Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it (Luke 17:33).

Susan and I just saw a great movie from the middle of the last decade (2005). Maybe you’ve seen it; if not, I recommend it highly. I consider it one of the best theological films of this century so far.

It’s called Elizabethtown, and is about a young man named Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) who fails so monumentally in his work that he wants to kill himself. But then a call comes that changes, and saves, his life.

The story follows the classic, archetypal course of the hero’s journey. Drew must go from his home in Oregon to a strange land (Kentucky, specifically, Elizabethtown) to complete a task for which he is totally unprepared. Along the way he meets a wise guide, Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who helps him navigate both the unfamiliar physical and emotional landscape. Living up to her name, she makes things clear for Drew, but not so much by telling him what he needs to know as by guiding him to discover the possibilities of life—his life–for himself. Drew, so prepared to end his existence, finds in and through his failure new possibilities.

One of the key themes of the film is remembrance and the different ways we do that. The climax of the story is a memorial, which features different characters recounting their experiences with the deceased. Earlier, Claire speaks an enigmatic line, which somehow feels to me central to the tale: “I’m impossible to forget, but I’m hard to remember.” What is the difference between not forgetting and remembering? I’m still trying to figure that one out!

Another theological theme is the Holy Spirit, present in unpredictable ways and at odd moments. I love the scene in the Brown Hotel ballroom where a special effect goes awry as the band Ruckus plays “Free Bird.” A gigantic white dove catches on fire as it flies across the room, setting off sprinklers, then crashes to the ground. Most people run. But Drew’s sister Heather (Judy Greer) stands under the shower from the sprinklers with oransher hands in the orans position (see picture for an ancient example) , eyes closed, as if being baptized. Is this rebirth what she has been yearning for? How do you and I respond when the Spirit comes in crazy ways?

It’ was interesting to see this movie while I’m reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, which also has to do with the hero’s journey. Rohr points out that it is through suffering that we move into the second half of life, our further journey. “One of the best kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight,” he writes, “is that the way up is the way down. Or if you prefer, the way down is the way up.” He continues: “The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further. Why would we?

“Normally a job, a fortune, or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured. The pattern is in fact so clear that one has to work rather hard, or be intellectually lazy, to miss the continual lesson” (xviii-xix).

The lesson from Rohr and from Elizabethtown is that God comes to us sideways, from sources we don’t expect, on a journey we did not or would not choose. He is not absent from suffering; in fact, it may be through the experience of loss, failure (even fiasco), sadness, and strangeness that his greatest lessons of the soul are taught and learned. As Claire urges Drew: “I want you to get into the deep, beautiful melancholy of everything that’s happened.”

God give us grace to receive what he gives.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham