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The Dark Night of the Soul

The Dark Night of the Soul

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 22, 2021 BY American Vision

Most evangelicals tend to think in “words.” This is certainly understandable because of the Protestant focus on the Bible as the sole authority (sola Scriptura) and the Lutheran concept of the “priesthood of all believers.” When this is applied to storytelling and film, this primary focus on word over image ends up killing the spirit of the message in favor of trying too hard to make sure the message is clearly heard. Dr. Thom Parham puts it this way:

Film excels at metaphor—forging a connection between dissimilar objects or themes. It doesn’t fare as well with text messaging. Show, don’t tell, is the rule of cinema. Christians, however, can’t seem to resist the prospect of using film as a high-tech flannel board. The result is more akin to propaganda than art, and propaganda has a nasty habit of hardening hearts.[1]

In other words, when Christians think about story and movies they invariably look for ways to present the Gospel in clear and uncertain ways. For them, the end determines the means and the finished product usually suffers as a result, coming across as lifeless and artificial. Two very well-known Christmas tales transcend this trap of overt evangelism and manage to tell a Gospel story without having to resort to “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” as the conclusion.

The first of these is A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ told and re-told, adapted and re-adapted account of the bitter and surly hater of everything Christmas, Ebenezer Scrooge. Although it could correctly be objected that Dickens had ulterior motives in his beloved narrative of the Christmas Eve conversion of one of literatures’ most famous villains, the surface level of A Christmas Carol is plenty deep enough to warrant a closer look without getting bogged down in Dickens’ personal views of capitalism and social welfare. Victorian-era England was still very much aware of how Christianity was at the bottom of its culture and traditions. In fact, Dickens himself writes in such a way that most modern Americans, ignorant as they are of the Scriptures, would be hard pressed to miss the overt references to the Bible found throughout the original book.

The general theme of A Christmas Carol is one of redemption, a life redeemed from an inward focus to an outward focus. The priorities of Scrooge’s life change in one night from one of greed and accumulation of material wealth, to one of benevolence and generosity. Clearly, Scrooge doesn’t “become a Christian” in the usual sense of the phrase, but he becomes one in his realignment of ultimate priorities.

St. Augustine taught about the proper alignment of priorities based on the biblical teaching to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and your neighbor as yourself. According to Augustine, the biblical hierarchy is God, neighbor, self; any deviation from this alignment of priorities is sin. When three supernatural visitors upend Scrooge’s priorities, the result is something akin to the biblical model; and this is where the power of the story lies.

The most amazing part of Scrooge’s “conversion,” is the wretched nature of his former self. Dickens pulls no punches in his description of Scrooge’s selfishness to the extent that, “Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, ‘No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!’” It is this grim picture of a dark and cold human heart that makes the radical change so much sweeter. And such is the true nature of the Gospel, turning darkness into light and blindness into sight. As Zacharias prophesies in Luke 1:79: “To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

In similar fashion, It’s a Wonderful Life tells a redemptive story of the powerful effect that one man’s life can have. George Bailey is given a glimpse of what the present would be like without him. While Ebenezer Scrooge is given a foretaste of the wretched end that awaits him if he doesn’t alter his current course, George Bailey is allowed to experience just how different the present would be if he had never been born.

Wonderful Life is a dark film. Similar to Dickens’ vivid descriptions of Scrooge’s foul demeanor, the viewers of Wonderful Life are taken on a hard, bumpy ride as they follow George Bailey’s path from a young, bright-eyed, soon-to-be world-traveler to a “warped, frustrated young man.” Director Frank Capra expertly lets the story unfold naturally, allowing the viewer to experience firsthand the steady weakening of George’s optimism, as events and circumstances slowly grind his life’s dreams to dust. As with A Christmas Carol, the dénouement of Wonderful Life centers on the importance of relationships and gratefulness, not material possessions and dreams of a better career.

It is interesting that these two stories have become as synonymous with the Christmas season as wreaths and pumpkin pie. Christians should be quick to notice the Gospel in both of these similar storylines. While we can certainly approve of the not-so-subtle anti-materialistic message common to both stories, we should also be reminded of the savage world that Christ Himself entered as a baby, more than two thousand years ago.

Jesus was born in a stable in a world that wanted Him dead (Matthew 1:13-14). Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey are kindred spirits that have been hardened by the world of profit and loss. In the black and white world of financial plusses and minuses, it’s a relatively small step to begin to see people in the very same way. Scrooge and Bailey became consumed with the dollar signs, forsaking their relationships along the way. Jesus came looking for a relationship—a marital one (Ephesians 5:22-33)—not temporal prosperity and financial gain. The reason that these two stories stand the test of time is because they parallel the real story of Christmas: the Incarnation and nativity of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is not to say, though, that these two stories are “Christian” in the sense that many modern Christians tend to think about such things. It is true that neither of these stories has a comprehensive Gospel message that leads readers and viewers to the Cross. But this misses the point entirely of what makes something Christian or non-Christian.

Christians should be able to tell the best stories because we have seen both sides of the “great chasm” (Luke 16:26). We understand the depth of the depravity of the human heart because we have a reference point; someone who has never been clean has no idea how dirty they really are. Although A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life were never intended to be Christian parables, they endure because their authors understood something about the reality of living in a fallen world. Whether or not the authors understood the Gospel, they certainly understood that something is broken.

In reality, this understanding is the first step in coming to terms with the radical solution offered by Jesus Christ. We can’t do it on our own; we need supernatural mediation. And this is exactly what Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey received through their respective Christmas Eve visitors. The power of these stories lies in the new understandings imparted to these two men, and what they do with this new information. And this is the true message of Christmas: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

[1] Thom Parham, “Why Do Heathens Make the Best Christian Films?” essay found in: Spencer Lewerenz and Barbara Nicolosi (editors), Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 57.

Original article posted on The American Vision site, and written by American Vision.

Article re-posted on Markethive by Jeffrey Sloe

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