Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes Through the Lens of Contemporary Film
Robert K. Johnston. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004. 208 pages.
For this reviewer, who enjoys modern film and is intrigued with Ecclesiastes, this book was a joy to read. Robert Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, has previously published in both prime arenas addressed by this book (e.g., Reel Spirituality, 2000; “ ‘Confessions of a Workaholic’: A Reappraisal of Qoheleth,” 1976).
This book treats a dozen (mostly) recent films in detail, including Crimes and Misdemeanors; American Beauty; Magnolia; Run, Lola, Run; Monster’s Ball; Signs; Election; and About Schmidt, while alluding to dozens more. Johnston is also intrigued with the writers and directors of these films so that he discusses in some detail the additional work of people such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Alan Ball, Tom Tykwer, Marc Forster, M. Night Shyamalan, Alexander Payne, Woody Allen, and the Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa.
As with other works of theological film critique in recent years which have moved beyond the identification of offensive content or ideology (such as Doug Fields and Eddie James, Videos that Teach, 1999), Johnston explores ways in which the message of Scripture is enacted dramatically through the efforts of “secular” movie writers, directors, and producers. He claims to do more, however, than simply explicate particular movies by identifying themes they hold in common with the Bible. In addition, he seeks to put Scripture and film in “dialogue” with each other so that the Scripture itself is explicated by the movies. That is, in the present book, he hopes that a study of specific films in conversation with Ecclesiastes will help us understand Ecclesiastes better as well as understand the films better.
Two of the filmmakers listed above—Kurosawa and Allen—are cited to demonstrate that their (primarily) mid-twentieth century films which pick up themes found in Ecclesiastes do so while reflecting an existentialist ideology. That is, the message of their films is that life is not only tragic and confusing, but actually irrational and absurd. There is an unbridgeable chasm between meaning and truth so that hope must be placed in creating a personal sense of meaning. Johnston believes a new generation of filmmakers has taken up some of the same issues as, say, Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors but has refused to accept either of the major options Allen presents there: an orthodox Jewish (cf. Christian) theology or secular existentialism. Rather, the newer message is that life in this realm presents unexpected gifts of goodness and beauty in the midst of its strangeness, gifts which must simply be accepted and enjoyed. Johnston believes this message is also at the heart of Ecclesiastes (with confidence in God as the Giver) and that these recent films can help us recognize that fact.
The methodology of Johnston’s theological film criticism is developed more thoroughly in Reel Spirituality, but he provides a summary in one of the appendices to Useless Beauty. Like Robert Jewett’s treatment of themes in Paul’s writings (Saint Paul at the Movies, 1993, and Saint Paul Returns to the Movies, 1999), and Larry Kreitzer in The New Testament in Fiction and Film: On Reversing the Hermeneutical Flow, 1993, Johnston’s theology is thoroughly Reformed. It embraces an understanding of God’s grace actively present in human culture and is hopeful that the society within which the church finds itself can be at least partially transformed toward the values of God’s kingdom. Johnston finds biblical warrant for this theology in recipe wisdom (such as the book of Proverbs), in stories which include godly non-Israelites (such as Ruth and Jonah), and in Paul’s writings (such as Romans 2:7, 14 which acknowledge God’s work within those who are outside of God’s people; Reel, 65-67, 69; Useless, 25-29).
His theological method allows five components to interact: Bible and tradition, culture and experience, and the reflections of the local church (Reel, 84). This corresponds with a three-fold schema sometimes called the “hermeneutical circle/spiral” in biblical studies: Scripture and tradition, experience, and reflection. His insistence that the “conversation” between Bible and film go both ways aligns with the polarity sometimes articulated in theological studies between “theology from above” and “theology from below.” These expressions identify different starting points: either in a theological understanding (rooted in a creed or statement of faith) or in human experience. From these starting points, Scripture is engaged for theological construction. The “above” position seeks to make sense of human experience in the light of what is already constructed theologically; the “below” position seeks to confirm, deepen, or modify a particular theological position. Some would choose one of these starting points as preferable over the other, but Johnston’s advocacy of “dialogue” emphasizes that the Spirit gives insights through both procedures. He places film in the position of human experience from which a theological exercise from below might begin.
His method of film analysis takes “into account not only (1) the movie itself, but also (2) the filmmakers lying behind and expressed through it, (3) the viewers with their own life stories that help interpret it, and (4) the larger universe, or worldview, that shapes the story’s presentation” (Reel, 115; cf. Useless, 187-88). These four elements relate easily to a common schema of biblical interpretation which evaluates matters (1,4) within the text, (2) behind the text, and (3) in front of the text. Films may be criticized in four major areas or foci: genre, culture, auteur, and theme (Reel, 124).
Johnston offers a brief but helpful overview of the history of Ecclesiastes scholarship (Useless, 17-21; 179-82), and his knowledgeable references to ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature strengthen his discussions at several points. For some time, a view of Ecclesiastes as the assertions of a pessimist has motivated comparisons with existentialist thought, e.g., the work of Camus and Woody Allen. But it was pleasing to this reviewer to discover that Johnston finds his own position among more recent work on the book which, in his words, “seeks to provide a narrative context in which life’s uselessness and its God-given beauty might be concurrently embraced” (182; cf. 188-89). This is a fairly accurate description of the cutting edge in Ecclesiastes scholarship, although more of the interpreters Johnston cites in his overview would fit this description than he recognizes.
The overall success of the book is evident in discussions such as these:
- Monster’s Ball, which demonstrates how an awareness of death can promote life (Eccles. 7:2-4).
- Signs, which dramatizes a witness that, in spite of life’s apparent random alternation between trouble and prosperity, God is at work behind the scenes (7:14).
- Election and About Schmidt, which demonstrate the futility of the belief that hard work will bring both success and happiness (1:3; 2:11), and particularly the consequence of loneliness (4:8, 11).
As much as I enjoyed this book, there are a few quibbles. One is the use of the Good News Bible translation throughout. From my own study of Ecclesiastes, I find this version sometimes clear and accurate but at other times not dependable. On a few occasions, from my perspective, this led to a distortion of the dialogue between film and biblical text. Second, there were some instances in which the “punch line” of insight from the movie into a particular passage of Ecclesiastes seemed forced or trivial.
Finally, although Johnston includes worldview critique in his methodology—and does insightful work in this connection in his second chapter discussion of Allen and Kurosawa—it is largely absent in chapters three through eight which are the heart of the book. For me, this disappointment went beyond a mere longing for additional analysis, particularly when it came to Johnston’s discussions of American Beauty and Magnolia. In general he does good work with each of these films, which I consider to be the two most significant of 1999. Both address deep crises within the American philosophical vacuum, explore loss of purpose and its consequences for particularly family relationships, and hold out hope in the midst of violence and tragedy. However, Johnston’s determination in these studies to focus on the positive ways in which films can provide insight into life leads, in this case, to a missed opportunity to critique the significant differences in perspective between these two movies. It also demonstrates a failure, in the case of American Beauty, to let the voice of Ecclesiastes disagree with the movie.
Whatever the personal convictions of Paul Thomas Anderson, his movie Magnolia is deeply informed by a Jewish and Christian worldview. This is evident not merely in his use of biblical symbols, but also in the depth of pain that comes from broken relationships, the urgency of resolving brokenness before death, the message that there is something (Someone?) in the universe relentlessly insisting that human beings “wise up,” the refusal to trivialize the implications of sinful choices, and thus, due to all of these, the greater emotional impact of the examples of grace, demonstrated especially by those who take risks for others, offer loving servanthood, and find ways to forgive.
American Beauty, on the other hand, I interpret as an outstanding presentation of a worldview which could be described as eclectic, including elements of Buddhism and Hinduism. Johnston rightly identifies the celebration in both movies of the pockets of goodness and beauty which humans may receive as gifts. He is also correct that American Beauty provides an intense satire against American materialism and individualism. But two points in his commentary give some evidence that the voice of the movie in this conversation is becoming louder than that of Ecclesiastes. In his summary of Ricky’s experience of the plastic bag floating on the wind, he quotes this statement: “That’s the day I realized there was this entire life behind things and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid . . . ever” (62). Johnston’s failure to respond to the content of Ricky’s epiphany ignores statements in Ecclesiastes that God is the source of harm as well as good (1:13; 6:2; 7:13-14), that God will judge all human beings (3:17 and 11:9 as well as 12:14), and that God is to be feared (5:7; 7:18 and 8:12 as well as 12:13).
I agree with Johnston that Ecclesiastes challenges triumphalist faith, but the following comparison is an overstatement: “It is significant that the transcendent vision of life in both Ecclesiastes and American Beauty comes without reference to the church or the synagogue, without reference to traditional religion” (72). This ignores the strong orthodox pronouncements about the nature and character of God in Ecclesiastes and fails to appreciate the distinctive fountainheads of their surface-pool similarity on this point.
Overall, Johnston puts his methodology wonderfully to work and provides convincing demonstrations of its value. Useless Beauty is aimed at a college-educated audience and is not encumbered by technical terminology. I highly recommend the book to all who are interested in modern film, the book of Ecclesiastes, or both.