Million Dollar Baby, Atrocious Shepherding, and the Omission of the Gospel

Friday, August 19, 2005

Million Dollar Baby,
Atrocious Shepherding,
and the Omission of the Gospel


I believe it was yesterday that Matt Self (at Gad(d)about) commented on my blog as making up for everyone else's omission of the gospel. What was meant as an encouragement actually ended up driving me crazy for most of the day. Why? Because I was trying to figure out just why the gospel has in fact been such an omission in the church today? I'm no David Wells or Os Guiness, so I can't explain my feelings and thoughts on the matter as well as they. But I will share them nonetheless.

Providence arranged my day yesterday such that Matt's comments began my day, and the hot movie Million Dollar Baby ended it. What a surreal ending to an otherwise 'good' day. My wife stopped by our local video store (yes, a town of 600 citizens does have a video shop among other conveniences!) to pick up a flick for me to use to get my mind off my gout bout.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie...except for the last 10-15 minutes. I had only heard a comment previously about the ending, but I went into the movie having forgotten that comment. If you want to, watch it til the last 10 minutes and then hit the eject button. The conclusion is quite disturbing, to say the least. It accounts for the "Thematic Material" for which it is rated PG-13.

Between my short excursions in log-sawing last night, thinking through the movie with Matt's comments seemed to go hand-in-glove as I tossed and turned to find a comfortable spot for my mutant toe. What hit me like a ton of bricks immediately following the movie was the sorry excuse for a priest that Frankie Dunn (played by Clint Eastwood) had. (However, the theological questions Frankie posed to his priest toward the beginning of the movie were humorous reminders of previous similar encounters in my own ministry!)

We find out toward the end, as Frankie is sitting beside his priest on the front row of his local church, wrestling through the request Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) made of him while she lie completely paralyzed, unable to even breathe on her own, her spinal column having been broken between C-1 and C-2 after a rogue punch between rounds in her title fight.

She had asked her trainer to basically end her misery. She reasoned that her whole life up to that point had been a dream: a hillbilly girl from Missouri, training for boxing as late as 32 years old, followed by a knock-out of a knock-out record, which rocketed her into stardome, fighting all around the world. Who would want to live like Christopher Reeve after a life like that? Evidently, Chris Reeve did.

Back to Frankie's priest, he began his reply to Frankie with a statement that probably others passed right by, but one which caught my attention immediately. The priest stated first that Frankie ought to step aside and let God handle the matter. Only God could determine life and death. So far, so good.

Then, the priest continued by stating that Frankie had been coming to mass for 23 years. And through all those years Frankie had been forgiven of all his sins. But if he committed this one, he would lose himself forever. I think his comment was more about the emotional/mental consequences than it was any kind of cloaked reference to the consequences of assisted suicide as a mortal sin.

Here's where the omission of the gospel is committed. This priest had 23 years to preach the gospel to Frankie Dunn. But there's not the slightest mention of it anywhere, excepted in a passing reference to forgiveness. You say, "Well, Rob, that's normal. Hollywood isn't going to talk about the gospel of Christ in a movie!" Exactly. You make my point for me.

What we find in this priest is a model-reflection of Christian preachers in general. Hollywood reflects them well, don't they? Where was the power of the gospel of Christ in Amityville Horror or the Exorcist, for example? Where's the essence of the gospel in O Brother, Where Art Thou? How about in The Shawshank Redemption, or Braveheart, or...name your favorite movie with religious, redemptive overtones.

Frankie Dunn's priest had 23 years to share the gospel with Frankie....more than enough time to help shape at least a beginner's world view according to Christ, don't you think? And had the priest done his job, Maggie's request to Frank would surely have triggered the truth so that he would have been able to understand it more clearly. And then Frankie would have had multiple opportunities, as he sat by her hospital bed hour after hour, day after day, to share the gospel with her, redeeming her own world view.

At the risk of sounding like Rick Warren, God did have a purpose for Maggie Fitzgerald in her condition, and it was to glorify Him by enjoying Him forever. The power of God in the gospel of Christ finds a testimony through such vessels of weakness who carry in themselves the very marks of Christ and what it means to suffer for His glory. Who knows but that 35 year old Maggie Fitzgerald might have become successor to the Joni Earekson Tada legacy!

But without a gospel-centered worldview, her life was in fact meaningless. The poor woman had no hope as she lie in bed there, with a breathing tube connected into her throat. The only recourse she had after Frankie's first refusal to her request was to bite her tongue so she would choke to death on her own blood. Shame upon shame be upon Frankie's priest for his atrocious shepherding.

No, this isn't a real story, and yes I mean to talk as if it were. Why? Because it parallels reality! Frankie's priest is real, and he is alive in many priests and preachers all around the world. They lead mass every week, preach sermons and homilies every Sunday, write articles and publish sermons every week. But where is Christ? Where is the 'good news'? Where is the essence of redemption? Where's the message of peace with God, forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with our offended Creator?

Without these truths, there is no meaning to life whatsoever. And Hollywood continues to accurately portray the real reflection of the modern preacher and pastor as one who, at least in biblical terms, us really and utterly unable to make much sense out of life himself (or herself in many cases). They themselves are still struggling through basic questions and answers, such that they have no authentic and effectual hope to offer their people, short of the standard denominational answers they learned in seminary.

What's the alternative? It can't be megachurches, church growth strategies, programs, multisensory worship experiences, or thematically oriented sermons. It can't even be reactions to whatever it is in historic Christianity that we may dislike with a passion (knock, knock, Emergent Church Movement).

The right alternative has got to take us back to the simple message of the gospel. The souls of people like Frankie Dunn and Maggie Fitzgerald are at stake. Will we let them die and murder each other, living as those without hope?

Beloved, if we are truly ambassadors of Christ, messengers of reconciliation, as Paul implies that we are in 2 Corinthians 5:20, what in the world are we doing? If what we are doing does not flow out of the gospel or back into it....if what we do is not connected to the gospel...if what we do is not energized and generated by the gospel...then I must ask, what are we doing? We are wasting our time, and contributing to the condemnation of others (and yes, that even includes Calvinists!).

In closing, might I add a more practical way that we can lurch backwards into the simplicity of the gospel message of Christ and Him crucified? It involves a 'put off' and a 'put on.' First, let's put off Hollywood. It offers nothing but a mirage. Too many Christians, including myself, watch movies in order to gain some redemptive element which we can use as common ground to share the gospel with others. That works sometimes. But I'm beginning to think that when that is used as common ground, generally their perception of Christianity, priests, and preachers is just what Hollywood has told them it is. So if we start with Hollywood, we're already starting with a broken tool...a severely broken tool. I say let's ditch the whole thing. Ironically, it's filled with nothing but emptiness. There's no gospel in Hollywood, so let's stop allowing it to seep into our minds, hearts, and homes.

Second, let's put on the Lord Jesus Christ as He's already revealed Himself in the Bible. He hasn't revealed anything of Himself in Hollywood. If we read our Bibles as much as we watched Hollywood's products, or better yet, if we read our Bible as much as we watched Hollywood's products and instead of Hollywood's products, what kind of Christians do you think we would be? We could be the type who could have offered Frankie Dunn and Maggie Fitzgerald real hope, that's what! We can stand in the gap for the atrocious shepherding that many are experiencing right now. We can interpret the gospel for them with our very lives.

Who needs Hollywood when we've got the only inspired, divine message of special revelation directly from God to man on what's wrong and how God has made it all right! So let's turn off the stinkin' T.V. and start reading our Bibles! Let's save the clams we formerly used to support Hollywood and entertain ourselves, and let's use those clams to buy resources that help us understand and relish the gospel...to fund outreach efforts to get into the lives of our neighbors and fellow citizens with the good news...to support our local churches whose very function on earth is to be the pillar and support of the gospel truth.

"Father, forgive our omission of Your gospel. Forgive it in our own lives...in our homes...and in our pulpits. Forgive my omission and embolden my ranting!"

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