The churn and burn
Of plumes of fumes
All hail the red sign
Wait furiously in lineImage: https://flic.kr/p/94jk51
The third in a series of theological reflections based on Up In The Air starring George Clooney, directed by Jason Reitman and released in 2009.
Ryan Bingham is a lone wolf. His colleague accuses him of living “in a cocoon of self-banishment”. His sister tells him, “We never see you. You are dead to us”. Bingham is not bothered. Relationships are baggage. They must be minimised in service of a higher goal.
But as the movie unfolds, Bingham’s views are challenged. He starts to see that while relationships are messy, they are also rich. He starts to see that while his life is easy, it is also lonely. He starts to taste the joy of intimacy and lets himself fall in love. Unfortunately, despite outward appearances, the woman he falls in love with has not undergone the same transformation. As he lowers his guard she slams the door, declaring him to be “an escape, a break from our normal lives, a parenthesis”. Here Bingham is forced to experience the full force of the same cold, selfish logic that he has always applied to others. It hurts.
From the Christian perspective, relationships are attractive, exciting and fulfilling because they are what we are made for. They do not serve a higher goal, they are the higher goal. The Bible reveals a God who is relational in himself. It sees humans as being made firstly for deep and intimate relationship with God and secondly for relationship with each other. Adam and Eve stand naked before God and each other and they feel no shame (Genesis 2:25). The Bible closes with a vision of perfect relationships. A heavenly wedding feast.
From the Christian perspective, relationships are also at the heart with what is wrong with the world. Firstly, a broken relationship with God. Secondly, broken relationship with others. The narrative and teaching of the Bible is that we have actively rejected the good God of relationships, and placed ourselves in charge instead. As a result, our relationships are marred by the selfishness, anger, jealousy and bitterness that we experience in ourselves and see all around us.
Bingham was drawn to the deep riches of relationship but was stung by the hurtfulness of another. Christianity offers both an explanation for why we have this experience of the world and points to Jesus as the solution. The Bible (Titus 3:5-7) describes it in this way:
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
You can investigate more about the Christian message HERE.
Ryan Bingham lives a shallow and selfish life. He doesn’t live this way because he’s worse than other people. He’s just more honest and courageous. Bingham does not believe in an afterlife. As a result he dislikes platitudes and conventions that offer false hope and mask the reality of death. Why bother with the stress and mess of marriage or family, he wonders, when I can enjoy casual relationships that serve my interests? The characters around Bingham find him irritating and confusing but there is actually something refreshing about the authentic self-determination of his life. How many people do you know have thought deeply about life and death, have come to well-founded, albeit unpopular conclusions and deliberately live these out on a daily basis?
The Christian worldview brings with it a similar intellectual honesty. The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes starts with a bleak meditation on death with the uncomfortable conclusion that death renders all things meaningless. In chapter 2:16 the writer says:
For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered, the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!
Likewise in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul does not shy away from the intellectual realities associated with being a Christian. In 1 Corinthians 15:16-19, Paul admits that if:
…the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
In verse 32 he extends the theme:
If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
It is easy to characterise Christianity as a soothing, illogical myth that seeks to gloss over the more difficult aspects of life. But this is nonsense. The Bible is far more open and honest about the cold reality of death than our sanitised Western society is willing to be. Likewise, the Apostle Paul is more open and honest about the internal logic of his own religion than any other religious figure I know of. He is willing to render Christianity falsifiable by pointing out that the whole belief system rests on the historical events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection. Events that his readers can check by speaking with eyewitnesses who are still alive (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Events that we can consider historically.
The call of Christianity is not to abandon your reason to belief but rather to use your reason to consider the case for belief. The Christian has been persuaded that Christ lives. And that belief changes everything. Authentic self-determination gives way to a life lived to the glory of God and for the good of others.
The first in a series of theological reflections based on Up In The Air starring George Clooney, directed by Jason Reitman and released in 2009.
Up in the Air centres on the character of Ryan Bingham, a corporate high-flyer who specialises in ‘outplacement’ (firing people on behalf of others). Bingham regards himself as a shark, happily alone in the world and committed to continual movement in order to adapt and survive. His main goal in life is to clock up 10 million flying miles which will earn him access to an elite club of frequent flyers and he is ruthlessly single-minded in pursuit of the goal. Work is maximised, housing and possessions are minimsed, relationships are casual and distant. The ‘backpack’ of life is kept as light as possible and cultural norms are disregarded in service of a higher goal.
This is a view of the world that both accords and clashes with Christianity. Like Bingham, the Christian is called to a higher goal. However, the call of Jesus is not to a temporary and selfish trophy but to the kingdom of God. Jesus begins his ministry by heralding the kingdom of God (Mark 1), he teaches his followers to pray for, and seek first the kingdom (Matthew 6). This is a kingdom marked by obedience to God, concern for God’s glory, selfless love for others, commitment to truth, and love of justice. Christians regard it as having been inaugurated by Jesus and his Spirit but also wait for it to be consummated with the return of Jesus when this world gives way to a new and eternal creation marked by perfect relationship with God and each other.
Like Bingham, the Christian lets their goal shape all else. The Christian life is not relaxed or comfortable. Ministry is maximised, sin is fought, earthly concerns are held loosely. The prize is big but so is the cost. In Mark 8 Jesus says:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.
Similarly, Hebrews 12 calls Christians to lighten the backpack (albeit in a different way to Bingham):
…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Bigham longs for a temporary prize and lives a life of radical selfishness in order to claim it. Christians long for an eternal prize and Jesus calls them to a life of radical, selfless faith in order to claim it.
You can investigate more about the Christian message HERE.