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It's a Wonderful Life?

We finally got round to watching 'Un Prophete' the other day. It recounts the Machiavellian progress of a young inmate in a French prison, amidst horrendous violence, racism, injustice,'s pretty unrelenting, and if there's any sort of redemptive subplot I didn't find it. 'It was good, I liked it'...Hmm. Seems I'm pretty inured to graphic depictions of hopelessness and brutality nowadays. Perhaps that's partly because the brokenness of the world is not news to me...I agree with the film's 'diagnosis', so far as it goes. But it doesn't have (from my perspective) the whole picture: there is a hope, and it comes from outside of human nature. That film didn't recognise that hope, but it didn't challenge or undermine it, or offer any sort of was just as though it hadn't 'discovered' it. So, for me, it inspired compassion for the world but not despair for myself.

By comparison, 'It's a Wonderful Life', ultimate seasonal feel-good movie, left me utterly miserable. The closing scene, which has doubtless called forth many a tear of warm sentiment over the years, found me weeping with wretched self-pity.

The film is about a man who has reached crisis point and is lamenting that he has not achieved, in his life, any of the things which he hoped to have achieved. As he considers ending it all, in steps his guardian angel, Clarence, who shows him the wonderful impact he has made, and the people he has blessed by his willingness to pass up on his own ambitions in order to serve them instead. Persuaded to reconsider, he re-embraces life, at which point all his friends step in to help him just as he helped them. It's all very heartwarming and ends with a written message from Clarence:
Dear George: Remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings! Love, Clarence.
Cue self-pity. Suffice to say, this isn't such a great message of hope if the very things you are struggling with are loneliness and guilty awareness of having let people down...

My dispassionate re-appraisal, a few years down the line, is that this nicer-than-nice film is in some sense far more undermining of a Christian worldview than many grittier, nastier films like 'Un Prophete'. The hope which Clarence offers George is the substitution of one human goal for another. Instead of living for work, and success, and prestige, George is encouraged to live for family, and popularity, and being a good man; whilst possibly nobler and more reflective (I think) of who God made us to be, there is a danger in elevating these things as idols to be venerated rather than gifts to be received with gratitude.

By way of contrast, consider the account of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. Here was a wealthy, successful man, who was very unpopular with his fellow Jews (collecting taxes for the Romans was seen as abject betrayal: cosying up to the occupying oppressors for personal gain, and often extorting extra on the side). What might Clarence have said to him? "Well, Zacchaeus, quite frankly I don't know why you go on living. Look at all the misery you've inflicted on all these people. If you insist on sticking around at least give up this life of progress and wealth at others' expense and try being nice to people for a change".

Fortunately for Zacchaeus, his 'remarkable encounter' was not with Clarence, but with Jesus.
And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:3-10)
Rather than condemn and lecture Zacchaeus, Jesus recognises his longing and need and immediately accepts him as he is. He initiates a relationship, out of which Zacchaeus is transformed and begins to live a 'better' life. It isn't in order to earn Jesus' approval that Zacchaeus starts making reparation for his past, it is out of joyful response to the acceptance he has already begun to experience.

What might Jesus have said to George? Not, I think, "Cheer up old boy - things aren't as bad as they seem. In fact, you've been doing pretty well up to now." -- which is what the message of the film seems to boil down to. I speculate that Jesus would have acknowledged George's very real hopelessness (more far-reaching than he has grasped), and offered himself. And then, together, they could've worked it out from there.

My understanding and hope is that this continues for those who want to follow Jesus today. We are not tasked with changing ourselves; obliged to conform to a set of demanding prerequisites until we finally become acceptable. Neither are we simply reassured that 'we're not so bad after all'. Rather: "...God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4-5)