Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Spike Lee on Death and Dignity

I've watched some of Spike Lee's films, and usually find them interesting, and sometimes revealing about the realities of life in a fallen world. When I came across a Lee comment spoken at the Cannes film festival from a piece in the Washington Post, I had to comment on it:

"I always treat life and death with respect, but most people don't," Lee said at a news conference Tuesday. "Look, I love the Coen brothers; we all studied at NYU. But they treat life like a joke. Ha ha ha. A joke. It's like, 'Look how they killed that guy! Look how blood squirts out the side of his head!' I see things different than that."

This comment reveals something about the way Lee sees the world. He believes that human life has inherent dignity. Accordingly, he believes that films that depict the processes of life, including death, should treat the matter with dignity. The filmmakers to whom Lee refers, the Coen brothers, just won the Academy Award for Best Picture with their film No Country for Old Men. This picture, like others in the Coen corpus, approaches life and death as macabre realities. Fargo, also directed by the Coens, had a notoriously dark sense of humor. The brothers make films that invite viewers to view the nastiest aspects of life from a lightly comedic viewpoint. It is this cinematic tendency to which Lee refers. People do not simply die in Coen films, as they do in those of many other directors; they die in particularly twisted ways at the hands of gleefully strange characters. Though I don't know the exact worldview of the Coens, I can say from a limited engagement with their films that Lee is to some extent correct in his analysis of the brothers' filmmaking. For them, death is one part of a twisted comic tragedy.

Lee, for his part, declares a desire to treat death in a more respectful light in his films. Though he certainly is no role model for overly moral filmmaking, Spike Lee is onto something here. He recognizes the biblical reality that life is fashioned by God to an inherently dignified enterprise. The fact that humanity en masse carries the image of God reveals that we are naturally "little gods", made with care, invested with worth and meaning. Though it does some have dark moments, and some textual details that seem darkly comic, the Bible does not present life as an exercise in comedic tragedy. Ecclesiastes does portray life as purposeless outside of God, and Job's questions do reveal the desperateness of a life lived in opposition to God, but the biblical authors nowhere encourage us to view life as darkly comedic and God as a twisted puppeteer in the sense that the Coen films certainly do not. As far as I can tell, the brothers seem exceptionally gifted at portraying a world where God does not exist. Watch No Country for Old Men. You'll see a world where evil is stronger than good, where desperation and folly reigns, where providence runs in favor of the darkness, not the light. If this is not a world without God, and without the dignity of humanity, show me what is.

Spike Lee is not a Christian to my knowledge. But he has lighted on a Christian concept in his Cannes speech. God has given dignity to the lives and deaths of his creatures. He has a special place in His economy for His children, whose lives and deaths are precious to Him. He superintends our lives with care and love. He has given us souls, and He teaches us in His word that the souls of men are the most precious of all things in the created realm. Spike Lee has unwittingly wandered into territory that Scripture has staked out as its own. We commend him for not wanting to present death in an undignified light, for wanting to preserve a sense of beauty and worth even in the moment when a person's life is taken from him. Yet we as Christians note that there is a ground for this impulse. There is a reason for this desire as expressed in Lee's comment. It is not simply that it "makes sense", or "follows naturally" from living. It does not. No, it proceeds directly from the Christian worldview as delineated by the Bible. We who have a reason for faith also have a foundation for dignity. It is the image of God given us to by our Creator.

We ought not to think that there is some kind of massive principle to be implemented here which will then revolutionize society. We do need filmmakers who will show a watching world that life is precious. But humanity will likely always struggle with the question of inherent dignity. Why is it, people will ask, that though I do not like the idea of God, or the biblical God, that I nonetheless want to treat life and people as precious? Why do I care when I hear of a child being murdered, when I read of a terrible civil war, when I learn of massive social injustice at the hands of totalitarian governments? Where does this instinct come from? Why do I tenaciously protect the life of my child when I am pro-choice? Why do I think it is wrong for people to treat death in undignified ways? Why do I dress up at funerals, and talk softly, and sometimes cry?

People will ask these questions. We can see from the Coen brothers' films and Spike Lee's comments that this is a live issue for the unbelieving among us. How great is the need for local churches that stand as lighthouses in their communities that provide on a week-by-week basis the true ground for dignity and hope. How much do we need Christians not to bury their light by avoiding unbelievers, but to be among them, salting their speech, telling the truth about dignity and hope and salvation in Christ. Will we speak truth to the lost? Or will we leave it to honest but lost folk like Spike Lee to accomplish this task?

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