“The men and women who are going to be most valuable to us in spiritual formation-by-resurrection are most likely going to be people at the edge of respectability: the poor, minorities, the suffering, the rejected, poets and children.” – Eugene H. Peterson, Living the Resurrection: The Risen Christ in Everyday Life
By the time you read this reflection, many of you will have forgotten the 2007 Advent season. However, our advent season was marked by several special moments which we continue to remember.
One of these came at the ever-so-familiar Christmas Eve service at our church. We had so many of our little ones dressed up as animals, shepherds, kings – the usual suspects in a Christmas pageant. As many of them made their grand entry, a voice behind us seemed to be especially excited as she explained the characters to the person next to her. Could this have been a proud young mother sharing her enthusiasm with another mother?
No, in fact, it was an older woman in our congregation who has for years given her creativity and leadership to our church in the area of the arts and worship. She was like a kid again, explaining the pageant to her husband, who at one time was a key actor in all our church’s dramatic presentations. Now Gene, not so advanced in years, is living with the effects of a stroke. Together they were thoroughly enjoying the children’s story as if it were the first time they had ever seen it come to life.
But this was not the end of the pageant dynamics surrounding us. For suddenly, right near our seats, the angels bounded into view. They were lovely – their flowing white dresses, their feathery wings, their glittering halos. But one little angel was feeling a bit uncomfortable in her heavenly attire, so she began to disrobe right there in the midst of the angelic choir. This particular angel’s mom was sitting right in front of us. She leaned back and impishly whispered to us, “We might have our first nude angel!” If there are any real angels, nude or otherwise, in our congregation, Molly is probably one of them. Molly has Down’s Syndrome.
That night those dear ones in our congregation made us think of an earlier experience we had during Advent. One night after grading term papers we headed to the movies. We went to our neighborhood theater. We really hadn’t thought about what movie we wanted to see, we just showed up and went to the one that was about to begin – Lars and the Real Girl. It is a small, low-budget Canadian film. There are no big Hollywood stars, no car chases, guns or sex. Rather, it is a quiet study of illness, treatment through caring therapy, and community.
So, you are asking yourself, “Who would go see such a film?” Now, don’t stop reading, as this film is hilariously funny, while being poignantly transparent – equal parts comedy and pathos. The premise is simple: a pathologically shy – to the point of fearing human touch – but dear young man named Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling is phenomenal), whose friends and family try to encourage him to “get out more,” buys a life-size sex doll on the Internet and truly falls in love with it, or rather her. He endows the anatomically correct doll with a colorful personality – her name is Bianca and she‘s a paraplegic (Lars takes her everywhere in a wheelchair) missionary from a Brazilian-Danish family. In one scene Lars sings Nat “King” Cole’s classic song “L-O-V-E” to Bianca with all the joy of a love that is true. And of course their love is chaste – she sleeps in his brother’s home, not his.
As viewers we found ourselves moving from uncontrollable laughter (ok, we’ll go along with the gag) to gentle tears (oh, it’s not a gag). And we weren’t the only ones. Lars’ brother (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer), the town doctor (Patricia Clarkson), the local church, and finally the whole town end up going along with Lars too. They too find themselves a part of what is not only raucously ludicrous, but quietly momentous.
As the town journeys with Lars, hoping that he will be healed of his emotional problems, they are changed. They come to realize that Lars is not a “nut-case,” but rather a soul in distress. Because Bianca is real to Lars, she becomes real to the community. Lar’s love humanizes Bianca and a whole community. Soon Bianca is treated with the same respect and love that they hold for Lars. She is taken to the local women’s book club, invited to join the volunteers at the hospital, help out at church, etc. Soon her “dance card” is full and we see kindness in full bloom!
In the film, the local pastor preaches a sermon on the church’s “only one law” – “love one another.” He ends by proclaiming that “love is God in action.” In a time and space filled with cynical manipulation, Lars and the Real Girl shows us a picture of lived-religion. It is like the medieval miracle and morality plays. These portrayals of biblical stories and ethical tales were staples of village life in pre-literate Europe and the Middle East. Believers and non-believers alike saw biblical parable and miraculous events reenacted before their very eyes by traveling minstrels and actors. These plays spread the teachings of the Bible and Gospels far and wide, often serving as sparks or catalysts for experiences of religious and spiritual conversion.
Lars and the Real Girl functioned similarly for us, helping us to see ever more clearly what we as the body of Christ are called to be. For in our midst there are Lars, Gene, Molly, and others, calling us to be a community that extends the loving arms of God.