This is the fourth year that we’ve done this sermon series on faith and film, and right about this time each year (about halfway into it) someone will invariably come up to me and tell me what films I *should* have picked, or what films we should do next year, or what kind of movies they won’t ever go see. Some people just don’t like science fiction, others don’t like animated movies…some *only* like animated movies.
In just a while, we’ll get to the scripture passage and today’s film. But first I wanted to take a moment to share with you how I choose the films we talk about, and why you should see them, either in the theater or when they come out on video, and regardless of what kind of films you like or don’t like.
So The first criteria is that it has to be a movie that came out in the past year. Not that there weren’t some great movies five years ago, or fifty years ago–there were. But I’m interested in what ideas are circulating around our culture and our collective imagination now, and what our stories say about who we are and what we’re interested in today.
Another criteria is that it has to be a movie that people are actually talking about and thinking about. I usually look for movies that are either blockbusters (movies that a lot of people are going to want to see) or movies that are getting a lot of critical acclaim. Oscar nominations came out last week, and three of our five films were nominated for best picture (The Martian, Bridge of Spies, and today’s film, Brooklyn). A fourth film, Inside Out, was nominated for (and will probably win) best animated picture, and the fifth film was Star Wars–that was the blockbuster.
Because we’re a church, I try to avoid Rated R films. While I do try to select a variety of different types of films, it’s not an attempt to please everyone (that would be impossible). It has more to do with getting a good cross section of ideas across different genres–seeing what’s unique, and what they have in common.
You’ll notice one criteria that is conspicuously absent: I rarely ever choose films that are explicitly about Christianity, the Bible, or made by Christians for Christians. Plenty of those come out each year, but their message is rarely subtle. In fact, with that kind of movie, often there will be someone from a local megachurch standing outside the theater handing out tracts, ready to explain to you just what the movie was all about, and to find out where you think you might spend eternity if you were hit by a train on the way home from the movie.
Some pastors encourage their congregations to go see only that sort of movie, and to stay away from all the rest, lest they be somehow brainwashed by non-christian, pagan culture. Well, that’s not the Presbyterian way. Long before films existed, Presbyterian pastors were encouraging their congregations not to separate themselves from the culture, but to engage with it, to be knowledgeable about it, as well as to be knowledgeable about the scriptures and their faith–to know where all these things converge, where they diverge, and to see where God is already at work in people’s hopes, dreams, desires, and imaginations.
Today, films are one of the best ways to accomplish this, to understand the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, and so as your pastor, I want you to go to the movies, just as much as I want you to study the Bible–in fact, you need one in order to understand and navigate the other. If you don’t study the Bible, then a movie is just a movie–it’s spiritual themes and connections will be lost on you. And if you just study the Bible without learning to recognize the strange and interesting, often hidden places it shows up in our culture and the stories we tell…then the Bible is just a book written thousands of years ago, that will have less and less relevance with each passing year.
So, with that said…let’s go to the movies! But first, let’s go to our scriptures:
8Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” 10Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” 11But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”
Brooklyn is a love story; it’s a coming of age story; and like all five of our films this year, it’s a an immigration story, about leaving home and family and living as a stranger in a strange land. By the way, I don’t think it’s an accident that so many films this year have immigration issues at their heart–it’s obviously an issue that we are thinking about and talking about and wrestling with this year.
The film Brooklyn is set in Ireland and New York during the 1950s, and centers on the character of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish girl living with her widowed mother and sister. For a variety of reasons, Eilis’ prospects for finding work or meaningful relationship are limited in the small Irish town where they live, and so her older sister arranges for her to travel by herself to America–specifically to Brooklyn–where a friend of the family, Father Flood, has secured a job for her in a large department store, and a room in a boarding house.
The first half of the film deals with Eilis’ departure, travel to America, her loneliness and homesickness once there. Eventually she meets a young Italian, Tony, and they begin a relationship. Through all of this, we watch Eilis beginning to grow into a confident young woman with a future and a place in her new home.
And then, tragedy strikes at home (for those of you who haven’t seen the film, I won’t ruin it by being any more specific than that). Eilis leaves Tony and her new life behind, and travels back to Ireland to be with her family for a month. However, during that time, her newfound confidence and talents are noticed. Soon she is offered a promising job, and begins to develop a relationship with a handsome and intelligent young Irish man, Jim Farrell.
At this point, Eilis must choose between her new home and new life in Brooklyn, and her old home back in Ireland with a life she could not have even dreamed of before she left. Those of you who have seen the film already know how it turns out. Those who haven’t will just have to wait and see.
Today’s scripture passage is from the book of Ruth. While there are plenty of differences between Ruth’s story in the Old Testament and Eilis’ story in Brooklyn, there are also a remarkable number of similarities. Both stories feature young, strong female protagonists–certainly a rare thing in the Bible, but also (if you’ve been reading the headlines) in Hollywood, too, in the 21st century. For what it’s worth, three of our five movies this year have strong, young female central characters, so at least here we’re doing better than the industry average.
Eilis’ story begins with her mother and sister, Ruth’s with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Both Ruth and Eilis must deal with tragedy and loss. Both must choose between the land of their birth and a new land. Both struggle in a foreign culture, and both find love and acceptance in the unlikely arms of a kind stranger.
I say unlikely because Israel in the Old Testament did not typically approve of cross-cultural relationships or marriages. In fact, in Deuteronomy 7, they are prohibited. It is King Solomon’s many foreign wives that lead him astray. And later in the Old Testament, Nehemiah compels all Israelite men to divorce their foreign wives.
And so, when Boaz sees a foreigner gleaning wheat in his field, he would have been well within his right to send her away. In fact, it probably would have been better for his reputation. But instead, Boaz lays aside the xenophobia and hostility that is baked into his culture (really, it’s baked into all cultures) and reaches out to help her and show her kindness, and he instructs his family and his servants to do the same.
In 1950s Brooklyn, there is hostility between Irish Immigrants and Italian Immigrants. Eilis’ boyfriend, Tony, is Italian. This could have been a cause of tension, but watch how Tony (and his family) handle things in this next clip…
I’d like to think there’s a lesson for us in both of these episodes from the Bible and from our film: When it comes to foreigners, even if we believe our fears and prejudices are somehow justified, giving the immigrant in our midst the benefit of the doubt, leading with kindness first, and compassion…will carry us a lot further in the world than anger, violence, and building walls between us.
At one point in the film, when Eilis is contemplating returning to Ireland to be with her family, she asks Tony how it would be for him if she went home. He tells her that he’d be afraid every single day, and when she asks why, he says simply, “home is home.” To which, Eilis responds, “I’m not sure if I have a home anymore.”
And they are both, to an extent, right. Home is home. It’s is at the same time the place where we came from, the place that shaped and formed us, and also the place where we find ourselves now. For many of us, that means that we are torn–home is in two places, or perhaps none at all, at least not fully.
This is true for immigrants, for military families…but also for all Christians and people of faith. Hebrews 13:14 reminds us that “here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Or, in the words of an old country song,
This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through
My treasure and my hopes are all beyond the blue
Where many Christian children have gone on before
And I can’t feel at home in this world any more
We are all immigrants. We are all foreigners. We are all strangers in a strange land. Like Eilis and like Ruth, we must rely on our courage, our faith, and the kindness of others to make our way through.
Some of the most beautiful and poetic words in the Bible are spoken by Ruth, who says to her mother-in-law, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
Toward the end of the Brooklyn, things have come around full circle for Eilis, and she encounters a young, frightened, homesick girl on her way to a new life in America, and she asks Eilis what it’s like. I find her words beautiful and poetic as well: