Have you ever watched someone you love barrel headlong into a potential life-ruining mistake and been powerless to do anything about it? If you have, you’ll know it’s an excruciating experience. Part of love and leadership and mentoring and training, of course, is allowing people to make mistakes and be there to pick them up afterwards, help them put themselves back together and make sure everything is manageable afterwards. As a parent, and as someone who has spent my whole working life thus far working with people, I spend a lot of time watching people I have varying degrees of responsibility for make mistakes and have to live with the consequences. Often I see the mistakes coming, and I’m a powerless to stop them – even if I’ve tried my best to help them see the potential consequences. It’s a strange, cringing, disempowering experience.
That’s what floated around my mind as I watched 2018’s American Animals, an at once thrilling and cringe-inducing heist-movie and documentary. It tells the true story of some bored young men in Kentucky, some of them college students, who tried to inject excitement in to their lives by attempting to steal some immensely valuable books; as the story is told, the drama is intercut with footage of the real people involved – the young men, parents and a few others, retelling their story, and their tragic, life-ruining mistakes.
The young men’s arrogance and self-importance seems staggering at times; the film follows some of the classic tropes of a heist movie, so when we see them assigning and arguing over the code names ‘Mr Pink’ and ‘Mr Brown’, and so on, in exactly the same way as Reservoir Dogs, we can only assume it’s a satirical invention of the film-maker. As one of the characters points out, that’s a film that didn’t end well for anyone involved. It’s jaw-dropping to discover, however, that this is no fictionalisation. They really did that; and we wonder that they ever thought they would do this.
The film builds relentlessly to the actual heist; one or two of the characters reflecting on the chances they had to walk away, but never took. But they were bored – so very bored with what they had, with what lay ahead of them and what was expected of them – that they felt this was something they had to do. As one of them says: “I realised I had to make something happen on my own.“; as another says to an authority figure “This whole place [college] and goddamned town is a disappointment.”
So with the arrogant naivety of the young, the heist comes along, a lengthy sequence which, along with its aftermath, is as thrilling as it is painful and sometimes absurdly funny to watch. You’re watching people ruin their lives – and that of others – for a thrill, an experience, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them. Have they learned anything by the end? That’s unclear – but they’re certainly regretful.
It’s easy to criticise these young men; and they deserve it, of course. But we need a word of caution to ourselves. How many of us have ever placed expectations on ourselves or others, not allowing the people carrying those expectations to show doubt, fear, weakness or a desire to take a different path? These young men are crushed by the apparent safety and predictability of middle-class suburban niceness and predictability; there seems to be no-one, no parent, no teacher, no coach, no pastor, no friend to whom they can express doubt or a hint of darkness in themselves. No one will hear they want to do or be something or someone else. No one who will listen to their hints of darkness and rob that darkness of its power by confessing ‘Me as well’, before it erupts as it does in to something all together more dangerous.
Wanting to have it all together, to be seen to be becoming or to actually be ‘a success’ (as much for our children as ourselves) can kill people. Maybe it can literally kill them; or maybe just kill the light and life in them until they whither away in to quiet safety, never rocking a boat that may be heading for an iceberg. Churches are rife with it; schools; universities; and especially the crushingly predictable environments of polite white-collar jobs that keep everyone safe but many unsatisfied.
It’s ironic especially to find such crushing safety and hidden darkness in churches and Christ-followers; one of the few qualifications for following Jesus is to admit our helplessness over our own darknesses. Church communities should, then, be places where people know they’re all broken and can talk about our brokenness with one another; even, or especially, the pastor, But so often they’re not, despite a prayer of confession being a regular feature of many worship services, true weakness and darkness is rarely confessed by any – and then when a pastor or a church member truly crashes or fails, there’s wide-spread shock and precious little grace to welcome back.
On their album reflecting on the ennui and predictability of suburban life (The Suburbs), Arcade Fire sang “I need the darkness/Someone please cut the light.” It’s a plea to shut off the painful predictability of the suburban glow of artificial light, the better to see the stunning natural light of the stars against the night sky. It’s also a cry for something more; there’s darkness in me. Hear it, and own it, before it consumes me. What would have happened to these young men in American Animals if they – or someone around them – had the strength to allow them to voice their darkness and temptations, and rob them of their power? What would happen to you, our churches, to me, to our pastors, if we allowed confessions of weakness and fragility before they overwhelmed us? Are we strong enough to see we’re all jars of clay?
Such questions are almost as hard to ask as they are to answer. Perhaps, however, in voicing them together we will find some the light we need.