Thursday, February 06, 2003


a mini-theological review

"There are answers to almost every question."

Postmodern filmakers today, without hesitation, dabble freely with esoteric and peripheral issues of spirituality- often going into the annals of other cultures and their religious traditions to explain/validate/bless their experience of being human. In doing so, they seem to hope to speak to something common to us all while tapping into the mystery of the "Other".......that whisper, that perception of a reality/person beyond our existence that instills meaning into the rubric of life.

Consequently, what often results is an amalgam of mushy neo-paganism sometimes cleverly masquerading under faint echoes of authentic biblical Christianity. Should a film find its voice from within the Christian worldview (and it truly rarely does), then the foray therein leaves us wanting more, wiping our lips clean from the bitter taste of superficiality.

Every now and then, a motion picture emerges with something very godly to say, and strikingly on target theologically. M. Night Shyamalan's Signs is just one of those films (released August, 2001 and in current release on DVD).

Anyone familiar with Shyamalan's work thus far probably camps in either the "love him" or "hate him" settlements. Widely acclaimed as the next "great" storyteller of his generation, Shyamalan tackles the "alien movie" genre with a flamboyant respect for not insulting our intelligence with cheap thrills, often relying on the anticipation of the unknown to weave the story.

Since I'll reveal things about the movie that might spoil the plot for those who haven't seen it, I do so to make a case for a Theology of Signs, MunkeBites-style. (If you haven't seen it, read no it and come back).

Can one "do" theology without intention? Can an undertaking with the sole purpose of storytelling/storyselling (film making) end up painting a picture that helps us understand the nature of human suffering and the character of God? More to the point, does God reveal himself even through decidedly non-Christian agents? If so, what does "Signs" have to say?

Even if the title itself is a double-entendre playing into the message of the movie, it makes a bold statement regarding the doctrine of providence. Notwithstanding the fascinating storyline and atmosphere of the movie, what ultimately emerges is somewhat of a theological gut-check- posing questions our piety had previously been loathe to express- but nonetheless "sensed" behind the veil of our perception of free-will, God's power and the reality of a depth of suffering almost foreign to most.

The word providence comes from the Latin, providere, which is a combination of two words- pro "before" and videre"sees." This double meaning.... fore-seeing, seeing before, making provision for what is foreseen- is the umbrella under which all theology or doctrine is done and can be, arguably, therefore understood. The doctrine of providence basically asks, "how does God care for his creation?" Everything else conceptually falls underneath that basic epistemological question. It is the story of the compassion of God that intersects the scorched and hallowed ground that is human tragedy. It is the core construct behind the words of the song that muses, "he's got the whole world in his hands" and begs the question, "and just HOW does God hold this world?" Providence is more than mere theological academic exercise and reflection.........we take out our hearts and examine it while it functions outside its normal place and explore it. This is intensely personal and painful.

This is what Mel Gibson's character, Graham, does- only his heart drops, shatters and he is left rummaging for replacement parts. We pick him up, having lost any semblance of faith in a benevolent "father" who seems blind, and somewhat impotent. Through his own intention, he has abandoned his place as a Catholic priest. The honest anger he has toward God is balanced begrudgingly on his shoulder and it takes an alien invasion to knock it off. But not before he has lost his wife in a freak accident.

The pain Graham experiences borders on the blasphemous. Thoughts and words emanate from his heart that we would dare not entertain. In one scene, as he is holding the limp body of his slowly dying son, he spews forth a vitriolic harangue toward God and caps it off with an "I hate you!" At that point in the movie, my piety lurched forward, defiantly wanting to remind him "God didn't do these things to you." At the same time, I just wanted to be beside him, speechless, motionless and answerless.....just "there."

As a chaplain at the University of Louisville Hospital (a Level I Trauma Unit), I found there are no answers for the father of 19 year-old college student who wonders where God is in the process of his son lying brain dead whereas- 3 hours prior- the boy had just left to celebrate a birthday on his first weekend home from school. There are no answers for the daughter gripping the jaundiced and emaciated 85-pound body of her father as to why he had to trade in his liver for a life of alcohol. It was the first time in my life where I faced that kind of suffering. It was the first time I confronted such forces of human chaos and became closely acquainted with the experience of God-forsakenness. It was the dividing line in my seminary career because God ripped out my heart and put it back together again. If he hadn't have done so, I felt I would have crumpled.

There is indeed a suffering so deep, so incomprehensible that warrants the experience of God-forsakenness, such as what Graham wades through. When the rage of hell impinges upon human frailty and existence, we sense the rampage of chaos that lurks on the fringes of creation. And despite all the attending demonic fury (as personified by the alien invaders), we sense something in the divine Personage that won't let us go. In all of the mundane rituals of life, we can't escape the faint whisper that promises ordo ab chaos. How is it that the God who is absent is still the God who is "there?" How can it be that God indeed mediates his presence in his perceived absence? What is the form of this providential activity of God? I contend that the denouement of Signs poignantly illustrates the providence of God in the face of incalculable human suffering in a strikingly accurate fashion.

History is replete with the rising and falling of evil regimes that incur monstrous tolls upon human suffering (Nazi Germany, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, September 11th). Consider Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, who was forced to view a child being hung at the camp:

For more than half and hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking, "Where is God now?"

I heard a voice within me answer him:

"Where is he? Here he is.....he is hanging here on this gallows......."

That night, the soup tasted of corpses (Night, p. 62).

Sometimes it is only in the midst of (or after) the fire that we can ascertain the ways in which God was providing. The glasses of water left behind, the failed baseball career memorialized in the bat hanging on the wall, the cryptic words of Graham's dying wife once relegated to the neural misfirings of a dying brain.........were all puzzle pieces- seemingly small and insignificant at the time- that divinely came together and became the deliverance of God. But none of it made sense until it had to. These all factored into their victory over the alien threat because God was standing on the frontside of their unfolding human stories and wove together with purpose and creativity a beautiful tapestry of ongoing human history. God works with all the factors that are available to him in any given matter how miniscule. And the materials God uses? Human agents. In thus doing the work of providence, God interacts with free-willed human beings in the freedom of their decision making. The way God provided for their survival was defined within their own specific historically defined context. All the glasses of water left behind by the little girl was poison ammunition against the alien being. The non-sensical utterance, "swing away" was the command (and release) for Graham's brother to really knock one out of the park (and beat the alien marauder senseless so they could escape). Only through the contingencies of all these interconnected relationships did the pattern of God's providential activity come to light. Graham found faith, his brother found purpose, his son found life- all within the context of family.

We may never enter the garden of suffering of a Father Graham or an Elie Wiesel. But should we embark upon the suffering of God-forsakenness, we do so in light of the Christ event, Who hanging on a gallows of sorts also experienced God-forsakenness (Mark 15:34). There are no answers here, only a coming alongside of a Lord Who knows the fullest extent of what it means to be abandoned unto death. While we cry out for answers, we discover the presence of the Lord standing in our midst, already having been beaten and accused. Sometimes He comes in His power, crumpled with us in the corner. And He knows us.....He even knows our lot. Even while those closest to us can only muster the strength to snooze at the gate, no one but Jesus can fully enter that garden of suffering we may be called to enter.