Kelly and I wandered into “An Education” last Saturday night armed only with a Rotten Tomato rating of 95%, and a preview we watched on the iPhone. We walked out of the theatre enraptured by the magic of film. Great script, great costuming, great soundtrack, and the acting was pure joy. For 99 minutes, we were caught up in teen social world of 1960s Twickenham, Middlesex.
On one level, the basic story seems fairly simple: a precocious young lady is seduced by an older man and suffers the pain of heartbreak (while getting an education). This moral story plays out in homes across the globe every day. The film director weaves this simple plot into an aesthetically fulfilling work that captures the imagination and the heart. I’ll leave it to real film critics to explore the elements of film and subtleties of the plot. I want to briefly comment on the education I experienced in relationships (as seen from a Trinitarian perspective). The sets of relations that captured my attention include Jenny and David (the older man), Jenny and Miss Stubbs, and Jenny and her father.
The transforming power of an outsider
As Jenny stands soaking in a surprise rainstorm, David drives up in his shiny sports car to rescue her Cello and eventually her from the rain. In her mind, he really does rescue her from the rain. At one point in the film, she says that her life was all drab and dreary before David. She even suggests that he may be the one person in the world who is truly alive.
As the tale proceeds, we come to discover her initial assessment as mistaken. David appears to be a man who creates dreary and drab lives for others. He certainly brings grief and pain into her life. And yet, he really does bring her in from the rain. In this pairing and Jenny and David, I see a glimpse of the good and bad of human relationships. We live day after day after day in routines and patterns and habits. Then someone new enters our life.
This person might be a romantic interest, but they also might be a new friend, a new boss, a new co-worker, a new child. Their presence in our life breaks the cycles, the patterns, the habits. A new relation may have the power to transform our whole world. Suddenly our story collides with another story, as we talk and spend time with this new person, they may cause us to think new ways, try new things, create new patterns. In David’s case, his intentions were hurtful and manipulative. He violated Jenny and her family on multiple levels, and yet, his presence still changed her and her family, and possibly opened horizons that previously seemed closed.
Now this may sound off, and I am willing to be challenge, but I would suggest that even people who wrong us and may cause us pain could still ultimately initiate changes that are for the better. Their action and intentions may not be for our ultimate good, but they still could open new horizons in our lives that ultimately enrich us.
I am introducing an “argument through the back door” so to speak. Alvin Plantinga responded to the problem of evil in our world by suggesting that it is possible for a good and all-powerful Creator to create a world where evil exists. While I am probably botching his argument, I understand part of it like this. The presence of evil does not necessarily mean that the world is ultimately. We cannot see the final score. But it is possible that a good and all power God could create a world that allows evil if it allowed the world to become even better (if moral goodness requires free moral creatures).
Now that I’ve probably messed up his main idea, let me just say that presence of another person in our lives even when they may do us harm (intentionally or not) can still bring ultimate benefit in our lives. So while loving friends and lovers may cause pain, I enjoy an enrichment as well. Obviously, Jenny learns that her precocious intellect could not prevent her from making serious mistakes in the way of relationships. She learns there is a real cost of suffering for her mistakes. But she may also discovers new eyes to see her drab world as more beautiful than she previously imagined. It is not David’s gift to her, but rather God’s gift that is part of the fabric of human relationships.
Seeing the Old in New Ways
This is realized when Jenny enters Miss Stubbs house, pleading for help to prepare for college (after she abandoned school in pursuit of David). Up to that point in the film, Miss Stubbs appeared as a tragic figure. She taught teenage girls classic texts and ideas, but she appeared sad and empty (as though life had passed her by). When she warns Jenny of the danger of this new found young man, Jenny responds with hurtful words about Miss Stubbs’ sad and empty life.
But then Jenny experiences the pain of deception and betrayal. With bridges burned, she cannot return to her old school. Her prospects look dim. She visits Miss Stubbs’ at home with hopes of finding tutoring help. Jenny notices Miss Stubbs piano and the beauty of her home. After her painful encounter with David, Jenny can finally see the gift and life of Miss Stubbs in a new way. Her blind eyes have been opened. (see note 1 at bottom).
Weakness and Love in Relation
In the relationship between Jenny and her parents, a very different angle of light caught my eye. The vulnerability of her parents and the challenge of loving and protecting those nearest to us. Throughout the film, Jenny’s father (a humorous figure) is a bit demanding and closed-minded to the outer world beyond their home. But then he encounters David and is seduced right alongside Jenny. He is convinced that David is good for Jenny.
He fails Jenny. But in failing, he is forced to find new words (new articulations of love) for Jenny. He finds words to confess to his beloved daughter that he is weak, and he has not always made the right decisions but his heart is for her prospering. In other words, in his weak and stumbling speech, Jenny’s father gives her a blessing of his love and dedication that the story does not reveal at any other point. In the depths of failure, her father is freed to become a truer, more authentic father.
In this sweet, tragic, funny and beautiful film, I behold images. I behold persons. Persons created in the image of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. People created to love and be loved. People created to live in relationships of real sharing, real giving, yes real suffering, but also real glory. In the film, my eyes are also opened like Jenny, and I walk out finding new ways to love and be grateful for all the wondrous people that I have been privileged to know.
Note 1 – While their may have been other ways to this newfound vision that didn’t involve the seduction by David, this is the particular path that Jenny walks down. And even in the midst of this path, there is a hope. I am not confusing this hope with the hope of Jesus Christ in the gospel. Yet as a person who believes in that sure hope in Christ, I also see a certain hope revealed in Jesus about the nature of His creation. According to John, we are created in and through Jesus (by the Father and through the Holy Spirit). So as a Christian, I under that all human are created in and through the relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit. Relationship is not an extension of who we are, it is the very essence of who we are (Christian, non-Christian, nice, mean, and so on).
In all human relationships there is exchange not necessarily rooted in a selfish social exchange but in an essential social exchange. Relational exchange is at the very heart of who we are. So even when we know the very real pain of failed human relationship, we may still be able to find transformative elements in that exchange that were/are positive.