March 11, 2007

Bridge to Terrible Theology

I watched a very touching movie this weekend called Bridge to Terabithia. Having not read the book, and judging strictly by the previews, I expected something entirely different than what the movie turned out to offer. (* Warning, spoilers ahead *) Instead of an adventurous romp in a magical land I got a hail of life's trials and lessons as seen through the eyes of an underprivileged, sensitive, preteen boy.

While my general impression of the movie was favorable, and it rated about a 9.5 on the wife's tearometer, I would say that they tried to pack in too many issues that time did not allow to be fully developed (for example, the relationship with the father). I have few issues with the various important themes explored in the story, but I do have concerns about the brief Christian elements that were included.

Now, I know that the author of the story is purported to be a Christian, and maybe the director of this film did not portray her nuanced message properly in the screen adaptation, so I am going to react only to what I saw presented in this movie. There are primarily two scenes with Christian dialog, other than the one where it is suggested that the boy, Jesse, goes to church only on Easter, and his friend, Leslie, who has never gone to church, asks to go with him on this occasion.

The first scene has Jesse, Leslie, and Jesse's younger sister, Maybell, in the back of a pickup truck riding home after the Easter service. The conversation turns to Jesus' crucifixion. Leslie, the non-Christian, observes that she finds the story of Jesus beautiful while Jesse, who is supposedly a believer, finds it disturbing. This is an interesting comment, which might theoretically be resolved by showing Leslie to be a true and open seeker, while Jesse is apathetic to his own religious tradition. As it stands, though, it looks more like a critique of Christians in general, who are either ignorant of their own faith or are so dogmatically literal about it that they lose the "mythic" beauty of it. Of course, someone like C.S. Lewis would point out that while the Christian story is factual, it still is a tale appreciable in the same way as the best pagan mythology.

The ugly dogmatism was further emphasized when Maybell pointed out that Leslie would go to hell when she died if she didn't believe in the Bible. Jesse is forced to give his uncomfortable and unconvincing assent to this proposition. This is an unfortunately framed presentation of the Gospel message to which Leslie has just lain herself open. Instead of clarifying what this Jesus, whom she finds so interesting, has done for her, Maybell and Jesse have made it appear as though God is qualifying persons for heaven or hell on mere technicalities.

Hell is about dying from your sins, not about failure to believe a story book. While that book may document the cure for your ailment, there is far more to the remedy than simply the documentation of it (notitia, assensus, and fiducia as the Reformers said). Even so, it is the ailment that kills and not the failure to receive the cure. One might just as well say that an African explorer has died from "not taking his quinine" rather than from his malaria. Who would put that on the death certificate?

Of course, these are just nominal Christian children in this story, so one might say that their dialog was fairly realistic. Leslie's response to this, however, was not atypical of what might be heard from any given adult unbeliever. Says she, "I seriously do not think God goes around damning people to hell. He's too busy running all this!" By "this" she means the world, racing by her, which she stretches her arms wide to embrace.

"Too busy?" Does this mean He's too busy to send anyone to heaven too? Whether God does or does not damn people, this is really no objection at all. Even my young son voiced the immediate rebuttal to this idea in that very theater: "God can super-multitask!"

"Too busy!" What a small view so many people have of God. Bertrand Russell believed that God would surely not be interested in our insignificant little corner of the cosmos. Bill Maher believes that it's arrogant to think that God has the time and inclination to listen to your petty, "laundry list" prayers. Rabbi Harold Kushner (of When Bad Things Happen to Good People fame) believes that God would like to help us out but He just doesn't have that kind of power. It is no wonder that people are not compelled by the idea of God. Those who are not pleased with the god whom they have remade in their own images are unimpressed by the petty humanistic god of their own small imaginations.

This conversation ties back later in the movie when Leslie suffers a fatal accident. Jesse is devastated by the news, but more than that, he is concerned for her eternal fate. In a highly emotional scene, he shares his fear with his father who says (to the best of my recollection), "Son, I don’t know much about God’s ways, but I do know this: there is no way God would send that sweet little girl to hell."

Now, the word "sweet" may or may not have actually been said (I can't seem to confirm this), but I think it is at least implied in what Jesse's father was trying to express. And sweet she was; in fact, the whole story hinged upon Leslie's unique character and what it brought to the lives of those around her. Who in that theater would want something so awful for her? Indeed, it was bad enough that God should take her away at all.

But she was not the only child in the story, and many of them were not so sweet at all, including one other (not so) "little girl" who was the bane of Leslie and Jesse's school days. What would Jesse's father have to say about an untimely death of one of these schoolyard bullies? Is it simply being "little" that makes him so sure of Leslie's fate or is it her "sweetness?"

To be honest, Christian theologians are divided over the fate of children. This is because there is not much direct discussion about this kind of thing in Scripture. Consequently, doctrines must be inferred by means of indirect statements and the application of systematic theology. For this reason, those from different theological traditions (e.g., Arminian vs. Calvinist) have come to different conclusions on this, though it is interesting that the same conclusion is often reached from different angles. Many conclude some sort of blanket dispensation for those too young to have yet digested the concepts of sin and responsibility, i.e., before they have begun to personally own their sin-debt. And there are other compelling ideas about this, but this is not where I'd like to take this discussion.

Regardless of the beliefs pertaining to the fate of children who die, none of the Christian responses include the idea that it is simply the "sweet" (good) children who make it to heaven. If good and bad were the keys to one's destiny as a child, then why not also for the adult? If a child can be held accountable for her misdeeds, then surely an adult can as well. The problem is that biblical Christianity is very down on the idea of "earning" your salvation or simply having your goodness outweigh your badness. Even the Roman Catholic Church, which is most accused of teaching a works-based salvation, does not believe that apart from Christ you can win your way into the kingdom. Working your own way to "salvation" or "nirvana" or "higher planes" seems to be the implicit doctrine of every religion except Christianity.

In the Christian model, Christ, and the atonement for the sin you have and will commit, is the essential ingredient. Canvasing over your moral crimes with a generally pleasant demeanor and the occasional good deed does no more for you in God's eyes than it would in a judge's eyes if you were being tried for civil crimes. Just try robbing a bank and then telling the jury (assuming you are caught) that you are an otherwise good parent, spouse, and citizen, then see what that buys you.

The problem with good deeds is that you can really only count an action righteous if the consequence is positive and the motivation is right (among other considerations). But if you're not with the program, so to speak, then it's kind of hard to judge the conformity of any given act. For instance, if you think your job as a parent is to make a happy, trouble-free life for your kids, then you'll treat them differently than if you think culturing wisdom, humility, and virtue is the objective.

And if you're not "with the program," then how can your motivation be anything but deficient? If the point is to do all things for the glory of God and out of love for His moral law, then motivations generally reduce to something that look a lot like self-interest. Even when we believe we are doing charitable acts for others, which may indeed have some positive benefits, one may still question the motive for such deeds. For instance, we may be seeking to win approval from others, be investing in returned favors, earn brownie points with God, or just get an emotional high from doing such things. To repurpose an old Shakespeare quote, "There are more considerations in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are accounted for by your moral philosophy."

And what of this Leslie? Sure she refused (at least initially) to return evil in kind to her nemesis. But at one point she tells Jesse that she is nice simply because it is a unique way to cause aggravation (my paraphrase), not that we ought to "love our enemies" and let God handle the justice part. In fact, she and Jesse did eventually get their revenge, and fairly ruined the life of one bully.

And sure Leslie was a great friend to Jesse at a most difficult time in his life. But it wasn't so much that she helped him to deal with life itself as to lend him an escape from it into the imaginary land of her own making: Terabithia. Leslie may have made life a bit more pleasant for Jesse, but she did not redeem his soul or lead him to the glory of God. Indeed, God was no part of her concern at all beyond her earlier rebuke in the pickup truck.

It wasn't until after Leslie's death that Jesse finally began to show signs of stirring out of his childish slumber. The most touching scene of all was when Jesse finally reformed from viewing his younger sister as an annoying pest trying to intrude on his private adventures in Terabithia with Leslie. Jesse's redemption in this story lay in the beginnings of a departure from the self-absorption and escapism which Leslie only seemed to facilitate.

I admit that another Christian might come away from this movie with wholly different observations — it was a thematically diverse story, after all, and some abstract ideas and rich metaphors might surely be found within it (for example, one might appreciate Leslie's openness to the wonders of life beyond its flat apparent limitations and trials). I only meant to address these particular spiritual ideas contained in the story, as though they were meant to be seriously advanced by the filmmakers.

Some are gratified when Christian themes are sprinkled into a movie, thinking this to make it family-friendly or an opportunity for dialog. I would have preferred they left them entirely out of this story, and was left feeling rather uncomfortable in a theatre filled, most likely, with impressionable children and nominal Christians.



At 3/11/2007 1:32 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

I didn't read the book either, and I, too, was mislead by the commercials. It wasn't at all what I expected, but I absosmurfly loved that movie. I took my daughter to see it, not knowing it was going to be a tragedy. She was most displeased. We both had to run to the car for kleenex when it was over.

At 3/11/2007 2:39 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Yes, I hope I didn't insinuate that the movie was a total loss. I would still recommend it, but it would be nice to first have a warning that it wasn't just your usual idle fanatasy.

BTW, I didn't know you had a daughter.

At 3/11/2007 7:29 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Sounds like an interesting film. I was troubled by your analysis though Paul. Mind you, I haven't seen the film or read the book so I am only looking at your interpretation of the theological aspects. I am as mystified as ever by that whole sin/redemption thing so I shoud not be surprised that I don't really get it.

At 3/12/2007 12:23 PM, Blogger Paul said...


I didn't expect this post to speak to you much. It all sounds like foolishness, I'm sure.

Most people expend a great deal of energy nursing their self-esteem, so the idea that we've actually got a problem is not at all popular. And even where we might concede some shortcomings, we generally judge such things in relation to other people. By comparison to the tabloids and evening news we don't seem so bad; after all, "nobody's perfect."

This is not at all how things were meant to be. We are just so mired in the bog that we think it's natural to be dirty to some extent. But God meant us to be clean. There's just not much to be done for those who are perfectly happy with soiled clothes and who, indeed, love the bog. As they say, the first step to recovery is admitting you've got a problem.

At 3/12/2007 5:44 PM, Blogger DagoodS said...

Could you clarify something for me? I am uncertain as to the basis for this blog entry. Are you saying you are concerned that a Hollywood produced film did not portray Christian doctrine accurately?


At 3/12/2007 7:39 PM, Blogger Paul said...

That's a good question. No, I never expect Hollywood to get it right, but I can at least hope that if they are going to present the Christian side that they do a fair job of it. I'm sure that you would be equally irritated if atheists were shown worshipping Satan and eating babies (extreme example, I know). Since the author is ostensibly Christian I would hope for more either out of the film adaptation or out of the author herself.

That being said, my intention was simply to react to the ideas expressed in the film, and to use it as a touchstone for the discussion of certain misunderstandings about Christianity.

At 3/30/2007 7:25 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, I see you haven't posted for a while. How are you doing? I hope you've not gone "off the boil", as your observations are always interesting. - Regards, John.

At 3/30/2007 8:20 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Business and illness have kept me away. I'm well enough, but I think I've got bronchitis in my right lung. I've also discovered Yahoo Answers and have been dabbling over there.

I'll be posting something shortly, though. I've been slowly chipping away at a post relating to evolution.

Thanks for your concern, John. I often wonder if I should give an update when I go idle for too long. I just figure that occasional posting is my modus operandi, so it's not really worth the trouble.

At 3/31/2007 2:26 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, Bronchitis does not sound good. Hope you fight it off soon. You are right, there is no need to explain going idle. I was merely wondering at the interruption, as you had seemed to be "on a roll". Take care.

At 3/31/2007 7:43 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Paul, this doesn't look good. I had never heard of "yahoo answers" until you mentioned it. I googled it, and now I've wasted 30 minutes of my life. I can see this easily becoming an addiction. I'm going to blame you for it! :-Þ

At 3/31/2007 8:33 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Paul, I want to add a "recent comments" doohickie to my page like you have. How do you do that? I'd also like to add links to other blogs. I'll put you at the top of the list if you'll tell me how.

At 3/31/2007 10:46 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Only 30 minutes? You're a better man than me; I've wasted several lunch hours over there. And my son lives there now.

The attractive thing is that people are actually asking for help, and you can troll for questions that are right up your alley. Then you can just give it your best shot (they only allow one reply per person) and then move on to other things. By contrast, message boards and blogs invite a potentially extended dialog with every post you make. While I value the depth that can achieve on any topic, I've reached a realistic phase in my life where I'm attempting to weigh my time and effectiveness.

More subjectively alluring is the point system and the hope of having your answer being selected as the best. The worst part is that the pace is so furious that the only answers that most people (other than the asker) will ever see are the one's posted very soon after the question is asked. This is because most people appear to only browse for questions that appear near the top of the list, and questions only stay on the first page of a list like religion & spirituality for 20 minutes or less.

At 3/31/2007 11:03 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Sam, regarding your other question, the first step is to get familiar with your blogger "template." You need to pull that up from your Dashboard and look through all the script for the area where it contains the "Previous Posts" and "Archives" -- maybe 2/3 of the way down. That's where you'll put the HTML for your links in as well as the javascript to do the comments.

It would be hard for me to help you further here since I can't post script in a comment. For this reason it would be best if I can email you what you need. Alternately, you could make me coeditor of your blog temporarily and I can put the script directly in.

If you want to send me your email address you could do it this way: First make sure you're logged in to your blogger account. Then post a comment on my blog that includes your email address. Then quickly delete the comment so others won't see it. I'll receive your post as an email, as I do all posts, even though it's been deleted.

If you prefer to do neither of these things, just let me know and I can find a roundabout way to share the info you need through these comments, or maybe a blog post.

At 3/31/2007 12:33 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

I also discovered that there is a life-saving feature on there. When you're a level 1 person like I am, they only let you answer 21 questions in a day. I'm done for the day. I can't stay on there even if I want to. That saves me from wasting the rest of the day away. At least for now while I'm level 1.

At 3/31/2007 3:01 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Oh, dude! You've got a bad case. Don't blow your "best answer" average by throwing pearls to swine.


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