Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Beyond the Literal

I've found myself falling in love lately with these little independent movies that, on the surface, look "immoral" or shocking or like they glorify all kinds of deplorable behaviors but that actually contain these beautiful and profound morsels of truth. I think it's because they're about these sincere, earnest characters making their way through an immoral, shocking, and deplorable world in search of truth, and beautifully, they find it in the imperfect people around them.

It began with Little Miss Sunshine, a movie that has probably become my favorite movie of all time. If you watch it through purely literal eyes, you might assume that it's a movie about drug addiction or pornography or suicide or dysfunctional families. I argue adamantly that it's not, anymore than The Great Gatsby is about the joy of wealth and grand parties and drunkenness and debauchery.

Rather, it tells the story of a homely, chubby little girl who dreams of becoming Miss America. She begins her journey toward the crown with the Little Miss Sunshine contest, one of those freaky, intense beauty pageants for kids. The pageant, however, doesn't even occur until the very end of the movie, and instead the story focuses on the hysterical family road trip to the pageant with her parents who are on the verge of divorce, her brother who has vowed silence in homage to Nietzsche, her uncle who was just released from the hospital after attempting to take his life, and her drug-addicted, skirt-chasing grandfather. Along the way, it becomes clear that her father, a motivational speaker peddling a "think like a winner and be a winner" philosophy, is the most screwed up of the bunch while her grandfather, the seeming loser in the family mobile, actually knows this little girl, sees her heart, and speaks the greatest truths into her life. The correlation between behavior and value is turned on its head, and in the end, love--true love--is found in the least likely place: a racey dance the grandfather teaches his granddaughter for the talent portion of the competition that appalls the judges but brings the family together in recognition of the truth of who they are. Through the dance and the understanding that comes from it, the spirit of the grandfather lives on in this truly "dysfunctional" family, and I would assert that his spirit is that of the living God, because it is Love.

Then a few weeks ago, we rented Adventureland, the story of a sincere college student with high academic aspirations who is forced to take a summer job at the local amusement park. Once again, all kinds of "unsavory" behavior abounds among the staff of the park, but a few genuine relationships flourish in this surreal caricature of hometown life. In the end, he reconciles with his summer-long crush who left town in shame after hurting him with her infidelity. In one line of an exchange that plumbs the depths of love and life and relationship, he summarizes my entire theology: "I think you see yourself differently than I see you." It was as if God were speaking through him to her--and to anyone else who feels any fear or shame or guilt in the presence of someone they've wounded. He affirms the profound truth that a person is separate from her behavior. Though real pain was inflicted by her actions, she is not identified by her screw-ups because of his love.

And just this last Saturday, we watched Away We Go, an endearing movie about a young couple without much worldly success but with an honest love for each other who find themselves expecting. They embark upon a journey to find "home," making several stops to visit friends and family across North America in an attempt to find a fit. Each scenario illuminates a different kind of family and parenting philosophy, often in an awful, though comical, representation of extremes. Still, all stops reflect real people and real ideas and real motivations and real fears. In the stop they think will become home, they dine with a couple who has created a beautiful, energetic, authentic, creative, come-as-you-are family through adoption. As the couple speaks of what makes a family, they talk of love and patience through the small insanities of family life. After laughing and sharing knowing glances with her husband about the crazy situations they've survived with those simple ingredients, the wife/mother says sincerely, "You have to be so much better than you are."

Yes. Yes, yes, yes. This is the truth of it, isn't it? No matter what, you have to be--desire to be--sooooo good, so much better than you know you actually are. But for the love of your children or whoever else you are blessed to share life with, you try anyway in faith and hope that you can do justice to the beauty of who they are.

In the end, this couple lands somewhere else with a heavy but genuine desire to do right by their baby and with an unwavering commitment to stick with each other through whatever life may bring.

So I love these movies. I see so much of Jesus in them, regardless of--or perhaps because of--the rough surface. (And I would be remiss if I didn't offer the disclaimer that these movies definitely push the boundary of uncomfortable-to-watch to its limits). But this roughness is part of what resonates so deeply: truth found in the mess, good people stuck in the midst of confusion and chaos, real love welling out of the least praise-worthy characters.

Jesus in us. Amen.

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