St Paul and the Wolf of Wall Street

wolf_of_wall_streetI went to see The Wolf of Wall Street [TWOWS}last week in York in the tiniest cinema I’ve ever been in – it had 28 seats I think. Small screen, big performances especially by DiCaprio (and Scorsese behind the lens).

You could see it as a dark satire on the madness of turbo-capitalism. Maybe it is, I think not. The cameo appearance of Jordan Belfort at the end of the film said much.  But this isn’t a review, it’s a reflection on a word that I left the screening with.

DESIRE

I ain’t giving anything away to say its a tale about the pursuit of money, simple as that. What makes the story is the intensity of that ruthless desire that drives Belfort to extravagant ‘success’ and wild excess.

That over-desire spreads to become out of control passion for sex, drugs, material things and power which eventually engulf him.

Paul has a lot to say about passions and desires. So did moral teachers of the ancient world. So did Augustine, but we’ll give him a pass in this post.

In the Greco-Roman world, it was passions that were obstacles to the moral life. Passions here are things like desire, pleasure, love, grief. There was optimism that humans can do good if educated and if instructed to be in harmony with a proper view of existence. This was because the passions were linked to false beliefs. If you can be trained to think right, you can achieve self control.

The Stoics had their own twist on this. Since the passions had destructive force, their goal was the not so much the control of passions but their elimination. And this can be done through reason, a cure for the diseased soul. Reason is the path to virtue.

In the Jewish world things worked differently. The Law was the path to blessing. Teachers were therefore crucial. The Law had to be learned, applied and lived. There was no hint that the Law could not be kept.  There was joy in obedience. Keeping the Law was the way to overcome evil desires and sinful behaviour. The commands of the Law are the path to life and restraint of selfishness and injustice.

What’s fascinating is how Paul stands in continuity with his world but develops a whole new theology of how to live a moral life and overcome over-desires and destructive passions in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

He agrees with Aristotle that lack of control of desire undermines moral life. As a Jew he knows that the Law is good and holy. But he takes neither of their paths in terms of overcoming destructive desires.

Unlike Judaism and the Greco-Roman moralists, Paul has a uniquely negative anthropology. All have sinned. The Law cannot be kept and reason is not the path to virtue however well educated you are.

So to Galatians on ‘passions and desires’, e.g., Galatians 5:16  the ‘desire of the flesh’ 5:16 and 5:24 the ‘flesh with its passions and desires’. These passions and desires are barriers to the Christian life.

Paul in several places says such passions and desires are characteristic of the pagan Gentile world. This is the sort of life that his converts have been saved from. These desires results in ‘works of the flesh’  in Galatians 5:19-21 – a list that describes the Wolf of Wall St pretty well.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

For Paul a life like this is one of slavery, trapped under the power of sinful desire.

So how are these passions and desires to be overcome? [And let’s be honest – part of the challenge is that they are attractive. I wonder if one reason the movie will do well is the way it gives opportunity for a vicarious glimpse of a life without limits, without morality, without restraint – and who doesn’t wonder what that would be like?].

The answer is the gift of the Spirit to those who have faith in Christ. It is the Spirit who gives new life and who empowers the believer to life a moral life. It is the Spirit who sets the Christian free from the flesh and its desires. And it is life in the Spirit which fulfils the Law – it cannot be kept any other way.

Paul doesn’t speak about virtue – what he does talk about is a new life in the Spirit that results in the fruit of the Spirit being visibly demonstrated – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control and the like. All characteristics pretty well totally absent in Scorsese’s movie.

In other words, the only way to overcome destructive desire is to ‘walk in the Spirit’ and be led by the Spirit (5:16, 18). This will crucify the flesh – with its evil desires (5:24). Such a life will lead to doing good to all, especially the household of faith (6:10). Paul is remarkably confident that the new community of the Spirit will be marked by the Spirit’s fruit.

In other words, Paul has a very negative diagnosis of how, whether Jew or Gentile, we are under the power of destructive and sinful desires and passions. But he is supremely confident that the gospel will result in ‘new creation’, a new moral life, a renewed mind, a transformed community of self-giving love.

What TWOWS brings home with visceral force is the power of sin, driven by destructive passions and desires. For Paul, these belong to the age of the flesh. The call of the Christian life is to choose to live in the new age of the Spirit. The works of the flesh destroy lives and relationships – and Jordan Belfort left a quite a spectacular trail of destruction.

Bottom line – to live a moral life we all need (divine) help. Salvation is another word for it. Or as Paul puts it in Galatians 1:4, Jesus Christ gave himself for us to ‘rescue us from the present evil age’.

For on our own we are all like Jordan Belfort in one way or another. He just had opportunity and determination to pursue his desires in a way that few have.

Comments, as ever, welcome

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2 thoughts on “St Paul and the Wolf of Wall Street

  1. Coincidentally, I’m in the middle of trying to put together a PhD proposal on the “virtue” of apatheia, so this was good food for thought. Cheers Patrick.

    Also, I’m with you on your brief assessment of the film. I think its quite in love with its central character. I see no real critique. Only a comedy that isnt really aware its a tragedy.

    And its far too bleedin’ long!

    • Hey Declan. Sounds a really good idea – look forward to hearing where and what next. Found James Thompson, Moral Formation according to Paul, good.

      Agree, close to uncritical admiration esp at the end with the FBI guy and Belfort relaunched. Not even a nod to the people swindled

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