When I’m looking for insight into the great questions of human existence, I turn to Hollywood.
- What’s Heaven like? Ask Robin Williams.
- Why did Judas really betray Jesus? Ask Martin Scorsese.
- Predestination or free will? Ask Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- What are angels really like? Ask Michael Landon. Or John Travolta. Or Nicolas Cage. Or Paul Bettany.
Of course I’m being facetious.
But as ridiculous as it is from a practical level, I admit I’m drawn to movies and TV that explore the spiritual realm – sometimes as an exercise in ‘what not to do’, but not always. And even the worst examples from this often naive and opportunistic genre have one redeeming quality – they set their eyes upon heavenly things, if only at the basest, dumbest level. And in the process, they occasionally provide tiny specks of insight that can help illuminate a corner of the Truth that might otherwise have stayed hidden.
So while movies like Michael, Legion and Ghost Rider belong firmly in the Guilty Pleasure Category, they have occasionally been slightly helpful in my spiritual journey – although probably accidentally on the part of the film makers.
All this to justify the fact I’m currently watching an obscure, defunct TNT series called Saving Grace. The show, which premiered in 2007 and lasted three seasons, is accessible via NetFlix.
Holly Hunter stars as Grace Hanadarko, a heavy-drinking, promiscuous Oklahoma City Police detective. During a crisis in her life, she prays for help, and God sends her Earl (Leon Rippy), a scruffy-looking, tobacco-chewing celestial being whose job title is Last Chance Angel.
He’s there to save Grace, as the title implies. And you’d think the unmistakable, instant, divine deliverance from the crisis she asked to be delivered from, and the in-the-flesh presence of a bona fide angel would be more than enough for our plucky little heroine to repent and receive that salvation.
But following that line of logic would have made Saving Grace a mediocre but interesting two-hour TV movie, rather than a mediocre but interesting three-season TV series. And that wasn’t what TNT was after.
Implausible premise or not, the series walks us through Grace’s resistance to Earl’s spiritual advances, while also chronicling her exploits as a police detective. (Tourism note: If this TV show is accurate, little Oklahoma City boasts an alarming number of serial killers and criminal masterminds for a burgh that’s half the size of Calgary [500,000]. Maybe head or Tulsa or Musgokee instead, if you’ve got Oklahoma on your mind.)
Hunter’s performance is subtle like a freight train full of TNT, leaving no scenery left unchewed – but she’s also inexplicably very watchable. Overall, the show is pretty crappy as cop dramas go, but it’s surprisingly compelling from a spiritual perspective.
Case in point: Early in Season 2, Earl pays a visit to another of his ‘clients’ – a death row inmate named Leon Cooley (Bokeem Woodbine) – who declares he’s going to convert to Islam. Leon says Goodbye Earl, closes his eyes, says the appropriate prayer and opens them, expecting the apparently Christian angel to be gone.
Earl chuckles affectionately as he informs Leon that God is bigger than any human-made religion, and goes on in the coming weeks to be an angel of Allah to some of his ‘clients’ and an emissary of Christ to others.
“God is religiously unaffiliated!” declares series creator Nancy Miller.
Oh, what a relief. Thank you, Hollywood, for setting us straight! (That was meant to be dripping with sarcasm, in case it wasn’t obvious.)
But I haven’t ‘gone there’ in a while. Lately I’ve settled, without realizing it, into my own version of the mainstream Christian view that says we’re right and everybody else is … ahem … less right(?). But while watching that episode, I felt my spiritual boundaries being pushed by a lackluster TV show.
On one hand, I genuinely believe with both heart and mind that Jesus is God in the flesh, who came to the world to die for our sins, and that He is the (only) way, the truth and the life. None come to the Father except through Him.
But on the other hand, I can’t intellectually or spiritually accept the notion that the Creator of the Universe fits neatly and entirely inside the box that is Christianity; that religious perfection was achieved by the successors of Saints Peter and Paul, and that all faiths that came before or after it don’t only miss the mark, they’re not even aiming at the right target.
Christ is the only Way to the Father, but is Christianity the only way to Christ?
Did God pour Himself into some other flawed, man-made religions the same way He poured Himself into the flawed, man-made religion called Christianity – and redeemed those faiths (and their adherents), too?
Or is a surrender to God only worth anything if your theology is ‘just right’? I’m careful not to jump to this conclusion, personally, because some might argue that only one human in the history of the universe had his theology ‘just right’, and He walked on water!
I wonder if the power of the cross extends further than we think it does. Could it be that Jesus, who chose to tear Himself out of the perfect community of the Trinity, come to Earth as a human for 33 years and suffer boredom, rejection, humiliation, torture and species-sanctioned murder, then to descend into Hell for two days – in order to save the very people who murdered him – is willing to go even further than we dare to comprehend, just to save His children from themselves?
For real – I’m not saying a card-carrying Christian has any right to believe this is the case, but I think we’re allowed to hope so.
And that’s where I hang my hat on this question.
And after my hat is hung up safe and sound on this peg, and while wearing all of the rest of my clothes (and my doubts), I cannonball with gusto into the baptism of capital-c Christianity. I commit myself to that flawed, earthly institution that is both the Body and Bride of Christ – His Church. I put all my Easter eggs in the basket that is His Saving Grace.
I do hope there are a multitude of paths that lead to Heaven. But I choose the one that’s certain.
Peace be with you.