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For more than a century now, four very distinct worldviews have been competing to answer one critical question: “What is truth, and how can you know it?”

Only a few hundred years ago in Western civilization, most common folk accepted the first of these worldviews, that reality is revealed by the Divine Truth (John 14:6) and that through the Word and words of God, man may know what is true, right and wrong.

But the idea that God would define truth was eventually challenged by another notion, that man – in all his scientific, progressive wisdom – could determine truth on his own. This gave rise to the second competitor, rationalism, which argues that what we reason to be true must be true.

Yet a third worldview agreed that man defines truth, but insists it is a matter of the heart, not the mind. Sometimes called romanticism, this worldview argues what we feel to be true is true.

Finally, modern times have become postmodern, inundated by the utterly sophomoric notion that there is no truth! Relativism.

Yet even as this battle has raged among theologians, writers and philosophers, the average Joe’s actions have pretty much been subject to only one of these.

For no matter how much we think about it (rationalism), pray about it (my lame attempt at summarizing a biblical worldview while keeping it parallel with the rest of this sentence) or attempt to deny it (relativism), when push comes to shove, most folks eventually do what … feels right (romanticism). What we really, really want to be true, we usually insist is true, then stretch all bounds of reason and theology to prove it is true.

In the end, romanticism usually wins.

And in this respect, the new romantic film in theaters this weekend, “Water for Elephants,” couldn’t be any more romanticist.

The movie retells the story of Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student in the 1930′s who is rendered homeless by tragic events and eventually joins the circus. There he falls in lust with the abusive ringmaster’s lovely wife, setting up a final showdown between the young hero and the despicable villain.

The movie has many captivating elements: The set and scenery surrounding the Depression-era circus is nothing short of magical, a beautiful tapestry of both color and earthiness on screen; the quirky characters of the railroad-running circus are surprisingly rich and delightful; the music is enchanting; the script, though inconsistent, lends occasional artistry to the dialogue; and Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz (as the ringmaster) delivers another award-winning performance, a master of the art of being vile in the most entertaining of ways.

But the film also fails, and fails hard, in a few key areas. Lead actor Robert Pattinson (of “Twilight” fame) as the young veterinarian delivers such a cool and understated performance … that he comes off as wooden and passionless. Reese Witherspoon does a decent job in her role, but does not steal the scene as the enchanting lead actress she needs to be in this film. Even worse, the chemistry between them feels a bit too staged and never really takes off.

Finally, however, the plot. Ugh. The plot.

I haven’t read the bestselling book the film was based upon, but I’d be seriously surprised if it were so predictable and devoid of plot twists as the movie. The storyline simply never surprised the audience; even the climax was broadcast with a bullhorn early in the film.

All that was really left at the end of the film was the big, feel-good scene when the bad guy finally gets it (and Waltz did such a dandy job being dastardly that the audience actually cheers when the comeuppance comes).

But from a worldview perspective, this film is all about the feel-good – in other words, it didn’t ask any moral questions nor dwell on any of its obvious dilemmas; it merely portrayed as good whatever feels good and bad whatever feels bad, pure romanticism, start to finish.

Lust, adultery, lying, cheating – these things are all brushed over in the film. After all, the main goal of the plot is figuring out how this young buck can steal another man’s wife to give her the life she “deserves.” The predominant notion that this older woman “deserves” to be swept away by the lovely, caring, sensitive, young stud and given a better life smacks of a storywriter playing on the kinds of trashy fantasies that make “romance” novels into little more than pornography for women.

But never mind all that. It’s a romance movie. It “feels” good.

In fact, the lack of moral conscience in the film only made it all the more ironic that the filmmakers played upon animal cruelty – the pet cause (pun intended) of bleeding-heart romanticists – as the epitome of wickedness in the story.

The main emotional message of the film, if you’ll permit me just a moment of cynical analysis, could be summed up this way: “Any man who would hit an animal deserves to have his wife taken from him!”

And, as Jeff Foxworthy might say, if that sounds right to you … you might be a romanticist.

Content advisory:

  • “Water for Elephants” contains about a dozen minor profanities and obscenities – present, but not distracting from the story.
  • The film contains some rough-and-tumble content, including threats of violence, runaway animals endangering crowds and fights in which men are brutally beaten, including some gruesome, bloody injuries. The film also contains a couple of scenes of domestic violence, a powerful scene of cruelty to animals and a man being savagely killed by an animal. While it’s not a bloody action flick, the film does take place in the somewhat seedy underbelly of a Depression-era circus and reflects that grittiness.
  • Likewise, the circus includes strippers and show gals – including one “dance” scene, though no frontal nudity is seen – and a character whose somewhat redacted pornographic magazine is laid open for the camera. Many of the circus performers’ outfits are revealing. There are a few kisses exchanged and one sex scene, that while not particularly graphic, still lingers on screen for some time.
  • The film has occasional references to God, but usually in a negative light. In one instance, for example, the villain publicly thanks “the gods” for his good fortune, while in another twists a passage of Scripture, stating, “The only authentic miracle is success. It washes away all sins.” Yet another character says, “[The circus] outdid God. They made heaven in 1 day.” There was no noticeable occult content, not even fortune tellers in the circus sideshows.

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