy.

This portrayal of a selfish and self-absorbed man who leeches off the goodness of the woman is troubling, and takes on deeper meaning as the story progresses. As the man publishes new work and opens their house to a ceaseless flow of people wishing to see Him, he becomes a deific figure to his fans, by now his devoted worshippers. “I am I,” he says to his wife, echoing God’s proclamations in the Old Testament. It's easy to see this as a revelation that the entire film functions as a hypercritical allegory of the Christian story.

It's a troubling one, to say the least. The petulant, narcissistic, selfish, arrogant, negligent, dismissive man seems to make a grim portrait of God. And the crowds of adoring followers mirror the man they worship, spreading violence and destruction as a direct result of their love — or some kind of fervent, frenzied, desire — for Him. They turn the couple’s paradise into a violent wasteland, and destroy it in their pursuit of the poet.

When a visiting couple breaks a treasured crystal in the man's study — a crystal that somehow holds the majesty of the house together — we can see it as the original sin that starts a flood of pain and degradation into the house and the woman. When one visiting brother kills another, we can see Cain and Abel. The house itself is a blueprint of the heavens and the earth, with higher floors being calmer, more serene, and the lower floor’s chaos and violence echoing a descent into hell.

mother! is a disturbing portrait of God that says nothing good about God's followers. Immediately after watching the visitors kill her child, mother hears Him say that these people must be forgiven — that they didn’t mean to do it, that they only want to be close to Him. The Christian theory of redemption is supposedly one of forgiveness and sacrifice, predicated on Christ’s death and resurrection, but the death of this child doesn’t read at all triumphant. From the mother's point of view, the visitors were never supposed to be in the house in the first place — if they hadn’t intruded on her life, they wouldn’t need forgiveness for killing her child.

This seems like a way to establish conflict between a domineering masculinity of God and God’s alternate maternity, all within the framework of God’s interactions with creation. The Christian God has no gender, and while God is often characterized as a father, in Scripture God is also given many maternal qualities. mother! gives us an image of a woman who is constantly subjugated, and allows us to ponder whether the husband or the wife is the better characterization of God.

The implied critique — of God’s failure to act as both mother and father, or ours to treat God as both, is especially poignant, and highlights the depths of theology that are lost when masculinity is pursued at the expense of femininity. Characterizing mother as a colloquial “mother earth’’ makes this even more evident, as the creative and nurturing forces of reality are destroyed with little regard for wholeness and restoration. Mother’s mistreatment, degradation, and subjugation highlight the thematic extent of both the man's and humanity’s dominance: she is the picture of sacrifice without redemption, of giving love while never seeing it bear fruit.

As people of faith, what are we to make of a film that brutally suggests God as a conceited and self-interested overlord? One response could be to celebrate that we do not serve such a God, and reflect on the ways that the Christian understanding of God differs from the character mother! portrays. Luckily for us, God’s love is perfect in its selflessness and mercy, rather than the self-obsession and blind ambition of Bardem’s character. We serve a God who is love, who does not cruelly accept love from others while himself withholding it.

mother! ultimately affirms the fundamental Christian belief that humankind is made in God’s image, and that we emulate our creator in our pursuit of Him. In the film, humankind’s violence and selfishness is what mirrors God. In reality, we believe it is the opposite.