Sunday, September 10, 2006

Wounded Missionary

Some Christian fiction and secular films often share something in common: a missionary complex. In the one, the Christian book, a missionary (actual or symbolic) goes forth to preach the gospel. In the other, a well-meaning upper-middle class white liberal attempts to save a child from the ghetto. It’s not always this pat of course. Sometimes the do-gooder is a well-meaning middle-class black who wants to "give back" to the neighborhood. Notwithstanding race and other incidentals, the aims are usually pretty clear: someone needs saving, and someone else with the right spiritual or political outlook on life is sacrificial and well-meaning enough to save them. One soul at a time.

Of course, the missionary usually has a little problem himself. A very little problem. It is usually the temptation to give up and the questioning of his calling. But that’s about it. The missionary himself is usually as sane, noble, and emotionally-competent as the God he represents. The do-gooder in the film Half-Nelson, however, is no such symbol of virtue and piety. He, Dan (Ryan Gosling), a white teacher, is not a sinner, but he does engage in illegal activities. He is a crack-addict. And although we don’t quite know who has wounded him and why he would turn to crack, we are faced with his woundedness at every turn of the film, as well as his need to be delivered from it, and to prevent at least one of his students, Dray (Shareeka Epps) a black girl with family problems of her own, from being swallowed up by the industrious-but-illegal machine that is ghetto life...especially the drug industry which brings money, friendship, and respect. Unlike the straight and narrow path.

Throughout the Bible, we are told to be careful of evil because it can contaminate and corrupt us. But we are also told to lift up the weak. This is a see-saw that the average Christian doesn’t usually ride. But the average Christian in a bad neighborhood might very well encounter it everyday. The trouble, of course, is that most Christian fiction doesn’t create a heroic missionary-minded character as self-destructive as this. The baddies might be in deep spiritual morass, but the heroes rarely are. And who is the wounded savior to befriend when all the other saviors are so gosh-darn perfect?

In a world without friends, one cannot be too choosey. When one finds an understanding heart with whom one can communicate, that person may not fall into an acceptable category. A male teacher is not supposed to be hanging around with a female student. A student should not know a teacher’s secret. But Heavens, things often get so lonely and hard in life that even a Maine fisherman could befriend a New York gay photographer if that healing relationship came at the right time!

If there is one thing I don’t like it’s nihilistic movies. I watched this movie with a deep dread rising frequently in my heart and repeated often, "This better not end without hope." Okay, that’s my Christian upbringing. Besides, C S Lewis said a good story should never have a sad ending. When the black moment of the film arrives, and we see a transaction taking place that we hadn’t even dreamed of, I was about to give up. I kept remembering Al Pacino’s character in The Panic in Needle Park. But, yay, hope and truth wins out. And we feel that wounded though he was, this missionary has succeeded in saving someone. Yes, in spite of – and perhaps because of– his shortcomings. Recommended. But not for those who can’t deal with a few harrowing moments.

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