Movie-ology Part 3 (Community)

I'm a movie guy. I will shamelessly confess I love the escape one finds on the other side of a movie screen. Can you blame me though? In movies we can fly, traverse space, wave wands, save entire worlds from evil forces and buckle swash with the best of them! There's really no feeling like it. As I read Craig Detweiler's Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century I am confronted by the notion that God might be speaking to me, and you as well, through the characters and stories of film, and I have resolved to take a closer look at some of my favorite movies in order to see what elements of God's truth may be thinly veiled beneath their Hollywood exteriors. I will address a particular "theological" theme for each film I review, themes vital to the films discussed but also close to my own heart, and I'd thank you to come along on the ride with me.



Sometimes it is only in retrospect that we can see the nimble work of God's fingers. And the more I look back on the formative years of my Christian walk, the more I see God drawing me closer, with words, with friends, with songs and yes, even movies. In fact, one of the most convincing words God spoke to my unbelieving self was through the vehicle of an old Christmas classic.

I recently got a chance to watch It's a Wonderful Life in a movie theater, which I have only ever done one other time, and the time in question time I slept through just about the whole thing. Yes, while I confidently consider It's a Wonderful Life to be my favorite movie (of all time, forever and ever and ever), we have a precarious past the film and I. My grandmother used to round up all of us chilluns to watch it with her every year, and my sister Marlie ate it up, but for whatever reason my youthful rebellion would not allow me to watch it with everyone else. I was sooooo over it, even before I saw the movie.

Imagine my delight, then, when I finally sat down and gave it a watch. For those of you who haven't seen it, It's a Wonderful Life is an objectively enjoyable film. Its fandom transcends traditional categories (age, race, social class) as it profoundly affects even the most curmudgeonly among us with its sincerity, humor, depth of insight and affirmation of the human condition. It's a Wonderful Life makes one believe it might actually be a wonderful life.

It sure is a rough ride along the way though. Hero George Bailey is a man for others if ever there was one, giving up opportunity after opportunity to pursue his dreams and travel the world in order to tend to his family and preserve his father's old building and loan, staving off economic takeover of the town by old mustache-twirler Henry Potter. After such selflessness seems to be cosmically rewarded with a financial fiasco (orchestrated by Potter's conniving hands), George becomes understandably discouraged, takes it out on his family, laments his own life and considers throwing it all away. Then, though, something miraculous happens. A desperate George prays a desperate prayer to a listening God and God steps in with a quirky, haphazard angel named Clarence Odbody.

When we think of It's a Wonderful Life we often disproportionately focus on the last half hour in which Clarence visits George, forgetting the film spends the bulk of its time portraying George's place in his community. George Bailey is a man whose life touches just about every other in his home town of Bedford Falls, from his wife and mother to the policeman, the taxi driver and the local barkeep. He is engaged in the goings on of his home, loves his neighbors, and sees the potential for beauty in even the city's darkest corners (a cemetery which he helps transform into a thriving neighborhood). George's life promises that we may still affect positive change in the world, just as his nemesis Potter's presence shows how easy, and often lucrative, evil is. We have to feel for George before we care about his existential crisis, and feel we do. George's heart for his neighbors makes him a hero in a world where cold detachment is much easier, as we know is the case for our own day and age.

And God steps in for our hero. God affords George an opportunity I am sure we all envy (at least I do), to see how the world might be were he never born. Unsurprisingly, Bedford Falls is worse for the wear without a hero like George to stand up for the little guy. In fact, it is no longer even Bedford Falls. It is Pottersville. The town's very identity is somehow intertwined with George's destiny.

George is not a perfect man, as evidenced by his near-breakdown in the face of financial scandal, but his excursion with Clarence shows him that, warts and all, he is a force for good in the world and an integral part of his community. This is reinforced when George arrives home to find just about everyone in Bedford Falls gathered to show support and give out of their poverty to ensure he not be overcome by his monetary troubles. Together with one voice Bedford Falls says, "George, you belong here. You mean something to us. You matter."

This, I believe, is what struck such a deep chord in the young Jordan who first witnessed the film's emotional resolution. Even before I knew of God and God's kingdom, I saw a man at home in his community and it brought to the surface a deep longing, one for a world in which every man woman and child fits right into place. I knew when I watched this movie that humans were made for a world better than this one, that our hearts are all pointing toward something greater, but it was not until I heard the Gospel of Christ that it all started to piece together. The Gospel tells us why our hearts point outward and toward what beautiful prize they are pointed.

God's kingdom is a place where humans live in unity, in community, rather than the grey town of isolation in which we often seem to find ourselves. In God's kingdom, neighbor cares for neighbor, parent for child, stranger for stranger. No one is out of place, no one is superfluous; yes, as in a well-functioning machine, no part is extra. The promise of a Gospel community is that I am a part of the plan, that I am not an accident, that I am here for a reason, and that you are too, and he is, and she is, and they are as well. Yes, even them.

When George sees his community gather around him to affirm his existence, we see it through his eyes. We see that we too are agents of positive change in the world if we choose to be. We can, and do, matter. And people notice. Or if they don't, God notices. God sends an angel to a desperate child hoping for validation and a reason to live.

It's a Wonderful Life is a story about life, real life, not the facsimile we settle for when we orient our hopes and dreams around expensive cars and cheap thrills. We were made to love people, and to love God, and to be loved by people and by God. Though I couldn't always form my thoughts in such a way, I always knew this film portrayed something true, something too good not to be true. The material world of the irreligious has always left me cold compared to the warmth of George's hearth, to his world of faith, friendship and family. And this film, without my knowing it, cultivated the soil of my heart in preparation for the planting of Gospel seeds. I have this movie to thank, in part, for my Christian life, which really is a wonderful life if I do say so myself. I belong somewhere, with lovely people who often make me feel like I'm worth something. Life is far from perfect, far from fairy tale, but it is beautiful in its own flawed sort of way, and it's a good feeling.

Dear George,
Remember no man is a failure who has friends.
P. S. Thanks for the wings, Love Clarence

Psalm 55:14 
What good fellowship we once enjoyed
as we walked together to the house of God


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