Fleeing Judgment (and Grace)

Yes, God, Yes Is Hilarious, But its Answers Are No Laughing Matter.

Guest Contributor / 5.26.21

This post comes to us from Cole Hartin:

The Netflix film Yes, God, Yes released in Canada several weeks ago. So, on a dark, cold Friday night, after my wife and I had tucked our three sons into bed, we decided to give it a shot. For those of us born in the ’80s or early ’90s, seeing Natalia Dyer on screen is enough to conjure up our favorite nostalgic moments from Stranger Things. And the film plays to the same coming-of-age themes as the fantasy series, only this time, the narrative follows a teenager in the early 2000s.

Yes, God, Yes is a film about sex (at times impudently so), but it’s more a film about judgment without grace. The premise of the film is that Alice, played by Dyer, is a junior student at a Catholic high school and struggles to fit in at this deeply religious school. Seeking a way to bring some integration between her faith and erotic desire, Alice enrolls on a school-sponsored retreat that is filled with both promiscuity and its repression. The retreat is something of a disaster, leaving her more disillusioned than before. Like the far more compelling Lady BirdYes, God, Yes sets out to traverse the murky waters of adolescence for those coming of age within a religious tradition that calls for a reordering of one’s desires.

Yes, God, Yes does get the atmosphere right, and this is an endearing bright spot of the film. The vibe of the late ’90s and early 2000s is on the mark, with the thrill of brick cellphones and AOL chatrooms. And while the film zeroes in on Roman Catholic youth culture, it’s not far off from its broader Christian counterparts. Think WWJD bracelets, acne, cafeterias, and testimony time, all mashed together with religious language. It was a wild time.

The Catholic Church takes a firm line on ethical matters, but Yes, God, Yes makes the way even narrower, and eschews any vestiges of grace. For example, while teaching a high school class, chaplain Fr. Murphy (played by Timothy Simons) makes it clear that the students who are not willing to practice abstinence will face eternal torment. He does not mention forgiveness at all. This, and other mischaracterizations, raise unanswerable questions about the filmmakers. Was writer and director Karen Marine raised under a skewed, fundamentalist form of Catholicism, or is the depiction deliberately skew? Or more charitably, perhaps she is simply bearing witness to Catholicism as she experienced it, including the sensations of guilt, fear, and shame that came through despite whatever was “officially” conveyed. In any case, I suspect Marine has exaggerated whatever is autobiographical here for theatrical effect.

The film ends when Alice, after fleeing the Christian retreat, walks into a bar and guzzles a wine cooler. Gina, the matronly own of the Bar, picks up on her despair. Alice confides to her about the hypocrisy of her religious mentors and peers and her struggles with the Church’s teachings. Gina sympathizes and confesses to Alice that she too grew up Catholic and lived in constant fear of going to hell. This prompts Alice to admit some of her own fears of torment in the afterlife, and Gina finally responds, “The truth is, nobody knows what they are doing anymore than the rest of us. We’re all just trying to figure out our shit.”

Gina takes the time to listen to Alice and sympathizes with her plight, but this ends with her telling Alice life is essentially meaningless: nobody knows anything about the purpose of life, so we might as well muddle through. Hearing this, Alice’s face morphs into a grin, and it appears much of the weight she has been feeling has been lifted from her shoulders.

But there is no real grace in this moment, only an offer of epistemological and moral relativism. Alice does not receive guidance, and she does not receive forgiveness, because she is told that all of that religious stuff she is concerned about isn’t real (probably). An offer of grace would have made the story more compelling. Grace is precisely what is lacking in depictions of religious life throughout the film. Instead, we see a puritanical caricature of works-righteousness, where students only find a transactional exchange of sin for penance.

Yes, God, Yes may provide some relief for those parched by graceless religion and an unforgiving God, but it won’t offer absolution. And it is a vital reminder for Christians that the wedge we tend to drive between doctrine and practice might not be all that intelligible to those who have been burned by the Church. It’s likely, on this front, that writer and director Karen Marine is bearing her own kind of testimony, not to the salutary effects of religious life, but to its toxic by-products. And in this sense, she isn’t too far afield, for however compelling and coherent a church’s teaching might seem, the charge of hypocrisy on this front is damaging precisely because it’s true.

Marine’s testimony is not that Christianity is false because it’s corrupt, but its corruption is intolerable precisely because her experience of Christianity has been one that allowed for so little grace. Though Gina’s agnosticism doesn’t offer much of substance, at least it’s honest. This honesty, however mundane, is probably better than religious sloganeering and unutterable shame.

And yet, the optimism of the movie’s end feels almost cruelly premature. Hell might be erased, but guilt, anxieties, and despair remain. Alice might have eased one of her burdens, but the burdens of life’s unending demands still await her. And without the lifeline of Christianity’s salutary consolations — the grace and hope she never heard —  the relief she’s found may prove to be short-lived.