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What Makes a Life Matter?

It was thirty-six degrees Celsius around these parts yesterday, which, for many Canadians used to considerably more chilly climes, means a general experience of sticky, sweaty unbearableness that makes us despair of life itself. Well, that’s probably a bit dramatic. The heat is clearly going to my head.

At any rate, I had grand plans last night to do something virtuous like read a book or play a game with the kids or something. But I fought the heat and the heat won. I ended up collapsing into the couch after supper, and after aimlessly drifting around Netflix on my laptop for a few minutes, I settled on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. I had seen a previous film of his (2008’s Biutiful) and I had a vague sense that Birdman had won a bunch of awards. Plus, all that aimless drifting around Netflix was getting tiring in the heat.

The rough outline of the film’s plot is quite simple, if the filming is unique (most of it appears as if filmed in a single shot—kind of one, long scene, with few breaks or musical interludes or any of the other things we’re conditioned to expect in films). Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a fading Hollywood star trying desperately to breathe life into his sagging career by directing and acting in a Broadway show. Once upon a time, he was an action star in big budget blockbusters. He was the Birdman! Now, he’s older and poorer, divorced, and struggling to maintain a relationship with a daughter/assistant fresh out of rehab. He’s the classic washed up actor whose fifteen minutes of fame have been wrung dry, who’s tormented by the man he once was (or the man the public once told him he was) and the man he is now, who’s playing his proverbial last card.

I won’t spoil the plot for those who haven’t seen it (and, fair warning, it’s rated R, so some might not even want to see it). Suffice to say that there is tragedy (the spectacle of a middle-aged, saggy Birdman stumbling through Times Square in his underwear after locking himself out of the theatre while stealing a quick mid-show cigarette and ripping his robe that got caught in the door comes to mind), comedy (some priceless quotes about a vapid culture that equates “going viral” with success, and other zingers like: “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige”), and even a few hints of redemption (although they remain only hints) in how the story plays out.

But through it all, the question looms: What gives a human life value? Riggan Thomson is terrified that he is becoming, will become nothing. At one point, he’s standing on the Broadway stage, staring out at the expectant crowd, and he mouths the words: “I’m nothing. I’m not even here.” There is nothing that we human beings want more than to matter. We need to believe that our lives are not gradually, inexorably being consigned to unremembered oblivion. We desperately hope that our value is not tied to a baseline level of accomplishment, recognition, popularity, adoration. This has probably always been so, but it seems to me that the Internet age has given these anxieties a decidedly unwelcome boost. We’re constantly selling ourselves, our experiences, our opinions to the world, to our friends, to the public, to ourselves. It’s not at all difficult to read these sales jobs as a frantic chasing after this most basic of human needs. We long to know that our lives have value, that we matter.

The next question, of course, is who or what is it that can confer value? Is the value of each human life a shared fiction that we rehearse to one another to make life more palatable, even as we would all, if pressed, agree that we are just one more creature thrown up from the impersonal clay? We daily marinate in a cultural ethos that tells us that everyone is special because they exist. But we rarely dig around in the broad meta-narratives we embrace (explicitly or implicitly) to see if the “specialness” and “value” of a human life are derivable therein. If we’re just another mammal occupying a few decades of cosmic time on a chunk of rock chugging along toward nothingness, then it’s hard to imagine how or why we might matter in the ways that are so desperate to do so.

But if, as the Christian narrative loudly insists, human beings are the very image of God, then we have a few more helpful categories through which to interpret both our hunger for meaning and value, and our sense that each human life is, in fact, special. We also have the deep and necessary hope that seemed to elude Riggan Thomson for most of Birdman—the desperate hope that his value as a human being was not tied to the fickle verdicts of the spectacle-hungry crowd, that it was not, in fact, something that had to be earned at all. That he would not be rejected, rendered “irrelevant,” and forgotten.

Christians have a word for this hope, a theological category within which to locate it.  The word is “love.” And it comes from God. Actually, as 1 John 4 reminds us, it describes God’s very identity and nature. Love is what makes life meaningful. Love is what makes a human life matter, long after less worthy verdicts have been rendered, long after human lives have been deemed no longer fit for public consumption.

The God who is love says—to washed up actors and to all the rest of us: “You are not nothing.  Even when it feels like it, even when the impossible standards of a deeply confused culture inevitably go unmet.  No, you are not nothing.  Not at all. You are loved.”

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. The first gift of the Spirit is the understanding that I have worth. I am loved. Above all things, this understanding is my most valuable treasure. To know this love is to be secured by it. Once secured I no longer consider self a priority. Others become priority. I am ready to love……loves primary objective is to manifest this same understanding in others. That is, that all will come to know this Spirit. Know their value. Know they are loved and like those who came before them, love others into this same understanding. Along the way personal and material needs must be met but these are not the primary gifts. The real gift of love is the Spirit itself. All things shall pass. Material needs will no longer be required. Those without the Spirit will die. Those with the Spirit go to where we all yearn to go. We go home. Eternal love awaits us there……I could say several things about “Birdman” but it would all distil down to this, a movie by the dead, for the dead.

    August 14, 2015
  2. Ryan,

    You gave the flick enough time to look for deep meaning. My patience with the movie evaporated quite quickly when, at least wthin the first few minutes I decided that the show seemed to be about the angst the characters were experiencing about putting on some kind of Broadway production. So I decided it was Hollywood self indulgence and gave up on the movie. (I like Neflix because I don’t have any commitment to watch the show I’ve picked. I like Netfix documentary choices. I’m watching Ken Burn: Civil War).

    Hats off to you for sticking the Birdman out until you could find deeper meaning. I bet you’d like Camp X-Ray, specially with your musing about the value about a human life (it is about the American prison in Cuba for “detainees.” Your musings about the value of a human life brings to mind a pathetic cry I heard from a homeless man in Emergency a few weeks ago. I was in my

    August 15, 2015
    • Larry S #

      Sorry, posting via IPad and my finger pressed post.

      Anyway, I had broken a finger and was waiting in my little emerg area. The homeless guy was rolling around on the floor in his little gown, bothering the rest of us patients as he complained about going to the shower (if his running narrative is to be believed it had been five years since his last one). One of his sentences stuck with me “I don’t belong in this world.”

      August 15, 2015
    • Thanks, Larry. I appreciate the film recommendation and the story. The sad reality is, the guy in the emergency room’s cry is probably a pretty accurate reflection of some people’s assessment of him…

      August 16, 2015
  3. Liberty #

    I’m just curious… what motivates a pastor to watch a film that has over 100 F-words and misuses God’s name over a dozen times, let alone all the other verbal & physical crudity? I don’t understand, and never have understood, why some Christians choose to spend time on, and expose their minds and hearts to this sort of garbage. Mind enlightening me? Thanks.

    September 17, 2015
    • I don’t know, maybe the crazy idea that the merits of a film can’t be reduced to counting how many swear words it contains?

      Probably not enlightening enough for you. Sorry.

      September 18, 2015
      • Liberty #

        To be honest, no, that wasn’t really enlightening enough for me. I get what you are saying, and that’s a fine argument for the world to make, but it really doesn’t answer the question. I’m not saying that the film has no merit or has no legitimate comment to make on the human condition. But aren’t we, as believers, called to a different standard? It’s not about counting swear words, it’s about how we invest the time we’ve been given and what we expose our minds and our hearts to.

        I realize my original comment sounded pretty judgmental and self-righteous. That wasn’t my intent and please forgive me for that tone: the Lord knows that I’m not innocent in this regard. But my concern is that our current Christian culture embraces much of what the world has to offer for entertainment even though it does very little or nothing to help equip the church, to build up our fellow believers, to bring light to the plight of the hopeless, or to draw us nearer to Christ. It usually does the opposite. Shouldn’t we instead be immersing ourselves in the Gospel, in the only answer to the hopelessness that surrounds us?

        September 18, 2015
      • our current Christian culture embraces much of what the world has to offer for entertainment even though it does very little or nothing to help equip the church, to build up our fellow believers, to bring light to the plight of the hopeless, or to draw us nearer to Christ.

        Would writing an article about the unarticulated longings that a film gives voice to, and pointing them in a better direction count as “helping equip the church or build up fellow believers?”

        September 18, 2015
      • Liberty #

        Well, pointing people to the forgiveness found in the cross of Christ and the joy of a life with Christ as Lord accomplishes that for sure. But is watching and commenting on a film like this, the content of which would be a stumbling block to many, necessary or even useful in that? Do we really need to expose ourselves, in the form of entertainment, to what I previously termed ‘garbage’ to get a grasp of and then speak to the hopelessness that surrounds us? We meet people every day whose lives cry out for value and meaning… we know the despair. What is desperately missing is the hope. So doesn’t it make more sense for us to be investing our time, our hearts and our minds in the Gospel, so as to better equip us to point to the answer to that longing?

        September 18, 2015
      • Well, again, sorry you’re not convinced. Not sure what else I can say. I happen to think that watching, critiquing and commenting on films IS one small way (among many others, including much more important ones) of investing time to equip others. Film can be a window into what moves people. And people have told me that they appreciate posts like this one for precisely the reasons stated above.

        I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

        September 18, 2015

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