“Third Person”
It’s almost impossible to talk about this film without giving it away, so instead I’ll talk about something analogous and if you choose to read on, you might catch the inference.
Every regular churchgoer has heard Gospel readings at worship, and most every Christian knows that there are four Gospels. And even the most cursory examination of them reveals a distinctly different perspective from each. Of course, entire dissertations have been written about those nuances, but suffice it to say that as in the infamous “quest for the historical Jesus” hermeneutic, the final conclusion to be drawn is that every one who writes about Jesus in fact does so from a particular point of view, and therefore, at the very least, betrays personal perspective, if not outright fashioning Jesus to be in the storyteller’s image. (Or, in the case of the Gospel of John, making Jesus sound like the Gospel writer, kind of like Woody Allen making all his main characters sound like himself.)
That said, every piece of writing is somewhat autobiographical, because the writer cannot help but have a perspective, no matter how “objective” the intent. And every sermon is even more autobiographical, because it involves interpretation, and exegesis, which are even more subjective than mere storytelling, and therefore even more likely to reflect the point of view of the author. Some preachers attempt to compensate by quoting other interpreters, or rendering their remarks in the Third Person, which might imply a once-removed adaptation, but can also sound stilted, appear pretentious, and be off-putting to the hearer. On the hand, few listeners want to put up with so many personal anecdotes that the preacher appears to not have done any research at all; merely supplied an off-the-top-of-the-head commentary that costs little and is valued even less.
So, what ought one do? A homiletician worthy of the name is itself a matter of personal opinion. And yet, most of us churchgoing types keep showing up on Sunday morning, hoping that there’s a possibility that we will hear a little magic: some masterful weaving together of purpose and conviction, of story line and anecdote, of substance and illustration, of creativity and clarity. Yes, it’s an art form. And so is moviemaking.
Liam Neeson plays Michael, a once-successful writer who’s now having difficulty finding his Muse. (OK, it’s pagan terminology, but every Christian preacher who has ever sat in front of blank computer screen trying to come up with words knows how tricky it can be to even begin to write, much less be inspired or inspiring). There are several stories being told here, in parallel fashion, and the viewer gets the feeling after a while that they might just intersect, or at the very least, find some common ground. But the viewer must be patient. The stories have to play themselves out: the American tourist in Italy who seems curiously interested in being scammed, the hotel maid who’s hiding secrets, the lovely young lush, the abstract artist with awkward parenting skills, the beleaguered family practice lawyer, and that doesn’t even count the tattooed thug, the surly bartender, or the cuckolded spouse. So many deceptions, so little time.
For those viewers who like their story lines crystal-clear and don’t’ appreciate cinematic obfuscations, or “being taken for a ride,” this one probably isn’t for you. But those who routinely try to write, such as yours truly, will find a special identification here.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas