“It’s A Wonderful Life” And Great Joyousness

My wife and I have had a problem the last couple years with It’s a Wonderful Life. We’ve been watching it as a Christmas tradition. We do love the movie – it’s just great – but what keeps bothering us about the story is that Mr. Potter does a pretty heinous thing, for which he receives no justice, in what we see of the story anyway.

Here’s what happens if you recall: Mr. Potter wants to take control of the Building and Loan, run by George Bailey. Potter tries everything, even hiring George with the promise of much higher pay, to acquire George’s family business and control over the banking and real estate of the town of Bedford Falls. Having tried everything else, Potter swipes an envelope of cash meant to be deposited by the building and loan, putting George and his company at great risk, and starting the tragic trajectory of events the movie is famous for. George tries to find the money to no avail, which leads him to lash out uncharacteristically in anger at his family that night, and leads him out to the bridge in the snowstorm where he’s saved from suicide by Clarence the angel, and is given a chance to see what his life and everyone in it would be like without George Bailey. And on and on it goes, but the seemingly terrible thing about it if your paying attention, is that no justice ever befalls Mr. Potter for his terrible crime against George. George hurts his family, and almost kills himself over this whole mess, which is all Potter’s fault. And no admission, no repentance, no final reckoning in the story for him at all.

But I say “if you’re paying attention” for a reason. By the end, when George is given his life back, and he’s realized how good he has it with such friends and family, we’ve all but forgotten about Potter and what he did to George. Potter’s crime becomes overshadowed by the grace and love that come to George in the end.

Here’s what’s so cool about this film. In spite of the weird theology, or what I guess is really angelology, there’s a deep sense of the triumph of true goodness and love over any wrongs ever done to us in this life. The goodness at the end of the story, and the profound, self-forgetful love shown to George matters far more than the injustice done against him. But old Mr. Potter recedes down and away into his self-made loneliness and misery, a recession that’s mirrored in the last scene of Potter in the film. In that scene we see Potter peering miserably out of his window at George searching the snowy street for the lost money, trying to right the wrong he didn’t even commit. Contrast this with how George’s burdens are borne upward by the love and kindness of his friends. In kind of a Pauline sense, death is swallowed up in victory; miserable avarice is swallowed up in great joyousness.

There’s not much of Christ in this story, but we feel some deeply Christian things here even so.

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American Mythology And The Era Of Gatsby

My wife and I went to see The Great Gatsby a couple weeks ago, and we loved it. It’s a spectacle that takes the hyperbolic and imaginative descriptions of the novel almost to unbelievable extremes. The book’s full of symbolic and poetic imagery, and the film captures that in an almost overwhelming, operatic portrayal. We both love the book too, and loved it first. But this post isn’t about all that.

Something hit my wife and me as we talked about the movie afterward, over some FroYo. The era of the “Roaring 20s” is quickly becoming “distant past” for us today. Think about it: in 7 years, the decade of the 1920s will have been a century ago. And it also hit us that we don’t have nearly as many folks with us today who remember that time period firsthand – who were alive during the 20s. So information we have about that time, we’ll have heard from those who were young then, or we’ll learn it from books and movies. And, those of us with grandparents born in the 1920s will be among the last people to hear about that era of our history from the folks who lived it. In 3o years, our kids will feel that way about anybody who lived through the 60s.

Which led me to think about how time periods become mythologized, which we see with Gatsby now. That film raises the Roaring 20s to an almost mythological status, with its larger-than-life heroes, anti-heroes, and villains. The opulence of the 20s is portrayed over-the-top, but many of us don’t give it a second thought, partly because we didn’t live any of it, and we’re fairly far removed from the time period. Watching Gatsby was like watching an opera, or reading an epic mythological tale, really. The settings feel distant and strange, but beautiful; the time and place seem at once ideal and fearful. The larger-than-life characters move through a fantastic environment, speeding toward mountainous joy and tragedy. The whole story embodies something both distant and present, full of glory and darkness almost beyond grasping. The novel is like this, and the Baz Luhrmann film brings it to life in a very interesting way.

The thing about all this that’s really poignant for me, is that this time period that’s quickly slipping into a past none of us will remember firsthand, is still near enough to carry a legacy for us who teach and train up our children. This is the era of many of our parents and grandparents, and it’s a time when our Western culture really started to forget God. A college professor of mine once defined Modernism (the era encompassing WWI and the 1920s and 30s) as the time when man was either rejecting God, or searching for Him desperately. We see this rejection and searching in literature and in films, like Gatsby, that portray this time period. And as the era gets mythologized, embodying our culture’s memory of a glorious and tragic past, may we have grace to learn from the tragedy of forgetting the God Who means to restore this broken world. May we establish our lives and hopes on God’s unmovable, unchanging mercy and grace, that He offers to us through His Son. And may our grandchildren remember our generation as those who loved God, and hoped also in Him and the redemption begun and completed in Jesus Christ.