Essay

Children of Men vs. It’s a Wonderful Life

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Joy doesn’t come easily to me. Or more accurately, exuberance. Skipping like a lamb isn’t a way I typically emote.

Is it my Dutch Reformed heritage? Being an introvert? My socialization as a male? Just another troubling symptom of my repressed and rational self?

In an effort to compensate for my emotional stiltedness, I very much want church to be “fun.” I try hard not to admonish in Advent and languish in Lent, knowing that is too easy for me. And in Christmastide and Eastertide, I try to be vigorously celebrative.

As I considered my “Christmas blog” for The Twelve, the US Senate’s report on CIA torture hung in the air. What ugliness. Grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York—and even more the reservoir of injustice they tapped into—seem like a compulsory conversation for anyone not numb from the neck up.

I could do that. Shamed young mother. Grimy stable. Heavy-handed despot raising taxes. Angel song as counter-imperial propaganda. Marginalized migrant workers welcomed. You know the ingredients. It’s all there. It really is. There is so much in the Christmas story to keep us in the “real world,” facing suffering, fighting injustice. And that is just Luke. Matthew, of course, also has plenty of malice, conniving, and carnage. If you want to go down that path this Christmas, bless you. I honor you. I respect you.

children of menMight I even suggest my second-favorite Christmas movie, Children of Men? Just don’t plan on putting on your flannel PJ’s, popping popcorn, and snuggling with your children. It is a 2006 adaptation of a P.D. James novel, a modern nativity, of a sort. Grim, brutal dystopia—you get the picture. (May I say, as an aside, that “dystopia” is one of the most grating words to me, even if I did just use it? That we hear it so much these days, far more than utopia…sigh)

Instead I’m going to try being joyful. I know it’s not either/or. I also know that I’m not prone to escapism, giddiness, and saccharine sentimentality. So why do I feel the need to explain and defend my joy? Will you still respect me come Epiphany?

I will watch my favorite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. (That’s not very original, I realize. But can I sound hipsteresque and say I liked it way before it was cool? Somewhere in the late 70’s, I brought my parents, sister and brother-in-law to see it in a tiny, hole-in-the-wall theatre for their Christmas gift, because I didn’t want to contribute to Christmas excess and materialism, but instead give a “joyful experience”—he reports, with equal parts sincerity and self-righteousness.)

It’s a Wonderful Life is typically described as heartwarming, and it is. But as you watch this year, notice how trouble and sorrow-filled it is, how seriously it takes evil. A happy ending and the claim that one person can actually make a difference—things we all desperately want to believe—are the main reasons the movie might be disparaged as sentimental by some.Its a Wonderful Life

The eternal Word taking human flesh is a cosmic event. Whether or not a natal star actually appeared, or the barnyard animals knelt, or Herod truly did slaughter the innocents of Bethlehem, all these elements and embellishments of the story, tell us that something immense is happening—disturbing earthly empires and establishing a peaceable kingdom. This alone should be a reason for joy.

The only way I can bear to give even a tiny thought to Syria and human trafficking and CIA torture is to hang on to the conviction that all evil and suffering are undone, enveloped, and now negligible, because Christ has walked this earth. That’s not denial or escapism. It is joy and confidence in the goodness and bigness and bountiful love of God.

What I love about It’s a Wonderful Life is the absolutely non-cosmic ways this cosmic upheaval occurs. Through gentleness and letting go, the kind gestures and decency of everyday people in unimportant places, the Kingdom comes among us. Is that a domesticated, trite, and bourgeois version of Gospel? It might be. But it validates and values the best in my life, and yours too, I suspect.

I’m aiming for vigorously celebrative in the next few weeks. I intend to sing extra-loud. I probably won’t skip like a lamb, but I hope to laugh and converse and commune, go on walks, relax, savor hearty food, try to pray but fall asleep, watch It’s a Wonderful Life and more. I will still read the morning paper and get cranky and despondent and sad. But for a while, I’m going to try to lean toward joy. Sound the trumpet throughout the land, for God has come to dwell with us. Alleluia!

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

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