Guest commentary by Joshua Musser Gritter
Parallels between the biblical narrative and modern film aren’t always easy to come by. Whether it’s the result of modernity’s false dichotomy of sacred vs. secular, or popular Christianity’s tendency to reproduce its own theological issues in its art ( such as “Passion of the Christ” or “Fireproof”), we Christians don’t always have a penchant for seeing the theological in popular movies that aren’t overtly Christian.
Beyond the issues of modernity and bad Christian movies, most of us simply do not think of movies as art, but rather solely as mediums of entertainment. You go to the movies in order to withdraw from the world. You go to take a break. You go to have a laugh, to experience fear, to encounter something outside of the conflicted and confusing days in which we find ourselves. Personally, I have nothing against this great American pastime. During seminary, when I wasn’t reading Karl Barth or memorizing Hebrew declensions, I was sitting in a recliner at my friend Kollin’s watching movies.
What I realized during those 2 a.m. movie nights was that some of these movies were making Scripture more alive to me than were the biblical commentaries I spent so much time reading. Commentaries articulate, they present argumentation, they exegete, but they are not art. Commentaries cannot reveal, touch, unveil, foretell or describe what is most important about us human creatures — that we are narrative beings created in the image of a narrative God.
We are the sum total of the stories we have heard, lived and told. As Christians we claim the biblical story, the story of God, as the story within which we find our being and identity. In other words, there’s no way to answer life’s two most important questions – “Who is God?” and “Who are we?” – without telling a story. Movies do this. They open up narrative worlds for us to taste, touch, see and smell. Stories are what movies do best.
One of the more compelling stories I have had the pleasure to live within recently is “Beautiful Boy,” starring Steve Carrell and Timothy Chalamet. Based on the memoirs of Dave (the father) and Nick Cheff (the son), “Beautiful Boy” is the story of a love-struck father and his drug-addicted son. More than a story about the deleterious effects of drug addiction on the user, this is a story about the emotional wreckage addiction wreaks on the families left in its wake. As Dave and his wife Karen sit at a meeting for families of the addicted, a woman who has lost a child to an overdose puts it saliently: “This has been a tough week for me. I lost my child this week. I suppose I am in mourning. But then I realized that I’ve been mourning for a long time. We mourn the living.”
“Beautiful Boy” is hard to watch because it is unflinching in its display of the raw grief that accompanies mourning the living. But the unease and sorrow the film produces are what makes it so true as a human story. Yes, the movie feels at times long and exhausting. The son disappears. The son uses. The father drives the city streets late at night in search of his son. The son goes to rehab. The son relapses. The cycle continues. More than once I found myself angry with the father, shaking the screen and asking: Why do you keep inviting your son home when you know that what happens next will further destroy you?
I found my answer as I read another story after watching the film — this story, too, about a father and a son. As the story goes, a father had two sons. The youngest son asks for his share in his father’s retirement portfolio and travelsto the big city where he spends it all on drugs and alcohol. Ashamed, deteriorated and addicted, the son returns home, where he believes he is to be stripped of his identity — no longer will he be called son.
As I read this familiar parable, I noticed how “Beautiful Boy” had opened my imagination to the moments lying in the narrative white space of a story I’d heard so many times before. I saw for the first time an image of the son as he journeyed home — his face full of deep dismay, his body hunched over and covered in grime and dirt, his unkempt long brown hair dripping with sweat. For the first time I saw, too, the father’s waiting. I saw him struggling to focus on his work. I saw him lying many nights on his boy’s childhood bed. I saw him as he recalled memories of a younger boy brimming with life. I saw him weeping alone in his office. I saw the father in Luke’s Gospel mourning the living.
Like the father in the film, I saw how the father in Jesus’ parable has long been searching in the darkness for his beautiful boy, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). Here, too, in this bold and beautiful embrace immortalized by artists for two millennia, I saw something new. I saw for the first time the relief of the father, and the nervous energy of the son. I understood the anger of the family. I could hear their scorn as they asked, “Why does he who has hurt us so much deserve to be let back in?” I saw how the unassailable power of a parent’s love is bigger than any mistake a child makes. I saw how life can get you lost, but never too lost to be found.
Perhaps what “Beautiful Boy” did was hit me square in the face with the meaning of Jesus’ parable — a story about who God truly is in God’s very heart. Both stories, both father-son relationships, are summed up in the words Dave speaks to his son Nick when he is young: “Do you want to know how much I love you? If you could put together all the words in the language, it still wouldn’t describe how much I love you. What I feel for you is everything. I love you more than everything.”
JOSHUA MUSSER GRITTER co-pastors First Presbyterian Church in Salisbury, North Carolina, with his wife Lara. They watch movies together with their dog Red.
Questions for discussion:
1) How did “Beautiful Boy” shift your perspective on the way addiction affects not only individuals, but entire families?
2) Have you ever thought of “addiction” as a metaphor for sin? How does that metaphor illuminate the way we think theologically about the human condition?
3) “Beautiful Boy” is a film about the power of unconditional love. What did it teach you?
4) Films provide us various images of God. In “Beautiful Boy,” which characters illuminated God’s character for you?
5) Read Luke 15:11-32. How do these two father-son stories mutually inform and interpret one another?