Romantics, Cynics, and Shalom at the Movies

I am a romantic. I like movies with happy endings. I justify this by saying there is enough in real life to make me sober and discontent, so watching You’ve Got Mail for the seventeenth time is a nice little escape to soothe my battered soul.

Not so fast, suggests Robert Johnston. Those angst-ridden films have a spiritual purpose as well. In his book, Useless Beauty, Johnston holds the canonical tome Ecclesiastes in one hand and his remote control in the other. Useless Beauty As he writes in the preface, “Two edgy sources of wisdom–contemporary movies and Ecclesiastes–one ancient and one postmodern, will be put into conversation to explore what if any meaning can be found within life’s contradictions.”

Johnston does a creative interpretation of both the films and the biblical text, in this case moving from the films to the text in a way that illumines both. While I have not seen all of the films he cites (see the first two sentences), he helped even a romantic like me come to appreciate the truth proclaimed in a film like About Schmidt.

He does this by reminding me as a reader of the juxtaposition of joy and sorrow that is the lived reality of us all. This is the juxtaposition so clearly articulated in Ecclesiastes and seen with an aching accuracy in the films he cites. Johnston works primarily with the films American Beauty, Magnolia, Run Lola Run, Monster’s Ball, Signs, Election, and About Schmidt, although references to other films abound, particularly films that build Johnston’s case and further exemplify a particular director’s passions. Johnston also devotes an entire chapter to the labors of Japanese director and screenwriter Akira Kurosawa (focusing on Ikiru) and the American filmmaker who most embodies angst, Woody Allen (focusing on Crimes and Misdemeanors).

Johnston does a masterful job of gleaning out the essential elements of these existential films in a way that makes you want to run out and rent them. For a romantic like me, Johnston offers just a bit of academic distance from the chaos portrayed in the films to make them safe enough to rent. I won’t be entirely unaffected by the darkness of the Crimes, but I’ll be able to understand it within a larger context. That context is given by the Preacher, or Qoheleth, as Johnston calls him, the author of Ecclesiastes.

Throughout Johnston’s book, the scripture quotes come primarily from the Good News Bible, which he chooses “in order that Qoheleth’s ancient text may be heard with power and freshness.” Indeed. Read this Word from the Lord: “Oh yes, I know what they say: ‘If you obey God, everything will be all right, but it will not go well for the wicked…’ But this is nonsense. Look at what happens in the world” (Eccles. 8:12-14). Johnston weaves such lines throughout his text, which serve as a proverbial commentary on his writing about the films. This leads me to say that this is a better book for film buffs than biblical scholars, as I kept wanting more about the purpose of Ecclesiastes within the canon, its own claims and rhythms, and the ways in which this text has puzzled and inspired commentators and preachers. (He adds a bit of this in an appendix, but I still craved more.)

Ecclesiastes serves as a biblical witness to the truth of the films, leading parts of the book to read like this: “See, life is nasty, brutish, and short (pithy quote from Ecclesiastes confirming this). But, hey, at least we have little moments of joy in which a plastic bag blowing in the wind (American Beauty) or eating chocolate ice cream with a plastic spoon (Monster’s Ball) remind us that there is beauty in the world (another pithy quote from Ecclesiastes). It may be useless (book title) or vain (Ecclesiastes), but it’s there” (summary quote from Ecclesiastes).

I understand Johnston’s intent. The films and the book both teach us about the marriage of sorrow and joy that is our lived reality. He quotes Lewis Smedes early in the book: “Joy also has to be compatible with the pain within me. To promise joy without pain is Pollyannaism, make-believe, deceit. Legitimate joy must be the experience of joy along with pain. And it seems to me possible.”

Yes, I would add. It is possible. But it is possible because of hope and because of redemption and because of the Gospel. This is where the films, and I dare say, Ecclesiastes–at least as represented here–fall short. I am a romantic, yes, but I am also a Christian, and one who preaches and pastors at that. If I did not have things like grace and hope and resurrection in my vocabulary and was limited to lines from Ecclesiastes, I would hang it up and sell shoes. The joy of which Smedes writes is possible not because of pain, but because pain is not all there is. The suffering of this world represented in these films of executioners and their prisoners, of insurance salesmen from Omaha, of Lester and Lola and young Cole Sear, will someday be over. I am neither comforted by nor content with “a narrative context in which life’s uselessness and its God-given beauty might be concurrently embraced,” which is how Johnston appraises current scholarship on Ecclesiastes and is the theme which is woven through this book. Yes, these films remind us of the complexity of the world, of the useless beauty that surrounds our burdened lives, but they also leave me crying out for more.

I warned you at the start: I am a romantic. I like happy endings. Some would say that we are made to want them, that such longings for peace and wholeness and–ah ha!–shalom are part of our make-up as image bearers of the Most High God. But shalom in its fullness is not yet here, and Johnston helps us see how our fellow image- bearers experience and respond to that lack, and he does so in a way that is artistic and insightful. Because of that, this book would be a fine one for a study group, especially if the group all watched the films together and then discussed them. But promise me you’ll read Revelation 21:1-4 at the end. And maybe watch You’ve Got Mail.

Mary Hulst is a doctoral candidate in communication ethics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.