An Education provides little education

An Education, a film about a young Brit who, bored with her typical secondary school day-to-day, is swept off her feet by an older man, manages to break through some of the typical standards of a Hollywood prototype – good-looking people, with utterly smooth personalities, who sail through life without an awkward moment, ever. Such often render films enjoyable in providing a very short reprieve from reality, yet they are ultimately forgettable.

In An Education, though, our lead lady is 16, almost 17 and she looks it. He’s, well, older. And he looks older. And there are moments of real sophistication. After her first sexual encounter, she remarks on the very temporal aspect of an act often depicted in films as infallibly fantastic. “It’s funny though, isn’t it? All that poetry and all those songs, about something that lasts no time at all,” she says.

The film was an award winner in the Sundance Film Festival, and a nominee for best picture in 2009. But, beyond the reasons already outlined, I don’t know why. Perhaps it fell short of best picture because the end is as dismally “fluffy” as one recent Morning Glory. It’s almost outrageous to compare the two films: Morning Glory is about as deep as a kiddy pool – with awkward insertions of semi-probing questions about the meaning of life, while such questions actually fuel An Education. Morning Glory, however, was what it was from the outset and never pretended to be anything but as shallow and safe as the kiddy pool. The makers of An Education, however, double-cross their audience. They set a foundation for a tale of a girl confidently confronting the more complex questions in life and then end with an abrupt twist of thoughtless contentment.

“Why? Why school?” is Jenny’s question. After trying on a more liberal and flagrant lifestyle for size and falling into some unlucky, heartbreaking circumstances, her question is apparently satisfactorily answered with something like: “Oh, I guess my teacher has a nice flat. It’s well-lit. She likes literature. And art. Further formal education and the prospect of becoming a school teacher – its not so bad after all.” This for a young woman who, for the 100 minutes in which we make her acquaintance, seems so unwilling to yield to the shallow answers given to her. (“Stability, money, acceptance,” the authoritative figures of the film plead with her, “That’s, ‘Why school?’”) The film doesn’t end with philosophical angst, or resistant resignation to the better of two still unsatisfying paths; it ends to the tune of happily ever after, reduced to a Hollywood typical worse than smooth personalities – that of structuring one’s happiness on fate. Whether you consider her fickle or simply out of your control, fate is not the most stable philosophical foundation for life. Thus, at “The End,” the observant audience is left a bit restless, knowing our lead lady – whom we’ve grown to admire and emulate for her intelligence and tenacity – has abandoned her quest for answers to life questions because all is circumstantially better.

As I’ve reflected on these two movies more and more – specifically on the message of circumstantial contentment they both intentionally or unintentionally convey, I have discovered a renewed conviction that this question of why – answered by circumstantial happiness, philosophical discontent, or faith – truly represents a crossroads in life. The big questions remain though our circumstances become happy. Though they’ve quit nagging us, they most definitely continue to affect, and our answers – whether thoughtless or thorough – affect those around us.

Jenny decides to continue with her education, after her “education,” but she does not know why. There’s reason to fear in the near future she will find she lacks the motivation to persevere. The question will persist: “Why literature? Why become an educator? Why care about the state of society? The next generation?” The questions will continue and Jenny’s already begun to develop the habit of riding the rickety roller coaster of fate, of chasing circumstantial happiness. Without some sense of why, the how morphs into a monster of a question. Our reasons why we do what we do guides our “how” we do these things, rendering our hows more or less effective, more or less efficient, more or less helpful to those around us.

Christians must persevere in letting this question permeate our lives, especially as our circumstances are happy. Experience – reflected in a plethora of old adages – teaches that faith is most fervent in “the fox hole,” when one has “hit bottom.” Conversely, it’s often least fervent when all is “smooth sailing.” We forget how out of control we actually are when we at least feel in control.

Perhaps we drop the question because, basically and humbly, people are not crying for truth as much as for comfort. “Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1). Our Father knows we want to understand life, but he also knows that, at the root of our desire for knowledge, is our desire for comfort, for peace – with Him, with the world, with ourselves. The tendency to, at minimum, rest for a while in circumstantial happiness and the temptation to check out entirely when life is going well, reflect this most primary motivating factor of the human heart – that is, comfort.

Yet, this is an uncomfortable world to live in. Tragic circumstances – especially in an era of globalization – stand next to, rub shoulders with, and ultimately taint (or should taint, if we’re awake) happy circumstances when fate does not rob us of them. The wisdom of Solomon in Ecclesiastes reminds us (or perhaps reflects our awareness) that happy circumstances are “vanity, vanity, vanity.” Thus, the Sermon on the Mount calls us to live a life based, not on making ourselves as happy as possible, ignorant of the masses of suffering surrounding us, but to a life of self-sacrifice, that the Kingdom of God might be manifest through us. Immediately after that famous Sermon on the Mount, Matthew records Jesus reminding the people “moth and rust destroy” circumstantial happiness and “thieves break in and steal.” In heaven, it is not so. Thus, “Seek first the kingdom of God and all his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you,” Jesus commands and then promises.

So where must the “comfort, comfort” of the Christian be found? Yes, in God, in Christ, in the Spirit. We must resist the temptation to rest in circumstantial happiness, lest we begin to chase her frantic whims, becoming frantic and unstable ourselves – not to mention, wholly selfish. An old professor of mine recently published a book on these three in one. In The Deep Things of God, Dr. Fred Sanders speaks of how the trinitarian nature of God makes room for the confessor of Christ within the life of God, how she is actually ushered into what he calls the “happy land of the Trinity,” particularly in the act of prayer (which is perhaps a much more pervasive act than the “Now I lay me down to sleep” utterance of a young by her bedside that often comes to mind).

Drawing on the work of Andrew Murray, Sanders draws to his readers’ attention how the reality of God’s eternal existence “as Father and Son (in the unity of the Holy Spirit) means that there is an opening, a space prepared, for the structure of asking-and-granting…” Jesus’ intimate relationship with the Father is explicitly displayed in the gospel accounts – his habits of prayer, of drawing attention to the Father and away from himself, his claim to only do the will of the Father, his sharing in the Father’s glory, etc. Dr. Sanders draws particular attention to this structure of communication within the life of the Trinity, and then draws the connection: we pray to the Father, in the name of the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Thus, Christians – at our most spiritually aware moments – find ourselves resting in the name of the Son, in the Son’s relationship with the Father, bonded by the Holy Spirit.

Scripture testifies to our Father’s wish that we do find comfort, particularly in him. Yet, the sinful nature fighting for control of our souls, even after we find salvation in Jesus’ blood, persists. Our hearts are often numb to the warmth of the love of God. But Scripture teaches that we must seek God, not primarily for comfort (though – as Augustine famously said – we’ve restless hearts ’till they rest in him) but we seek God because he answers the “why” question.

Either way, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, the answer to the question we must remember is Christ is Lord and the Father has willed that the Kingdom of God comes through us by the sacrifice of Jesus in the power of the Spirit. How we answer this question will continually lead and guide us. Chasing happiness, beating back boredom, warding off heartbreak – this is the life of a hamster on her wheel. To find rest and mission in the life of God – this is the true life of a human being. Because, whatever our circumstances, the steadfast love of God persists and the answer to the question will ever be “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”


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