I am a Christian not usually moved by Church. What I mean is this: I go to church, I can appreciate the ideas and truth content of a sermon, but rarely does the experience – the packaging, if you will – itself move me. Oftentimes, I leave slightly fussy and have to get over myself on the car ride back home. This is not a film. This is not a novel. This is not art. This is proclamation on a 7-day cycle. Pastors don’t have teams of writers like sitcoms and anytime I think “Well, hell, maybe they should” I am immediately struck by the stupidity and un-enlightened-ness of the concept. It is just possible that the sermon was not crafted with me in mind – and that it shouldn’t have to be for me to be willing to see what it’s saying. This is a lesson continually learned. For myself and people like me, small group meetings are more fulfilling: discussing verses, digging into them more than usually happens in a sermon. This is where His words come alive for me.
Which is why when a Sunday at Church – in this case, Pacific Crossroads Church – does move me, it’s a big deal. This week was a big deal; one of those times when everything in the sermon and the verses preached upon and the music and all of it overcomes all usual preconceived notions of expectation and cuts directly to your own personal heart. My heart. There was even a moment today when my friend and fellow writer Josh looked over at me after the pastor said something and said “We just talked about that.” It’s true, we had, last night, because it had been on my mind for the past week.
The sermon was the beginning of a series about the life of David (as in ”-and Goliath” and “-and Bethsheba” and many other “as in”s), but today was all groundwork and precursor. It was about Hannah, the barren woman in 1 Samuel who is mocked because she cannot have a child and goes to the temple to pray. The verse recount a bitterness and frustration of spirit not often spoken of in church. Most of the time we’re asked to abide, to stand it. Hannah approaches God with an honesty and frankness and brokenness so rare, she seems drunk. This is God’s word (emboldens, mine):
10 In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD. 11 And she made a vow, saying, “O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.” … 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk… 15 “Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. 16 Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.” 17 Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” 18 She said, “May your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.
The sermon was about our own personal terms for a successful life. How at that time if a woman didn’t have children, she was viewed as worthless. How Hannah assumed that this must be true. How while our society has progressed and evolved in its role of women in society, there are still mostly arbitrary societal pressures and incorrect criteria for what it means to be a successful person. How we assume that this must be true.
I Want to Go to There
There is a way to read those verses and see them as Hannah bargaining with God. Growing up in the church, this was my understanding of the passage, and I didn’t understand why or how it (the verses) could be suggesting this when I had so often promised things to God if he would just allow me to be Batman or Spiderman. This was one of those stories in Sunday School that the teacher thought would be an easy lesson – she prays, things change! – but very quickly got out of hand because of its dis-unity with our basic understanding of God. Snack-time was often invoked much earlier than normal on days like this.
What the passage is really about is a woman giving up what she had always been told her dream would be. It’s her wrestling with God to do this. It’s her arguing with God why this must be. And eventually it’s her decision to make God her barometer for success, to the point that even if He should decide to give her a child, she will deliver it right back to God; that is she will deliver her dreams into the hands of God instead of holding onto them for herself – “Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.“
The sermon was about how our expectations and dreams and societal/personal preconceptions about success have to be molded and given over to God. We assume that the blacker things in our lives should be given to God. Our greed and lies and sins, anything we dislike. Much harder is to give to God those things we like and want to keep and think will complete us – which good things in the end won’t complete us but seem like they will complete us at the time. It’s in some ways a sermon that goes back to the notion of a God-sized hole that nothing but God – which is to say nothing but Christ – can fill.
The One and Only Bruce Beresford
Saturday night, amid much movie talk, my friend Ben brought up a film he really likes starring John Cusack and Morgan Freeman, about a convict and a father. You know the one? Neither did we. It’s called “The Contract,” and it was made in 2006 and directed by Bruce Beresford, who also directed “Tender Mercies” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” It was released direct-to-market (a.k.a. straight-to-DVD). How can this be? His films used to win Oscars. He’s got two Hollywood heavyweights in his film. How does this movie not get released in theaters? How can this movie fail to be seen as “capable of cinematic success” with all this clout behind it? Has the world gone crazy?
This is my own personal fear. I want to write and direct. But what will happen on the day that I make something that I believe is worthy and good and am told by the world that it doesn’t measure up? How will that fit into my goal of being a first-rate filmmaker? How can it possibly be my goal to achieve something so intangible and fleeting? Or, what if I “Beresford” my career? What if I achieve great success early on, only to be all but forgotten and disregarded later? Woody Allen would be a more shining example, but his films always make it into theaters. He’s still seen as an auteur. Jason Reitman, whose early success with “Juno” he said could be a terrible thing because it’s a lot to live up to for the rest of his career. To be honest, if you’d asked me before Saturday night to name the director of “Driving Miss Daisy,” I wouldn’t have been able to. He hasn’t been forgotten by me, he was never known. And if this is the case with people like me, what must that mean for him?
I’m sounding incredibly insulting. My question is, what does success mean for Bruce Beresford? Is he bitter? As someone who has achieved essentially nothing to date, I look at his career and know that I would be bitter if it were me. I would cry out to God how totally bullshit it is that Morgan Freeman and John Cusack can’t get me a theatrical release. Yes, but Beresford has made 15 movies since “Driving miss Daisy,” many of which have had theatrical releases, and many of which have gotten very good reviews.
So the question returns to what is success? How do I define it for myself vs. How should I define it? The question has been on my mind much of late, due to a sortof existential “Would You Rather…?“ proffered by my roommate, Adam, and due to some brilliant passages in (what else?) Infinite Jest, by the late great David Foster Wallace (prepare thyself):
“And for the ones… the lucky who become profiled and photographed for readers and in the USA religion make it, they must have something built into them along the path that will let them transcend it, or they are doomed… For, you, if you attain your goal and cannot find some way to transcend the experience of having that goal be your entire existence, your raison de faire, so, then one of two things we see will happen…
“One, one is that you attain the goal and realize the shocking realization that attaining the goal does not complete or redeem you, does not make everything for your life “OK” as you are, in the culture, educated to assume it will do this, the goal… and you are impaled by shock…
“Or the other possibility of doom, for the etoiles who attain. They attain the goal, thus, and put as much equal passion into celebrating their attainment as they had put into pursuing the attainment. This is called the Syndrome of the Endless Party. The celebrity, money, sexual behaviors, drugs and substances. The glitter. They become celebrities instead of players, and because they are celebrities only as long as they feed the culture-of-goal’s hunger for the make-it, the winning, they are doomed, because you cannot both celebrate and suffer, and play is always suffering, just so.”
A clear image of any number of celebrities might leap sharply to mind. Along, hopefully, with some pity. Is it sortof narcissistic to think I am even in the running to have this sort of problem? Maybe. I can see it on many levels, though. For everyone. Because anything can be an idol. A girlfriend can be. A job. An artistic aspiration. These are all good and wonderful things for which we have found ways in our infinite wisdom-of-the-tunnel-vision to muck up and ruin and bring low. I’ve done it. Often. It’s caused incredible pain and nothing good. I’m still tunneling through the wreckage and still repairing the damage. Well, not me. God. And I’d rather like not to do it again, when given, on any level, the chance. I’d like to be able to look up and to see through it this time. I’d like to have internal systems in place, intellectual-emotional understandings of myself and my goals enough to avoid these pitfalls and trappings, such as they are, and undoubted as they will come.
 (And here I embellish the actual wording) Essentially: If you could only and ever make just ONE film (since for the purposes of this hypothetical you died of a sudden and rare leg-tumor), would you rather make Film #1, which was beloved by critics and audiences; which made hundreds of millions of dollars; which won all major awards, including numerous Oscars both you and all involved; but which you yourself knew in your heart of hearts was not your best work and so was not a film that you were proud of, though you could be proud of the attention it had garnered; OR Film #2 which was received only partially well by critics – some of whom liked it quite a lot (maybe it made a few scattered Year-End Top 10 lists) – and which never really got a wide release; which only made somewhere between let’s say 6.7 and 7.2 million dollars; which was altogether overlooked and not even in the mental running for any awards, either for yourself or for any involved; but which you yourself knew in your heart of hearts was your best work and so was a film you were completely and utterly proud of, a film about which there is not a single solitary frame you would change if your life depended upon it? Which do you choose?