Taxi Driver at 40: We Are All “God’s Lonely Man”

The rural Texas of my youth was a long way from Taxi Driver’s Times Square. Stars lit the skies, not neon. Stray cattle hazarded the highways, not pimps and drug pushers. People rarely met up after dark, and when they did they were more likely helping a horse give birth, not shooting the breeze in an always-open cafeteria. There was an XXX-emblazoned, adult video store just on our side of the border when you crossed into Texas from Oklahoma and another one thirty miles south on the edge of the nearest city of notable size, but I had never heard of a porno theater. People kept their interest in sex to themselves much like they kept other things about themselves to themselves, especially at night.

Growing up, I did spend a lot of time on the road at night though on either end of the day. My father was a high school coach, and he took my brother and me with him most places he went. We left for school early, before the sun was up, so my dad could take the cross-country team out to run before the first bell. We were there late, sometimes very late, because my dad had to break down game film, talk with other coaches, prepare for Friday’s football game in the Fall, or close up the gym after the basketball games ended during the Winter.

Travis’ night driving turns him into a kind of vampire, his checkered cab his coffin gliding around Gotham, the lights filtering through his windows not that much different from the pornographic films he usually attends when he can’t sleep. I enjoyed those night drives to and from school with my dad on the ends of the day. Travis is tortured by insomnia; I was at peace. He can barely contain his rage; I could barely stay awake. He watches a city writhing in the fires of hell as he cruises for fares in every seedy corner of Manhattan; I once saw a falling star burning impossibly blue extinguish itself in a field outside the passenger-side window as we flew by at 55 miles per hour on our way home after a playoff game.

The latest driving I ever did was when I participated in an event my church sometimes organized called a Prayer Vigil. We broke up the twenty-four hours leading up to our Sunday morning church service into one-hour increments, and church members signed up to come to the church throughout the day and night to pray alone for an hour at a time. This meant that someone was praying in the sanctuary for twenty-four hours straight. We prayed about all sorts of things – persistent illnesses amongst church members, building projects, missions, new pastoral appointments, etc. The Vigil was a way of joining forces, officially, in prayer for things important to our community. When I was finally old enough to drive, I enlisted. Being an impetuous teenager, I always signed up for the 2 or 3 AM slot. I never passed another car on the short, six-mile drive through the countryside from our house to the church to pray.

I filled the sanctuary with my prayers. I followed instructions and prayed about the thing that we were supposed to be praying about… for a while. Then I’d pray myself out on that subject, and I would start to feel drowsy. I would have to stand up and start walking around the room, praying out loud about other things if I was going to stay awake for my complete Vigil hour.

Middle-of-the-night prayers when you’re on the edge of consciousness and not concerned about what anyone thinks are very honest prayers, uncomfortably honest at times. Travis’ diary entries, featured in Taxi Driver as monologues spoken over montages of Travis’ restless night driving, feel to me akin to the kind of prayers I prayed during those bleary Prayer Vigils. Travis prays for Divine justice; so did I. Travis prays for the purification of society and of the self; so did I. Travis prays to fit in; so did I. Travis prays for direction; so did I. Travis prays for an end to his loneliness; so did I. Yes, Travis is on the edge of insanity. I was not, but the things Travis feels, I felt, and I didn’t know what else to do about those feelings except to vent them into the darkness, the smoke of my prayers rising before the throne of God like steam from a manhole cover, proof of roiling emotions seething just below the surface, revealed by the cool, night air.

Besides my sleepy, near-delirium, the other emotional memory I have of that middle-of-the-night prayer vigil-ing is loneliness. I never saw anyone else at the church. Other church members signed up on either side of my middle-of-the-night shift, but if they were keeping their appointments, they left before I arrived and arrived after I left. The sanctuary was always empty when I entered it and empty again when I left. The Prayer Vigils were supposed to join us all in petitioning God as a church body. Symbolically, I suppose they did, but I never felt as lonely at church as I did when I was there to pray in the middle of the night.

I believe God heard my prayers those nights, and I know no one else did. I was a typical teenager with all sorts of new hormones washing over my mental capacities and little idea what to do about it. I needed some other human to know what was going on in my life at that time. I’ve needed it since then. I’ve had that need met at times, often by Christians, but I’ve never had it met at church, no matter how important “community” is to the churches into which I’ve poured my social life. (Most often, I’ve been part of extra-ecclesial communities formed outside our church’s programs for the purpose of expressing our needs.) That gap between the promise of abundant community in church and the fact of always feeling alone at church is the most persistent reality of my experience of being part of churches. Church promises communion, but it always leaves me hungry for something more.

I think Travis would understand that, because Travis’ life is as frustrating as my church experience has been. He sees pimps and prostitutes on every street corner all night. He watches dance programs and soap operas on his television all day. He frequents porno theaters exhibiting films featuring other people engaged in actual intimate acts all the time. He hates it because he’s jealous – he can’t find what everyone else seems to get so easily. Travis’ world promises intimacy, yet still he’s alone.

The irony is that Travis’ loneliness is common. No one talks about it in Taxi Driver, because Travis doesn’t talk about it, and the story is told entirely from his (bifurcated) perspective. But he does get a date with Betsy by reminding her that she’s lonely, so there’s hint there that Travis isn’t as unique as he thinks.

In Making Taxi Driver, a special feature documentary included on the Double Disc Collectors Edition of the film put out by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, writer Paul Schrader shares the following incident:

After [Taxi Driver] came out, I had an office at Columbia, and I came back after lunch, and the pool secretary who was there said to me, “Don’t go into your office. There’s someone there.” I said, “Who is it?” She said, “I don’t know. He just came in. He wouldn’t say who he was.”

So I went into my office, and there was a young man there, and he said to me, “I want to know how you found out about me.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I’ve hitchhiked down from Seattle. I saw this movie – Taxi Driver. Who told you about me?” I said, “Well, let me get this straight. You probably were a taxi driver. You wrote about being a taxi driver, and you feel I have, somehow, stolen your idea?” He said, “No! No, I was never a taxi driver. I want to know who told you about me.”

I realized, you know, he was, he was that thing, and I was sorta a little concerned that he might be armed. I said to him, I said, “You may think that the pain that you are going through is terribly unique, but it isn’t. I went through it, and the people who made this film know what it is, and hundreds of thousands of other young men out there know exactly what that pain is. When they see this movie, they recognize it. What you are recognizing is not something that is uniquely you. It is part of a pathology that we share. One of the beauties of recognizing it is that you can see that you are not alone and that you can see yourself in context.”

Schrader continues by talking about the parade of young men, some of them homicidal, others not, that have connected deeply to Taxi Driver over the years. He specifies again that he and Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro knew that loneliness themselves, and that’s why they made the film, to commit to the screen that feeling, to explore and exorcise it together. Filming Taxi Driver became a way of gathering around that shared “pathology,” as Schrader phrases it, that loneliness. They learned they weren’t alone in their loneliness. By naming that feeling and working together to commit it to film, they tempered it. One of Taxi Driver’s gifts to us, its audience, is that it can do the same for us if we are willing to be honest about the ways Travis’ loneliness mirrors our own.

That’s what I want church to be too. I want church to be a place where I can gather with others people around our shared “pathologies,” where we can admit our loneliness, our lack of direction, that we feel like outsiders, our need for emotional, psychological, spiritual, relational, and physical healing, and that there is too much injustice in the world. I want the planning and performing of the church service to be a way of getting to the heart of those needs together. I don’t want to be told how I ought to be; I want to talk about how I am. I want to know I’m loved anyway by God and by the people around me.

Yes, church is that sometimes. Depending on the kind of church you attend, there may be a portion devoted to corporate confession. That confession is most often a confession of sin though, and while admitting the ways we’ve broken God’s moral law is important, that’s not what I’m talking about here. I want to acknowledge how screwed up I am and how much it sucks to be so screwed up. I want to confess that I don’t have it all together and that most days I’m barely hanging on to what I do have. Church can be other things too—declarations of God’s nature, thanksgiving for God’s activity in the world, reminders of God’s promises to always be faithful to us—but I wish confession of our humble neediness was the main thing, the driving thing.

Looking at Taxi Driver as an example again, the film is about New York City in the 70s and PTSD and mental illness and repressed sexuality and the assassination of public figures and the love of guns and racism and apocalyptic visions and the conflict between rural and urban sensibilities and redemptive violence—in other words, it’s about America—but it’s mainly about loneliness. Taxi Driver suggests that all those other things are products of Travis/America’s deep-seated loneliness. In the same way, church can be about other things too, but those things should be cast in light of our neediness. There’s a hole in me. I believe there’s hole in you. That’s what we have in common. Let’s gather around that.

British theologian Kester Brewin puts it this way:

Community is, at its most basic, people sharing something in common. This ‘life together’ might be geographical – sharing the same place – or tied to some other interest, like a local club or society. The strength of community is proportional to the importance of the thing held in common.

Christian community is, however, called to be something different. Where community draws people into commonality around a shared place or interest, Christianity draws people around…an absence. At the centre is an ascended, transformed, disappeared figure.

Let’s be clear about this: as Christians we do not gather around Christ. Though we may metaphorically talk about Christ being present with us, this is not physically true. Remember: it could have been. Jesus appeaered [sic] in flesh and blood after the resurrection, and shared life with his followers for a short period of time. There is no reason why this could not have continued, but it didn’t: Jesus left… [God] has chosen to be paradoxically present-absent, and thus chosen to leave us to gather around an absence. Why? Because it is only by gathering around absence that we begin to care for the other.

Reading the gospels, Jesus is antagonistic toward the liturgical practices of his day. He participates in the historical religious life of his society, but he also undermines many of the present expressions of that religious life, especially as those practices erect walls between people and people and between people and God. Most of his teaching deals with how people ought to treat each other in light of God’s coming kingdom. Jesus’ activity is very practical even though he frames it in parable and prophecy.

Jesus does talk about liturgy though, a little. He teaches his disciples how to pray, and he prescribes what we’ve come to call the Eucharist, Communion, eating bread and drinking wine together, a Jewish practice rooted in the Israelite’s escape from Egypt, but Jesus recasts it to be about himself. He tells his disciples to “do this in remembrance of [him].” because he’s leaving them that night, and thereafter they’ll only have each other.

Those things are motivated by our neediness. The Lord’s Prayer, as we call it, begins with a declaration of God’s holiness, but then the rest of it is about how much we need God to rightly order the world, provide what we need to live, and forgive our sins. The Gospel of Matthew puts this teaching in the center of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ ode to humility and relying upon God. The Gospel of Luke concludes this teaching with a few examples about people asking for things they need. Communion is an admission of Christ’s bodily absence from us and metaphorical presence with us when we gather together to love each other. Need. Need. Need. Without Christ, without each other, we have nothing. If our worship doesn’t include that confession, it is as meaningless as Travis fears his life is.

Rooting our worship in that neediness rightly positions us in relation to God. Recognizing our powerlessness and dependence on God’s power protects us against playing power games with each other, appealing to human powers for our salvation, trying to gain power in this world, and abusing what little power we do have over each other. Christ didn’t teach us to be ambitious, abusive, power-hungry acolytes, but that’s often what we Christians become when we try to assuage our loneliness with anything other than humble confession of how much we need Christ and each other. Like Travis, we try to escape our loneliness. Like Travis, we might lament that we are “God’s lonely man.” We claim the title as an aspersion against God. Instead we ought to claim it as a reminder that though we are lonely, still we belong to God.