Robert Downey Jr., Walk the Line, and the Problem of Redemptive Themes

Often, your best friends also tick you off the most. No exception here. My buddy Drew constantly teases me about CAPC. He likes to pick on me for being a poor dresser, too, but he’s basically right about that so I can’t complain.

His favorite joke is that at CAPC all we do is try to find, “redemptive themes,” in movies. “Where was the redemptive theme in THAT?” he asked, 30 seconds after we walked out of “The Dark Knight.”

My friend’s unfair (and uninformed) joking is a humorous pain in the neck, but he highlights a real problem in Christian circles- we often evaluate movies by only looking for two things; content (much discussed elsewhere in CAPC) and redemptive themes.

Worse, we look for and encourage these themes even when the “redemption” being portrayed is different or even antithetical to the Christian version of redemption. Christian redemption recognizes sin, accepts Christ’s offer of forgiveness, submits to God’s will, and has confidence in the hope of heaven. Worldly redemption realizes that life sucks or that someone screwed up, pulls oneself up by the bootstraps, and results in living out your life more happy than you were before. Those two things are, um, different.

Exhibit A is the list Christianity Today puts out each year; “The 10 Most Redeeming Films of [the year].” This list is intended to help people find quality movies, which of course I appreciate. The problem is the idea that movies with ANY kind of redemption are healthier for Christian consumption than those that have none, even if the non-redemptive movies are a more accurate portrayal of Truth.

For example, let’s take examples from 2007. CT highlights, “Into the Wild.” They say:

This idealistic young man was running away from the right problems, but he ultimately ran right past the meaning of life—and those mistakes cost him his life. But the beauty and wisdom he encounters along the way have much to offer us all.”

Wait… what? The kid dies for no reason and misses the point of life, but it’s a redemptive movie because he encounters beauty and wisdom? And what, “meaning of life,” does the movie portray him as missing? Happiness is only real when shared?

The list goes on to recommend “The Kite Runner.” Interesting movie- but redemption from guilt without redemption from sin is not a helpful message. We Christians want to be clear that sin leads to death, no matter what acts of goodness you do to make up for past actions.

Finally, the list highlights “Ratatouille.” Well made? Yes. A good example of the Christian idea of redemption? No. Listen to this:

This feast for the eyes and the soul is also a commentary about the pursuit of excellence, rather than settling for competence, and about how great things can come from the unlikeliest of places.”

Since when does any of that help point people toward the gospel? Is it really the Biblical witness that redemption is about pursuing excellence and believing in yourself?

Now, noticeably absent from the list were two of the best movies of the year; “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men.” I entirely agree than neither one portrayed redemption… but for that very reason, I think they were much more accurate portrayals of the TRUTH of the world -its sinful, greedy, self serving side in particular- than any of the, “redemptive,” movies above.

How are Christian leaders teaching Christians to think about art? Is it supposed to feel good or be truthful?

Let’s take two biographical stories of redemption vs. non-redemption.

One, while still a young man, had a career in the ministry set before him. However, he left. He wandered around the country, using props and demonstrations to express his message that the country was headed down the tubes, that there was no hope for society. Further, he argued that the best people would survive the coming challenges, but the bad people would not. Even so, when war came he stuck with the bad people, and eventually died with them.

Another man became an actor at a very young age. He made several movies, but then fell into drug abuse. He failed several rehab programs. He was arrested multiple times. He drove down Sunset Boulevard naked, throwing imaginary rats out of the window. Eventually, though, he turned his life around. He cleaned up his act. He got some more acting jobs, and was fantastic. Now he is healthy, active, and engaged in multiple projects. He was also named the Entertainer of the Year.

The story of the first man, if made into a movie, may not sound redemptive. The story of the second does. But the first man is the prophet Jeremiah, a faithful follower of God. The second is Robert Downey Jr., now an herbal health nut and clearly not interested in Christianity at all. Which man is better at pointing to the gospel?

Here’s a comment I wrote on a blog about “Walk The Line,” the movie about Johnny Cash:

I agree that there is something inherently dangerous about Walk The Line.

I don’t think it is saying Cash’s sins are good, nor that his life on the whole is a model to follow. In fact, I agree that it is a story of redemption.

However, it is not redemption from an unholy life and sin so much as it is redemption from PAIN. As portrayed by Hollywood, Cash goes through great struggle to find happiness. In the end, he seems no less self-serving and hedonistic than before; he has merely come to a new understanding of which self-serving desires are the best ones to fulfill. The pain of long experience has taught him that happiness comes through sobriety, popularity, and June Carter rather than alcohol, drugs, and the first Mrs. Cash. He orders his life accordingly.

To me, this story glorifies the intertwining of the maturation process and the pursuit of happiness. In his early life, his lack of the former led to mistakes in his pursuit of the latter. Through painful experience and failures, he learns to realign his values so that his pursuit of happiness and selfish desires is guided by the ‘wisdom’ of maturation.

This is where the dangerous part comes in. Hollywood glorifies these two themes in the life of Johnny Cash, rather than repentance of sin and glorification of God. Thanks to selective story telling (I’m sure we’d have a different take if the whole story was told from his first wife’s perspective), we are made to sympathize with his choices as he tries to be happy, and then hurt for him when these choices turn out to be destructive. We are then made to feel emotionally happy when, through his experiences, he finally gains a ‘happy’ and productive life. Do what you want, the movie seems to say, but do it in a way that won’t cause you pain in the long term.

Thus, drugs and alcohol are bad. However, that nagging wife is never going to change, and you couldn’t really be happy without June, now could you? Therefore, the happy life of the ending is drug and alcohol free, but June remains.

Remember, when she won awards for this movie, Reese Witherspoon continually referred to June Carter as her ‘inspiration.’ Though she may not be able to articulate it, for my money I’d bet it’s because the world tends to deify those who have the patience to wait for the maturation process to come to completion.

So, I think the movie is a significant danger to younger people. They are taught to see beauty in finding what they want and what makes them happy, even if there are a lot of pitfalls along the way. They are taught to respond to their emotions as their guide, and to let pain (not sin) be their teacher. They are taught that when health, wealth, and happiness are present, all is well with the world, and when poverty and boredom and pain come, you need to make changes in your life.

Those are not the values I want for my kids, nor for myself. I’ll take Chariots of Fire instead, thanks.”

So Christians, stop pretending that a “good” movie is only one that fits some form of “redemption from everything.” And stop boycotting movies that are truthful about the sin and junk in the world. If we want to proclaim the true gospel to the world, we had better start with Truth.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • http://www.gaffneyjournal.blogspot.com Sean Gaffney

    Ben,

    Okay, good points in asking “redeemed from what?” I have to say, I’m with you on INTO THE WILD. Not so much with you on RATATOUILLE.

    And way off the tracks with your choice of movie to scape goat.

    Wow. I’m wondering if there is a different WALK THE LINE with Reese Witherspoon out there that you saw.

    Where to begin? How about here: I defy you to give me any story of redemption through Christ that I couldn’t turn around and realign to be as hollow as you just did for WALK THE LINE. (The prodigal son selfishly turns away from pain in the calculated hope of getting a hedonistic party out of his dad.)

    You say that the movie “is not redemption from an unholy life and sin so much as it is redemption from PAIN.” Yet the movie makes clear, from beginning to end, that it is his unholy life that causes his pain.

    Every aspect – not just the drugs.

    Cash’s treatment of his first wife is anything but glorified in the movie. Really, the scene of her moving out in your mind is one of joy and freedom to Cash? June’s call from her family after her adultery is seen in your eyes as the filmmakers expressing fulfillment in hedonism?

    At the end of his journey, Cash is anything but hedonistic and self-serving. What do you think Folsom is about? He defies his record company in a move that he KNOWS will be unpopular and lose money – visiting those in prison. (The movie doesn’t state it, but the driving force behind that move is a direct response to the commands of Christ.)

    It turns out to be a positive career move, not because it was calculated as such, but because it was HONORED as such.

    The movie shows rather explicitly the ugliness in seeking merely what you want and what makes you happy. It shows the danger of letting your emotion be your guide. And makes clear that health, wealth and happiness are never going to cut it. (Even goes so far as to point out that you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps – Cash tries and fails miserably.)

    Only deeper values, such as faith (okay, only given a nod in the movie, I agree), repentance, selflessness and forgiveness will lead to contentment (not happiness, mind you).

    It seems that your beef isn’t with what the movie addresses, but rather that Johnny Cash chose a road that ultimately eased his pain. That despite turning his back on a worldly outlook, God allowed him wealth, family and joy.

    Through Christ, I too have joy. Bummer for me, huh?

    Oh, and my money goes on Reese seeing (and recognizing) and being inspired by the light of Jesus in the saved sinner, June Carter. How much are we betting?

    -Sean Gaffney

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Hey Sean,

    There’s really only one larger point that I’m trying to make here… Christians held this movie up as being “redemptive,” but I do not think it is a picture of Christian redemption.

    Now, I DO think that in most ways the true story of Johnny Cash is one Christians can and should appreciate. But the way the movie portrayed it, he gained blessings by maturing, not by repenting. He gained marital contentment because June stuck it out, not because he remained committed to his first wife.

    As you point out, the problem is that the movie doesn’t do a good job of showing his internal changes as a result of Christ. Instead it portrays them as something he just eventually realized, because he was taught by the pain of his old lifestyle (rather than their inherent sinfulness).

    And as for June Carter, do you really believe Reese Witherspoon was inspired because she was a Christian? Or merely because she stuck out the bad days (admirable, no doubt, but not the same thing as seeing the gospel through her).

    Look, I like the movie. And Johnny Cash is a great story for Christians in many ways. All I’m saying is that the directors focused the story on Johnny “growing up” and finding a healthier life, rather than realizing his sin and seeking redemption. Because of this, I do not think it is inherently more Christian than, say, There Will Be Blood. We Christians need to avoid saying movies with a “redemption from pain” story arc are necessarily better than a “sin leads to destruction” story arc, because many times the latter is more “Christian” than the former.

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..A Song and a Blessing

  • Alan Noble

    Ben,

    Great post. I’m glad you dealt with this issue, as it is tempting for Christians to try to baptize cultural creations “for God.”

    I think you point to an essential problem with all discussions of culture and faith with your study of the word “redemption.” Because our theological language is so powerful and carries such weight, we (I) are often tempted to use it loosely in order to give our ideas more validity. So instead of saying that a character realizes that drug abuse is wrong and starts taking better care of his family, we might say he is “redeemed” in the story.

    Likewise, I often find Christians playing fast and loose with the trinity, embodiment, incarnation, sacraments, and grace. These words are so (embodied) loaded with (sacramental) meaning that it is tempting to just throw them in (incarnate) to a sentence just for the heck of it (grace).

    On another note, I would argue that while No Country does not have a traditional, Christian redemptive ending, it is hopeful. I think I have an old post about that somewhere. The book, particularly, alludes to the idea that there is someway out of the unremitting violence of the film.

    -Alan

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Alan,

    Thanks for the helpful thoughts.

    You are probably right about No Country, as you know it much better than I. I was mostly focused on the movie itself, which a) was in many ways very truthful and b) was NOT on CT’s list of top “redemptive” movies. I probably should have re-read your article first.

    Either way, I’m sure we agree that Christians should exalt truth in art rather than “redemptiveness from whatever” in art.

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..A Song and a Blessing

  • Alan Noble
  • http://micknick.wordpress.com Nick Keutzer

    Mr Bartlett, a friend of mine’s mom sent an email saying why her family was not going to be seeing the movie Twilight. She acknowledged that it did promote waiting to be intimate with someone else until marriage. However, she read that the girl “sold her soul” to the Devil so that the boy vampire would protect her for eternity. In this email she said that there may be some “redemptive themes” in the movie, but it was something that they were not going to take part in.

    Is there something in particular that you would say to something like this? Especially something talking about Twilight

    Nick Keutzers last blog post..The Effects of Heaven


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