If you have not seen Man On Fire, the superb action movie starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, and Radha Mitchell, and if you want to be surprised at the plot twists, read no further. Rent and watch the movie first.
As I was re-watching Man On Fire last week, I was struck by the power of our meta-narrative, the Christian story, to shape the narratives that move us even in action movies. As this film begins, two retired assassins (Washington and Walken) meet in Mexico. Out of nowhere, the protagonist assassin, John Creasy (Washington) asks, “Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?” Walken’s character answers “No.” Creasy nods “I didn’t think so.” It is a short but absolutely serious conversation. Not a hint of irony. We have met characters who take damnation seriously, because they are living it.
Creasy takes a job as body guard to a little girl (Fanning) and is captivated by her innocence and her seemingly inexplicable love for him. She loves him because he is sad. It is a compassion that he does his best to resist, but is nonetheless touched. He becomes her swimming coach and teaches her the way to freedom from fear. Her swims are baptismal plunges into liberty. Each night as the alcoholic body guard drinks his whiskey to forget, he faithfully reads his Bible to remember.
When the girl is kidnapped and apparently killed, the plot moves into the all too familiar “myth of redemptive violence” (Walter Wink, Joseph Campbell) as Creasy tracks down the killers and executes them one by one. But after each killing, he swims in the child’s pool, a baptismal act in which blood washes from him – the stain of sin or the blood of life?
When she turns out to be alive, the myth of redemptive violence ends. Crucifixion religion leads to perpetual violence. (Rene Girard). But resurrection religion shifts his focus to a life for others. That is the point at which he stops killing to restore his sense of moral order and chooses instead to die to save someone he loves.
It is a beautiful story of a soul saved at great cost. What strikes me is that this story, which simply must be told and which we need so much to hear, could not be told and could not be heard without the context of the Christian story. The question “Will God forgive us?” would not arise. The Bible, the baptisms, the death and resurrection would not signify without the context of the Creeds. So many stories would not be possible without the meta-narrative of the Christian faith -- not just action movies like Man on Fire and cult classics like Easy Rider, but real classics like A Christmas Carol and Les Miserables.
Sometimes I am sanguine about entering the post-Christian era, thinking Christianity is at its best when it is counter-cultural anyway. But then I remember that culture is a channel of grace and that channel will be diminished without our signs, our symbols, and most of all, our story. I understand that W. H. Auden was still a young atheist when he went to Spain to fight in the Civil War. At one point, when the left (Auden’s own side) was triumphant; they silenced all the church bells. On Sunday, when Auden heard the silence, he knew he did not want to live in a world without church bells, and that meant he did not want to live in a world without faith. Even if he did not believe, he needed someone to believe. He needed the culture to believe.
As one who lives neck deep in the institutional church, I am as ambivalent about it as any “spiritual but not religious” person. But I do not look forward to a world without church bells, a world without faith – or worse yet, a world in which faith is abandoned to the hands of the fearful, the bigoted, and the mean-spirited. So I continue to pray and hope against the dry sociological data so ready, so eager to write our obituary, that we may yet live, that bells may continue to ring on Sunday mornings, and that people who believe and people who do not believe will at least know our story.
Is there any reason to sustain my hope? If not, I plan to hope without a reason. (Miguel de Unamuno). But here’s a little thing I imagine. My 2 year old grandson loves to march around the room carrying a cross (or a fly swatter if no cross can be found, but he calls the fly swatter “cross”) singing “knick knack paddy whack” or the ABC song. I imagine him as an old man after the culture has forgotten us still practicing “the old religion” like Obi Wan Kenobi and respectable adults warning their young people to “have nothing to do with that crazy old wizard.” (Star Wars IV). If our story is true, it will be hard to kill.