I have always been interested in the reasons people have for accepting or rejecting the existence of God. It’s even more interesting to look at how people frame their own reasons for these decisions. So often, things are framed in stark terms of darkness and light, good and evil, obvious willful stupidity and luminous intellectual clarity, callous depravity and laudable moral sensitivity. This is true on both sides, of course. There are no shortage of eager atheists and Christians who understand and explain themselves and their decisions in these terms. As if no thinking, moral person could possibly come to any other conclusions about massive existential questions of God, meaning, truth, goodness, and beauty than the ones they happen to have arrived at!
Except things are a bit more ambiguous than that in the real world.
This week I watched two films that brought these themes into rather sharp view. The first was God’s Not Dead. I did not choose this film and would have preferred not to have watched it, but my kids’ periodically pick things at the local library that their father would rather they didn’t 🙂 . Imagine! Anyway, I dropped in periodically as they were watching it last night and saw enough to have my low expectations emphatically confirmed. It is a familiar enough recipe by now for “Christian” movies. Start with a lame and utterly contrived plot that is engineered to work in an “evangelistic message,” add some abysmal acting, and wrap everything up with a nice, tidy bow that makes evangelical Christians and their beliefs feel gloriously vindicated. Yum.
The “story,” as far it went, looked something like this. Christian freshman goes to college, gets overwhelmed in introductory philosophy class by evil atheist philosophy professor, decides that God has called him to defend him in said philosophy class (despite the protests of his micromanaging girlfriend, who leaves him because of his commitment to the truth), accepts evil professor’s challenge to prove that God is not dead, and proceeds to vanquish all the arguments of atheism while uncovering the evil atheist professor’s woundedness at the loss of his mother as a twelve year old (why else would you be an atheist, after all?!). In the end, all of the students in the class stand up and triumphantly agree, “God’s not dead!” Hooray for God and for Christians everywhere! Then they all rush off to a Newsboys concert (are they really still a band?!) to exult in God and their correctness while the evil atheist philosopher gets hit by a car and is led to accept Jesus as his personal savior by a Christian pastor moments before he peacefully expires on the pavement.
The narrative is clean and simple. God and Christians = good. Philosophy and atheism = bad. The evidence is not ambiguous in any way. All good thinking people will (and do, in the film) see this. Belief in God is a rational, cognitive exercise—it is about believing the right propositions about God. Those who do not believe the right propositions about God are immoral, irrational, or wounded. Simple, right?
At the other end of the spectrum, I watched Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful (the Spanish spelling of the English “Beautiful”). It is the story of Uxbal, masterfully played by Javier Bardem, a poor, single father trying to eke out a living for himself and his two kids on the streets of Barcelona. As the story goes on, Uxbal must cope with a terminal cancer diagnosis alongside a devastating tragedy at a shady business operation that he had gotten tangled up in to make some money, and a bipolar, abusive ex-wife who tries to love and to be loved, but cannot escape her demons. In the end, Uxbal dies lying in bed in a shabby apartment, leaving his two young children in the tenuous care of a young Senegalese refugee and her baby. It is a messy, messy story full of corruption, sin, tragedy, injustice, relational dysfunction, and a whole host of horrible choices that horrible situations force upon him. The sadness is, at times, overwhelming.
Kind of like the real world, in other words.
There is no redemptive turn in Biutiful. There is no neat, tidy conclusion where truth wins and evil loses. There are hints of goodness throughout, little glimmers of beauty and hope, but these remain hints and glimmers only. It is a bleak, dark, gritty, raw film. There are no deathbed conversions, no triumphant climaxes where all the bad people realize that they were wrong and all the good people are vindicated. Because matters of life and death, faith and despair, hope and justice, suffering and vindication are rarely, if ever, that simple in the real world.
I am not writing off all hopeful, triumphant stories. We need these, even if we need much better ones than God’s Not Dead. We need to be pointed toward a future where good wins and evil loses. Yes, God knows we need this hope (and that it is worth probing why we might need this hope).
But we also need real stories of real people who live in the real world—a world of ambiguity, a world of glimmers and hints, a world where the evidence for God isn’t always obvious. A world where faith is sometimes tenaciously clung to in the face of decidedly untriumphal stories. In a blasted out landscape where God sometimes seems painfully silent. This is the context in which each of us makes our choice about whether or not there could be a God and about what this God might want from and for us. This is the only context there has ever been.