Vestigial Grace

*Posted by Kirk Spencer

Saying grace at the dinner table is just about the only acceptable kind of praying in movies. Over the years, I’ve watched a few of these that I can’t seem to get out of my mind. I have to admit they are quite disturbing. However it is the very things that make them disturbing, that resonate with the popular media culture of the time. Here are three that come to mind:

In the movie “Shenandoah (1965),” Jimmy Stewart sits at the dinner table with his large family. We expect a traditional prayer. However, the patriarch prays to an absent god who has left them to do everything for themselves. He ends his prayer with “But we thank-you just the same.” The 50s and 60s ushered in a time when academic skepticism began to filter into popular culture with the sense that we have been left alone with no divine supervision. However, we still performed our “we-thank-you-just-the-same” obeisance to the god who was no longer there, but only out of habit Or in the words of The Script’s popular song “Falling to Pieces”— We were praying to a God we don’t believe in.

Here is a Youtube clip of Jimmy Stewart’s Shenandoah prayer:

In the movie “Christmas Vacation (1989),” Chevy Chase sits at the dinner table with his large extended family. At this point in the movie, we certainly do not expect a traditional prayer. However, when 80 year old Aunt Bethany is asked to pray, the chances of a traditional prayer become more plausible. Aunt Bethany folds here hands and bows her head to pray. The whole table prepares to find security in prayer, even if done only out of habit. Aunt Bethany begins reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and soon everyone around the table, with hands over their hearts, are pledging allegiance to the United States of America. What a powerful, and heartbreaking, commentary on the times! Much of the traditional social responsibility of religion had been transferred to the government. Religion was being politicized and politics, spiritualized.

Here is a Youtube clip of Aunt Bethany’s Christmas Vacation pledge prayer:

In the movie “Talladega Nights (2006),” Ricky Bobby sits at the dinner table with his well-groomed, size-appropriate family. And what do we expect? -Certainly something shocking. And that’s what we get—a prayer to the baby Jesus. There are a number of inappropriate culturally-appropriate aspects to this species of irreverent, self-referent, “hyper-text” praying—starting with fast-food references—then the wife’s real-time commentary and exhortation to “do this grace good” so that God will do what they want—followed by the “any-kind-of-Jesus-you-want” parenthetical—and ending with an odd “doxology” of contractual product promotion. However, while all of this certainly resonates with the popular media culture of the times, the main point of the baby Jesus prayer is that Ricky Bobby likes to pray to a God in diapers—golden fleece diapers. In the materialistic fast-food culture of the 80’s and 90’s, an 8 pound, 6 ounce baby God is much more manageable and convenient, than a full-grown adult God with a beard.

Here is a Youtube clip of Baby Jesus Prayer (please understand that this video is only being included as an example of reprehensible thinking and practice):

In these much more insecure days, I have found a recent cinematic “saying of grace” more to my liking. In the movie “Book of Eli (2010),” Denzel Washington, as Eli, sits at a table to share a meal with his lost acquaintance Solaria. Eli bows his head and closes his eyes. Then, without looking, he tells Solaria to close her eyes. She obeys for just a second and then looks up to watch him pray. He prays a simple, heartfelt prayer about gratitude and companionship in the worst of times. And she watches. I’ve learned to let my children look at me (or look around) when I pray. I don’t mind. They can watch. It’s a very critical moment, isn’t it? Will they feel the spiritual presence of the Heavenly Father watching their father pray? Or will they hear an angry earthly father forcing obeisance in laying down the law? One is for a lifetime. The other is just until they are out of the house. Saying grace should not be vestigial. Nor should it be a performance or a pledge of allegiance. We are not fulfilling contractual obligations. We pray to our Creator, not the government—certainly not to a convenient baby god in golden fleece diapers. Now praying to our Creator in sincerity—that will be something to see! So let them watch.

“Heavenly Father—Teach me sincerity and not just its appearance. I want to pray without looking to see whose looking. Even to live without looking to see whose looking. May my eyes be fixed upon you—the Author and Finisher of faith.”

This entry was posted in Art, Culture, Ethics, Film, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Vestigial Grace

  1. Steve Lee says:

    Great post.
    The media sure does like to take a common Christian experience and either make a mockery of it. They also, I believe … just do not know any better. Which only should strengthen our resolve to tell them the truth.

  2. Pingback: Vestigial Grace | looks like reign

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