Note: I wrote this post for Civil Religion last winter, part of a series on spirituality in films. It came to mind because tonight is the first meeting of our Common Ground group – an intentional effort to share life with some of the families in our church. Shared life is always messy, but for Christians it is not optional. We weren’t born in a private relationship with God. We were born into a big, noisy, complicated family. Thank God.
Life is better with company. A few days ago I went to a matinee showing of “Up in the Air”. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man whose life is as tidy and self-contained as the carry on suitcase he takes with him on his constant business trips. Ryan fires people for a living – a “Termination Facilitator” is how he describes himself – and while he is not harsh or cruel in the approach he takes to his job, he certainly has a low view of human connections. Unfortunately for Ryan, a man who seems genuinely happy in his detachment, things are about to get complicated. His family is making demands on him that he can no longer avoid. The large cut-out picture of his sister and her fiance’ which he is compelled to carry on his travels, poking out of the top of his heretofore perfectly packed bag, is a terrific symbol of the messiness that comes with human relationships. The second entanglement comes after a casual sexual encounter with a fellow traveler named Alex (Vera Farmiga), a woman who never asks for a commitment from Ryan yet steadily wins his heart. The last person who breaks into Ryan’s isolation is a co-worker, a young efficiency expert named Natalie (Anna Kendrick) who is required to travel with Ryan. Natalie is bright, ambitious, and determined to streamline the firing process. But she also turns out to be a believer in true love. Natalie tries, unsuccessfully it seems, to convince Ryan of the merits of marriage and sheepishly admits at one point that she left a job offer in San Fransisco to “follow a boy” to Omaha.
“Up in the Air” is bittersweet, partly because everyone is allowed their humanity. There is a moving montage in which people who have been fired by Ryan explain that it is their friends and families who have comforted them, sustained them and given them a purpose after their job losses. By the end of the movie Ryan’s solitary contentment has been thoroughly undone and he’s come to believe the counsel that he gave his future brother-in-law: “Life is better with company.”
Ryan Bingham is one of a long line of movie characters, usually men, who lead lives that are outwardly successful if inwardly sterile. Two of my other favorite movies of recent years present variations on the type.
Two people isn’t enough. The title of this post was taken from a review of “About a Boy” (2002), though somewhat revised. The original line was “We’re all jerks but we still need each other.” In “About a Boy” Hugh Grant played his stock character; the charming cad. George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham may be detached, but he is an adult; responsible and hardworking. Hugh Grant’s Will, on the other hand, is a man-child, a 38-year-old living off the royalties from a song his father wrote in 1958. He is proud of his irresponsible, self-absorbed lifestyle. Will insists, contra John Donne, that he is an island – “bloody Ibiza”, in fact. As he says at another point in the movie, he is “the star of the Will Show. And the Will Show was not an ensemble drama.” He believes that meaning nothing to anyone else guarantees him a “long, depression-free life.” Marcus, a fatherless boy with an eccentric, depressive mother latches on to Will, seriously misjudging Will’s character. Marcus will not give up on the friendship because he earnestly believes that he needs someone else he can count on. As Marcus explains: “Two people isn’t enough. You need backup. If you’re only two people, and someone drops off the edge, then you’re on your own. Two isn’t a large enough number. You need three at least.” Against the odds, Will grows up into the man that Marcus needs him to be during the course of the film. He is able to see that while his is life full of gadgets and activities, it is devoid of meaning. Marcus grows up, as well, and a small community is formed which includes not only Marcus and Will, but Marcus’s mother and new girlfriend, and Will’s girlfriend and her son. As Marcus says, near the end of the film: “I used to think two was not enough. But now things are great; there are loads of people… I don’t think couples are the future. The way I see it now, we both got back-up now. It’s like that thing Jon Bon Jovi said: ‘No man is an island.'”
We do it for you. I have tried to describe “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007) to a number of people and usually wind up saying, “Just watch it. Trust me.” The premise sounds like a cheap joke – a man falls in love with a sex doll, believing it be real – and yet the movie is as sweet and goodhearted as anything I’ve seen. Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) departs from the self-satisfied loner stereotype by being a man who is not selfishly happy in his isolation. He is a deeply wounded soul, though the people who care about him spend precious little energy trying to diagnose him. They love him as he is, but also want to help him heal. And so, in what is almost a spiritual parable, the small community in which Lars lives rallies around him and, on the advice of the local doctor, joins in Lars’ fantasy that his doll, Bianca, is a real woman. The doctor believes that Lars is working through a deep psychological problem and that he needs to be given time and acceptance. Lars is seriously emotionally stunted, unable even to tolerate human touch, but no one in this movie treats him like a freak. His brother worries that Lars will be mocked, but his sister-in-law paves the way for Lars by meeting with their church council to discuss Bianca. There, after a brief discussion in which one of the church ladies points out that everyone has problems, the pastor ends the discussion on whether they will welcome Bianca into church with the simple question, “What would Jesus do?” Slowly, with the gentle support of those who know him, Lars is able to open himself up to human contact.
Christians believe that in His very being, God is in community. The theological term is “perichoresis” and it means that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are eternally, constantly, intimately in fellowship. As a consequence, human beings created in the image of God are wired for relationship. This is why, even when we see the ease and pleasure of Ryan Bingham’s detached life in “Up in the Air”, we agree with the sentiment that “Life is better with company.” To be wounded in relationship with people (as Ryan will be) is to live a richer life than to be alone and trouble-free. We also believe, as Christians, that it’s only in community that we can really grow up and learn to live compassionately. It’s in relationship that our failings are brought into sharp relief, that we are forced to confront our ugly motives, selfishness, vanity, and more. In “About a Boy”, after starting to grow in his relationship with Marcus, Will says, “Having been Will the Good Guy, I didn’t relish going back to my usual role of Will the Unreliable, Emotionally Stunted (expletive).” He’s no longer content with being a jerk. I read a line from a spiritual writer long ago that said that other people – even difficult people – are the medicine that God gives to cure our souls’ sicknesses. I certainly know that motherhood has operated that way in my life, both bringing to the surface my worst qualities and slowly (very slowly) wearing them away as I cooperate with God’s Spirit.
Even more than “Up in the Air” and “About a Boy”, “Lars and the Real Girl” speaks to the Christian concept of community. Christians believe that we are one family, one body, and that we both suffer and rejoice together. In the church we are called upon to love each other in our weaknesses, to accept each other while trying to be channels for healing. The love that Christian community calls us to is costly, time-consuming, and sometimes laborious. The only time that’s Lars’ sister-in-law, Karin, loses her patience with Lars is when he accuses her – and by extension, the town – of not caring about him.
Lars: You don’t care.
Karin: We don’t care? We do care!
Lars: No you don’t.
Karin: That is just not true! God! Every person in this town bends over backward to make Bianca feel at home. Why do you think she has so many places to go and so much to do? Huh? Huh? Because of you! Because – all these people – love you! We push her wheelchair. We drive her to work. We drive her home. We wash her. We dress her. We get her up, and put her to bed. We carry her. And she is not petite, Lars. Bianca is a big, big girl! None of this is easy – for any of us – but we do it… Oh! We do it for you! So don’t you dare tell me how we don’t care.
That’s as good an example as any of Dostoyevsky’s definition of love as “labor and fortitude”.
There’s one more movie that I’d like to mention, a movie that carries an even more explicit metaphor for the church community (with a few qualifications). In 1932 director Tod Browning followed up “Dracula” by making the movie “Freaks”. The movie received criticism on release but became a cult hit in the 1960s. “Freaks” was released as a horror movie and works on that level. But there is one scene that must resonate with any of us who consider ourselves part of the church.
The story line is simple. A trapeze artist, Cleopatra, seduces and marries a sideshow midget, Hans, after learning that he has a large inheritance. Her intention is to poison him after their wedding. The plot is uncovered and all of the “freaks” exact horrific revenge on Cleopatra and her strongman lover, Hercules. The most powerful scene in the movie, however, is the wedding banquet. The freaks see themselves as a family, a fact that is stated explicitly in the movie. Despite the fact that Cleopatra is “normal”, the freaks offer to initiate her into their family at the wedding reception. This is done through the passing of a loving cup from which they drink, while chanting, “We accept her! One of us! We accept her! One of us! Gooble gobble, gooble gobble! We accept her! We accept her!” Up to this point Cleopatra has been able to hide her contempt for the freaks, but when approached with the cup by Angelo, a dwarf, Cleopatro loses control and screams at them, “Filthy! Slimy! Freaks!”
Who could watch that scene and not be reminded of the passing of a communion cup? More than that, each time I watch it I am reminded of the inclusive embrace of the body of Christ. The One who was despised and rejected welcomes us into his family, but we must be willing to fellowship with those who are broken, humiliated and humiliating, petty, proud – in other words, all who will come. We cannot hold ourselves apart, but must willingly identify with the freaks of the world. “Freaks” puts moral deformity on display (in Cleopatra and Hercules) and reminds us that really, in the eyes of God, none of us are normal.
One of Jesus’ parables is about a king who is planning a banquet. He has sent his servants out to invite the rich and powerful, the beautiful people. But they’ve all sent their excuses. They have other things to do that seem more important to them. In response, the king sends his servants to the streets and alleys of the town to bring in “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame”. The “Banquet at the World’s End”, Jesus suggests, will not be filled with the rich and powerful, but will look more like the wedding banquet in “Freaks”. Are we willing to be initiated into that community?