Grace, Hell and Tinkerbelle (Nov-Dec 1999)

By Matt Dabbs

Walking a Theological Tightrope

by Jane Gibson
November – December, 1999

35I’m about to spoil a movie for you, if you’re the type of person who can’t stand to know the ending or the storyline before seeing it. You may not be planning to see this one anyway; I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been starring Robert Downey, Jr. It’s called In Dreams, in which a writer of children’s stories (played by Annette Benning) “meets” a killer. She dreams, and then has visions of moments he experiences, literally seeing what he sees as he stalks and kills his prey.

“No thanks, I think I’ll skip that one!” you’re saying, wondering why any good Christian would bother. So don’t bother; let me just tell you about it.

Benning’s character has “seen” a person leading a little girl through the woods; it so frightens her that she convinces her husband to go to the police. We eventually realize that she’s not seeing what has happened, but rather what’s about to happen – to her own little girl. We see the killer leading the child through the woods, away from an outdoor school play, her fairy slippers walking alongside his muddy shoes.

Only moments before, the parents had hugged her and watched her scamper away in a bevy of other little fairies, their golden wings a blur together. The mother suddenly realizes her daughter is not in sight. From child to child she searches, more frantic by the moment. We see lines of people with flashlights and policemen among them, walking and calling, and then a pair of fairy wings caught on a bramble shining in the searchlights. Welcome to Hell, they seem to say; population, you.

They find the small body in a lake, exactly where the mother’s nightmares had shown her it would be. It’s a man-made lake we recognize from the movie’s opening credits, during which we’ve seen a small town inundated with water, a church, stores, homes awash and in ruins in scenes reminiscent of Titanic-sinking. What we didn’t see was the scene, now played before the mother’s anguished eyes, of a small boy tied to a bedpost in a room beginning to fill with the deadly waters. It’s the killer, of course. We watch him at various times during our heroine’s descent into madness; she can finally piece together his story, and understand that he is a murderer calling out to her, via her visions and in dreams, to come to him, to find him, to stop him.

It must have been God who kept me sitting in the theater, mesmerized as I watched a life parallel to mine in so many ways. Like Benning’s character, I have a little girl. I have pretensions, at times, of being a writer, and of children’s books. I photograph children in angel wings; many of the children of my church and community look back at me from my “angel wall” and my portfolios. Sweet faces wear wreaths and sunglasses and cowboy hats and wings, always wings. I live near a man-made lake. I looked into Benning’s ravaged face and dead eyes and saw myself. Why was I here? To get a vision myself, a vision of grace.

Benning’s character finds the killer, the sweet-faced Downey, at his bewildered and dangerous best. He has captured another little girl to be “daughter”; he wants Benning to be the “mommy” who will finally complete his “family.” She escapes with the little girl, but falls with Downey from a high bridge over the lake as police snipers’ bullets knock them over. She falls, and falls, and finally plunges into the water below; her unconscious body floats to the top in a beam of light. Suddenly, her own little girl is there under the water with her, saying, “Mommy! Come with me!” Benning’s voice whispers, “Where?” the child wraps her arms around her mother’s neck and smiles, “Home!” She pulls her mother close in that joyous and hungry way only a child can, and the water through the light seems to envelop them. There is such peace and pleasure in that embrace; suddenly, all is right again. Paradise lost is regained; here is heaven.

We surface into a courtroom, and then a padded cell, where the killer is satisfied to be thrown. His face is finally at peace as well; he says, “Yes, I can live with this.” He, too, has been saved. At least for now, at least from himself. Suddenly, a blinding vision of Benning’s enraged and contorted face bursts upon him; the white cell walls are suddenly running with blood. The force of his horror at the sight slams him against the wall – and the movie ends.

I was dismayed. “Why did they have to do that? Why did we just have to see revenge, and especially visited on him in the vision of a face already so far away, so far removed into heaven?” I asked my husband. “Wouldn’t it have been truly, I mean really and truly horrifying to have seen him fall asleep and be comforted in his dreams by that forgiving mother? Now that would have been truly shocking! But wouldn’t it just fit? Wouldn’t it be just like our God, and the absolute perfect vision of grace?” I couldn’t shake the idea. It stayed with me for days. Wouldn’t grace be the most foreign of all alien concepts to thrust upon the post-modern moviegoer? Tim Robbins did it with Dead Man Walking. There have been several successful movies with God’s grace as at least a plot twist, if not a major theme, such as Tender Mercies, Places in the Heart, Babette’s Feast, and of course, the retelling of Hugo’s Les Miserables. Maybe our popular concept of grace is just another guise for a hybrid humanism that sees grace extended to us because, after all, we’re not so bad.

It’s easy to sit in a darkened theater and bemoan the fact that my particular vision of what grace means isn’t played out on the screen. It’s even easy to resolve to be one of those living examples of God’s grace which the world so badly needs to see. Doesn’t it sound wonderful? To offer our “bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” as our “spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1). How romantic! That means I’ll go to church (where people are my friends and love me, forgive me, build me up) and read inspiring books (for only $12.95 or more per book) and do good deeds that I can fit into my lifestyle and feel great about myself and there we are.

So what did you learn, Dorothy? That I want grace to flood the world with an irresistible vision of Christ’s love and forgiveness and sacrificial giving. But I’m not sure I want to be on the crest of the wave. And this, in my life, is the real horror. My spectator mentality, my mediocrity and my comfort in being comfortable. I read the following with horrified eyes, recognizing myself in the words as surely as if I had recognized my own face as the wild, contorted face of the vengeful mother’s ghost:

It is not that our lives are marked by flagrant scandal, or that we are more vicious or selfish than others. it is not that we are less scrupulous than the other fellow. The greatest scandal of our times is that we are like everybody else. In its confused and disorderly indictment the world accuses us of this strange, collective, nameless sin. The world accuses us of worldliness … [It] knows that we are committed to follow the bloody footsteps of a God who endured a Passion for me; it knows that our flag is a sign of contradiction; it knows that we are scheduled to be counted as fools; and knowing that, it is not surprised that we are guilty of this or that humiliating sin or of some evil which is the consequence of weakness but that we live by the same standards as does the world and that we glory in its prestige (Gustavo Corcao).

Indeed. And so I ask God to forgive me for my timidity, for my insistence on the romance of the resurrection with the cruelty of the cross, for my love affair with pretty words. For my shirking back from the burdens and bonds and boundaries of grace, whatever they may be and however hard I have to work and pray to be shown them. I want to go beyond these words, beyond all words. I want to go beyond talking about grace to meet and wrestle with the true angel of grace. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Corinthians 4:20).

I wonder what kind of day Jean-Paul Sartre had had when he decided that “Hell is other people.” Did someone make his coffee too weak or burn his croissants? Or maybe burn his family in a mass grave after a gas chamber shower? That’s the trouble with pronouncements and those who pronounce them. They’re usually right and wrong at the same time, and very often motivated by what seemed like a good reason at the moment.

Here’s a choice we have to make: do we live to please people or God? On the surface of things we immediately say we live to please God. After all, Peter and John were unhesitating in stating their obligation to please God rater than men (Acts 4:19). Paul repeatedly insists that “we are not trying to please men, but God, who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). But on the other hand, Paul certainly spends a lot of time instructing young Timothy to live “so that everyone may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4) and admonishes both Roman and Corinthian Christians to take their brothers’ feelings and beliefs into careful consideration and not become that famous “stumbling block” about which I was carefully warned as a child. In fact, pleasing God seemed to be inextricably tied to pleasing my parents and fellow Christians. I certainly wouldn’t hope to please God without also having their approval for everything I did.

I call it the Tinkerbelle Syndrome. Remember when Peter Pan begs his fellow Tink-lovers everywhere to applaud so that she will live? Her tiny light glows and dims as we applaud and then stop, and children listening to the book or watching a performance are made to feel immense power, responsibility, and even anxiety over keeping her alive. We Christians are like that, if we’re not careful. We’re the Tinkerbelle whose very survival depends on parents’ and fellow believers’ approval, glowing when we receive praise and affirmation, sinking into a dull coma of despair when we face the deafening silence of disapproval or even lack of attention when the cheering stops.

If we truly understood grace, there would be no Tinkerbelles in the Body of Christ. And just as important, there would be no children of God clapping from anxiety, trying to keep each other alive by sheer force of our positive interactions. Grace delivers us, doesn’t it? It saves us from all that frantic worry that we are somehow not good enough. Of course we’re not good enough. No one is. When we finally understand grace, and surrender all pretenses of being worthy of the blessing sand love poured on us, we truly begin to live. We feel that flood of relief, that unbelievably wonderful lightness of a crushing weight lifted from our shoulders. It is in response to that relief that we live carefully. Like survivors of some almost-fatal accident, we walk away with a new life, literally. We walk gingerly, reverently, on holy ground. And soon, we being to dance on that ground, no longer self-conscious and self-condemning. No longer self at all, but “Christ who lives in me.” The only applause we hear is God’s, and it’s the only applause or approval that matters.

My home congregation is a cautiously conservative and lovingly liberal group all at once. When I wanted to make the unleavened bread for our communion in my own kitchen, our elders graciously allowed me to and our pulpit minister presented it to the congregation as a “gift one of our members would like to bestow on us.” The Friday before the service, my little girl and I baked bread and sang songs and prayed and when it came time to pierce the soft crusts with fork tines to represent nails, we cried. We laid the loaves on the grill to brown stripes into the golden surface and felt like Romans striking holy flesh with cruel whips. And on that Sunday morning, when the bread was being passed in communion, we cried quiet little tears of wonder again – everyone was eating our bread, what we had brought to Christ’s feast to share.

Some loaves were hard to break, too crusty and awkwardly shaped. No one complained, at least not to my face, and several people thanked us. I was loved. I was extended grace. It may sound like a very small thing, but it points to an enormous kind-heartedness, to me. I was hoping to please them, but I wouldn’t have been crushed if they had been terribly negative.

No, that’s not true. I would have been crushed. I love my brothers and sisters in Christ and have flourished under their gentle and sweet encouragement. I look forward to every single time I get to meet with any of them, no matter how briefly. Sometimes I am Tinkerbelle, beaten down by the world until I’m barely flickering, and it’s their applause, their prayers which bring me back to life, life in Christ which they share with me, help the Spirit breathe into me.

So I don’t know. I walk in the tightrope of wanting to live a radical grace and just wanting to enjy its fruits while others do the really hard stuff. All I know is that I share Rich Mullin’s prayer, God bless him, every single day:
If I stand, let me stand on the promise that you will pull me through.
And if I fall, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to you.
Wineskins Magazine

Jane Montgomery Gibson

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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