FINDING THE FAITH OF DESMOND DOSS
conscience protections has been a central tension in American public life—from the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision to bathrooms in North Carolina to faithbased colleges in California. All sides of the issue are asking, “What is the way forward when individual rights or national interests conflict with the consciences of religious individuals or groups?” This is a question explored in Hacksaw Ridge, and its implications for contemporary American politics are more significant than the ostensibly feel-good film lets on. Gibson admits that these tensions create a “puzzle.” There are immense complexities inherent in protecting individual citizens’ faith convictions when they impinge upon the flourishing of others, as in a soldier whose refusal to kill might be a wartime liability to the soldiers fighting beside him. In the case of Doss, the puzzle was solved by the humility and sacrifice of a man who showed how heroism can look different and still be heroic. “He earned the admiration of all those around him, even guys who were agnostic,” Gibson says. “It didn’t matter. They understood that what he was doing was an immense act of love, and greater love has no one than to give his life for his brothers. This guy did that again and again. I think that’s an inspiring story even if you’re looking at it from a very secular perspective.”
How do you live up to the faith of someone like Desmond Doss? For Gibson, it’s clear that Doss (in his own words, an exemplar of John 15:13) is a high bar, a Christological aspiration for everyone. Gibson’s Roman Catholicism surely informs this approach. For broken men there must always be models, saints to whom we must look for inspiration in our struggles with sin and pathways to redemption. For Garfield, who describes his personal faith as “free to roam,” Doss’ Christianity is inspired not in its doctrinal specificity but in its humility. “He gave all of the credit for his actions not to himself but to God,” Garfield says. “He never claimed to be a hero; he never set out to be a hero, but he called those men who didn’t make it home alive the real heroes. He’s such a truly, sincerely humble man who just wanted to be himself and do his duty as he saw it.” Though Garfield was not raised in a religious home, he says he is “very interested in what it is to live a very spiritual life.” He says he’s fascinated by the role faith plays in the lives of history’s most significant change-makers. “It does seem like the great figures, the great activists, the great men and women in history had a spiritual component to their lives that enabled them to do these superhuman things,” says Garfield, who was moved by Doss’ “intrinsic” reliance upon and worship of something other than and greater than himself. “This idea of not being able to do these things without help, without some help from something greater than yourself and without the longing to serve something greater than yourself ... that’s really a beautiful thing to explore,” he says. Growing up without faith, Garfield felt that “there was always something lacking” in his life and believes that faith helps channel our worship toward something beyond ourselves or our pleasures.
“As we know if we don’t worship something healthy we’ll end up worshipping, more often than not, something rather unhealthy,” he says. “Look at our consumer culture. Look at our celebrity culture. You name it. We worship the wrong thing; or if not the wrong thing, something that doesn’t actually feed us in a deep way.” Garfield spent significant time exploring the “deep feeding” of the Christian tradition in recent years as he prepared for not one but two starring roles as men of Christian faith. In Hacksaw Ridge he plays a devout Seventh-Day Adventist and in Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Silence he plays Jesuit missionary Father Rodrigues, facing persecution in 17th century Japan. To prepare for both roles, Garfield spent a year studying with a Jesuit priest in New York City, Father James Martin. He immersed himself in the writings of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, listening to a lot of Merton books on tape. “I connected with [Merton] so much because he seems to be always on the knife edge between faith and doubt,” Garfield says. “He seems to understand that the opposite of doubt isn’t certainty, that living with doubt is just as much a part of living with faith as faith itself.” Both Doss in Hacksaw Ridge and Rodrigues in Silence deal with doubt as their faith is put to the test, both struggling to not abandon convictions in the midst of enormous pressure. For Garfield, the commonality in these characters is the complexity of faith. It’s a journey, a dance of doubt and certainty, weakness and strength, struggle and hope. Even with his apparently unflappable convictions, Hacksaw’s Doss is still just a man living on faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Ultimately Doss, like any man who sticks to a minority conviction because there’s something more important than his own popularity, is betting on a truth that he won’t know and can’t know is true “until the end,” Garfield says. “I think there’s something exquisitely, painfully beautiful about this—the attempt to live in accordance with something greater than ourselves, some greater ideal." BRET T MCCR ACKEN is a writer and editor who lives in L.A. His books are Hipster Christianity and Gray Matters.
10/6/16 10:41 AM
Published on Oct 26, 2016