Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
I'm not really sure what drew me to Lars and the Real Girl, but after seeing the film last night it has immediately become one of my favorites. It wasn't the clever dialogue or the cinematography that did it. The direction didn't particularly stand out for me, nor did the performance of any one actor. Rather it was the unusual story itself and the intimation it gave me into what the Kingdom of God might look like in a small northern town where the bitter winters have over the years forged an uncommon community spirit.
Lars Lindstrom is a pathologically shy young man who spends his days either at work or in a small apartment attached to the garage of his brother's house. On Sundays he has the opportunity to attend the local church where he tries as best as any awkward introvert can to become an active part of the community. His only comfort in life, it seems, is a powder blue blanket his mother knit for him while he was still in her womb. Lars never got to know his mother, however, since she died while giving birth to her son. He was then left to be raised by a grieving and emotionally unavailable father. As a result of these unfortunate circumstances, Lars's greatest discomfort in life is the touch of a human being – any human being. A friend's hand on his shoulder can send him into the deepest agony.
Knowing this, it is easy to understand why Lars tries to address his loneliness via the internet, ordering for himself a "fully functional" and life-like doll named Bianca, whom he immediately introduces to his brother and sister-in-law, and soon to the entire town, as his girlfriend. It is not long before Lars is seen accompanying Bianca in public, pushing her in a wheelchair (to which she has been confined from birth, he explains) and chatting with her about his childhood memories and his most intimate dreams. By all accounts it appears to be a budding romance, and going quite well, if it weren't for just one little problem. You know… the doll thing.
But here is where the Kingdom of God enters the picture. Were this one of those "realistic" films, we would at this point be treated to a kind of medical who-done-it where doctors chase down the patient's affliction and dismantle it piece by piece. Or we might see the derelict loner descend into a kind of delusional pathology that eventually manifests itself in mass murder. In any case, Lars would more than likely be portrayed as an abhorrent "other" upon whom all of our irrational fears and regrettable animosities could so easily be placed.
Thankfully this does not happen.
The genius of this picture lies in the fact that the story is less about Lars than it is about his community, a town that has over the last twenty-seven years adopted him as its own. Lars is fortunate enough to live among an extended family that decides – beyond reason and despite fear – to stick it out with him, come what may. The community lovingly enters into his "delusion" and eventually arrives at a refreshing and not so frightening reality of its own. At one point, the local pastor even comments that Lars's companion "has become one of us. She is our teacher. She loves this town, and most of all she loves Lars."
Would that the same were true for so many these days whom the church has deemed unacceptable, disagreeable, or "delusional." After seeing this film, I could not help but wonder what rich personal realities have gone unexplored on account of the seemingly customary exclusion of the "dangerous others" who petition us for our care and attention. To our great detriment, the church has too often been content simply to uphold the status quo, to remain – like the disciples in the tempest-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 14:22-33) – trembling and in fear of what strange ghost beckons us to venture beyond our comfort zone.
What a lesson in contrasts, then, as we read Jesus' dialogue with the Canaanite woman in this week's lectionary passage. I can imagine the trepidation with which many pastors might approach this text realizing that, for those parishioners who have been playing along at home, the story throws an unwelcome wrench into the conventional image of the loving, accommodating, compassionate Jesus we all know and love. It certainly upsets Paul's frequent contention that in Christ there is no longer slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male and female. On the contrary, Jesus here seems begrudgingly to offer his blessing to a woman who so fervently and faithfully seeks his attention. Can it be true? Does Jesus actually tell this poor and pleading creature of God that she should take her proper place in line behind the deserving children of Israel, back among the lowly dogs?
One way that scholars have tried to explain this passage is to attribute it to an early Jewish-Christian community intent on preserving its Judaic heritage, especially with respect to the mission of the messiah. There are other passages in Matthew – probably from this same tradition – in which the Gentiles fare rather poorly: the apostles are not to enter their territory as they evangelize (Matt. 10:5-6), nor are these outsiders to be regarded as any kind moral guide (Matt. 5:47). Mark includes a similar pericope in his gospel, though without the damning verse 24 that seems to settle the score so decisively: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." The Canaanite woman's response to Jesus' rejection seems to echo Peter's cry as he succumbs to his fears, walking the waves on the Sea of Galilee – "Lord, help me." Instead of extending a helping hand, however, Jesus' reply to this woman is to suggest that her ethnic heritage entitles her only to crumbs from the children's table – leftovers.
We can take some solace in the fact that the oral tradition upon which this text is based – in both Mark and Matthew – was in the distinct minority in the early decades of the church. Where would Paul's mission to the Gentiles have been had this perspective enjoyed a larger following? This is a Jesus that we do not know, and certainly not a messiah who is as well-versed as he seems otherwise to have been in the prophetic voices of the Hebrew tradition. The words of Isaiah come particularly to mind:
Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. …And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord… these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered (Isaiah 56:1:7-8).
Had Jesus somehow forgotten about this tradition? Was he ignoring it? Or – and this is a shocker – are there simply places in scripture where we have to say, "No, this is wrong. This is not the Jesus of tradition!"? We know what a slippery slope this can be, but what are our alternatives?
The only interpretation that has given me some comfort this past week has been metaphorical. Indeed, I think this text has much to say to us today as the body of Christ who, in the dubious tradition of our savior, continue to exclude the undesirables who come knocking at our door, pleading for our help and acceptance, only to be sent away like stray dogs. In the Matthean passage, it does appear that Jesus is guilty of a shameful act, but more deplorable still are the acts of those of us who can enjoy the view from the other side of the resurrection -- with the gospel witnesses to our advantage, and with the rich theology of Paul on our side -- who continue to insist on the church as an exclusive body, as the "children of Israel" with whom "dogs" need not associate.
When I imagine the persistence of the Canaanite woman in our present context, I cannot help but think of the thousands of gay and lesbian Christians who have in recent years set aside their fears and their ecclesially-induced self-loathing to demand from the body of Christ not only a hearing but a blessing and acceptance. I have to admire those whose convictions are so strong, and so central to their lives, that they are not at all willing to choose between their faith and their God-given sexual orientation. Frankly, were I in their situation I would have summarily bid the church adieu upon its very first condemnation of my person. Thankfully, there are those with greater faith and courage than I. Like the Canaanite woman rebuffed by Jesus – not once but three times – these men and women have kept the conversation alive and moving ever forward toward a hopeful reconciliation. Just this summer, for example, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) removed the institutional barriers to the ordination of gays and lesbians, this in addition to similar – and prior – decisions in the U.C.C. and Episcopal denominations. But of course this is only a small step toward the goal. How long will it be before the worldwide body of Christ can exclaim to its gay and lesbian faithful, "Great is your faith… be it done for you as you desire!"
In the film, the love-starved Lars suspects that because of the hand he has been dealt in life he will have to endure a dismal existence devoid of the one thing he both craves and fears – human touch. Nearly three decades of being emotionally excluded by his father, and then by his brother, have left him with little choice but to find solace in a world of his own making. This retreat might have been complete had it not been for the realization on the part of his Christian community that they had a central role to play in suffering along with one of their own in order to keep him from slipping away from the fold.
It is not often that a contemporary film can offer such depth and insight into a lectionary text, but this is the Jesus I know – a messiah not willing to offer crumbs to dogs while a chosen few enjoy the bounty of the Kingdom. This is the Jesus I know – a community that refuses to relinquish even one of the faithful to the irrational fears the world so often encourages. And it is here that I will gladly (and uncharacteristically) tip my theological cap to the apostle Paul who knew perhaps better than anyone the radically inclusive nature of Jesus' ministry: to maintain justice, to do what is right, and most importantly, to gather others – besides those already gathered – to God's holy mountain (Is. 56:1,8; cf. Micah 6:8).
More Light Presbyterians
The Epistle: A Web Magazine for Christian Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender People
The Gay Christian Network
Whosoever: An Online Magazine for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Christians
Photos and Art
1. Still shot from Lars and the Real Girl, directed by Craig Gillespie, written by Nancy Oliver, 2007.
2. "The Canaanite Woman," from the 15th-Century illuminated manuscript Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, folio 164r, Musee Condee, Chantilly, France.
3. Georgi Mabee, York, England. See more of this young photographer's very fine work.