catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 7 :: 2003.03.28 — 2003.04.10


Movie lines that intersect the spiritual dimension

I once wrote a short story in which a character quoted a line from When Harry Met Sally to a woman he liked but had grown distant from. I'd written it for a creative writing lab, and one of the copies I had returned with a student's comments on it had the accusation "you stole this from When Harry Met Sally," then another note underneath it saying, "I talked it over with one of my friends and she says people do quote movies to each other."

I was surprised she'd never heard of the practice, but her ignorance led me to question exactly why movie-quoting had become second nature to me. Among those I grew up with, you earned high marks for delivering a movie line—preferably a punch line—that fit the situation exactly. For instance, if a person was praising something a little too highly, you might agree that such-and-such is "the greatest thing in the world…except a mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, when the mutton is nice and lean." I began to see that you get away with a joke, and yet some of Miracle Max's dismissiveness remains in the exchange. Similarly, in my short story, the character is trying to get away with being jokey by quoting When Harry Met Sally, yet he's also saying that she is his Sally. A movie line can accumulate many layers of meaning.

I never expected to find movie quotes popping into my head regarding spiritual matters. But old habits indeed die hard: I've found myself wrestling with the Christian calling and arriving at some old movie line that, if it doesn't answer my questions, seems to at least put a handle on them for me to cling to. Over time, a few of these phrases have gained enough layers to become a kind of shorthand God uses to remind me of how to behave and believe:

"Even before there was you, there was the promise of you."
Abby McDeere (Jeanne Tripplehorn), The Firm

Perhaps at first glance, that sentence doesn't seem like much, but in the context of the movie, it rings with beauty. And it the context of my life, it rings with truth. Without revealing too much of the plot, Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) has let his greed and lust override his judgment and landed him in a jam. He's destroyed his life and his marriage, and at the end of the film is trying to pick up the pieces. Mitch asks Abby if he's lost her. She answers, "How could you lose me?…I have always loved you. Even before there was you, there was the promise of you." It's at once an expression of forgiveness, of allegiance, and of mystery.

I love how eloquent her words are; the rare times when people have asked me for forgiveness I'm sure I said something like "Oh, that's OK." Abby reminds me of the forgiving father in the parable of the prodigal son, in that she lets her attitudes and actions, rather than her words, complete the reconciliation.

I also love her words taken at face value. They are God's words to me—"even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy" (Eph 1:4). And they are my words to God; before I know God in completeness in the life to come, I live this life in the promise of the revelation of God.

This movie line comes to mind most often when I'm having trouble praying. Prayer can seem so useless sometimes when I'm too comfortable in God's grace; I'm not eager to confess my heart when I see him waiting with outstretched arms. What's wonderful about Abby's line is that she delivers it only after hearing out her husband. As with Renee Zellweger's line "You had me at hello" in Jerry Maguire (also spoken, oddly enough, to Tom Cruise), Abby knows from the second he's returned to her that she's going to forgive him, but in both cases these wives wait for their husbands to make amends. God is not there to be taken advantage of as we stray again and again; we're not to treat him like a sucker. I am encouraged to pray, to make amends and share my heart, by the knowledge of forgiveness as pervasive and beautiful as Abby's.

"You spend 50 weeks gettin' knots in your rope, and then you expect two weeks up here will untie them."
Curly (Jack Palance), City Slickers

For a long time, the line I liked from this movie was Curly's pronouncement that "The meaning of life is one thing. You stick to that and nothing else means s—-." The protagonist's "one thing" turns out to be his family. For me, it was a longing for Christ. As I let everything in my life either align with that pursuit or fall away, I felt the peace of not being pulled in so many directions.

But as time went on, I found I still was overburdened. All my activities were in some way kingdom-building, but I was spiritually and physically fatigued by the effort. Curly's image of a knotted rope fit my life quite well, and I did depend on those couple weeks of vacation a year as my one chance to unwind. If Curly was at all correct, the knots needed attending more regularly. I finally found my answer in the Sabbath. This year, my wife and I have been abstaining from any work on Sundays. At first it's almost maddening, because I find my mind drifting to the things I have to do. Then I might kill time by reading or watching a movie. But from time to time I find rest, and can let go of everything I consider so vital during the week. I can listen to God without him having to shout. I still picture the process as a knot gently being worked free.

"You must unlearn what you have learned."
Yoda (Frank Oz), The Empire Strikes Back

I was raised in a Christian household, and from day one I was taught the answers to life. Here's the plan of salvation; here's the commandments for a charmed life; here's the portrait of God. That was great for rattling off correct answers in Sunday school and getting a gold star. But the answers didn't mean anything until I'd encountered any of life's questions. And more often that not, I'd need to unlearn the neat, prepackaged answers and discover ones that were less certain, more messy, but closer to the heart of truth.

The fact is, words are highly imperfect communicators. I'd been taught to whip out this reference in one situation, to quote that verse in another, thinking I had the truth in my mouth. But I now believe that while the Bible contains absolute truth, when taken piecemeal it is far less than whole truth. I don't think God was dictating the whole thing to various secretaries throughout the ages; I believe the Bible is a collection of the most authentic encounters with God that have been recorded. Only by reading the entirety of God's Word, and only by placing its depictions of God next to your own encounters with the divine, is the truth gradually revealed. Then the limitations of words can be overcome and be replaced by a more authentic connection with the Creator.

Now when I quote particular Bible verses, they're packed with meaning, much like these movie lines. I've learned, though, that unless I share what lies behind my own encounter with those sentences, they sound like little more than good-luck mantras to the listener. Sharing God is a whole-life event, not four easy steps. True salvation is a lifelong refinement by God, not a one-way ticket to paradise. It's a disservice to give the simplest, shortest answers, for they must always be unlearned.

"Evil will always triumph over good because good is dumb."
Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis), Spaceballs

Jesus was a wily fellow. I'm constantly amazed at how he deftly avoided traps by the Pharisees, how he could upend a listener's expectations with the twist of a phrase. Other believers seemed to have the same gifts: When Joan of Arc was asked by her inquisitors if she was in a state of grace, she answered, "If I am, may God keep me there. If I am not, may God grant it to me." But this wisdom seems an exceptionally rare commodity within the Christian church body. We are, for lack of a better word, dumb.

Dark Helmet's accusation rings in my ears when I hear Falwell accuse feminists and gays for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when I hear of the sales for the ludicrous Left Behind series, when I hear Christians say that attending R-rated movies is a sin. What does any of this have to do with the gospel of Christ? How does hatred, fear, and ignorance help us grow intimate with our Creator and manifest his love to his creatures? We seem content to say God works in mysterious ways, so any well-intentioned act with a Christian label will elicit some good. We call ourselves persecuted when our hate is returned with hate.

I'm not immune to the stupidity. I'm woefully ill-equipped to hear and respond to people's real needs. I'm overly concerned with how people think of me, so I've kept my circle of friends tight and I have waffled more than once with an instinct to help someone else just because I didn't know how to go about offering. I'm too much of a perfectionist to try and fail at reaching people's hearts through service. But I'm fighting it. When doing the right thing seems too overwhelming to figure out, I am spurned onward by the charge that "good is dumb."

"There are no 'bad guys'! There are no 'good guys'! There's just a bunch of guys!"
Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), The Zero Effect

One of my biggest struggles is to purge the us-vs.-them mentality that seems to be ingrained in the human mind. Whether it's a distinction of race, class, language, nationality, political party, religion, or sports team, the tendency is to demonize the opponent. Nearly everyone thinks of themselves as the good guy, the one who's made the best choices and is ready to stand up for them. Even those who pride themselves in being "bad" think of themselves as having made the correct choice in standing against whatever oppression they're rebelling against.

The Christian testimony is powerful simply because we are the only people who stand up and admit that we are sinners, that we're bad guys. We're so bad that we can't even make it on our own, we need the love of Christ to redeem our broken selves. This is a powerful statement to the world that knows it's only pretending it's right about everything; it calls their bluff. Instead, I find that most Christians decide to accuse everyone else of being bad guys.

In truth, there's a mixture of good and evil in every heart. Even the most saintly person battles with his or her dark side, and the most vile person has some good inside. Categorizing anyone as a good guy or a bad guy just puts up one more barrier that leads to hatred. It leads to treating one another as less than a human being. Whenever I'm faced with the temptation to give in to my hate, to really blast someone who disagrees and attacks me, I hear the words in my mind: "There's just a bunch…of guys!" God doesn't value me more highly than anyone else. We are loved by him with equal ferocity. And so I pray to see with the eyes of Christ.

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