Saints

I’ve given up writing reviews or discussions of most of the movies I watch on Netflix.  I fear I am too critical and not accomplishing much.  Last night I watched St. Vincent, a movie I was curious about primarily because of Bill Murray.  It was painfully predictable and devoid of much entertainment value, and Murray didn’t have much in the way of character complexity to work with.

Not surprisingly, the film has to do with the saintliness of Vincent – a man who by all typical standards of common decency would never be considered a saint.  In that it points us beyond the obvious pietistic definitions of saintliness to things more difficult to discern, it’s useful.  In that it points us in the wrong direction, it isn’t.

The film does what society wants to do – it tells us that so long as our good actions outweigh our bad, we’re in good shape.  It’s very Islamic in that sense.  Or Buddhist.  Add up your good deeds and bad deeds and see which weighs more.  The difficulties in this approach are massive.

Firstly there is the basic quantification.  If keeping track of your rights and wrongs is important to justify yourself to at least yourself, if not those around you, who can really keep accurate track?  One of Vincent’s recurring lines in the movie is “What do you know about me?”  When encountering judgment he justifies himself by asserting that the other person doesn’t know the whole story, doesn’t see the full picture.  Of course, he’s right about this (at least initially, since the film would be rather dismal if eventually everyone didn’t get to see Vincent’s true saintliness, including himself).

Then issues the thorny question of qualification.  Are all good deeds equal?  Are all bad deeds equal?  Do they cancel each other out perfectly?  The implication throughout the film is that there are some good deeds that are really good, qualitatively much more valuable than some bad deeds.  Feeding your cat gourmet food while subsisting on sardines yourself is a form of self-sacrifice that is far more valuable than, say, being a jerk to everyone around you.

The goal of the film is justification.  We know that going into it.  How is Vincent going to demonstrate he is worthy of his saintly title – or manifestly unworthy of it?  Justification is everything.  Everyone is after it.  Everyone craves it.  How do we accomplish it?

For the film, it’s a matter of public acclaim based on culturally approved actions.  What it isn’t, for the film, is anything to do with a relationship with God – a fairly critical component of actual religious senses of the term saint.   There is a moment at the end of the film where this issues is broached, ever so shallowly.  And unfortunately, the film remains consistent to itself (which I suppose is good in some ways).  The divine is rejected as unnecessary in any sense.   And everyone celebrates that.

But if we separate the divine, the authoritative, the objective from our definitions of saint, we effectively have no definition.  We have cultural approval, but nothing more certain or useful in a larger sense.  There are people, I’m sure, in certain Islamic circles who view suicide bombers as saints.  Yet we don’t consider them as such.  Whose definition wins?

Step two – well, God approves of the suicide bomber’s actions, says the faithful Muslim.  No no, says the Christian, God does not approve of that sort of action.  Who decides?

Enter apologetics.  How do you resolve a question between two claims regarding the nature and identity of God?  Evidential apologetics which is the focus of studies this week says that you look at the evidence supporting the competing claims.   Is there evidence to prove the veracity, or to compel adherence to one or the other?  Evidential apologetics says yes, there is – for Christianity.  Islam simply asserts.  Christianity asserts with evidence – the resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

Our culture has rejected the idea that religions might be different or contradictory.  Which is ultimately to say that culturally we don’t think any of them are actually true.  But this is only possible if we ignore the fact that Christianity grounds it’s claims in an objective historical fact – that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, just as He had predicted.  If this historical detail is true, then we have to take seriously everything else that Jesus said.  If it isn’t true, we can sleep in on Sunday mornings because Christianity is false.

But in rejecting authoritative, divine statements about what is good and bad, what is saintly and demonic, we have no means of deciding which standard of saintliness holds.  We have no means of determining the qualitative value of one act versus another.  We have no way of determining which acts are salvific (from a cultural perspective), or not, other than cultural approval itself.

And cultural approval, as we’re seeing so clearly right now, can radically change in a very short period of time.

I admit I like the idea of saintliness being subjective.  But I’m wrong to like that.  The only reason I like the idea is because some part of me presumes that I would meet the criteria.  But I can never be certain about that.  What happens when I think my life-style is adequately saintly but everyone around me disagrees (arguably the position of Vincent at the beginning of the movie)?  Or how can I ever be assured of my saintliness by others if I don’t believe it for myself?

My only assurance must rest in an authoritative assurance of my saintliness based not on me, but on some divine initiative.  I can only have peace if I’m assured that I do have peace based not on me but solely on God’s gift to me in his Son made man, Jesus.  I must trust that I’m a saint because someone says I am – but that someone must be God or it can’t be trusted.  It’s the only way I can take seriously the moniker St. Paul, humbly as a gift rather than self-righteously as something earned.

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One Response to “Saints”

  1. Saints Revisited | Living Apologetics Says:

    […] few months back I blogged a fairly uncomplimentary review of the Bill Murray film St. […]

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