I was having coffee with three young men who had planted house churches. I’m interested in actually talking with people who are participating in the emerging church, rather than just reading books on it. One of the recommendations they had was to watch the film Garden State. They told me that it was a window on the worldview of the people they were working to reach, so obviously, we went right out and rented the film.
The action begins when 20-something Andrew Largeman, an aspiring actor who has not been home to New Jersey, receives a call from his father telling him that his mother died and he must come home for the funeral. Largeman seems to be numb to just about everything around him, largely due to his medications (which we find out later, serve to numb the pain of some of his family experience). When he comes home, he’s reunited with several of his High School friends. Mark, a gravedigger at the cemetery where Andrew’s mother is interred, is obviously a close friend, and becomes Andrew’s companion through the film.
On the way to meet Mark at a party, Andrew runs into his friend Kenny who became a police officer. Largeman asks why, Kenny says “I don’t know…couldn’t think of anything better to do. No, but it’s really cool, though man. People really listen to you, I mean… they have to (pulling gun and laughing)”. Then at the party he runs into another friend who invented a product called “silent Velcro” – it’s just like Velcro, without the noise. He sold the patent for a fortune and when Largeman asks what he’s doing now he says, slightly uncomfortably, “Nothing…Nothing. I’ve never been so bored in my whole life.” And then he quickly changes the subject, asking for a joint. The next scene is an extended party scene of intoxication and sexually charged drug use, while Largeman sits numbly on the couch.
In another scene at Mark’s house, Mark’s mother starts nagging her son about doing something with his life (though her idea of doing something is ordering the obvious scam real investment tapes that you see advertised on late night TV infomercials). She tells him “I know what you could be if you only applied yourself” Mark snaps back “I do apply myself….” Everyday burying dead people. “I’m only 26. I’m not in any rush. What’s your rush for?”
This pretty much settles the tone of the whole movie – aimless wandering – indulging in so much alcohol and drugs that the pain of aimlessness is numbed. This is the kind of ache that is present in the so-called post-Christian generation.
Then Andrew meets Sam, a 20 something woman who talks incessantly, but has a bright adventurous streak in her. They begin to spend time together and strike up a friendship that veers toward romantic attraction. Sitting in her bedroom, they have the only religious conversation in the film. Andrew mentions the wailing wall in Jerusalem, and she asks “You’re really Jewish, aren’t you.” He says no – he doesn’t even go to temple. He says he doesn’t know any jews that go to temple – only on the Day of Atonement. And Sam shoots back with “I don’t really believe in God” – and then the conversation veers in a different direction.
So we have desperate 20 somethings longing for meaning in life, and yet they have out of hand rejected the traditions and beliefs that have given meaning for millinea. And there’s no wrestling with it, as though they were rejecting the idea of eating at the Chineese Buffet. “Oh, I don’t really like chineese food” – so lets try to derive meaning from within.
The film takes an interesting turn as Mark leads Andrew and Sam on a journey to purchase a goodbye gift for Andrew. It takes them to a house on the edge of a gigantic pit – a proposed site for a mall that when blasted open revealed a huge chasm going deep into the earth – the government closed the site to determine if they should study the fissure, and there on the edge of the Abyss is Albert and his family. Albert is paid simply to keep people off the premisies. Albert and his wife are very happy. He is keeping everyone out of the Abyss, but at night, he climbs down to be the first person to explore it. He playfully says that he likes to pretend that the abyss in infinite. “We think it’s important…I guess I just like the idea of discovering something. Of doing something that’s completely unique….that’s never been done before.” “Albert’s abyss” jokes Largeman. “Well, maybe,” answers Albert “who knows. But you know what, that’s all ego. None of that really matters. If I get to be with this person right here (gesturing to his wife) and our beautiful baby, that’s all I need.” A dramatic pause and then the film continues. As they leave Largeman shouts out “good luck exploring the infinite abyss.” And albert shouts back “Hey you too”
So the film becomes a statement about coming out of the meaningless existence by finding meaning where you are and with who you’re with. Again, relationships and being true to thine own self are what is most important in this worldview – and yet, I’m left wrestling because they seem to have stripped away everything that undergirds relationships and the self – what do you do when the relationship goes bad? Who do you turn to when you wake up and realize you don’t really like yourself. Every week, I have to deal with the messy fallout of people being true to themselves, and its not always pretty. If there is not some external meaning giver, then when my being true to my self clashes with your being true to yourself, we will have a bloody mess.
If you have endured this tugid description of the film thus far, you may be asking “So how does the Christian approach this film.” First, I would Echo Francis Schaeffer’s sentiments from The God Who is There – he outlines how culture has fallen below what he calls the “Line of Despair” – he shows the hopelessness in the worldview of many 20th century artists, musicians, etc. and then he writes with power: “These paintings, these poems and these demonstrations which we have been talking about are the expression of men who are struggling with their appalling lostness. Dare we laugh at such things? Dare we feel superior when we view their tortured expressions in their art? Christians should stop laughing and take such men seriously. Then we shall have the right to speak again to our generation. These men are dying while they live, yet where is our compassion for them? There is nothing more ugly than an orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.”
Later in the same book, Schaeffer writes: “To live below the line of despair is not to live in paradise, whether that of a fool or any other kind. It is in a real sense to have a foretaste of hell now, as well as the reality in the life to come. Many of our most sensitive people have been left absolutely naked by the destruction. Should we not grieve and cry before God for such people?”
So I thank God for our house church planters, who feel heartbroken for a generation of lost and hurting people who have effectively cut themselves off from the church by assumption. I thank God for the people who are engaged in the messy and difficult task of involving themselves in deep relationships with those who are searching – for the relationships are the way to truly make the gospel real. It is so very wrong for those of us in the “institutional church” to criticize and condemn the house church and the emergent church. Can we not find a way to embrace people in the house church – to nurture them and pour ourselves into them – as missionaries to a post Christian subculture that is rapidly ascendant.