Each week in Notes From the Margins, D.L. Mayfield writes about the kingdom of God, marginalized people groups, and popular culture.
When I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild a few weeks ago, I was completely unprepared for the visual and emotional impact the film would have on me. The lights, shaky camera, grainy and gritty footage—the exuberance, the celebration, the grief, the quiet terror lurking underneath all that water.
I was sucked into the story, my heart tied to the fate of that strong and fragile 6-year-old heroine, Hush puppy. And when the movie was over, I wiped my eyes and turned to my husband. “I wonder if the director lived in a community like The Bathtub,” I said, and he concurred. There was such a sense of solidarity in the film, of being ushered into something very real and experienced. Beasts of the Southern Wild is full of poverty, but it was one of the few films I have seen to show it in an all-encompassing way—addictions, loneliness, fear, courage, creativity, and celebration, all swirling together.
I was gratified to read later that the director, although he is not from a small swamp community beyond the levee, did spend eight months living with families who did. Although he was not one of the insiders, something about him led the community he was researching to accept him. He lived with them, experienced life with them, heard the fights, and joined in the parties. The family he lived with eventually “adopted him,” speaking to the great lengths to which this director shared his life with them. It was a mutual experience: You show me your world, and I will do my best to share it well to others.
The director did a stellar job of becoming a learner, so he could better represent the story he was trying to tell.
I wish this was the norm, but it isn’t so. American culture is full of stereotypes, one-note stories and caricatures. And we eat it up, consume them with gusto, because stories without nuance go down easier, cause us to live less in the tension of our everyday lives. Christians too are susceptible to this desire for a less complicated story. Most of our explicitly Christian movies, songs, and books are chipper, motivational, and upbeat almost to a fault. When words like “safe” and “positive” become a hallmark of Christianity, we can be assured that we have lost touch with the vast majority of people in the world.
Because this is the truth: Two-thirds of the world lives in some sort of poverty; at least one third of that is abject, lack-of-basic-necessities poverty. Families are broken, children are neglected or abused, people are locked in desperate cycles of addiction. There is suffering and sin, all around us; why do we choose not to see it?
The other side of the truth is this: There are miracles, all around. God is at work, and He is bringing His Kingdom even now. In the midst of the brokenness, people everywhere have found love, redemption, and healing through the power of Christ’s love. The craziest thing about all this is that God chooses to love others through His Church, His broken and beautiful body of believers.
People everywhere are hungry for signs that God is at work, that “Aslan is on the move.” But we can’t immerse ourselves in the miracles without first confronting the grim realities of our world. The kingdom of God is a two-edged sword—it is now, and it is not yet. I am always on the lookout for where it is now, always reminded that it is not yet fully here.
I found elements of the kingdom of God in Beasts of the Southern Wild—the realities of the harsh environments, the celebrations, the courage of that small heroine. I found it in the director’s willingness to speak truthfully, without patronizing or sensationalizing. I found it in the sadness and the joy, all intertwined. It moved me, and taught me a little bit more about the realities of the world that I am blissfully unaware of, caught up in my own struggle to stay safe and sound.
I will be looking for signs of the kingdom wherever I can find it; and most likely it will be in the stories of those at the margins of our societies. The poor, the unwanted, the displaced, the ill; those were the people that found the good news of Jesus irresistible, and they are the ones who walked away from everything to follow him. So it will be here, in stories of the margins, where we find signs of the kingdom. And it will be here, too, that we discuss how the so-called “voiceless” are not being given their due in American pop culture.
The kingdom is coming; do we have the eyes to see it?