it is interesting how seemingly unrelated things sometimes converge to make connections in our minds. during this time of year, my wife and i watch lots of holiday movies, some great, like "it's a wonderful life," some not-so-great and pretty sappy. though the election is over, we live near louisiana, and there is a senate race there that won't be finished until next week, so we are still having political ads for that election foisted on us as we watch tv. it's the connection between a couple of these movies and one particular political ad that has infected my brain.
in one movie, the female lead is shown practicing yoga. she and her adult daughters no longer attend the church where they used to sing in the choir. they seem to have joined the "spiritual but not religious" movement, but, in the end when all the conflicts in the story are resolved, we see the mom in her choir robe singing in the church choir again. she steps forward out of the choir, a spotlight shines on her, she invites her family to come to the chancel where they are substitutes for the holy family in her closing solo.
in the second movie, set in the "wild west," an outlaw is responsible for accidentally killing the pastor of a church in a small town in the aftermath of a bank robbery. as he dies, the pastor tells the man that he can change, that every wrong act can be forgiven. in his remorse, the outlaw flees the scene to live a life of seclusion. his two partners seek him out, an argument ensues, and, in the process of trying to escape, he is shot and left to die by his former friends. a woman and her two children find the man alive near their farm, take him into their home, and nurse him back to health. every night she reads the children a bible story, and the two stories that stick in the mind of the injured outlaw are those of the prodigal son and the good samaritan. the outlaw becomes a changed man, falling in love with the widowed woman and helping her care for her two children and the farm. in the end, we discover that the pastor he killed was the woman's husband and the children's father, but they forgive him, recognizing that he is not the same man who killed their husband and father.
in the commercial, the conservative candidate lists his "core beliefs." one of them is, "i believe in God; the second is, "i believe we don't owe anything to illegals;" another is "i believe in love, but i believe in carrying a handgun just in case." i've heard his beliefs so many times that i mute the tv every time i see his face.
all three of these that i've described trouble me: the first movie by its vague religiosity that finally leads to a mawkish recreation of the christmas manger tableau, the second movie by its insistence that change for the good requires becoming a christian, and the commercial by the candidate using "God," "illegals" "love," and "carrying a handgun" as non-too-subtle codewords to appeal to his evangelical base. of the three, i found the redemption movie the least bothersome, despite its insistence on christianity as the only path to change; in it, the woman and her children care for the injured outlaw, acting as his "good samaritan," and in the process, they are able to let go of the loss of the pastor-husband-father and move on with their lives, while the outlaw finds a way to forgive himself and to make amends for his past actions.
the religiosity of these three--the two movies and the political ad--is what ties them together in my mind. this idea that religion, and particularly the christian religion, is the only effective way to do good in the world is offensive. i sometimes think that God laughs at our use of religion as a means of separating the "good" from the "bad," those following our brand of religion being the good, while everyone else is bad. i wonder if the real truth isn't that we are born with the ability to be both good and bad, and religion or lack of religion has little to do with which prevails in our lives. rather, it is the choices we make, the skillfulness with which we live our lives, and the influence of those who surround us in our formative years that determines whether good or evil fills our hearts.
may we take responsibility for our own choices. may we overcome bad influences and relish good ones. may we try to live more skillfully each day that we are given. may the true meaning of christmas, the potential for good that the birth of every child brings to the world, fill us during this season. shalom.