Secular Wisdom from the Movies: Foxcatcher

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In this series, “Secular Wisdom from the Movies,” we hope to offer student leaders a resource – whether for summer programming or just regular teaching. So often we overlook biblical insight from the secular world. The movies in this series each offer a unique Gospel perspective that we can bring to our students. To read the last article in this series, click here.

If you are as ardent a fan of The Office as me, you’ll no doubt agree that the show took a serious downturn once acclaimed actor Steve Carrell said his goodbye after Season 7. The actor left to focus on feature-length films instead of the quirky “mockumentary” style of The Office. Nonetheless, as his filmography would prove, it seems as though Dunder Mifflin was indeed employing an over-qualified leading man as the wisecracking buffoon, Michael Scott.

One such instance of Carrell proving his mettle as an actor is in 2014’s Foxcatcher, directed by Bennet Miller (also of Moneyball). Foxcatcher is the tragic bio-pic of world-wrestling-champion brothers, Mark and David Schultz, who team up with the wealthy inheritor, Jean du Pont — a partnership that leads to improbable outcomes.

The interesting thing to note about the film, and what jumped out to me upon my initial viewing, is how readily it serves as a referendum of American society as a whole, and its fruitless endeavor to find life amongst the rubble of its own mess. Each of the three protagonists in the film is motivated by one singular thing, a driving force that influences all their actions.

Control

Though he might claim his only goal is protection for his family, David (the older brother portrayed by Mark Ruffalo), is motivated by his drive and thirst for control.

Perhaps this is why he’s so committed to wrestling, because he knows he can control the outcome. He’s a skilled competitor, confident in his prowess. He lets his moxie speak for itself, understanding that his accomplishments say enough already.

Even as the younger Mark ambitiously attempts to uproot David and his family to embark upon stardom with greater facilities, resources, and (possibly) rewards, David flatly denies the offer, protecting and controlling his way of life. He’s eventually convinced to join du Pont and his team, but his skepticism remains, never fully buying into what du Pont is selling.

All that he does is done in order to keep his grip on the reigns, to preserve what he has. And ultimately, this leads to his demise.

Achieve

Mark Schultz (the younger brother played by Channing Tatum), is singularly motivated. But instead of control, Mark is driven by his desire to perform, or what he can achieve. Mark lives in David’s shadow, and despite Mark being the better natural athlete, David’s still the more skilled and seasoned wrestler who continually receives the accolades — and the credit.

Mark desperately wants to shake this off. He’s determined not to be defined by his brother’s accomplishments, resolving to perform at higher levels and achieve more. These caustic feelings are made manifest in an excellent opening scene in which he and his brother spar each other a degree too violently and intensely. There is no dialogue throughout this scene, but none is needed. You can feel the bitterness Mark harbors for David as they interact, and he constantly seeks a way to perform at the highest, to achieve the praise he deems he’s due.

This makes it easy for Mark to naïvely follow du Pont and his vision to bring Olympic wrestling to national prominence. He wants to achieve something, make a name for himself, to leave his imprint on the world. Up until now, despite all Mark has accomplished, even his own victories are given an asterisk to note his brother’s tutelage and guidance.

Winning gold on his own is the singular goal driving Mark throughout the film. His only motive is to achieve enough to have his own reputation. And in doing so, he ruins the lives of others.

Prove

Lastly, millionaire inheritor and loner Jean du Pont (Steve Carrell), is motivated by the desire to prove himself. As the film moves along, you become aware that the driving force behind all that du Pont does is his failing relationship with his mother.

We’re given bits and pieces of du Pont’s fractured family life, hints at the brokenness. But none more telling than when his mother, almost an invalid at this point, is wheeled into the gym du Pont has constructed on the grounds. Upon seeing his mother’s presence, everything about du Pont changes, shifting gears to make himself look more like a leader — proving himself to his still disappointed mom.

The incessant need to prove his worth and validate his existence leads to all sorts of deranged perspectives. This insane drive to substantiate himself to his mother gives him delusions of grandeur that culminate in addiction, outrage, and (ultimately) murder.

False Premises of Hope

All these avenues encapsulate the many self-salvation projects with which mankind attempts to play the role of God. Either by controlling, achieving, or proving, man is always trying to work his own way to heaven. Man turns inward for a solution that can only come from the outside. We are conditioned to think this way — because of the Fall, the compass of the soul will always be directed toward self-salvation.

It’s no different in youth ministries either — in fact, these notions are more than likely heightened for teenagers as they strive to find their place in a world that tells them if they don’t, they’ll be cut off, they won’t matter. Indeed, I would say there’s more pressure on youth now than ever before to prove themselves, to control the twists and turns of their lives, and to achieve something.

Whether it’s on the stage, in academics, or on the athletic field, teens are constantly under pressure to be the masters of their own fates. Online, their lives are in constant edit mode, with the hope that enough controlled edits will render proof of their worth.

Regrettably, these theories of freedom have sidled their way into evangelical thought, making it nigh impossible for one to escape the clutches of pseudo-self-salvation teaching without being labeled an antinomian or renegade expositor of the Word. The fact is, these false premises and promises of hope and life never fully satisfy. In actuality, they’re more anti-gospel than anything else.

God’s gospel of His Son’s substitution for sinful man is not and never was about empowering man’s attempts at achieving, proving, or controlling their lives. By making our ministries all about our lives, we’ve missed the significance of our deaths.

The gospel is more about dying than living — dying to our control, dying to our abilities, dying to our performance, and reveling in the death of Another, of Christ. It’s not about finding something inside of ourselves. The good news would never be good if you could find it in yourself. The gospel is the good and glad tidings of hope, peace, and life because it comes from above, and tells us about the death of the Ever Living One who’s given His life to us, and made our death His own.

As long as we try to control, achieve, or prove what Jesus has already done, we’ll be killing ourselves, perpetuating the sprint on the hamster wheel of futility. That peace we long for can only be found in Christ.

The gospel of Foxcatcher is an all-too-familiar portrait of failed attempts at life. But fortunately for us, God’s gospel tells us that in a picture of death we find life, that by donning a crown of thorns, the coronation of all mankind was secured, and that by losing we win the ultimate victory.

Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever.

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles and podcasts from Rooted’s youth ministry blog.

 

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