I must admit I’m drawn to films that explore darkness. That tug—and the context in which I muse about them—is most likely a result of my own struggles with darkness and doubt. Encountering darkness causes folks, among other things, to really wrestle with questions like: Who is God? What is he like? Does he care about me? And can I trust him? In my own struggles through these questions, I’ve sought out the experience of people in Scripture (Jesus, Job, Jeremiah, etc.) and the writings of others (St. John of the Cross, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, etc.) who also struggled with darkness. As I read and listened, some things began to stand out. Like God is good. And he loves deeply. Not only does he love deeply, he is love. And he’s relentless in his desire and work to bring all of creation back into his Life and Love. He hates death and sin the way a father hates the cancer that carnages his child or a mother the bees that are swarming her toddler. He is powerful, always always present, caring and restoring—even if we’re in a situation doesn’t seem to match that truth. And all that colors how I look at films that deal with darkness.
Knowing God is good and present, however, doesn’t negate the desperation and pain that comes in darkness. During a particularly long season of darkness, I came to deeply appreciate and resonate with Psalm 88, written by a psalmist in the darkest of places who (unlike the vast majority of other psalmists) utters not one refrain of praise. Like John Constantine, this psalmist has been to hell: “I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand” (88:4-5 NRSV). He unflinchingly tells God that he feels like he’s been “cast off” (14) and assaulted (16) by him. Such darkness, desperation and struggle are stark realities and people in Scripture don’t shy away from them. That they recorded these experiences comes as a great comfort to me.
Even in this darkest of psalms, however, we can’t seem to get away from the larger Story: a God who is always at work and always loving and always working towards bringing the world into his Light, Life and Love. Even as he’s in deep lament, this context infiltrates the psalmist’s words and actions. In the midst of his deep feelings of betrayal and abandonment, he prays all the time (88:1, 9, 13) to a God who he describes with words like “my salvation” (1), “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” (11), of “wonders” and “saving help” (12). It is to this God that the psalmist—with “eyes that grow dim through sorrow”—cries for release and rescue. In my own walk through darkness, this psalm gave me a brief glimpse of the larger context of my own struggles with darkness, a fleeting but sharp glimpse of the landscape in which I walked. It gave me hope.
A film that I think comes closer than Constantine to revealing such a moment is Signs, the M. Night Shyamalan film that on the face of it appears to be about crop circles and alien invasion but is actually more a story about struggles with faith and fighting personal demons. I was particularly drawn to Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a father and former-clergyman in his own hell. In the anguish of watching his wife die in a freak accident, he rejected God and anything having to do with faith. Yet, through a series of events in the film, Graham re-embraces his trust and faith in God—not because God shines down in a brilliant light in one single moment but because he realizes God was working intimately in his life all along, even in the midst of the darkest moments of his life.
Constantine and Signs differ profoundly in what kind of God rules their world. In Constantine, God has made a deal with Satan and left the world to itself along with the humans who walk upon it. When John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) trades his life for another, he gains redemption and entrance to heaven, but ultimately Lucifer even usurps that event, becoming the one to give Constantine a second chance and new life.
In Signs, however, God is not absent or removed but profoundly and intimately involved in the details of Graham’s life—even as Graham rages against him. Graham does nothing to earn this. Signs’ God has been profoundly working in Graham’s life before Graham ever enacts any kind of “redeemable” action or behavior.
And that’s a God much closer to reality than the one in Constantine. That’s more like a God who sends Jesus into a world that’s at odds with him. A God who reaches out to us even as we are pushing him away. A God who offers redemption and Life as a relentless gift rather something to be earned.
Ultimately, each film has its foibles and flaws, though I think Signs is closer to the biblical universe (and thus reality). But in the end, both films gave me the opportunity to examine what I believe about God, what it means to walk with him and what is required of me in that journey.
And that brings God-talk into the open space, which is what this blog’s all about.
(Images: Signs images copyrighted by Touchstone; Constantine images copyrighted by Warner Bros)