I am a theologian.
So are you.
There may be a world of differences between us. Or perhaps the only difference is that I know that I am a theologian, and you may not yet know that you are one.
Nobody can avoid being a theologian. Regardless of what God you believe in – or don’t believe in – we all are making implicit or explicity decisions about our beliefs which govern our actions, our thoughts, our choices, our goals – everything about our lives. It isn’t possible to not be a theologian. Even if you never think about God, you are a theologian. Even if you’re an atheist, you’re a theologian. Even if you’re a pagan, a Wiccan, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Zoroastrian – makes no difference. You have some way of dealing with or ignoring or acknowledging or ignoring or worshipping or denigrating your god. Or lack thereof.
Everyone is a theologian. The only issue is whether or not you’re putting any effort into it, or coasting by. Are you going to develop your thoughts and understandings and beliefs in the theological realm, or refuse to do so? Are you neat or sloppy? Detailed or vague? Consistent or inconsistent?
I would argue that this is the single biggest issue in your life, because it guides literally *everything* else you do, say, or think. Whether you know it or not. Whether you like it or not. Whether you feel equipped for this or not.
I hope you’ll stick around and keep reading here. And posting your own thoughts and responses. Two theologians trying to make sense of the universe and our place in it. Welcome.
Archive for February, 2008
I am a theologian.
I picked up Martian Child without having heard anything about it. John Cusack is enough for me to pick a movie up and give it a try though. While he’s not 100% in the movies he chooses, I always enjoy his personal screen presence.
Overall, Martian Child strikes me as a good story that has a lot more to say than it has time or space or even words and story to fill. There are so many tangents to be explored further, that are simply introduced briefly and never followed up on. The story of a socially isolated child who thinks he’s a Martian being adopted by a widower sci-fi author provide a plethora of opportunities for interplay – far more than a single movie can adequately explore.
But the biggest problem with this movie is not the acting or the plot or the multiple dead-end story lines. The problem for me is once again with the explicit and implicity philosophy of the movie. Throughout the movie, the characters are constantly struggling to deal with and accept the impermanence of life here, the fallibility of people, their own inabilities to deal with the things that life brings them. And yet the best the movie can do at the end, is to blithely ignore all of these realities with pledges of never-ever-ever-ever ending love and presence. The movie so desperately wants to be uplifting, but has nothing with which to uplift itself, or us.
Cusack’s character is a widower. He loves his wife deeply still. Is grieving still. Here’s a man who knows all too well that we cannot control our fate. Here’s a man who should know better than anyone that despite all of our limited human intentions, we aren’t in control here. He seeks to adopt a troubled 7-year old who is dealing with abandonment issues. The motif of being from different planets is explicit throughout the film.
Cusack & Dennis deal with death and loss together in the form of Cusack’s dog. But they don’t really deal with it. As the father of an almost 6-year old, I know that when our dog dies (which is likely, ironically, to be literally any day now), it will be an opportunity for me to talk with my son, and my three year old daughter, about death. About the fact that people and animals don’t live forever, and sometime, we’ll have to say goodbye.
Of course, that discussion will happen within the assurance and joy of knowing that this is not the end. That we look forward to an eternity with a loving God who created each one of us and gave us to each other to love and cherish and support and encourage. So that when our dog – or I, or anyone else – dies, we can be sad because we’ll miss them. But we can also be very happy, knowing that because of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, we have hope for eternal happiness with those we live, and primarily with the God who loved us enough to create us in the first place.
None of that in this movie, though. Loved ones are likened to stars that we can talk to. Distant. Impersonal. Cold. Lonely. The movie had a great opportunity to deal with the reality of death and loss and to force the characters to each confront their own personal losses while further forging their bond together. But it skips out on that entirely. There’s nothing for it but to struggle on valiantly, deeply wounded, aching, yet still supposed to ignore that pain and blithely look forward to a life without these things somehow.
And so, by the climactic end of the film, the best that the film can give us is the promise that despite death and the total lack of predictability and control in our lives, we can promise one another that we will always always always be there for one another. It has nothing – and noOne – more to offer. We’re all we’ve got. As the movie points out itself, if we’re all just a random burp of the Big Bang, it makes no sense that we love one another selflessly. Yet this is also the only hope that it can offer. That we can will ourselves to be everything to another person, that we can will ourselves to never forsake, never abandon, and to never be taken away.
It’s a hollow promise. So hollow that a 7-year old would normally be able to see right through it, to know for a fact that it can’t possibly be true, that nobody can make those kinds of promises – especially if that 7-year old has already suffered very real and painful loss. But, this is Hollywood. And in Hollywood, kids are always preternaturally prescient – unless of course that ruins the sloppily wrapped ending. In which case, they’re always always always always suckers.
Do we all have to be suckers?
We just watched “Away From Her” last night. Just as a heads up, this is not exactly a light movie. It’s well-acted and convincingly filmed, but you might not want to make this a first date movie. Fortunately, after nearly eight years of marriage, we’re well past the limitations of first date movies!
But this was still a hard movie to watch.
The subject matter is difficult enough. It’s the story of an elderly couple facing the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. But the movie does a good job of addressing the issue with some measure of dignity. While it seems to ‘fast forward’ the progression of the disease more than is realistic (at least in some cases), it provides what – in my limited experience – is a fairly accurate portrayal of the fear and loss that accompany this loss of self. It’s a lot to think about, let alone to watch for two hours.
But the movie is ultimately far more depressing because of the way in which the characters deal with this sorrow full situation. It’s a movie absolutely, positively, and completely devoid of hope. Not a shred. Not an ounce. Not a sliver of starlight escapes from the emotional and physical black hole that is created in this film.
The main character, Fiona, seems to sum up the attitude of this movie – and our culture – in one line. “I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace.” And that’s what both Fiona and her husband, Grant, each attempt to do, in their own ways, as the story – and Fiona’s mind – unravels.
A bit of grace, but no hope.
No hope beyond the bitterly painful reality that Grant has to deal with as his wife’s mind rapidly disintegrates. No hope beyond the fear that she faces in the early stages. No hope beyond the bleak manipulative dance that Grant and Marian engage in late in the movie trying to satisfy their divergent needs. Nothing to do but to make the best of an awful situation, because that’s all it can ever be.
No hope that there might be something more than this, that there could be something beyond this. No, this is the end. The end of Fiona as a person, in many respects. The end of the relationship she and Grant have shared for 44 years. The end of Grant’s happiness. The end of everything. As one of the other Alzheimer’s patients summarizes it – a former play-by-play announcer who now speaks exclusively in that vernacular “There’s a man with a broken heart, broken in a thousand pieces.” And there’s no hope of anyone or anything ever putting those pieces back together again.
I’m sure there’s no small irony lost that Grant used to be a college professor, and Fiona one of his students. Nor that Grant’s area of expertise was Icelandic mythology. Certainly, there is no room in his mind or heart for any of the hopes that his subject matter covered.
The thought of losing my wife to something like Alzheimer’s is terrifying. The thought of descending into that loss of self myself, leaving my family behind is terrifying. And yet, that terror only goes so deep. It can only permeate so far.
Because I have hope.
I have hope that this life isn’t all there is. I have hope that death is not the last word. I have hope that whatever misfortunes and losses I endure in this life are not authoritative. I have hope that regardless of what happens to me or my wife or our children, it will not be the end.
That hope changes everything for me -or at least it should. It should permeate the way I approach grief and loss – and I believe that it does. It should manifest itself in how I approach others who are grieving and dealing with loss. Not in a way that minimizes the pain of that loss, or pretends that the loss and the pain aren’t real. But in a way that says go ahead and cry and grieve and mourn, but then remember that this isn’t the end. I have good news for you!
I have hope that my end – or the end of the people in my life – is not some random, hopeless set of circumstances. Just as I trust that my birth and life – and the births and lives of others in my life – were equally non-coincidental. I believe that all of this has a plan and a purpose, and just because I can’t see what that is, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. There is immense hope in that.
The faith of hopelessness has no more certainty to it, proof, if you will, than the faith of hope. Both sides have have their proponents, their corpus of apologetics. Ultimately, my hope is based in the claims of a man, and the vindication of his claims in his resurrection from death. The basis of my faith is the one human being who claims – and who was witnessed – to have died and returned from the grave. That’s a pretty powerful claim. It has the attestation of literally hundreds of eye-witnesses. And that’s good enough for me – even if I wasn’t one of the eye witnesses, and even if these events transpired two thousand years ago.
I pray that, should I be faced with being either in Grant or Fiona’s shoes, that God will give me the ability to face that situation with a bit of grace. But grace in the deeper sense, beyond just a patina of civility and dignity, beyond a brave face and a stiff upper lip. Grace in the sense of peace and trust that whatever the loss that I must endure, whether of self or other, that loss is not the end. Not the last word. Not the final verdict.