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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Son of Rambow

“Garrison Keillor was raised Plymouth Brethren,” an acquaintance once told me.

“Really?” I replied. “That’s funny. I wonder why he always talks about Lutherans then, and never the Plymouth Brethren.”

“Somebody asked him that one time,” he answered. “Keillor said it’s because nobody has heard of the Plymouth Brethren.”

I don’t know if this story is true or not. In part, it seems to be, as in listening to Keillor’s tales of Lake Wobegon since then I have heard the occasional reference to “the sanctified Brethren”, as he likes to call them. I can’t imagine that the average listener has a clue who he’s talking about. But a handful of us do - we sanctified ones, that is.

And it isn’t entirely true that nobody has heard of the Plymouth Brethren. The fact that the PB’s don’t call themselves by that name doesn’t help things. But the occasional student of church history has heard of them, as have those individuals familiar with the most infamous product of Brethrenism, occultist Alistair Crowley. Nonetheless, the Brethren are fairly unknown, at least in our day.

The Plymouth Brethren were one of the many Restorationist religious groups to emerge in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 19th century. Beginning in the 1820’s, they based their approach to the Christian life on a concept of returning to “the simplicity of the early church”, as they believed it had been. This meant doing away with many things they considered to be trappings created by the organized church through the centuries: denominations, ordained clergy, and liturgies, for starters. They sought to emphasize a sense of the priesthood of all believers, manifest in a sort of evangelical ecumenism. They met with one another outside of the organized church, believing that the table of the Lord was for all who believed in Jesus, no matter their denominational affiliation.

A tension began to grow early on in the movement, and continues to this day. If the New Testament church is supposed to meet a certain way, that being the way the Brethren had determined, and that it is as clear in the Scriptures as the Brethren believed it was, then how are those who claim to be Christians but do not meet in the same way to be perceived?

There soon grew up with this a concept of the Higher Spiritual Life which further shaped the Brethren’s dealings with those not of their beliefs. It was determined, building off of John Wesley’s doctrine of Perfectionism and Medieval mysticism, that there are two different types of Christians in the world. There are those who are Carnal, and those who are Spiritual. The Carnal Christian is saved, but is walking out of fellowship with God. This is due to things like unconfessed sin and outright disobedience. Then there is the Spiritual Christian. He is not only saved, but is walking in fellowship with God. He lives in perfect congruity with the will of God, and in so doing lives on a higher plane of spiritual beatitude than the Carnal Christian. Thus conceived, the PB’s had their answer to those who didn’t meet as they did - those people were either unbelievers or Carnal Christians.

But why did so few follow their way? Here we arrive at the Plymouth Brethren’s most notable contribution to modern Christianity. The Brethren had determined, mostly through their most notable founder John Nelson Darby, that their was taught in Scripture a radical distinction between Israel and the Church. God’s main dealing was with Israel, but when they had rejected his Son, God had set them aside for a time while He created a Gentile church. This was temporary, as God would eventually remove His church from the world (through a Pre-Tribulational Rapture) and begin to work with Israel again. God’s church, it was believed, would fail to obey God just as Israel did, and so the flow of history would be a slow train to depravity and destruction. Based off of this eschatological scheme, the Brethren determined that they were living in “the last days”. And if they were, then it would only be reasonable that few would truly be following Christ toward the end of the world. They determined they were that few.

So in order to keep themselves pure from the “world”, which they had defined in the Gnostic fashion of separation from material things (much like Medieval monasticism - the Brethren are far more Roman Catholic than they realize) as well as separation from those not of their way, they sought to refrain from activities which they saw as worldly. Since the world would be ending soon, who cares about culture, for instance? “Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?” as is often repeated. In the Plymouth Brethren worldview, “the earth is the LORD’s, and the fullness thereof,” is only marginally true.

Thankfully, not all Plymouth Brethren are consistent with their theology, thus verifying that it isn’t as true as they think it is. How one is supposed to have a secular job or shop at the grocery store with that theology is beyond me. But the living with the contradictions is maddening, as I know from first hand experience, having grown up Plymouth Brethren.

Also, some Brethren are more Open to allowing non-Brethren into their midst, and thus they are often called “Open Brethren”. This was my background which, though less legalistic in some ways than the stricter Brethren (usually called Closed, Exclusive, or Strict Brethren), has many of the same problems as the Closed Brethren, not to mention some of its own.

The Plymouth Brethren were, and still are, small in number. And yet their influence has been felt far beyond what one would expect. I don’t doubt that the theology as I’ve described it above will ring true to most of those that have grown up in the Evangelical church, as it is the prevailing approach to the Christian life. Even more influential has been the end times theology of the Plymouth Brethren, as is manifest in the millions of books sold, first by Hal Lindsey, and then by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins. Comparatively few people have heard of the Plymouth Brethren, but the majority of Christians in the United States believe in the Pretrib rapture.

“So why is he writing all of this?” you might be asking yourself. Would you believe it is the preface to a movie review? (Just trust me.)

I’ve seen a number of movies recently: Expelled, Iron Man, Prince Caspian, Indiana Jones (comments on the latter two are forthcoming, I hope). But today I saw the best one of them all, and that is Son of Rambow. I don’t doubt that unless you are a connoisseur of the most obscure movies, you haven’t heard of it. Only one theater in my town was playing it, and that was a theater that, as I learned just recently, specializes in low-budget, foreign, and independent films. In fact, I watched it in a small screen theater built for only about forty people. Nonetheless, it topped the big-budget films I have seen recently.

It is about a boy from a Closed Plymouth Brethren family (see, there is a connection) named Will. His father is deceased, and he lives with his mother, his sister, and his grandmother. Unusual for his Brethren background, he attends a local non-Brethren school, where he meets another boy named Lee Carter.

Now I could tell you more about it, and I will. But you have to go see the movie first, before I give all the spoilers.

Are you back now? Okay, let’s carry on.

Will is a boy whose imagination is far grander than his Brethren faith would like it to be. He is an artist, but his family’s religion isn’t especially friendly to such expressions. He meets Lee, a rough boy who coerces Will into starring in his Rambo-like home movie, which Lee is making to enter into a BBC Young Filmmakers contest. In the process, Will sees a television (and a movie - First Blood) for the first time. He quickly finds his imagination and his young masculinity set free in a way he had never before experienced. A sharp contrast from his life in a home run by an overbearing and grieving widowed mother (Mary), as well as his life in a faith that inspires a passivistic piety, Will takes after the world of Rambo and filmmaking with gusto.

Lee’s family life is a direct contrast to Will’s. Living with his abusive brother who runs the family’s convalescent home while their mother lives with her boyfriend in another country, Lee reflects in his treatment of others the treatment he has received in his own family.

Woven into the picture is the visit of a number of French exchange students to Will’s school, and the particular fascination of a number of students with one particular French boy named Didier. The film is set in the 1980’s, noticeable in the haircuts of the students, and especially in the New Wave style of Didier. Eventually Didier and his followers cross paths with Will, and work their way into his and Lee’s film, much to Lee’s dislike.

The climax of the film comes in a conflict between Will and Lee, resulting in Lee’s being seriously injured in an accident. The end result is good, however, as the accident brings reconciliation between Will and Lee, as well as between Lee and his brother.

I’m sure many will be disinclined to see the film because it revolves around a family from a Christian tradition they’ve never heard of. I may be incorrect, but I don’t see that as a hindrance to enjoying this film. Anyone familiar with American Christianity knows Pietism when they see it, though they might not be able to identify it by its name.

And Will’s church is Pietistic. Meeting in a simple building with white walls and wooden chairs which all face toward one another, in the center of which sits a simple communion table, each member is required to take off their watch at the door, lest they be tempted to look at it while the service is in progress. (I’m sure many a minister would think that a good idea, not to mention the collecting of cell phones.) The women and men both dress in the plainest of ways: the men in their earth-tone pants, shirts and jackets, and the women in their plain dresses, skirts, and head coverings.

The plainness of Will’s church and home stand in sharp contrast to his broad imagination. He draws in drawing books, he has a vast mural he has worked on gradually in a bathroom stall at school, and like a Medieval illuminator, he draws on page after page of his Bible, often taking his artistic cues from words in the text he is writing on.

But the Pietist is to take pleasure in spiritual things, not worldly things. This means things of the Brethren assembly and of God. And yet God seemed curiously absent from the movie in any direct sense. While that aspect might be a little overdone when it comes to representing the Brethren, there is a truth there which I personally have experienced. When personal sanctification is the emphasis, a sanctification which I alone am responsible to achieve, then God can easily (and often does) get bumped out of the picture. I am left to save myself, or to re-achieve the higher life by myself, while God sits in Heaven, impatiently brooding over my consistent inability to walk in perfect holiness.

The tension between pleasure and the Pietistic standard emerges in other ways as well. Will’s mother has an ongoing “relationship” with one of the Brethren men (named Joshua), but it is a relationship in the loosest of ways. Unable to have any physical contact due to accepted conduct with the opposite sex, the desire and frustration between the two is visible.

The plainness of Will’s life also stands in contrast to that of the French students. Up to date with the latest fashion and music, they are extremely appealing, not only to Will, but the rest of his schoolmates, who are trapped their simple school uniforms.

And yet, there seems to be some mocking of the French students as well. Didier, who at first behaves aloof and above the British students, soon condescends to meet Will when he learns of Will’s talent and that he is making a movie. Didier is presented at first as a savior: it is no coincidence that it is in the school’s chapel that Will is taken to meet Didier. Didier emerges from shadows and descends from the chancel like a priest or Christ himself, illuminated by sunlight beaming through the chapel windows. Yet he soon shows himself to be a child like the rest, longing for acceptance from one higher than himself.

The longing for a father is central to the film. The shed in which Will’s father worked behind the family’s house is where Will hides to do his drawing. When Joshua attempts to take the place of Will’s father, the man proves himself to be a complete failure. The absence of a father can explain Will’s inability to deal with a bully like Lee, and his willingness to trust Lee implicitly. Lee’s father abandoned his family, and his mother’s boyfriend has even taken her away from her children. The following that emerges around Didier can itself be seen as a longing for a father figure. And while it is a more subtle theme to the film, there is some accusation of the failure of patriarchy present. Those who know the Brethren know that there is a strong emphasis on male-only leadership, both in the home and the assembly. Yet other than Joshua’s paltry attempts to help bring Will “back into the fold”, the men are noticeably uninvolved with Will and his family. Uninvolved, that is, until they decide to visit Mary to let her know that she is being warned of the possibility of expulsion from the Brethren due to Will’s behavior and her failure to control him. In patriarchy, this is often true to life. When it comes to loving relationship, the men are absent. But whenever things get to the breaking point, they are more than willing to show up and dish out some judgment.

Adults in the film are generally portrayed as failures. And yet, when all is said and done, there is one adult who comes to her senses: Will’s mother. Having reflected on her own bad childhood experiences with the Brethren, she eventually rejects the Brethren that are rejecting her. The symbolism of her removing her head covering twice at the end of the film - once as she cries and holds her children in her husband’s shed, and later as she throws Joshua out of her house for good - will no doubt slip past the viewer not familiar with Brethren tradition. In so doing, she is rejecting the authority of the Brethren and, more specifically, the male leadership of the assembly that has been oppressive to her. By removing the head covering, she is saying, “you have failed me, and I am removing myself from under you. I will no longer submit to you.”

And yet, what is the answer? In this collection of people looking for a hero-father, where do they find him, and who is he? It sadly isn’t in a true presence of the church. When the movie is over, the only church in the film is cast aside. And, as I mentioned before, God is noticeably absent in any clear way. The answer seems to come in a restoration of relationships: Lee to his brother and to Will, and Will to his family. What is presented doesn’t seem to be a sort of feminism as the answer, as is so frequent in American films. What appears to be presented is a renewed masculinity. Will and Lee, without the masculine leadership they should have, manage to find their way nonetheless. They have failed themselves, and have repented. They have learned from their mistakes, and will conduct themselves differently from now on. Most interesting is the death and resurrection they both experience at the end of the film. Both boys, in fact, serve as pictures of Christ.

The experience that Will and his family go through is no fiction. While I can’t side with all the conclusions of the film, the insights are numerous and are communicated in the most creative of ways.

I believe, for instance, that wives should submit to husbands, and I believe that men in leadership in the church have real authority. Yet husbands and church leaders must love sacrificially, or else destroy the souls of those under their care.

I also believe certain things aren’t permissible under God’s law. It wouldn’t have been a solution for Joshua and Mary to start sleeping together outside of marriage, for instance. And yet licentiousness doesn’t just emerge in a vacuum. While sometimes it comes simply out of sin and rebelliousness, oftentimes it comes about due to legalism. In fact, the natural fruit of legalism is lawlessness.

So in the end, a true Biblical worldview won out. That worldview is one that embraces beauty, love, sacrifice, family, and community. It is a sign of the church’s failure to give these things that people have to go outside of her to find them and therefore to live more Biblically.

And there’s my brief analysis of the film. I’m sure many other things will stand out to me more in future viewings (I do intend to see it again). And there are other matters that I wonder about. For instance, is the film shaped in the form of a chiasm? At first glance, it would appear that it does, though I could be wrong. My imagination could be just carrying me away.

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