Eggplant – Talking About the Good Life
*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for The Trip trilogy (2010, 2014, 2017, the latter two of which are on Netflix), and The Journey (2016, also on Netflix), although since these aren’t movies one watches for the plot, it won’t hurt you to read this.*
Among the claims of Christianity that are hard for us to believe is the assertion that love can and does conquer hate. When particular countries are constantly at war, when so much of world politics is defined by certain groups hating certain other groups, when we tend to focus more on how our neighbors might hurt us than how we might help them, it is difficult to believe that St. Paul knew what he was talking about when he stated that nothing whatsoever can separate us from the love of God. In America particularly, this difficulty is exacerbated by a culture that mostly talks about love within familial or romantic relationships, offering comparatively few examples of love conquering hate without blood or physical attraction underpinning that love. Of course, hate (and its constant companion, fear) makes for great visual entertainment in a way that love without dramatic conflict and romantic entanglement rarely does.
An exception to that is the small genre of conversational films, of which My Dinner with Andre (1981) and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, 1995; Before Sunset, 2004; Before Midnight, 2013) are the best known examples. Such movies focus tightly (though not necessarily exclusively) on the interactions between two people, and the interest for the viewer lies not in the story (of which there usually isn’t much) but in the evolving dynamics of the characters in relationship as they talk.
I recently watched a pair of excellent conversational movies that remind us of the necessity of non-familial, non-romantic love to the good life and the ability of such love, developed in conversational relationship, to overcome hate. The Trip to Spain is the third of Michael Winterbottom’s films (condensed from television series) in which British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, go on restaurant tours of different parts of Europe. The trips are, in many ways, nothing more than celebrations of the good life: traversing beautiful scenery (of which Winterbottom gives us many lovely shots), eating excellent food, and talking with a good friend. Their conversations range from the purely silly (competing impersonations of Michael Caine or discussing Spanish history while deliberately confusing the Moors with famous Brits named Moore) to the deeply serious (professional struggles and jealousies or their difficulties in relating to girlfriends, wives, and children). Watching, I see a modern, upper-class distillation of several elements of the good life as identified in the ministry of Jesus. In addition to healing the sick and preaching the word, our Savior frequently left town or retreated up a mountain, to pray and perhaps be refreshed and recharged by taking in the scenery. Much of his activity seems to have taken place while dining, he scandalized the Pharisees with his willingness to eat with notorious sinners, and he left his followers with a ritual meal to observe. And I find it hard to imagine that Jesus and the twelve would have stuck together as long as they did, making only sporadic contact with their family and friends back home, if they did not genuinely enjoy talking to each other. The Trip movies remind me that Jesus liked time apart, food, and good friends, and that there is nothing selfish about making time for such things in the midst of our more active ministries of service. Sometimes embracing beauty, food, and fellowship in the face of difficulties is an important triumph of love over hate.
The Journey, although very different in tone, is also about a conversation while on a road trip between two fictionalized versions of real people. In 2006, talks at St Andrews between the British and Irish governments and leaders of Northern Ireland’s political parties led to a breakthrough agreement about the governing and policing of Northern Ireland, which a year later resulted in Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, leaders of diametrically opposed parties, having a close and effective working relationship as Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers. The film imagines the beginnings of that relationship when, during the talks, unusual circumstances orchestrated by MI5 compel the two to share a ride to the airport. Initially inhabiting separate spheres of stony silence, the two begin talking after a detour through the woods makes them wonder if MI5 is planning to kill them. Each winds up admitting things to the other that he could not admit to members of his own party (McGuinness’ regrets over some of the IRA’s violence, Paisley’s thwarted desire for martyrdom) and they together realize that part of the problem is that, to stop the cycle of violence with something less than total extermination or expulsion of one side, each party will have to agree to a peace that their own strongest supporters will hate. In the end, after reiterating that each despises what the other has stood for and done, they shake hands, agreeing to work together to give peace a chance. Although fictional, the core idea of the film rings true to the process, that peace, or at least a reduction in reciprocal hate and violence, had to begin with a deep conversation between two enemies who admit that, although they have no reason to trust each other, talking is better than killing. If we believe, as Genesis tells us, that God created humankind as good, then we have to believe that transformative conversations like this, shifting a relationship based on hate to one growing in love (or something adjacent to it), are possible.
As Christians living in hate-filled times, we must not only believe such conversations are possible but be open to participating in such conversations ourselves. Even when they are not personally felt, hate and fear in a culture have an isolating effect, separating groups according to skin color, gender, sexuality, political position, and other points of dissimilarity and through such separation making it harder for good-hearted individuals to cross such divides. But even in our smallest communities, there are individuals who social hate would pit against each other, and between whom real conversation could plant the seeds of love. And throughout this Diocese of Nebraska, there are plenty of opportunities to visit beautiful places, eat delicious food, and talk with friendly people so that, in the midst of all the hate around us, we will not lose sight of the good life that we hope, in Christ, all can enjoy.
The Rev. John Adams