Friday, March 05, 2010

The Power of God Has Broken Our Complacency like A Bullet in the Side: Notes of Grace, Illness and Violence in Popular Culture Part 5

Part 1 begins here, and part 2 (on Clement of Rome) continues here. Part 3 (on Flannery O'Connor) can be found here. Part 4, on Sufjan Stevens, can be found here.

The Wrestler

When the Christianity Today movie blog reviewed Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, commenter Roland gave the film one star, and wrote the following:
My one star comes from if I would recommend this for Christians. Im not sure if this site is something thats promotional to Christian values but "The Wrestler" does everything BUT promote any kind of good meaningful message of any kind. As a Christian myself I can sit through this film objectively and see the real storyline and the helpless position the main character goes through. I do find it peculiar that the reviewer of "Christianity Today Movies" doesnt mention the 2 dozen shots of T&A , or the extremely graphic imagine of Rourke having sex in a bathroom with a stranger after snorting cocain. Interesting story to tell. If you like skin flicks.. this one is for you, probably not your pastor.

I'm not sure how Roland would feel about the fact that this particular pastor not only found The Wrestler to be theologically significant – unlike the Christianity Today review that made no mention at all about the theological content of the film – or what he might think about the fact that this pastor also commended the film to his parishioners in the parish newsletter.

That this film is intentionally theological is apparent in the very first few moments of the film. When Randy visits Cassidy in the strip club, she says:
'He was pierced for our transgressions, and was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.'
Randy: What was that all about.
Cassidy: It was the passion of the Christ. You have the same hair. You've never seen it? Dude you gotta. They throw everything at him. Whips. Arrows. Rocks. They beat the living shit out of him for the whole two hours. He just takes it.
Randy: Tough dude.
Cassidy, pointing at Randy: The sacrificial Ram!

But notice that Cassidy doesn't say that she is quoting Isaiah – she is quoting The Passion of the Christ. Later, Randy will play himself in a videogame with a boy from his trailer park. Cassidy's son will play with a Randy the Ram doll. We learn that Randy's real name is Robin when he quits wrestling for a short time to serve meat at the grocery store. We are constantly reminded that the imitation is never the fullness of the original. The crucifixion is mediated through the film The Passion, and this is again mediated to the Randy ignorant of both scripture and film; the video game perpetually simulates the high point of Randy's career; toys in the hands of a child act out live matches; Randy is both more himself and less than himself when he gives up wrestling and is given another name. Like the dying notes of the Christian narrative, Randy becomes increasingly removed from those things that make him himself, and increasingly difficult to recognize.

These reminders, but particularly the connections drawn between the wrestler losing his physical abilities in a kind of forced kenosis; his sacrificial giving of himself for the sake of the crowds; and through his abandonment by the single person that believed in him, we can't help but see that Jesus is both strangely present and absent in this man, like the faded Jesus tattoo in Randy's back. Grace is seen in Randy's love of Cassidy (despite her own failings), his friendships with the boys in his trailer park, and his attempt to make good with his daughter. One of the most moving scenes in the film is of Randy and his daughter, reliving once-lost memories, dancing and laughing together in a condemned and decaying ballroom. It is a moment of reconciliation, forgiveness, and love, sandwiched between his earlier abandonment of her, and his subsequent betrayal of her trust.

Yet despite the confidence of Cassidy, pointing out Randy's stigmata and confidently calling him the sacrificial victim, we are reminded throughout the film just how far Randy is from sanctified. He deals Vicodin and Percoset from his trailer; he continues to take the steroids that are so destructive to his aging body; he is estranged from his daughter through his own negligence. Yet grace penetrates this man's life, not despite of his sin, but because of it. Despite the fading notes of his own personhood, and his ignorance of the story of Jesus, Jesus remains an active, even sanctifying presence in his life. Randy’s fallen and sinful motivations become the very grounds of grace, whether that be his selfish self-neglect that leads to his presumed death at the end of the film – a presumed death immediately followed by a screen as empty and black as the tomb itself. The wrestling ring, where he acts out the costly battle between good and evil with his friends, is the location of his sacrificial death for the crowds, a death that arises out of his own ability to be anything more than a wrestler. There is no moral voice excusing Randy, or vindicating him; his life simply plays out, violently and yet strangely full of a grace made possible because of his own failings.


Arising out of this particular theologically charged aesthetic, where moral conviction is intentionally obscured or absent, and grace is made available according to the shape of sin and death, rather than despite of it, comes two implied criticisms. First, songs like Delia's Gone put the machines that churn out the kind of Christian art that offer the narrative equivalent of "Jesus is my girlfriend" under significant scrutiny, because they show the truth of a world mired in sin, and disallow any kind of propagandist isolationism where grace and the goodness of God become sealed away from the world God loves and redeems, a world under judgment and grace. Second, because it is a person of the Trinity who descends and interrupts through a graceful act while maintaining human freedom, it puts under scrutiny the narratives of the cult of the will, where moral self-betterment come without the intervention of the God from whom all good things come. As these artists probe the absolute boundaries of a world that God creates and loves, fallen and under both judgment and grace, we find ourselves pursued by a God unhindered by the depths of our corruption or even our seeming ability to forget, willingly offering himself to us according to that corruption, never disallowing human freedom as he offers to us his graceful redemption.