I just finished a couple of major deadlines in my secular work and I celebrated by watching a movie in my hotel room. I’ve seen Million Dollar Baby before, but this movie is told so cinematically, so emotionally, that even when I know the plot ahead of time I find myself going through the same gut-wrenching, agonizing struggles that Frankie (a boxing trainer, Clint Eastwood) and Maggie (his boxer, Hillary Swank) have to face.
The tears and sadness I feel when watching that excruciating story morphs for me into a warm and settled expectation at the end (after my cry). Not because that story ends well. (For those who still haven’t seen this 4-Oscar-winning best picture, I won’t share any details of the plot.) Yes, it’s a work of fiction that feels as sad and overwhelming as any of the myriad tragic stories we hear about every day. Yes, on the face of it I could agree with Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer who wrote that ‘no movie in my memory has depressed me more than Million Dollar Baby.’“
The only real hope that comes from the Hollywood portrayal itself, in my opinion, flows from the crystalline quality of all 3 leading characters of the story. (Eastwood, Swank, and Morgan Freeman) All three face deep disappointments and overwhelming personal challenges. All of them, at some level, fail in achieving their dreams, and the film departs from the normal romanticizing tendencies of pop culture to allow the characters to find a way of coping with their own failure, rather than miraculously finding a way out.
This encourages me because, first of all, I am persuaded that the Bible does not romanticize the experiences of this life for anyone, either. “People die all the time” is not just the realistic pronouncement of the sage observer, Freeman. It’s also the simple story of the Bible.
And I also find encouragement because of the finely-tuned sensibilities of so many people, including the folks in Hollywood who Christians love to bash — people who are pursuing the truth of human life and spirituality with grit, objectivity, and fairness. Increasingly, the reality of the failings of heroes, as well as the mitigating qualities of the “bad guys” are served up in realistic ways. Again, I find this much more like the Bible than the romanticized pulp I here coming from, say, “Focus on the Family” or other well-intentioned but, in my view, simplistic advocates of a brand of Christianity.
For me, then, real hope comes, not from a sweet but ultimately romantic humanistic sentimentality which says that “getting our shot” (as Freeman put it) is all we can hope for. Nor does it come from the faith (?) of a Churchianity that’s been, amazingly, quite deceived: that everyone already has all the shot God in his “sovereignty” has allowed for them…. forever. If either of those options were true, then all the many people who have died trying, or died without trying, or died meaninglessly because of the stupidity or negligence or evil of another, would have died for nothing. They would be just where Freeman thinks Eastwood might have gone… “somewhere between nowhere and goodbye.” Or, if the Christian mainstream is right, they’d be well beyond good-bye, into horrible, unceasing, conscious “good riddance”.
Hope comes from the promise of a resurrection. Not a tentative, deductive, inferential hope that comes from reading ancient poetry or believing myths. The Bible is quite concrete and direct in its promises of a universal resurrection… and more than that, a thoroughgoing exploration of all the lessons of life for every person. A day of reckoning that is transformational, hopeful, and reconstructive. An Act Two that builds on Act One, and doesn’t kill off any of the characters. And those characters who exit in Act Three (after the Millennium) will do so of their own volition, their own informed and fully conscious choice.
Movies like Million Dollar Baby, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler’s List leave me, after I’ve had my cry (and I really am a soft touch in those kinds of tragedies) with a profound satisfaction that the goals of God that are so clearly stated, and will indeed be achieved … and that the methods of God we see about us will yet prove to be so brilliantly wise and incessantly loving as to take our breath away.
When the world comes to its Act 3, there won’t be a nowhere, and there won’t be any more goodbyes. And I think that’s why God is happy.