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Little Miss Sunshine

In Books, Movies and Television on December 25, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Little missThey are the Hoovers because they all pretty much suck.

At the dinner table–the symbol of familial unity–they eat chicken out of a bucket, off of paper plates and drink pop served in McDonald’s collectible glasses. The nutritive value of the meal is equal to the emotional and spiritual value of this communion. A message on the answering machine interrupts the dissonance of conflicting wills. The seven year old Olive has, by default, qualified tor the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. Reluctantly, the family must make the long trip from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California so that Olive can attempt to achieve her dream and become a beauty queen.

There are many reasons that Little Miss Sunshine is one of my favourite movies. The acting is brilliant and the screenplay works on all levels. It’s also funny, poignant, philosophical and redemptive.

This last term has produced shock in some. (SPOILER ALERT) If they’ve seen it, they point out that it includes a character that is homosexual and another that uses of heroine. It has strong language and a t-shirt that declares, “Jesus Was Wrong.” If that’s not enough, a seven year old girl dances, albeit naively, like a stripper. They often ask: “Even if there is something redemptive in this movie, is it worth seeing all the ‘garbage’ just to find that particle of truth?”

I find far more than a particle of truth in this film. Perhaps, part of the problem is that we have different approaches to understanding narrative. If the truth is a piece of a story that can be extracted from the whole and held up to be a true bit, then an argument could be made that there aren’t a lot or true bits in this movie and quite a few untrue bits. (This approach is rather like looking for the moral in a story.)

Implication is a more appropriate approach to narratives of any kind for it maintains the integrity of all elements of the story of which the “idea” is but one. The first definition for term implication in the Oxford English Dictionary is the one I have in mind: “The action of involving, entwining, or entangling; the condition of being involved, entangled, twisted together, intimately connected or combined.”
The truth of a narrative is communicated through the experience it expresses–the experience in which we are entangled. Viewers of Little Miss Sunshine will find themselves entangled in the story.
Every character has a dream, hope or driving motivation. Significantly, these motivations are completely individual and they tend to divide family members. Olive dreams of being beautiful; Richard wants to have success in his career; Duane want nothing more than be free from home and his means of escape is to become a test pilot; Grandpa seeks pleasure in his waning years; Cheryl dreams of a happy family; and Frank seeks recognition and love.

Which of these dreams do you not also, in part, share? If the Bible is right, most (all) people will have a longing for something. These dreams are consistent with the Biblical idea that we were created for more than what we experience in life (Link). This is the place where I become entangled in the story, for I am every character in this movie.

Each character is far from achieving his or her dream. Olive lacks poise and grace, and the sort of beauty that would win a beauty pageant. Richard will never sell his self-help plan because it is mostly empty cliché. The picture or a previous husband sitting on the entry table shows that Cheryl is divorced and her current family is far from harmonious. Duane hates everyone, especially his family–he has stopped speaking and will not until he is in flight school. Grandpa’s hedonism is self-destructive; his heroin use has gotten him thrown out of the nursing home. Frank has attempted suicide because he’s lost everything that he valued. Each character struggles with his or her own limitations as well as external circumstances.

It is very clear that, as individuals, they need something; as a family they need something; they need redemption. This too is consistent with the Biblical view of humanity. People were made to be in communion with each other. They began their journey seeking their own desires and their lives were dissonant and broken. They came together around a quest; they thought the quest was getting her into a stupid beauty contest, but it turned out the quest was the unification of their family around the protection of its most vulnerable.

If you are looking for the nugget of truth in this movie, there are many.

Here is a partial list:

  1. We all dream of being something more than we can possibly be, because we aren’t nearly the creatures we are supposed to be.
  2. We are limited by our sin and the effects of sin in the world.
  3. We do things out of love, but sometimes these things are not all that appropriate (Grandpa taught her the only dance he was familiar with); it’s a good thing that the love in our intentions is powerful enough to eclipse the inadequacy of the results.
  4. To be naïve is not the same as to be innocent.
  5. Even in our brokenness we can be a blessing to others.
  6. Actions are more powerful than words (the scene where Olive brings Duane back into the bus), and that’s why the Incarnation is so incredible.
  7. Human beings were made for community and within community we can transcend our individual weaknesses.
  8. Grace, forgiveness and LOVE are incredibly powerful.
  9. Self-sacrifice is fundamental to the expression of love.
  10. Suffering is important for growth.
  11. The world’s standard for winners and losers is completely wrong.
  12. There is a loving presence at the centre of the universe that orchestrates all things for out good.
  13. Life is tragic and beautiful and also pretty funny.
  14. Beauty pageants are stupid.

Your Money or Grace: You can’t have Both

In Christ and Culture, Rants on December 22, 2012 at 2:45 am

Untitled pictureOver two million people “liked” this picture on Facebook.

Shockingly, the person that “shared” it was a Christian.

I felt a rant coming on.

“Taxed to the ‘breaking point’? Come on!” I desperately wanted to point out that the United States has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. If our taxation levels are at the breaking point, I hope I’m on vacation when some actual hardship comes to North America.

I wanted to ask, “Who is this person who is ‘able to work, but refuses to work’?” Even if this described EVERY person on government assistance it would make up a small portion of the tax dollars collected.

It took a great deal of restraint, but I didn’t reply to this post.

Still, it’s been bugging me for months and then I re-read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Greenleaf.” Here she not only describes the exact sentiment expressed in the Facebook post, but she identifies its cause—one that would be completely eliminated with a basic understanding of the gospel, more specifically, the part about Grace.

Mrs. May, the protagonist of “Greenleaf,” owns a small farm and she believes it functions entirely by her efforts and hers alone. She declares to her city friends, “Everything is against you, the weather is against you and the dirt is against you and the help is against you.” She is blind to the fact that without weather and dirt, there is no farm—these things aren’t adversaries, they are gifts. And so is the help—the help is Mr. Greenleaf.

The narrator tells us that Mrs. May “had set herself up in the dairy business after Mr. Greenleaf had answered her ad.” Mr. Greenleaf‘s arrival precedes the establishment of the farm. Good thing too, because he is the reason her farm is as successful as it is. This is not, at first, apparent because the third-person narrator tells the story from Mrs. May’s perspective and is, therefore, not to be trusted to report things honestly. For instance, when the narrator reports a field had come up in clover instead of rye “because Mr. Greenleaf had used the wrong seeds in the grain drill,” we are receiving Mrs. May’s interpretation of reality. Mr. Greenleaf actually ignored her instructions because he knew better.

Everything Mrs. May has, comes to her through the created world and her good fortune at the arrival of Mr. Greenleaf. But she doesn’t see any of it. She places a high value on her own, relatively insignificant, efforts and a correspondingly low value on the many undeserved blessings she receives.

Mrs. May’s rejection of Grace is shown through various symbols. Among these is the “black wall of trees with a sharp sawtooth edge that held off the indifferent sky.” The sun, a symbol of providential grace, is blocked off from Mrs. May’s property. In one of her dreams, “the sun [was] trying to burn through the tree line and she stopped to watch, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t, that it had to sink the way it always did outside her property.” Her dreams reflect her stance toward God and his gifts.

The Greenleafs, on the other hand, absorb grace in all its forms. The name is suggestive of their familial attitude toward grace, for green leaves soak up the sun and flourish. When Mrs. May takes a trip out to the farm belonging to Mr. Greenleaf’s twin boys, the “the sun was beating down directly” on to the roof of their house. Their milking parlor “was filled with sunlight” and “the metal stanchions gleamed ferociously.” By contrast, from Mrs. May’s window the sun was “just a little brighter than the rest of the sky.”

Mrs. May resented the Greenleaf’s. She means it as criticism when she says, “They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she had struggled to put into the land.” Here we see that she both takes credit for God’s gifts, and she derides the Greenleaf’s for living out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:28, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.”

Once, Mrs. May flippantly says, “I thank God for that.” Mr. Greenleaf sincerely responds, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.” He lives out the Biblical injunction to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:18).

O’Connor’ whole point with Mrs. May is to show that a denial of grace necessarily leads to ingratitude and resentment. Mrs. May’s life is defined by ingratitude, but she is blind to this failing. Ironically, she says to Mr. Greenleaf, “some people learn gratitude too late . . . and some never learn it at all.”

If you live in North America, you’ve won some sort of a lottery. You live in an affluent society where the infrastructure fosters wealth and where opportunities for work and education abound. You enjoy the highest standard of living of any time or any place in history. Even if you are in the lower-middle class, you take for granted luxuries not even dreamed of by the richest rulers of the greatest empires in history.

And you have all this either as an act of divine will or, if you’re not religious, as an accident of birth, but either way, you can take no credit for it. It’s an undeserved gift; it’s grace.

The appropriate response for grace in any form is gratitude and not resentment. When we understand everything we have as a gift, we are far more willing to give it away—and support our government giving it away on our behalf.

Mrs. May was so ungrateful for her undeserved blessings that she poisoned herself and her two sons. She created a false reality where Mr. Greenleaf was a parasite feeding off of her family.

If Mrs. May had Facebook, she certainly would have “liked” the photo. But she had no understanding of grace.

Application or Implication

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on December 2, 2012 at 12:00 am

When I was a kid, my Sunday School teachers were always asking us, “What’s the moral of the story?”  I’m wondering if this reductive reading of the Bible is embedded in the idea of the “Application”: the part at the end of the sermon where the pastor explains how the Biblical text applies to our lives.   I get the sense that this is the most important part of the message, but it feels as if it is the most difficult.  The difficulty may lie in the incongruity between the concept application and what the pastor is trying to do with it, for the word suggests a  very modern approach, and thus, a limited one.

Application

If I do some free association I come up with Band-Aids and other things that adhere, like those decals I used to stick onto my models of racecars.  To apply  means to stick something onto the surface of something else.

It follows then that to apply the lessons of a sermon means to stick its teachings onto me.  The limitations of this word are becoming obvious.   For one thing, the pastor does all the work and the listeners are passive, like a child receiving the Band-Aid.   And, like a Band-Aid, it makes us feel better, but it doesn’t usually stick longer than a day.  We walk away happiest if the bandage is one of those fancy kinds with cartoon characters on them.  We might even show our friends, who will be only temporarily enamored.

This is not a very good way to interact with any story for it makes it an object to be dissected and a resource to use.

The idea of application presupposes a gap between subject and object–between me and the text.  It suggests that there are things in biblical texts that I can extract and use.  These things are almost always ideas, that is, intellectual propositions.  It’s not that stories don’t communicate ideas, but that’s not all they communicate–stories are not primarily intellectual.  Stories that are, are usually boring.

Stories are not just ideas or morals, but experiences.  They don’t stick to our surface, but they penetrate us and the encounter is implicit and transformative.

Let me illustrate this with the story of “The Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37.

A lawyer, in an attempt to test Jesus, asks him what one must do to have eternal life.  Rather than answer directly, Jesus asks him what he thinks the Law says.  The lawyer correctly answers that he must love God and neighbour.

The lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbour?”

If there was a clear intellectual answer to this question, Jesus could have simply told it to him–He could have delivered the application right then and there, but because the answer cannot be reduced to an idea, a story is necessary.

A certain man was set upon by robbers and left seriously injured in a ditch.  A priest and a Levite saw him, but walked past.  A Samaritan, thus hated by the Jews, helped the injured man and arranged for his care and promised to return.

If you were to apply the lessons of this story to your life, you’d likely be convicted to help others in need like the good Samaritan, and not ignore them like the priest and the Levite.  The problem is, I already know I am supposed to do this, and I also know that I will not do it to the extent that the God’s Law requires—and the lawyer knew this too.  So, this application adheres to the surface and will, consequently, fall off during the first bath.

Implication

Rather than application, I would like to suggest the word implication.  It suggests a lot more ambiguity than application, but that’s a good thing since the clarity of application is often achieved through a reduction of the truth to a moral.  Implication is not about how the sermon fits into, or onto, my life; it’s about how I fit into the story.  Implication bridges the gap between subject and object because I enter the story and it enters me–I experience the story.

I can enter this story at a lot of points.  I can enter it as the Samaritan and see that I am inadequate because I’m not enough like him.  But I can also be honest and see myself in the action of the robbers or the priest and Levite who are not so different than the robbers who harm the man through inaction (Where does your coffee come from?).  Let’s be honest, this is most of us.  I can also enter the story as the victim of the evil of others.  In reality, I occupy all these roles in various ways—I am in the story.  Implication is experiential.

Application puts me into the position of subject, therefore it favours a self-centred understanding of the story.  It’s about me and what I am supposed to do; I’ve got to be on the lookout for the people who have been tossed in the metaphorical ditch and do something about it.  But this story is not primarily about what I am supposed to do; it’s more about what I can’t do, and what Jesus has done.

Jesus is like the Samaritan.  He was willing to get into the ditch with the beaten man, and pay his bills and promised to return.  If the story is about me, it ends with my guilt as a crappy Good Samaritan, or as a priest or Levite.  Neither the Lawyer who questioned Jesus, nor I, am capable of meeting the injunction to “love your neighbour” as the Law requires.  The implicit meaning of the story is that I am not able to love my neighbour properly, but because Jesus did, I receive eternal life, as if I did—it’s about him.  When I understand that this story is not just about me and my inadequacy, but Jesus and his adequacy, I am free to love my neighbour out of gratitude because  I have been given the eternal life the Lawyer was asking about, even though I don’t deserve it.

Jesus refuses to give a straight answer to the Lawyer, as to who a neighbour is.   By refusing  to simplify the Truth to an application he points to something far greater–an implicit and transforming truth about God’s grace.

I am not suggesting that every pastor who uses the word “application” at the end of his sermon is leaving his listeners with a simplistic, individualistic idea.  I am just arguing that the word implies a limited understanding of story.  By using the word implication, we have a better tool to experience the transformative power of stories.