Reflection: Finding God in a bad movie ending

BY David Wilmington
Professor of Theology and Philosophy

August-September 2017 Inscribed

I had a recent encounter with God after being disappointed and annoyed with the ending of a movie. Really. During the late-night time slot I reserve for movies that meet both the “wife not interested” and “thoroughly not-for-kids” standards, I went to see the latest (and last?) Wolverine movie “Logan.” As someone who tends to read everything, even if only at the back of my mind – even pop culture superhero mutant movies – through the lenses of theology and ethics, I’ve learned to welcome these “smaller, every-day moments” as opportunities for God to speak (rather than lament them as the “overthinking” of an academic).

ReflectionMidway through “Logan,” a young, violent, and utterly unsocialized girl sees the classic western “Shane” on a hotel TV. The filmmakers show Laura watching two scenes: a funeral scene and later, the final speech of the film. Uncomprehending but mesmerized, she first watches a crowd of frontier townspeople, graveside somber, singing the hymn “Abide With Me” (“When other helpers fail and comforts flee, / Help of the helpless, O abide with me”).

“Logan” has a funeral or two (no surprise), and my disappointment came when the filmmakers chose to have Laura recite Shane’s farewell speech, rather than the hymn, at an important funeral scene: “A man has to be what he is…You can’t break the mold… there’s no living with, with a killing. There’s no going back from it. Right or wrong.”

It seemed to me a huge missed opportunity: this very lost, very damaged character in a very lost, very damaged world could have been shown to glean a tiny scrap of awareness of and hope in the true “Help of the helpless.” The filmmakers (who invite this possibility by focusing on the Christian hymn, after all) could have shown a glimmer of true hope – a relational encounter with a vestige of God’s hope and faithfulness in something as small and common as catching a movie on a hotel TV.

I had been hoping for something like the profound effect of the (almost obsessive) use of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” in another recent Western, “True Grit.” But eventually, I realized that I was expecting far too much from this character and from what she could learn or even comprehend about the vestiges of God in her world. Without the story, translation, and interpretation that explain the “Helper” and his limitless and abiding comfort, Laura can only make sense of her encounters via drawing analogies to the world she knows.

My encounter with God came when I realized that her “primary language” for understanding is only an exaggerated version of the increasingly common ethos of our time—one saturated by violence, fear, and nihilism. As a professor and a witness to Christ, why hope, much less expect, that real people whose lives bear real scars from a world of deepening darkness and “change and decay in all around I see” can come to know the Light and incorruptible Life of Christ?

If we are to reach people with the Gospel and invite them into a life pursuing the Wisdom at its center, we must keep in mind the extent to which our culture seeks to confuse and obscure our vision—to manipulate the truth about creation, hope, justice, courage, and love in order to form and control people as damaged and ignorant as Laura. If we are to teach people about and point them toward the Cross—rather than the final, crooked “X” of the world of “Logan”—we must acknowledge the incoherent language of our age and strive always for new ways to “shine through the gloom and point them to the skies.”

Dr. David Wilmington is professor of theology and philosophy. He has taught at Baylor University, George W. Truett Theological Seminary, and the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of A Pregnant Silence: Negative Theology and Virtues Ethics (forthcoming, Fortress Press). Through interdisciplinary work in contemporary and medieval theology, music, and ethics, David explores creative ways to help train people as faithful improvisers of the Gospel. He loves soccer, hiking, playing saxophone, and jazz evangelization.