Jean Vanier and the Film Saved: Whitterings, November 2004

If you have not yet seen the MGM movie Saved, just released on video and DVD, I highly recommend it. It is a movie for and about teenagers. It is set in an Evangelical Christian high school. These ‘Saved’ teenagers have a pat religious answer for everything and are ready to share their ‘wisdom’ with anyone who will listen. The school is led by the traditional prom queen girls who in this case are the teen Bible Squad. The thorn in their side is Cassandra the rebellious, foul mouthed Jewish girl who after being kicked out of her last few schools is given a choice of a Christian high school or home schooling. The schools cosy and vicious certitude starts to come apart after Mary’s, one of the leaders of the Bible Squad, boyfriend confesses that he thinks he is gay. In order to save him from hell she has sex with him so he can be cured. She then gets pregnant and he is shipped off to be cured at an evangelical healing centre, (where he is put in a room with another teenage boy suffering from the same ‘affliction’!). Throw in a cynical boy in a wheelchair, a struggling single mom, a confused doubting minister, the new teen hunk son of the school principle with a crush on Mary and you have the makings of a delightfully funny and enlightening view of a community wrestling with true faith.

One of the main themes of the movie is that those who demand conformity to a rigid legalistic world view can not actually live up to their own standards and that hypocrisy will always creep in. The main thrust of the film is that Christ is to be found in the pain and confusion of life and the relationships that come from it more than in the clear certainties and the rigid formal relationships of a conforming clan.

The movie ends with a wonderful reflection of the family of God when a photograph is taken at the birth of Mary’s daughter. Standing around her are her new friends and family: her single mother, the gay ex boyfriend father of her child and his new boyfriend, her Jewish friend Cassandra, the wheelchair bound realist, and her new skateboarding supportive boyfriend. All of the characters are in some way outcasts and all have had to struggle with what Reinold Neibuhr, one of the 20th centuries greatest ethicists, called the moral ambiguity of life and found a truer faith. One can not help but see them as a contemporary icon of those who Christ has invited to the table of life: the lame, the ill, the abandoned, the broken and the needy.

The film uses some powerful themes of post-modern culture and suffuses them with a deep sense of real Christian community. Not all have seen this film this way. Many in the evangelical wing have been outraged. Terry Watins of Dial a Truth Ministries said in his review, “As the soon coming of the Lord Jesus is becoming more apparent every day, the ferocious attack of Bible believing Christians is becoming more mainstream, more and more depraved and is a disturbing thermometer measuring the hate filled temperature towards the Bible believing Christianity, while tenderly embracing the last days sin of homosexuality is the upcoming teen movie Saved! This mainstream movie is among the most open, blatant, mockery and attack on Bible believing Christianity and Jesus in modern times.” I found plenty of reviews in a similar vein.

I first heard Jean Vanier when he addressed the 1998 Lambeth Gathering of Bishops. It was one of the most profound and moving talks I have heard. I did not want to miss hearing him again so I went to his lecture and the day seminar at the Dominion Douglas United Church with five of my colleagues at the end of October. In his opening address he quoted Carl Jung’s letter to a Christian friend.
“I admire you Christians, because when you see somebody hungry or thirsty you see Jesus. When you see someone in prison or hospital you see Jesus. When you see somebody who is strange, a stranger or naked you see Jesus. What I don’t understand is that you don’t see Jesus in your own brokenness. Why are the poor always outside of you? Can’t you see they’re inside of you: in your hunger and thirst? That you too are sick: that you too are imprisoned in your own fears or need for honour and power; that you too have strange things inside of you which you don’t understand; that you too are naked?”

For Jean Vanier Christ’s call to us is to let down our walls and open the door for him to come into our lives. Yet the only way to do this is to realise we need him, that we are lost without him, that we need to be healed. The journey is to move from a feeling of security and certainty to a place where we can participate in our own pain and the pain of the others so that we can begin to love ourselves and love the world. Jean Vanier says time and time again, “The Word became flesh so that flesh may become Word.” Many days I am comforted by the Mass Preparation prayer of St Thomas Aquinas that begins, “I come sick to the doctor of life, unclean to the fountain of mercy, blind to the radiance of eternal light, and poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth.” When we are humbled by our desperate thirst for affection, acceptance, mercy and love, then we can begin the transformation relationship with God who is standing outside the door waiting to give us all of these graces. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you, seek and ye shall find.

It seems to me that the message of Jean Vanier and the L’Arche community and the central theme of the film Saved are the same. We can only find God when we know we are lost and that it is in genuine, vulnerable relationships with others that we find Christ.

One of the most poignant things about the plight of Mary, the good Christian, is that when she falls she has nowhere to turn. She can not be vulnerable and admit her mistake to her church and Christian community because they will reject her. I sometimes get the impression that we too are like that, especially with the ordained. When we fall or burn there is an unspoken consensus within our communities that we have failed and let the side down. Let us keep in mind that is often in falling and failing and running dry that the real journey of faith can begin. Jean Vanier and the film Saved help us to see that.