MonthDecember 2012

Little Miss Sunshine

Little miss

They 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 for 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 my favourite movies. The acting is brilliant and the screenplay works on all levels. It’s also funny, poignant, philosophical and redemptive.

The movie is redemptive, but some Christian viewers would find this movie offensive.

That’s an Awful Movie

(SPOILER ALERT)

One of the characters is homosexual, but most Christians would be able to get past this,  The grandfather would be a little more difficult to excuse; he uses heroin and advises his grandson to have sex with as many women as he can.  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.

Some might 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 and declared to be a true bit, then an argument could be made that there aren’t a lot of true bits in this movie and quite a few untrue bits.

I recently wrote a post about using the term “Implication” instead of “Application” when determining our response to Bible stories.  We can interact with any story, including a movie, with the principles of Implication.

Implication

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” or “moral” 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 conveys–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 each family member from the others. 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.

Entwined into Little Miss Sunshine

Which of these dreams do you share?  Everyone has a longing for something. These dreams are consistent with the Biblical idea that we were created for more than what we experience in this life. This is the place where I become entangled in the story, for I am every character in this movie.

Each character is a long way 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 of a previous husband sitting on the entry table in the opening scene shows that Cheryl is divorced.  Her family is far from harmonious. Duane hates everyone, especially his family–he has stopped speaking and will remain silent 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 his boyfriend and reputation. 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 Olive into a stupid beauty contest, but it turned out the quest was the unification of their family around the protection of its most vulnerable.

When I become entwined into this story, I feel the needs and longings of these characters as my own.  I feel the partial meeting of these needs as the family comes together in the crisis.

What’s True in Little Miss Sunshine?

If this way of experiencing narrative truth in a story isn’t good enough for you, there are plenty of “Application” truths here as well.  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 Olive 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 our good.
  13. Life is tragic and beautiful and also pretty funny.
  14. Beauty pageants are stupid.

Share Your Fries

Untitled picture

Over two million people “liked” this picture on Facebook.

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

I felt a rant coming on.  I really wanted to hit Reply.

“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 taxation levels are at the breaking point, I hope I’m in Africa when some actual hardship comes to North America.

I wanted to ask, “Who is this person who is ‘able to work, but refuses to’?” Even if this described EVERY person on government assistance, the number of tax dollars going to these deadbeats would make up a small portion of the tax dollars collected.  The reality is that most of the people on assistance are very willing to work and do.

I wanted to tell a story:

My French Fries: A Parable

Once upon a time, there were three children. They were in the back seat of the car.  They cheered as the driver, their father, turned into the McDonald’s drive-through.  He passed two large fries to each of the older children and told them to share with the youngest child who, he knew, would only eat only a few.

The youngest asked for a fry.  Then asked again.  The pleaded.  Then wailed.

The older child reluctantly surrendered two, the second oldest, only one.  They were very reluctant to share their fries.

The father was angry with the older children.

I’m sure you are angry with them too.

They forgot the fries weren’t theirs.

They forgot behave appropriately given the Grace they received.

You Won the Lottery

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.

All the stuff you have is not because you worked so hard for it.  Although I don’t doubt you worked hard; you have what you have because you were lucky enough to be born here.

Share your fries.

Application or Implication

 

When I was a kid, my Sunday School teachers were always asking us, “What’s the moral of the story?”

I love Larry Norman’s critique of the propensity to seek some moral in every Bible story.  His song, “Moses in the Wilderness” after tracing the exploits of Moses, ends with the ridiculous injunction, “Never borrow money needlessly.”

I’m wondering if this reductive reading of the Bible is embedded in the idea of the “Application.”  This is the part of the sermon when the pastor explains how the Biblical text applies to our lives.

By the way some preachers talk about the application, one might get the impression that this is the most important part of the message, but as a congregant, we usually feel that it will be hard to live out the application.  Not only because Biblical standards of holiness are always out of our reach.

The difficulty may lie in the incongruity between our desire to respond to the text, and the word “application.”  The word suggests a  very modern, non-Biblical approach, and thus, a limited one.

Application

If I do some free association with the word application, I come up with Band-Aids and other things that adhere, like those decals I used to stick onto my model race cars.  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, he does the applying, 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, let alone scripture, for it makes of the Bible a box of Band-Aids.  A metal box filled with varied useful objects that can be extracted by the skilfull hands of a skillful and equipped expert.  I’m thinking of my mother who, with deft and nailed fingers. was able to extract the appropriate Band-Aid from deep in the box.

The idea of application presupposes a gap between subject and object–between me and the Band-Aid, between me and the Bible’s text.  It suggests that there are things in biblical texts that can be pulled out and used.  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.  We use the derogatory word didactic to describe stories that are.

Good stories 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.

Sermon Writing: Stories don't stick to us, they penetrate us and the encounter is implicit and transformative.Click To Tweet

The Good Samaritan

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, 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.

So much for application.

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 as a participant.

The clarity of a sermon's APPLICATION is often achieved through a reduction of the truth to a moral. #SermonApplication #SermonWriting #Application #ImplicationClick To Tweet

I can enter the story of the Good Samaritan at several 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.  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.

A further problem with the term application is that it favours a self-centered 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.

The Implication of the story of The Good Samaritan

But to read the story of the Good Samaritan as a lesson about what I am supposed to do, is to miss the point.  This story is more about what I can’t do, and what Jesus has done.

To read the story of the Good Samaritan as a lesson about what I am supposed to do is to miss the point. This story is more about what I can’t do, and what Jesus has done.Click To Tweet

If the story is about me, then I end up feeling guilty because I am a crappy Good Samaritan.  I’m a priest or a 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.

When you read the story of The Good Samaritan, do you feel guilty or grateful? Click To Tweet

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 implication–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 the Bible’s stories.

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