by Donald Schell
I enjoy reading movie reviews. I find them a good way to listen for themes and ideas in popular culture. Sometimes the best reviewers get me wondering about the philosophy (and even theology) of the moment – what it has to say to our proclamation of Gospel or what the Gospel we preach and mean to live might say to cultural perspectives we hear in the movie reviews. Reviews also help me decide whether to see or avoid a movie. Though occasionally it’s my argument with the reviewer rather than his/her endorsement that makes me eager to see the movie.
A couple of very good, dependable reviewers seemed to agree that it would unfair to expect “The Fault in our Stars,” the purportedly comic movie about young cancer patients in love, to escape being emotionally manipulative. Both offered a very guarded recommendation of the film “The Fault in our Stars.” They admitted they were reluctant to recommend the movie, because, though found it appealing – they agreed the script well-written and the film-making and acting were very good, but, they warned, since it ended more or less as we knew it had to, it would impossible for the movie not to be manipulative. Expect to find yourself crying, they said, though the film’s other rewards might make it worth putting up with that.
Tears? Manipulated to tears? This warning made the movie all the more appealing to me. Not because I look for tearjerkers, but because I mistrusted their fear of manipulation. Yes, I can feel manipulated, but I welcome a movie that can give me a moment of honest tears. I have a similar sensibility in liturgy. While I’m very suspicious of liturgical manipulation, I enjoy the moments in ordinary or extraordinary liturgy when tears come unsought. And I deeply appreciate Maggie Ross’s re-contextualizing tears as a Christian tradition in her book The Fountain and the Furnace, The Way of Tears and Fire. Our best thinking, whole person, wholly embodied thinking isn’t just rational – it united mind and heart. Or should I say, “Restores heart to mind?” Sentiment, feeling, and beauty meet skepticism and suspicion in some quarters of our culture and media, but without them we’re not fully alive.
So, reading between the lines of warning or cautions from reviewers we usually trust, my wife and I went to see “The Fault in our Stars.” We both enjoyed it a lot and talked about it for several days. Each of us noted that we had laughed at places we wouldn’t have expected to find ourselves laughing, cried a bit and welcomed that, and had been moved in deeper and quieter ways, sometimes in the parts where we guessed those reviewers were probably warning of manipulation. And we liked the movie enough to go on to read the John Green novel that the film had adapted.
I suspect that we need to be clear that there’s a difference between manipulation and invitation to feeling, between sentimentality and honest sentiment if we hope to speak Gospel in our post 9/11 world, politically polarized culture and context.
Our youngest son - a twenty-seven year old actor - and I have had some satisfying conversations about his generation’s version cynicism of our culture’s pervasive cynicism. He calls it “sarcasm” and thinks it partly stems from fear of seeming un-cool. One day at a time he persists in the holy, unpromising commitment to a life making art while he works a couple of day jobs to pay the bills. Feeling is at the heart of his work as an artist, being honestly present to his character, the other characters onstage and the whole weather system of feeling that brings any scene from a play to particular life. And giving real voice and embodiment to characters’ feelings touches the feelings of the audience. Rehearsing and performing a part in a good play invites substantial exploration of the psyche, the actor’s own psyche, the character’s psyche, the playwrights’, and the audiences’.
Recently our actor son performed at San Francisco Playhouse, a theater that says of itself,
“Our theater is an empathy gym where we come to practice our powers of compassion. Here, safe in the dark, we can risk sharing in the lives of the characters.”
Part of what we do together liturgically invites taking the same risks.
Seeing my actor’s commitment to compassion practice in his art, I’m fascinated at what he has discovered and come to love in classic and popular culture from the past. I introduced him to Ella Fitzgerald, and he became an enthusiastic listener until he found Billie Holliday. “Don’t you think Ella’s voice is beautiful?” I asked him. “It is, dad,” he says, “but there’s something in Billie Holiday’s singing that I crave.” He doesn’t go to church any more, but his description of what he looks for in a theater ensemble working with a director and with other actors and the audience sounds to me a lot like a movement of the Spirit. And when I tell them that, he gets it. He also believes deeply in love, in fairness, in honesty, and (it’s important not to miss this one) in beauty.
So when I asked him about his generation’s version of cultural cynicism he recognized it immediately. “Dad, people my age don’t have a lot of hope,” he said. “Don’t forget that we’re the first generation in human history to know humanity could be extinguished from the earth in our lifetime.” He was surprised to learn that many people my age (including me) had our own expectations of a secular apocalypse as we lived through the Cuban Missile crisis and all the nuclear saber-rattling of the 1950's and 60’s. I told him the Summer of Love was another response to the prospect of imminent annihilation. “Wear some flowers in your hair” and ultimately my generation’s version of cynicism came from the seeming certainty that we’d see the end of it all. I told him about the assassinations of leaders who carried different kinds of hope - Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, JFK, RFK, reminded him of Kent State and Johnson’s escalating the Viet Nam War and suggested that perhaps by the time Nixon ended it my generation had exhausted its hope.
How do we renew our willingness to risk feeling? In addition to church, I go to a lot of theater and a good selection of movies. In fact my wife and I see plays about as often as we go to church. And my average church attendance is definitely more than once weekly. When I go to theater or the movies, I’m usually looking for something SF Playhouse’s “empathy gym.” Yes, I do go occasionally for simple pleasure and escape, but even then, I’m looking for artists risking a trustworthy integration of human story and Spirit, a storytelling that can see all that threatens us and all the ways we threaten each other, and still risks hope, still takes the care to draw the contours of love.
I don’t expect the reviewers of “The Fault in our Stars” are listening, but I do encourage readers of Episcopal Café to see the movie. Watch it and see where and how it engages feeling? Ask if it’s trustworthy. My actor son and I have often talked about plays and movies that risk imagining that love is possible, the big risks that’s well worth taking. We’re inspired by the courage of artists who don’t flinch from ugliness but also aren’t afraid to offer and celebrate beauty, fragile as it is. Dostoyevsky said beauty would save the world. Beauty connects something real in us to something real at the heart of existence, the territory where faith meets the hidden work of the Spirit, and there’s ultimately no beauty without compassion and forgiveness.
“The Fault in our Stars” is a movie worth seeing. Augustus and Hazel Grace, the young couple that meet in the cancer support group, have more questions than answers and struggle deeply with hope. They’re believable as adolescents in love. A lot turns from them on the one deeply cynical character in the movie, and in his encounters with them his cynicism remains brutally intact. There are some telling moments of a church worker leading a support group (in an Episcopal church) – he offers impossibly facile answers to kids with cancer. Both the cynical character and the over-eager apologist felt real, and their voices confirmed the bigger picture are larger hopes John Green and his central characters showed us.
As a pastor, as a writer, and as a person who has seen friends go through some terrible losses, “The Fault in our Stars” rang true. I’m grateful to a young writer, young director, and young actors for giving witness to tough Good News, offering us desperately mortal young people un-resigned to cynicism, staring death in the face, and gambling that love is stronger the death.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.