Precepts and doctrines of the faith are no match for the depth of human misery. A man can declare, “God is good,” but when his child is taken from him by the cruel and debilitating march of cancer, watching his baby die in front of eyes over the course of months, he won’t find solace in rote belief – he has to know that God is good.
Which is why for so many skeptics, the one question Christian doctrine just can’t satisfactorily answer is, “If God is both good and all-powerful, why does he permit evil and suffering?”
The question has not only been a barrier to countless skeptics coming to faith, but also a barrier reef that has shipwrecked many already of the faith.
As a former pastor, I know the biblical, logical answer to the question; but as a former shepherd of wounded people, I also know the logical answer is little comfort to those in the throes of agony.
Which is why I’m glowing today in my review of the brilliant new film in theaters, “The Giver.”
From an entertainment perspective, “The Giver” has some flaws. Its science fiction has some major holes and unexplained “rules” that can leave audiences scratching their heads. Some plot points are a bit unbelievable. The first 20 minutes of the film feel all too familiar, like a remake of the movie “Divergent” – and, no, that’s not a compliment.
But once the movie’s set-up is accomplished, from the moment the “Giver” actually appears on screen, solid performances from excellent casting choices and a sweeping, emotional message make the movie nothing short of captivating.
Before I continue, a disclaimer: I haven’t read the book the movie was based upon. And I don’t care. I know the movie centers around an 18-year-old, while the book is about a 12-year-old, and I’m sure the movie left out all kinds of wonderful things and completely butchered the book. I repeat: I don’t care. And neither should you. Because this is an amazing movie in its own right.
“The Giver” isn’t about the science fiction world it’s set in, isn’t about the politics or religion of this future dystopian/utopian world, isn’t about the friendship between the three, teen leads or any sort of romantic triangle. Those are just the plot points that drive its theme.
At its heart, “The Giver” is simply about the depths of suffering, the heights of love, and which is the greater.
The question is simple: If you could eliminate suffering, but to do so you had to eliminate love, would it be worth the sacrifice?
In “The Giver,” we follow a young man in a society where all depth of human emotion has been turned to gray. People can still be disappointed or proud or happy, but the truly deep emotions, like jealousy, joy and rage have been drugged out of a community living in relative peace. For without these deep passions, the society’s elders discovered, they could eliminate strife, crime and violence.
“When people have the freedom to choose,” the chief elder states at one point, justifying the society’s tyrannical control over all emotion, “they choose wrong, every time.”
And while a person may be able to choose the right at times, thousands of years of human history have revealed the elder is right in one respect: people are a broken, fallen, sinful race that invariably choose the wrong (incidentally, just what foundational Christian doctrine also teaches).
In the film’s future society, however, there exists a person, a “Receiver of Memories,” who is allowed to know the depth of human emotion, who alone is allowed to know human history, with all its brokenness, death and war. These memories are bequeathed to a young Receiver by “The Giver,” who was, in turn, the previous Receiver, now training his successor.
As you might expect, the young, naïve Receiver would naturally flee from such starling and new revelations of pain, and the elders expect the Receiver would therefore back their plan to eliminate human emotion in the interests of the greater good.
But something goes awry with the Giver and Receiver. They alone also know the soaring heights of joy, beauty, wonder and, most importantly, love. They realize that if humans don’t have the freedom to choose their own path, for good or ill, aren’t allowed the depths of pain and jealousy and loyalty and passion, then whatever “love” they think they know is but a shallow reflection of the real thing. How is it really love if a person has no choice but to love? If you can even call it that?
And you can’t. It’s only love if it’s also voluntary – if it could have chosen hate, or could have chosen another, but instead chose you. It’s only love if it could hold a grudge, but instead forgives, if it could hurt, but instead heals. It’s only love if it could have chosen selfishness, but instead chose selflessness. Then, it’s love.
The question remains, then: Which is greater, the agony of suffering or the beauty of love?
By the end of “The Giver,” there’s no question which the audience is cheering for. The movie illustrates in vivid colors dawning from gray to a sunset sky that everything that makes us human – our sense of family, of home, of hope and faith and meaning and joy and purpose all flow from love. Give us death, if you must, give us war, give us suffering, but do not take from us the glory of love! Love is worth it!
But agreeing that love is worth the price of pain is also a sobering thought. For in such agreement, we return the great question of suffering that so trips up skeptics and Christians alike.
The Bible’s book of Genesis tells us God created a world in which humans could choose suffering. They could choose death and disease and pain and war – and they did. Why did He do this? Why would a good and all-powerful God allow it?
As “The Giver” illustrates so clearly, putting flesh and feeling upon biblical doctrines that echo throughout the Scriptures but stump many pastors who struggle to communicate them, the God whose very nature is defined by love gave humans the choice … so they could also know love – love for one another, love for Him and His love for them. And one day, the Bible explains, those who have known His love will also see an end to the suffering, as pain and envy and murder and strife are all cast away and all that remains is the love.
How could a loving God permit suffering? Precisely because He is a god of love.
That statement makes little sense to say it; but it’s meaning is abundantly clear watching “The Giver,” a movie I give my highest recommendation of the year.
Footnote: The film also has an unsettling, but powerful pro-life theme. It’s intoned, for example, that the elderly in this “utopian” society are killed when they cease to be of use to the community, and in order to engineer all the right pieces for the society, children are selectively weeded out in infancy. When emotion and love are stripped away, human value is similarly stripped away. A doctor is actually shown casually killing a newborn child and flushing him down a chute without a shred of remorse.
The Receiver, however, sees this doctor’s action only after being exposed for the first time to the joy of loving a newborn child and the horror of death. He’s consequently appalled by the practice of killing a baby.
“They hadn’t eliminated murder,” the Receiver says of his “utopian” society, “they just called it a different name.”
The parallel to “abortion” is clear.
- “The Giver,” rated PG-13, contains neither profanity nor obscenity.
- The film’s only sexuality is a few, brief kisses.
- The film has only a small amount of violence, including a chase scene, a punch, an elephant being killed and a scene of war violence. In fact, I would be surprised it was rated PG-13 at all if it weren’t for the film’s somewhat shocking scene of the doctor killing the infant. Graphic enough to stun the audience, but not gory, the scene is nonetheless disturbing.
- The film has some overt faith elements, including a montage of a child being baptized, Muslim prayers and other scenes of world religions. The “elders” in the film lump “religion” into a list of things that produce “envy,” while the heroes of the film discuss how “faith” is something felt, but not seen, a byproduct of love and precursor to hope. There’s a brief discussion of “miracles.” In a pair of pivotal scenes that suggest there is something “more” to human existence, depicting a home to long for, carolers can be heard singing “Silent Night.” Overall, the film treats faith, and even the Christian faith, as a positive thing, but doesn’t really distinguish between religions.