Friday, November 09, 2012

'Skyfall': What Bond’s dark night of the soul can tell us about our own


The third installment in the Daniel Craig James Bond series premiered this week, falling on the year of the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film, Doctor No. Skyfall is full of nods to the half-century old franchise, with front-burner themes exploring the clash between age and youth, bygone eras (Cold War) and new threats (terrorism), hands-on expertise and the power of technology. But it was another theme that caught my attention: faith—in particular, what happens when the object of our faith betrays us.

Warning: Spoilers!

Within the first 20 minutes of Skyfall, Bond is (quite literally) plunged into a sort of existential dark night of the soul, confronted with the apparent betrayal by and brokenness of a system—and the person who represents that system—to which he pledged his faith. And Bond must work out whether his faith is in that broken system (and the people in it) or in something larger. Knowing everyone thinks he’s dead, he retreats, rejecting MI6 and M, drowning his pain in alcohol and women. But when he hears about the threat to MI6 (and M), his makes a choice, essentially placing his faith in a larger good—which allows him to extend a roughed-up-but-wiser grace towards the weakness and brokenness in the system and people who serve that greater good.

(Lest you think my use of faith language is stretching it, Skyfall is laced with religious imagery and language, from the opening credits to the end scene—which takes place in a chapel.)

In contrast to Bond, Silva obviously chose differently. Like Bond, he was an agent who was apparently betrayed by M and MI6. Unlike Bond, however, when that system—and, in particular, M—abandoned him, he couldn’t recover. He was unable to adjust the object of his faith from the broken system and the people in that system to the larger good it served. (And we get a hint that his faith was never in a larger good to begin with.)

In Bond and Silva, we also see the contrasting world views in which their choices result. Bond, while both physically and emotionally wounded, chooses to have faith in a larger good—one which ultimately leads him to willingly risk his life for the very person whom he felt betrayed him. Silva, on the other hand, chooses not only to reject the system but also any larger good, embracing a rat-eats-rat view of life—one marked by selfishness, revenge and cruelty.

I can’t help but think how Bond’s struggle reflects one we experience when we feel like we have been betrayed by a system, be it secular ones like the government and justice system or religious like the church. When confronted with the brokenness of the system itself, or even more powerfully, by the people who work within it, we feel deeply wounded—and betrayed.

But times of such betrayal can be opportunities to examine in what we are placing our faith. Are we placing our faith in broken systems or people (all of which are likely, in some form, to fail us because of their broken nature) or in the ideal, virtue, good—or ultimately, when it comes to the church and other believers, the Person—which those systems (or people) were created to serve? The choices we make may determine whether we come out edging towards a roughed-up wisdom and grace or one step closer to a rat-eat-rat philosophy.

Yet facing the brokenness of systems and people is one thing; what happens when we feel betrayed by God himself? In my darker times, I’ve learned an uneasy thing: unlike the systems and people around me, it is not God who is broken but me. I find paradoxically unsettling and yet comforting the observations C.S. Lewis makes in the months after his wife’s death in A Grief Observed:
Meanwhile, where is God? .... [G]o to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
But Lewis gradually realizes that the problem is not with God, but with him:
God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn't.  In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.
Lewis records a sense of God stripping away his false beliefs and understandings—knocking them down like the house of cards they are—and revealing himself instead: “Not my idea of God, but God.” In the darkness, Lewis finds his way to God, not his broken idea of who God is, but a very present, caring and good God as he is.

That doesn't mean we still won’t feel betrayed—and we’re not alone. Another unsettling comfort is the words penned by a poet many thousands of years ago:
I’m standing my ground, God, shouting for help, 
at my prayers every morning, on my knees each daybreak. 
Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear? 
Why do you make yourself scarce? 
For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting; 
I’ve taken the worst you can hand out, and I’ve had it. 
Your wildfire anger has blazed through my life; 
I’m bleeding, black-and-blue. 
You’ve attacked me fiercely from every side, 
raining down blows till I’m nearly dead. 
You made lover and neighbor alike dump me; 
the only friend I have left is Darkness.
While it is unsettling to know that this sense of betrayal is as ancient as Scripture itself, it is comforting to know that we are not alone in our experience of it. For what it’s worth, like Lewis, I too have found my way through darkness to God—not my broken idea of who he is, but a better understanding and experience of the very present, good and loving God as he is. And, so far at least, I’ve walked away with a roughed-up yet wiser and grace-full faith.

Bond’s struggle with faith isn’t with God, but it does echo our own.  His story challenges us to examine in who or what we have placed of faith—and how we handle the times when we feel betrayed by them. And ultimately, that brings God-talk into open spaces.

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