One consequence of secularization has been the gradual loss of the capacity to think theologically. This form of cultural impoverishment should not be simply identified with a decline of religious faith. To think theologically is to include, in one’s repertoire of understanding, concepts like sin, grace, agape, depravity, and redemption. It also means enlarging the range of one’s moral imagination to consider saints as possible paragons of virtue, and envisioning a world where the horizon of meaning is not bounded by Charles Taylor’s notion of the “immanent frame.” One need not be a theist to think theologically, just as one need not be a historicist to think historically. Think of Camus. Think of George Steiner. Think of a writer like Toni Morrison whose Catholic identity weakened and whose faith increasingly wavered even as her work evinced greater and greater theological depth.
Yet even though many modern “secularized” artists write works saturated in religious imagery, the same cannot be said for secular critics, who have steadily lost their religious sensitivities.
The critical reviews of The Queen’s Gambit illustrate this whole regrettable situation perfectly. The show was the television surprise of 2020. Indeed, within 28 days of its availability during October and November, 62 million people were watching it. Its six episodes soon became Netflix’s most-watched scripted, limited-series ever. Reviews in the major outlets were almost unanimously favorable, making The Queen’s Gambit both a critical and a popular success. This universal acclaim was achieved in spite of the fact that none of the critics I surveyed and doubtless few of the regular viewers seemed to understand the theological significance of the series’ final scene. The Queen’s Gambit was therefore as greatly praised as it was little understood.
None of the critics I surveyed and doubtless few of the regular viewers seemed to understand the theological significance of the series’ final scene.
The series tells the story of Beth Harmon, an orphaned eight-year-old who, over a ten year period, becomes a young woman and a world-class chess player. Along the way, she struggles against both drug addiction and alcoholism. Critical analysis of the series has focused upon these persistent dependencies and their roots in Beth’s childhood, her mother’s mental derangement and suicide, her anxious psycho-sexual development, and her alienation from most of those around her. Much of the dramatic impact of the film does indeed derive from the complex connections between her genius and her destructive dependencies. The critics have not been wrong to consider these matters.
Nor have they been wrong to focus upon a series of flawed relationships between Beth and her best friend Jolene; the couple that adopts her; a young man named Harry Beltik whom she dethrones as the Kentucky chess champion; the rakish but brilliant American chess champion, Benny Watts, whom she also defeats; her one serious romantic interest, D.L. Townes; and most especially with Mr. Shaibel, the janitor in the orphanage who taught her how to play chess. For almost the entire length of the series, all of these relationships prove disappointing, disillusioning, or inadequate. And there is one underlying reason for all of the failures to connect, one that has eluded theologically indifferent critics.
The final significance of Beth’s changing wardrobe has also escaped the critics, even though they do tend to focus upon fashion almost as much as substance abuse, gender issues, and interpersonal difficulties. Here again, the attention to Beth’s apparel is fully warranted, since her increasing sophistication in clothing selection at once charts and advances her maturation into a poised and enormously talented young woman. But Beth’s sequential fashion statements build to the final scene, when the full length white coat and pom-pom-topped white hat show that Beth has become the white queen, a striking fact that only one critic I have read has even noted. None of the critics raise, much less attempt to answer, the question this regal garment asks: “So now what exactly will be this white queen’s gambit?”
The full length white coat and pom-pom-topped white hat show that Beth has become the white queen.
Neither the question, nor the reason for Beth’s unsatisfying personal relationships, nor the ultimate source of her addictions are adequately considered outside of the purely naturalistic frame that the critics remain within, even though the series itself is constantly opening up the perspective heavenward. Beth is constantly gazing upward for guidance, at one point having to rip the veil of the canopy on her four-poster bed to see the visions of a chessboard on the ceiling beyond it. Considered from this transcendent perspective, her relationships with others become sources of redemption rather than estrangement.
At the lowest point of her alcoholism, when it seems likely she will turn away from her chance to compete for the world title in the Soviet Union, her friend Jolene, whom she has not seen in years, shows up on her doorstep. Her old mentor Mr. Shaibel has died, and the two young women set out for the funeral. They also visit the orphanage, and Beth goes into the basement where she and Shaibel once played chess. And then she sees it! A bulletin board festooned with photographs of her from the covers of chess publications and newspapers and national magazines. Shaibel has shared in her life, albeit from a distance, taken immense pride in it, and cherished one photograph especially. When Beth returns to the car, where Jolene is waiting, she carries that photo with her. What she takes is more important than what she sees. The photo shows Beth and Mr. Shaibel together. It is the only photo that is not simply about her. This moment of revelation appears in the TV series but not in the novel.
Immediately after this epiphany, Beth is able to grieve the death of her gruff but loving father figure. She is able to accept Jolene’s comfort and later her financial assistance. After first rejecting Benny Watt’s good advice and counsel, she later gratefully welcomes it. And after spurning Harry Beltik who obviously loved her and sought to befriend her, she comes to embrace his presence in her life as well. In detaching the photo from Mr. Shaibel’s bulletin board and claiming it as her own, she realizes and celebrates the fact that she has been loved. She accepts the fact that she has been accepted.
That notion, that she accepts that she has been accepted, can be found in the most widely quoted work of the great German theologian Paul Tillich. It comes from one of his sermons in a collection entitled The Shaking of the Foundations (1948). In that sermon, Tillich describes a sudden and illuminating moment of grace at the point of deep despair as follows: “Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness [in the murky basement of Beth’s life], and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. … Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you have been accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace.”
Simply accept the fact that you have been accepted! — Paul Tillich
Beth’s problem has been a spiritual one underlying all of her other afflictions—psychological, social, and emotional. She must finally be healed by something outside of herself that comes to her unbidden as a gift, just as Jolene’s return did, just as Beltik’s offer of friendship did, just as many moments of offered love did. But until the moment in the depth of that basement, Beth could not accept these. Once she did, once she took that one photo from the wall, she accepted the fact that she had been accepted, she could welcome the help and love of others, and she realized her need for communal attachment over individual and lonely achievement.
What then was the queen’s gambit at the end of the film? In the world of chess, the queen’s gambit refers to an opening (white plays her queen’s pawn to the fourth square) that leads to a sacrifice of a pawn for the sake of greater gain in the opener’s game. But here, during the last scene, Beth sacrifices her own fame and prestige for the sake of potential communal gain, not for the sake of gain for herself. As she buttons up that white coat, she has just fled from a car taking her to the airport for a flight from Moscow to a special reception at the White House to celebrate her achievement (another scene that is not in the novel). She then walks straight down a long file of people to a public square where an old man is seated alone before a chess board. And she invites him to play. This gambit sacrifices personal glory for the sake of community. Her old mentor Shaibel did not originally invite her to play. She had to invite herself. But here she is the one to invite this simulacrum of Shaibel to play, thereby using chess to build relationships between her and the old man and finally between Russia and the U.S. It required a long spiritual journey to get to that space on the square. And the queen got there by grace.