Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Faith and Film: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

As The Dark Knight Rises slowly recedes from public consciousness, and as I begin to suspect that anyone who might be thinking about reading my (totally awesome) book God on the Streets of Gotham has either bought and/or stolen one by now, it’s about time for this blog to turn its attention to other things—other books, television shows, movies and anything else in the culture that contains a hint of God’s fingerprints.

But admittedly, those fingerprints are easier to see in some places than in others.

About a month ago, I decided to sit down and watch all the 100 films listed by the American Film Institute as history’s “best” (the list was most recently updated in 2007). I’ve seen most of them, but there are a number that I never had a chance to catch, and one of those landed at No. 33 on the list: 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—winner of five Academy Awards, including for Best Picture, Best Actress (Louise Fletcher as the steely Nurse Ratched) and Best Actor—Jack Nicholson at his best as Randle McMurphy.

(By the way, I’m assuming that folks reading this far have already seen Cuckoo’s Nest—and if they haven’t, they should probably stop reading now … don’t want to spoil anything.)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard Nicholson’s McMurphy described as a (perhaps the) prototypical antihero and Nurse Ratched as one of moviedom’s greatest baddies. Indeed, Ratched is No. 5 on AFI’s list of worst villains—a notch below the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz and a notch above Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. Fearsome company.

But after watching the film for the first time, McMurphy and Ratched don’t seem quite as clear cut as they may to other folks.

Oh, sure, Ratched is a bit of a soft-spoken ogre, manipulating and intimidating her patients (many of whom don’t actually need to be there) to the point where they seem to have no free will at all. She’s a bully, bent on retaining control.

And McMurphy is indeed a catalyst for freedom in those oppressive hospital confines. He longs to push these mental patients to embrace their liberty—to become the men they can be, rather than the cattle that Ratched seems to make of them.

But things get a little messy when we look at the film from a spiritual, particularly Christian, point of view.

When you look at Ratched and the way she bullies, her primary cudgel is that of shame. She shames her charges into doing what she thinks they “should” be doing.

Shame has that sort of power over us, too. When we’re shamed and guilty, we feel it—and we feel it deeply. We beat ourselves up over it. We, in many respects, check ourselves in to deep, dank emotional places and lock ourselves away, so we can mourn and wallow in our own failings. We put ourselves at the mercy of our own guilt. And since we’ve fallen short, we feel as though we should punish ourselves, and severely.

McMurphy tells us that we don’t have to be cowed by that shame or guilt. We can escape it. He offers the sort of freedom that the world (without God) can provide--unfettered freedom, unchecked by any rule, any law.

He loves the world’s freedom. We hear he’s been thrown in the clink for assault and convicted of statutory rape—an act he brags about. He encourages his friends in the mental ward to escape and go fishing with him and, later, to partake in a wild, booze-soaked party wherein most everyone passes out and Billy, a young patient in the ward, loses his virginity.

In the movie’s ethos, Billy’s act is almost heroic—a sign that the young man is shaking off his own shame and guilt and becoming a real adult, free from the rules of the likes of Nurse Ratched. He is free.

But then Ratched lays a guilt trip on Billy, invoking the name of his mother: “What would your mother say?” she tells him. Billy, again full of shame and terrified of his mother, commits suicide—slashing his throat with a piece of broken glass.

I think most folks blame Ratched for Billy’s death. We know McMurphy does, flying into a rage and nearly choking the life out of the nurse. But for me it’s not so simple. Yes, Nurse Ratched and the controlling power of shame she represents were at fault. But doesn’t McMurphy bear some guilt himself? He, after all, created the circumstances in which that shame could take root—ushering in two willing women and a truckload of booze into, we must remember, a mental institution … not the best forum to unload gallons of potentially mind-altering wares.

The world alone, it seems, gives us two choices for how to live our lives. We can either A) adhere to the arbitrary rules we make and live in shame when we break them, or B) we can pretend there are no rules at all and potentially destroy ourselves in the process. And despite Chief’s escape in the end, we see how damaging both Nurse Ratched’s and Randle McMurphy’s worldviews can be.

But in God, there seems to be a third way—a way the film never acknowledges.

Jesus really came into the world as a sort of McMurphy character, in a way: He brought a sense of freedom like McMurphy did—freedom from the sin and shame that had plagued mankind for so long. He encouraged us not to worry (Matthew 6:31-34) and not to judge each other (Matthew 7:1-5). He’s definitely not Nurse Ratched’s type of guy.

But here’s the thing: Jesus wasn’t all about freedom for freedom’s sake. “The truth will set you free,” He tells us, and that truth begins and ends with God. And with God being perfect and all, He has some ideas on what we should be doing with our lives—none of which (I’m guessing) include getting hammered and sleeping with (ahem) women of questionable discernment in an insane asylum.

It’s one of Christianity’s grand, puzzling and profound paradoxes. As Christians, we’re held to higher ethical guidelines than Nurse Ratched could ever dream—and yet we live in perfect freedom, too, that makes McMurphy’s version seem cautious by comparison. When we follow Christ, we aren’t good because we have to be: We’re good because we know God wants us to be, and we want to please him.

I don’t know if Nurse Ratched or Randle McMurphy could ever truly understand that paradox. Hey, I’m still puzzling it out. But I believe the paradox to be true.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Messy Faith

I was reading RelevantMagazine yesterday and ran across a Q&A with Mark Ruffalo—you know, the indie film actor turned Hulk in The Avengers. He’s directed this new, gritty, faith-themed film called Sympathy for Delicious (don’t know anything more about it so far than the title, so don’t write me angry letters if it’s a horrible movie—the screenings haven’t made it to Colorado Springs yet), and he had something really interesting to say about faith and film … and why the two sometimes mesh about as well as Dracula and a tanning booth.

He said:

To have a really honest conversation about faith today is taboo in a way. You want to clear a room quickly? Start talking about God. For better or for worse, it’s a taboo conversation. There’s a lot of hangups, and people, I think, have a lot of negative connotations that are attached to it ... We’re in a market- driven culture. I think they’re afraid that there is no market in these kind of stories.

Part of what Ruffalo says goes back to the old cliché … when you’re at a party, never talk politics or religion. You’re bound to make someone mad. Folks who make movies can’t afford to make anyone mad, if they can help it—not if they want to make money—so most stay well clear of the topic.

But there’s something else Ruffalo said that caught my attention: It’s not just having a conversation about faith that’s difficult; it’s about having a “really honest conversation.” Some people are leery of discussing religion and spirituality. But there are others who long to talk about it but can’t quite hack through all the weirdness that’s grown around it. Ruffalo might’ve been talking about some of the standard stuff we Christians—particularly we evangelical Christians—get accused of … how political religion seems to be these days, or how judgmental we can be or whatnot. But when it comes to telling a good story, I think one of the biggest drawbacks isn’t so much how “unattractive” we sometimes can be, but rather the opposite. We try so hard to make our faith look as attractive as possible that we forget to tell them what that faith actually looks like, day by day. We brush over our own doubts and struggles and stick with the good stuff. We tell them that Christianity can change their lives (which it can) without mentioning that, in some ways, it makes it harder. We sell it as a cure-all tonic when it’s more of an exercise plan.

There are a lot of nice Christians out there making nice Christian movies, and I think most of them can be great and wonderful in their own way. But many of them sorta steer clear of the inherent messiness of faith. It’s completely understandable, because that messiness can kinda mess up the story they want to, and feel they should, tell. But it can leave the story just half told.

But God, as perfect as He is, never shies away from the mess. After all, the Bible is a pretty messy book. It’s filled with paradox and tension and conflict and mystery. Someone with a bent for book editing might well look at the thing and rip out verses and chapters and maybe half the Old Testament to make the core story—that of God’s boundless love for us—a bit neater, a bit cleaner. And if we’re really honest, we’d have to admit that we sorta edit the Bible already—plucking the “best” stories to read to our kids, the “best” verses to stitch into our throw pillows.

And there’s nothing really wrong with that: We don’t need to explain to first graders what a “harlot” is and why Sampson wanted to visit one. We don’t need to feel guilty that Leviticus doesn’t resonate with us as much as Romans.

But  sometimes, I think we can forget how inherently messy this walk of faith was from the very beginning—how mysterious and confusing and, ultimately, paradoxically profound it can be. And so we end up not just telling half-told stories, but believing that’s all there is. And when we realize that our own walks of faith don’t feel quite so neat and tidy as we’ve come to believe Christianity is, it can freak us out a little. It can even shake our faith.

I wonder sometimes whether people would find it easier to embrace Christianity if we Christians were a bit more honest about the own messes in our lives—our problems and frustrations and failings. I know that, throughout my own strange, meandering journey to and through Christianity, I’ve always had an easier time trusting “messy” Christians than those who always seem to say and do the right things.

But maybe I’m in the minority. As Ruffalo says, we’re in a market-driven culture. Mess, I imagine, doesn’t sell very well.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

And Now For Something (Almost) Completely Different

For most of my life, I fantasized about what it would look like to write and publish a book. Most of my fantasies wound up with me chatting with Oprah and signing books for throngs of adoring fans and, of course, depositing large royalty checks into my savings accou-- er, my church's collection plate. Which just shows how little I really knew about the world of publishing. 

Also, I had always thought that the hard work came with the writing of the book. Turns out, the real work comes later, when you're trying to publicize the thing. I feel kinda bad for the first media outlets that tried to interview me: All my years as a journalist asking questions didn't prepare me at all for answering them. Witty? Intelligent? Ha! I was lucky to sound halfway coherent. During one interview, I found myself hurriedly thumbing through my book to see what I had said about utility belts. You'd think I'd know.

But I got better (I think) and had more fun as time went on, and while I still have no clue how many people have actually picked up a copy of the book, I know that the whole experience has been quite rewarding so far. I learned how to Skype, for one thing. I was able to write a bit for the Washington Post, or another. I met some really interesting people during my interviews--a few of them fellow writers and pop-culture geeks who sound quite normal and bright during interviews. Hopefully, if I publish another book one day, they'll give me some pointers. 

And while I'm still waiting for "God on the Streets of Gotham" to show up on The New York Times bestseller list, I knew I had "made it" (or, at least, made something) when my daughter-in-law, Christy, showed me a YouTube clip of someone (who goes by the name "Skeletroy") gently lampooning my book. Online mockery! Yay! 

Truth is, it's pretty funny--or at least most of it is. Skeletroy's No. 1 point suggests he might need a Sunday School refresher course, but hey. I'll take what I can get. That said, it might be wise to read the maker's warning before clicking the link:

If you're a very religious person and/or have no sense of humor, please watch something else. If you're offended, blame Paul Asay. If he hadn't written the book "God on the Streets of Gotham", I wouldn't have seen the ad or made this video.