IT: ON SCARY CLOWNS AND SAINT PAUL
At the beginning of my third year in college, on the advice of my sister Kathy, I picked up what was at the time the latest novel of the horror writer Stephen King, entitled It. I am not a big fan of horror books, but I had just that summer seen and loved the lovely coming-of-age film Stand By Me (directed by Rob Reiner), and since it was based on a Stephen King novella, I decided that I shouldn’t be too snobby and should give Mr. King’s storytelling a chance. The book was massive (I seem to remember it being well over a thousand pages) but - just as Kathy had said I would - I completely devoured it in just a few days, reading late into the night every night when I really ought to have been sleeping or reading other things.
The book recounts the story of a sleepy town in Maine which has faced more than its fair share of strange occurrences and tragedies throughout its history. A group of children - nicknamed the Losers’ Club on account of all of them being misfits and bullied - discover that the terror is cyclical (happening every twenty-seven years) and come to understand that It is a malevolent force which feeds on people’s fear. (The force’s primary manifestation is a clown named Pennywise - Google that name if you want to understand why a generation of us who read the book still have an aversion to clowns.) The children discover that if they stick together It’s power over them lessens, and they are able to defeat It … for twenty-seven years, anyway, when, as adults, they will have to gather together and battle It anew.
A new film version of the book was released last week (it took in a massive $123 million its first weekend) and, since Kathy had come to stay at our parents’ house for a few days, we decided we would get online and buy tickets for Thursday night’s first showing. Before getting the tickets I asked my father if he wanted to join us. I didn’t really expect my father, who will be 82 this year, to fancy going to a more than two and a half hour movie about a scary clown at 9:30 pm on a Thursday night, but he said he was up for it. (I have long suspected that when we go to the cinema, the fact that we are going together is far more important to Dad than what we see, and his agreeing to see It certainly confirmed those suspicions.)
My parents live in a university town, so the cinema was packed with kids between the ages of 18 and 22. Had Dad not been there, my sister Kathy, at age 58, would have been by far the oldest person there. Dad stood out - there was no doubt about it - and I began feeling a little uncomfortable for him, thinking that if I was noting the kids looking at him quizzically then I’m certain he was noticing it as well. The film began and we got lost in the story, taking it all in. (Well, I took it all in; Kathy spent half the film with her hands over her eyes.)
I loved the film, I have to say. Yes, it was scary (I must admit to having jumped in my seat on several occasions) but what struck me more is how it really highlighted what I thought was the most important element of the book, namely, that if we stick together and try and support each other, there’s really no end to what we can achieve. The children in the film (it only focused on the first part; the second part with them as adults will be another film) had all been emotionally wounded in one way or another - through loss, abuse, and a variety of other things - and individually they were weak, and should have been prime candidates for a monster that preyed upon the weak. But even in the midst of their weakness, there was a unity and love for one another which elevated and strengthened them, and which ultimately made them capable of vanquishing that which had terrorised people for generations. Their individual fears - an unfortunate part of their lives - ultimately had no power in the face of their unity. Their gentle care for one another was far more powerful than anything any monster could throw their way.
I know I have been accused of seeing the Christian message and ethos absolutely everywhere, but this idea of caring for one another in unity certainly cannot be said to be at odds with how Christians should behave. Saint Paul, in writing to the Church at Corinth, made unity a priority: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (1 Corinthians 1.10 NRSV) It’s an oft-cited passage, of course, and sometimes familiarity can lessen the impact of a phrase, so I always like to look at different translations to drive the point home, and my favourite is found in the Hawai‘i Pidgin Version of the New Testament: “Eh, bruddas an sistas! I talking fo our Boss Jesus Christ wen I beg you guys fo tink da same way, an no split up. Gotta stick togedda, so you guys know how fo tink da same way, an can figga out tings da same way!” The word “appeal” sounds so dignified (for me it brings to mind trying to raise money for a worthy cause) whereas “beg” is far more earthy and urgent. Saint Paul is begging for unity.
And why? Because he sees Christians working, praying, and loving together as the very real manifestation of Christ’s Body. In his theology, it is in the unified whole of many diverse parts which not only shows Christ to the world, but also continues his work on earth. In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis (an admittedly far more successful Lewis writer!) put it this way: “When [Christians] speak of being ‘in Christ’ or of Christ being ‘in them’, this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts – that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body.” But here’s the thing: if we truly buy into this Body notion (and why wouldn’t we?) we must understand that a body is both beautiful and functional because its various components are so different. The Body of Christ must necessarily be the same. We must embrace diversity not only because it increases our beauty, but also our functionality. And unity is the key which gets the whole engine running. (I’m never one to shy away from mixed metaphors …)
And so we strive for unity not because it can make things run more smoothly (although it can do) and not because it makes us look better to outsiders (although it can do) but because it is what Jesus (whom we profess to follow) desires for us. Unity is the only way in which we can transform frail and weak members into something quite strong indeed, something with the capacity to help change the world in which we live, something to which even fear itself eventually submits. No one can deny that there are monsters in the world. They may not be as scarily visible as an evil clown lurking about, but that in no way makes them less real. And how shortsighted we are when we blame the presence of the monsters on others who are not like us, rather than working to vanquish them specifically working with people who are not like us. Just a little understanding, small moments of kindness, care, and concern can so multiply that united wounded weaklings like you and me can send a powerful message to the monsters who would get in the way of love: YOU WILL NOT WIN.
The lights came on at the end of the film and we got up to leave. I had the opportunity to once again see the faces of all those young people who had been looking at my dear old Dad before the film with what I thought had seemed like confusion or even disdain. But I saw now that that wasn’t the case; they were looking at him with adoration, smiling at a guy who was more than sixty years older than they were who came out late one night to be scared by the same film. I beamed with pride as those youngsters smiled at Dad, was moved to see them stepping slightly back so he could better navigate the cinema steps without problems. I moved closer to Dad, quite certain that I have the coolest father ever, and the eyes of the kids I encountered let me know that they thought so too. But there was more to it than that, I think, I think those kids understood that they were connected to that white-haired gentleman in ways that went beyond simply watching a film together. He was somehow a part of them and they him, as improbable as that may have seemed. What joy, what hope that gave me as we walked out into a darkened parking lot in which the shadows seemed ominous and threatening. I wasn’t afraid though. I had my Dad at my side, and, with him, all kinds of people moving together into the night. There wasn’t anything which could hurt us as as long as we were together.