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Paganism in Modern Garb

Alexander Payne's The Descendants
Paganism in Modern Garb

In this year’s presentations of my annual lecture on the Academy Award nominees for best picture entitled “The Movies and America: What the Academy Award Nominees for Best Picture Tell Us About Ourselves”, the most interesting responses have come from those who question what I say about The Descendants, the George Clooney vehicle for which he was nominated as best actor. Many have found its good message of the dangers facing the workaholic father who neglects his wife and family to his and their peril one of redemption and hope. To me, the film presented a picture of the hopelessness and despair of the world we inhabit.

The Descendants, directed by the always thoughtful Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, About Schmidt), is the story of Matt King whose wife is thrown into a coma due to a boating accident. King, a lawyer and inveterate workaholic, finds out from his rebellious teen-age daughter that his wife was having an affair, and so on top of dealing with her impending death, he strikes out on a journey to find the man who cuckolded him. A subplot involves the fact that King is a descendant of an early queen of the island and thus holds the responsibility for land his family owns which by law will be taken back by the state, if they don’t sell it soon. Thus King is a true “king” but has no idea how to rule his kingdom. The picture’s plot is the story of a journey of self-discovery as Matt learns to accept and to forgive, while sorting out what is important in life—his family and his land.

All of this is very good ethics. It only lacks one thing: any mention of God whatsoever.

I was intrigued in my research this year to find that something called the “Pagan Newswire Collective—Southern California Bureau” exists. It is a blog on the web that provides us with “Pagan news and and [sic] views from the Orange County/LA area”. An evaluation of one of our nominees, The Descendants, showed up on their site on December 23, posted by someone named Rayna, and it began like this: “The Descendants is a move [sic] that I appreciate on three levels, as a Pagan, as a lapsed Buddhist, and as someone who grew up in a family.” The post goes on to praise the movie.

I ask you: As you watched The Descendants, did it strike you at all as Pagan? Rayna gave it four out of five broomsticks…

In a post-religious, never mind post-Christian, culture we should be careful about expecting from the medium of film much in the way of Christian symbolism of a very strong or striking nature. Of course since there is much virtue that is shared by all human beings—all of whom are, after all, created in the imago dei—we shall find in almost every film images of hope, love, and even trust, that we can praise. The Descendants is no exception to that rule.

But we must, at the same time, be careful to distinguish what is Christian from what is merely pagan. King, with his ruminations about his forebears, his breakfasts at the beach club on Sunday mornings, his complete eschewing of any appeal to God or interest in help from Christians of any kind, is a perfect example of the good, moral, Pagan, who tries to do the best he can on his own and hopes he can get better in a confusing and harsh world.

At the end of the film, Matt sits on the couch eating ice cream and watching television with his two daughters. All appears to be calm and in order. The younger daughter now has a father to raise her, while the more adult older daughter has come to terms with life and her father’s foolishness. Matt has learned his lesson.

For how long?

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