Faith, Fiction and the Need for Both

Faith, Fiction and the Need for Both August 2, 2007
The Author very recently took out Stranger than Fiction from the local video store. Having been told by friends that it ranked among the cleverest comedies ever made, the Author developed a curiosity that could only be satisfied by expending the necessary funds to hire the movie out. He was not disappointed..

Stranger than Fiction follows the story of Harold Crick (played by Will Ferrell), an IRS agent who very consciously orders his life around numbers (For instance, Harold must always brush his teeth 72 times, he must always tie his tie in a single windsor knot to save 48 seconds, he must count the number of steps he makes to catch the bus). Life for Harold is one of precision, but at the same time, it is also a very repetitious life…and a seemingly meaningless one. Harold hates his job, and apart from only one friend, Harold spends almost every minute of his existence alone.

This mundane existence gets interrupted when Harold, brushing his teeth, begins to hear a woman’s voice narrating his every move. The only problem is that he is the only one that can hear this voice. Through a series of consultations, Harold discovers that he is a character of a novel being written by a famous reclusive author, Karen Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson). More ominously, in a highly humourous scene at his usual bus stop to catch the bus home, Harold hears Karen mention his imending death. The only thing that is keeping Harold alive, however, is the fact that Karen is suffering from a bout of writer’s block and does not know exactly how to “kill” Harold, a condition that her assistant Penny (played by Queen Latifah) tries to undo. Eventually, Karen finds a way to “kill Harold off” in the novel, and the race for Harold to save himself begins.

Harold successfully locates Karen, and he tries to persuade Karen not to kill him. While genuinely distraught by the discovery of her being in such control of Harold’s destiny, Karen protests that she would be unable to complete what is her most brilliant work without Harold’s dying. She gives a copy of the manuscript to Harold, who in turn passes it onto a literature professor Jules Hibbert (played by Dustin Hoffman), whom Harold consults throughout the film. Prof. Hibbert reads the manuscript and declares it to be so masterfully written that he tells Harold that he has to die. He then hands the manuscript to Harold, who takes a long bus trip around the city so that he could read the story from start to finish. Harold too is captivated by the story, so much so that he accepts his impending death.

The acceptance of his death transforms his life, he stops counting, breaks his routine, engages in acts of altruism (which includes fulfilling his friend’s childhood desire to go to Space Camp) and also deepens his awkward relationship with a baker, Ana Pascal (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). On the day he is destined to die, Harold goes through his day calmly and purposefully. When he arrives at his bus stop (3 minutes early, rather than on the dot), Harold sees a boy ride his bike into the path of his bus. He pushes the boy away and is hit by said bus.

However, just when we all think that at this point Harold dies (there is a scene where, almost immediately after Harold is hit by the bus, the viewer is taken to Karen Eiffel’s office, where she weeps after having typed the sentence “Harold Crick was de–“), we find him waking up in a hospital bed. The viewer soon finds out that Karen had, at the last moment, changed her script entirely, so that, for the first time in her writing career, she writes a story where the protagonist does not die. The result however, is professional suicide, as she ends up writing what amounts to a mediocre tale. She is happy to live with that, however, rather than with the responsibility of sending a man to his death.

Stranger than Fiction may not be funniest comedy ever written, but it is more than made up for by its originality and intelligence, and comes highly recommended. While a great source of entertainment, Stranger than Fiction is also a great cultural resource. The movie should also bring to mind the importance of narrative to meaningfully locate the events of one’s life, and indeed find meaning and purpose to life itself. Part of the widespread dissatisfaction with Modern life stems from this complete antipathy to narrative, the emptiness of which as Catherine Pickstock hints at in Liturgy, Art and Politics, can only be filled by mindless, and purposeless, mechanistic repetition. The only antidote to such mindlessness and purposelessness, would be the insertion of the events of one’s life into a template of a story. More importantly, it has to be a story whose ending is known. This is an element that current manifestations of postmodern culture are loathe to concede, lest they admit into their congnitive maps the spectre of the Totalising Project, which are argued to be nothing more than instruments of cynical power projection and domination.

What current manifestations of postmodernity seem to fail to grasp is that, in the absence of an ending to the story, what actually occurs is actually a replication of the Modern process of repetition that postmodernity seeks to transcend. In the same way that Harold could only find meaning and purpose to his existence by reading the entirety of his story, the meaningful location of one’s life is dependent on knowing the end to the tale. Once the end is known, the fear that makes the Harolds of this world hide in mindless repetition disappears.

Christianity has an important role to play here culturally. More than a set of ideas, the recognition of Christianity as a powerful (and Kairotically complete) story of redemption, and the discovery of one’s location in that story and the direction that one’s story takes, imparts to the believer a powerful and liberating potential. For when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune arrive, the fear that would make us retreat into the Modern culture of accumulation and safeguards (manifested in things like commercialism, contraception) ought to disappear in the face of a confidence in a God who throughout the course of salvation history, proved his faithfulness in transforming the many tragedies of Israel. We, the Church, the spiritual descendents of Israel, are privy not just to the fulfilment of God’s promises in the past, but also to the consummation of those promises in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb that awaits those who bear those tragedies trusting in God’s promises (read the Book of Revelations).

Such a realisation ought to make us as Christians more than confident in, to paraphrase Thomas Merton, staring despair in the face. At the very least, the Christian need not count the number of strokes when brushing one’s teeth.

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