Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: suicide as altruistic love

SPOILERS AHEAD

Photo: Merrick Morton / AP

I went to see Martin McDonagh’s latest in the best cinema in Dublin (The Lighthouse) with some good company who are also good critics.

This isn’t a review – there are far better reviewers than me out there who can be read with a couple of clicks. It is a reflection on one particular scene in what is a pitch-black look at life, death and hate in small town Missouri.

McDonagh’s dialogue is brilliant, profane, darkly funny and utterly depressing all at once. Someone I was with said she’s seen the film a few days before and the audience in Belfast laughed throughout. There was hardly a peep in Dublin … the tragedy trumped any comedy it seems. Now what to make of that inversion of caricatures of dour sober-sided northerners and fun-loving southerners?!

I digress. Here’s why this post.

Woody Harrelson’s Police Chief Willoughby has pancreatic cancer and has months to live. Much is made of how he is practically the only main character who is not in some way consumed by hate and bitterness. His nemesis is Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, a scorching performance as a mother engulfed with grief and driven by rage at her daughter’s killer, the police, her violent ex-husband and very possibly herself.

Compared to her, Willoughby is a saint. He’s done his best on her daughter’s case but has no leads. He’s an older husband to his picture-perfect young wife Anne (at least 20 years his junior, over the top on the schmaltz here) and a doting dad to two lovely young daughters. There is time given to an idyllic family picnic; of the girls left to play a fun game set up by their dad beside a lake while their parents sneak off to make love (one last time as it turns out).

Willoughby (as we later learn) shows remarkable grace to, and belief in, Sam Rockwell’s vicious racist, homophobic and stupid policeman by writing him a letter (they must still do that in Ebbing Missouri) telling him (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that he is at heart a good man who needs to learn to love rather than hate. He also makes peace with Mildred despite her hounding of him in the in final weeks of his life (the three billboards of the film’s title ask why Willoughby has made no arrests for the murder and rape of her daughter). He writes her a letter too, hoping she catches the killer and regretting that he was not able to. He even pays for her three Billboards for another month.

I mention all of this because it sets Willoughby up in maximum sympathetic terms. Which all goes to make the scene which follows all the more horrible. After writing a third and final letter – this time to his wife after their day at the lake – he goes out to the stables, puts a black bag over his head, and shoots himself in the head. A message for Anne is written on the bag – something like don’t look, and call the boys at the station.

The letter to Anne is voiced by Harrelson. In it he explains why he has killed himself. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but he won’t have her watching him waste away and die a slow death. He wants to spare her that. He acknowledges she may hate him but he hopes only for a while. In time, he hopes she will come to see it was the best thing. The tone is tender and loving.

I gotta say I detested this scene. It made me feel sick. It was not only manipulative and fake, but the whole narrative arc was set to make Willoughby’s suicide a heroic act of love, wanting to spare his wife and children suffering. The note on the bag was obscene – as if it was one last act of kindness. Yet she still finds a bloodied corpse of her husband with his brains on the stable floor – an executioners bag over his head hardly makes a difference to the brutality of the act.

In Ireland, rates of suicide, especially in young men, are shocking. The impact is devastating. Somehow it is seen as ‘a way out’ of a hopeless future. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri plays right into that destructive narrative by dressing up suicide as a brave act of altruistic love.

Yes I know it is a film. Yes, it is ‘just’ telling a story and it is not necessarily ‘endorsing’ or promoting suicide. Yes, it shows the subsequent agony of Anne who asks ‘What are you supposed to do the day after your husband shoots himself?’ Yes, it advances the plot, because it raises the question in the public mind of whether Mildred’s billboards drove him to take his own life.

But, for me, McDonagh’s script glorifies suicide. The context portrays Willoughby as beyond reproach. He is not mentally disturbed or depressed. He calmly and almost naturally takes his own life, as if it was an obvious next step. The reading of the three letters after his death all portray him as noble.

Yet his supposed act of kindness was one of the most aggressive and violent scenes in a very aggressive and violent movie. Anne is left not only not knowing what to do for one day, but for the rest of her life as the widow of husband who blew his brains out. His children are left with the trauma of a daddy who killed himself. His suicide robbed them all of the time to love him, care for him and be with him when he died. To say goodbye and grieve with dignity. It left them victims of a violent crime. It was far from a loving, kind, considerate act.

I have known someone die from pancreatic cancer. It was awful but that person died with joy, faith and love, surrounded by family and friends. The Christian funeral was suffused with hope and thanksgiving for a life well lived. Pancreatic cancer, and the death it caused, did not, and does not, have the last word. There was no need either to play God by taking life, or grimly clinging on to life at all costs.

I hope, that when I die, I can do so with a little bit of that person’s faith in the God of life.

In other words, to be able to trust that dying is not the worst thing in the world.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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An essay on why Jordan Peterson is worth listening to

img_9823-1024x683Time to come out. For most of a year now I have been watching many of the University of Toronto clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s large collection of You Tube lectures and videos. I’d never heard of the guy until a year ago but such lack of awareness is becoming harder to achieve as his popularity and influence continue to grow.  His new book is bound to be a best seller.

It’s been hard to miss the massive kerfuffle arising from his first visit to the UK last week and particularly the car crash of an interview of Peterson by Cathy Newman of Channel 4 news which you can watch in full. It is worth reading Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic for an analysis of the interview. I think it should become a classic in teaching journalists how NOT to interview someone.

This post isn’t going to add to that noise. Rather, I want to reflect on what lessons can be learned from Peterson. Not just in the sense of ‘Why is he so popular?’ (popularity per se, as Trump has shown, is scarcely an indication of moral or intellectual virtue). But instead asking what can be learnt from both what he is saying and how he is saying it.

In a terrific article, written just before ‘that’ interview, Douglas Murray of The Spectator makes this point

Today, for at least one generation, … Peterson … has become a mixture of philosopher, life-coach, educator and guru. He has the kind of passionate, youthful, pedagogical draw that the organised churches can only dream of. Anybody interested in our current culture wars, not to mention the ongoing place of religion, should head to YouTube, where his classes have been viewed by millions.

He concludes his article with this rather remarkable statement for a journalist

‘What was that?’ asked an old friend I bumped into on the way out. Hundreds of young people were still queueing to get books signed. Others stood around buzzing with the thrill of what we had heard. I still don’t have an answer. But it was wonderful.

Caricatures

When I’ve told some friends about Peterson I’ve been warned that he is ‘extreme’ or a voice somehow supportive of the American alt-right. Such warnings baffled me because I had ‘got to know’ Peterson well through his own material before hearing of his supposed right wing reputation. I stay away from You Tube comments (mostly toxic) and don’t do social media. So they made no sense at all then – and still don’t.

It was manifestly apparent that Cathy Newman had this sort of ill-researched preconceived cartoon-strip image of Peterson as some sort of apologist for Patriarchy. It kept getting in the way of her actually listening to what he was saying. She was literally left speechless because the reality didn’t conform to the caricature. She, and the Channel 4 team, had not done their journalistic homework (or, worse, maybe they had and decided to try to do a hatchet job anyway). It was remarkable to watch such a blundering ideologically-driven binary approach to a potentially interesting conversation.

What is he saying?

This is a big question because, as he says himself, he talks a lot, often too much and often at speed. He also covers a lot of ground from psychology, to philosophy, to men and women, to the Bible, to politics, to the world of work and freedom of speech. What follows is a snap-shot, drawn from listening to Peterson over the last year.

And the fact that what he is saying is now seen as ‘provocative’ or ‘radical’ or ‘patriarchal’ or ‘extreme’ says more about a contemporary culture of relativism and victimhood than it does about Peterson. Finding out more about his ‘reputation’, I have had to keep asking myself, ‘am I missing something?’. ‘Is this guy a member of some secret right-wing network?’ For I can’t see the evidence in his academic lectures, written material or You Tube videos.

1. Individual responsibility

Sort out your own life before criticising the world. Clean your room – literally and metaphorically. Make a plan. Stand up straight and face the world. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. Take responsibility for what you can influence – mainly yourself. And, in very Stanley Hauerwas type language, tell the truth.

2. Meaning and significance matters

Read great authors – make them your friends. Get beyond the superficial narcissism of much modern culture and think about questions of meaning and purpose. Don’t buy into postmodern relativism and pessimism. Make a difference for good in the world. Values, integrity and hope matters.

Peterson has developed an entire lecture series on meaning within the Bible. He sees it as foundational to the Western tradition, containing mythic truths that describe the reality of our world and the human condition. The individual finds purpose in something greater, outside of themselves. He seeks to live as if God exists. Tim Lott in The Guardian puts it very well.

Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.

It is doubtful to me that Peterson is Christian in any creedal orthodox understanding of that term, but that is not the point of this post.

3. Freedom of speech

Peterson shot to ‘fame’ by accident by stating, ahead of time, that he would not use speech compelled by an impending Canadian law, Bill C-16. Now law, it makes it compulsory for federal subjects – widened by most provinces to include personal and commercial interactions – to call transgender people by their preferred pronoun. This was an unlikely Lutheran ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’ moment, but that’s what it turned out to be.

Any fair-minded observer would see that to call Peterson ‘transphobic’ or ‘homophobic’ is just being malicious. His consistent point is one of freedom of speech, standing against the right of the State to compel him to use certain words. His argument is that a free society has to have room for disagreement and offending others without the law intervening, and for the state to do so is fascistic.

4. Libertarian individualism

Linked to iii, Peterson calls himself a classic liberal. He is into empowering the individual – including many women it should be said (another point of surprise to Cathy Newman). Society is stronger the freer it is. Those that seek to control and manipulate through law, oppression, shame, and political bullying are enemies of freedom. Respect is earned and cannot be demanded. He is resistant to a contemporary culture of offence. It simply masks a power play to silence those with whom we disagree. It stifles debate and creates a climate of fear

5. Psychological well-being

I’ve hugely enjoyed his online lectures on psychology and philosophy. I’m not qualified enough critically to assess his approach, I suspect it veers towards behaviouralist. But, on a wider canvas, his lectures, clinical practice and now popularised book (12 Rules for Life) show a passion to enable mental and social well-being. It is here, perhaps that Peterson’s main appeal lies. He is intensely practical in giving advice, backed up by academic research and mainly to young people, on how to negotiate an increasingly complex and uncertain world. The Newman interview closes with him mentioning that he had received 25,000 letters in the last 6 months from people saying he had helped transform their lives. Whatever you think of Peterson, that is an astonishing claim worth serious reflection – another missed opportunity in the interview. Something is going on here and you would hope a journalist would be interested to investigate.

6. Understanding yourself

Peterson uses the ‘big five’ personality test – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. It is one of many such tests. Our family enjoys taking them – not sure what that says about us! The big five is a very useful tool, we had fun doing it and comparing results. Peterson himself is very high on openness. The test says “high scorers tend to be creative, adventurous and intellectual. They enjoy playing with ideas and discovering novel experiences.” They tend to be unconventional and artistic. This is a long way from ideological group-think and may help explain why Peterson despises attempts to control and enforce behaviour whether from the left or the right.

7. Gender difference matters

It’s on gender that Peterson is seen as most provocative. But again he is quite careful and nuanced in what he says. Bottom line – men and women are not the same. It is not, as some conservative Christian commentators try to extrapolate, that there is a list of particularly ‘manly’ virtues (there is neither the data or a biblical foundation for such a claim). That is to generalise far too far. But the data, Peterson argues, is clear that, for example, women tend to be higher on agreeableness (tendency to put others’ needs ahead of their own, and to cooperate rather than compete with others) and on conscientiousness (self-discipline and control in order to meet goals). These are general tendencies, the differences are not great. They cannot be reduced down to individual cases.

One of his points is that differences between the genders cannot be reduced down to a single cause – say patriarchy. So, once patriarchy is overcome, full equality will follow. But in the most radically equal societies on earth (Scandinavia) data shows that given a relatively equal playing field, men and women make markedly different life choices regarding types of work (e.g. nursing and engineering). Against expectations, the gender gap actually widens rather than narrows. This strongly suggests inherent male / female difference, rather than simply being due to one all-embracing cause like ‘patriarchal culture’. One implication is that the current drive for full equality in the workforce is driving by unrealistic and mistaken assumptions. (For example, a friend of mine in an engineering firm has been given the target to achieve a 50-50 gender balance by xxxx date. But the task is proving far more difficult to implement than to set).

And it’s worth noting what he does not say – he does not defend unequal pay for the same work; he does not defend discrimination against women – he wants to see women empowered and successful; he does not say patriarchy is a good thing; he does not say women are in any way inferior to men or less intelligent.

He does say that there are only two genders, regardless of those who say gender is simply a social construct that can be chosen at will. Such social engineering is ideological dogma, biologically incoherent and psychologically and socially destructive.

8. The crisis facing men

Another area that Peterson has tapped into the zeitgeist is the crisis facing young men. Many men are not doing well – they are dropping out of school and university; they are withdrawing from the humanities; and rates of male suicide are truly catastrophic. The reasons are complex, but Peterson seems to be on to something in giving young men a challenge. Most of his online audience is male (although it is true that a lot of things online are mostly male). He treats young people with dignity and respect. He calls them to acts of meaning and courage. He rejects destructive cultural assumptions that young men by default are an insidious danger to a civilised society and that Western society is inherently patriarchal and oppressive. He believes that people can be responsible and free.

9. Realistic anthropology

Peterson is at his most Calvinist when it comes to human nature. In contrast to a naïve optimism that we are all essentially rational and good and just need to be given equal opportunity in life for justice to flourish, Peterson the psychologist tells us that we are a mess of competing desires, irrational decisions and damaging behaviour. We need to understand this truth about ourselves. We are all capable of being monsters. (Getting back to those toxic comments on You Tube, just look at what apparent anonymity does to people commenting on the internet for example).  The challenge is not to allow the monster control. Overcome it by choosing the light, living ethically, with courage and purpose. Happiness might come and go as a side-effect, but to pursue it is a delusion. Of far more importance is taking responsibility for our own lives.

10. Family and Social Capital

Again in psychologist mode, Peterson has a lot to say about the importance of friendship, family and the value of marriage. Marriage is not, as much modern romanticism has it, the ultimate source of individual ‘happiness’. It is a commitment to another person through which family emerges. We are social beings who need close relationships. I haven’t heard him talk of marriage in religious terms, but there are strong parallels to a Christian view of marriage as covenant love in which context children are born and raised. He does sound utilitarian at times in how choosing not to have children is to store up a relationally barren old age.

11. Thankfulness

From time to time Peterson observes how much modern political activism is relentlessly thankless. Despite living in relative wealth within the most advanced, equal and technologically advanced cultures in human history, there is a narrative of failure, oppression, injustice and victimhood. This fails to balance and be thankful for the extraordinary achievements of the West – by both men and women.

How is he saying it?

OK, if that is a summary of some of the sorts of things Peterson is saying, what about how he is saying it? It is here, I think, that his real appeal lies.

1. Love of learning

I mentioned earlier that being high in Openness means delighting in ideas. This comes through in Peterson’s lectures which are freewheeling enthusiastic monologues (whether monologues are the best form of teaching is a whole other debate). He is captivated by the transformative power of ideas to change the individual. And an associated abhorrence of ideology and identity politics.

In teaching, perhaps the most important quality of good communication, and subsequent student learning, is that the subject matter has first enthralled the teacher. There is nothing worse than a teacher bored by his or her own material. And there is nothing better than a teacher in love with their subject, overflowing with energy to pass that learning on to others. A personal example, thirty plus years after being taught the Gospel of Matthew by Dick France I sure don’t remember all the details of what he said, but I do remember his infectious love of the text and delight in passing that on to others.

2. Scientific method

As a clinical psychologist, Peterson utilises a lot of scientific data in developing hypotheses that interpret that data. Now, ever since Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions we should be aware that the way science works is not a nice and neat objective process. All sorts of variables are in play, including chance, personal and corporate agendas and so on. Assorted scientists can interpret the same data in quite different ways. But this does not invalidate the scientific process. It just means that hypotheses – and any claims arising out of them – need continual critical examination. I am not in a position to do this with Peterson’s use of science, but others are. He seems to be a serious and respected figure, widely published and peer reviewed and teaching in a major public university. In the past he taught at Harvard.

The point in saying this is that Peterson is engaging a young, well-educated and critical audience. He is not dumbing down, nor is he expecting them to believe assertions and personal opinions. He is, regardless of whether you agree with him or not, following the evidence to where it leads. If that means contradicting what he sees as ill-founded assertions of gender constructivism or identity politics or right wing nationalism, then let the dice fall where they will.

3. Respect of opponents

For me, one of the most impressive things about Peterson is the way he engages opponents. Watching him being baited by student ‘social justice warriors’ outside the University of Toronto was to witness exasperation and despair at their utter failure (and inability?) to engage in rational discussion. But that exasperation did not turn to bitter sarcasm. He genuinely wanted to discuss the issues and try to change minds. In the University of Toronto ‘debate’ with opposing colleagues on his position on Bill C-16, Peterson emerged as the one more interested in freedom of speech as opposed to shrill restatements of entrenched ideology. Similarly, with Cathy Newman, Peterson maintained composure, humour and grace despite being interrupted and almost comically misrepresented at practically every turn. He engaged her own willingness to offend him in positive terms – ‘good for you’ – stumping her in a good humoured way.

4. Empowering others

Some things are hard to fake. Another attractive feature of Peterson’s persona is what seems a genuine desire to empower and equip others for their own good. This comes through in his classes, in his clinical psychology and in Q & A with young people. Whether you agree with him or not, there is a passion to enable others negotiate the complexities of life as successfully as they can. Whether that means working with women not to be taken advantage of in the workplace or helping someone out of a cycle of depression, it speaks of an other-centeredness that is admirable.

5. Vulnerability and integrity

Peterson gives plenty of advice on relationships, work and success in life in general, often in strongly directional terms. Anyone doing so in a public space (whether a clinical psychologist or a Pastor or a self-help guru) is justifiably opening up their own lives to examination – does he or she practice what they preach? There is a need for (appropriate) transparency here. Of course, the reality can be hidden and often is. But with Peterson you do not get the sense that there is a mismatch. He shows critical self-awareness (on the Dave Rubin show, when asked, he listed things like over-work, talking too much, a potential addiction to alcohol etc etc). He talks about his wife and family in moving terms, deeply grateful for their love, support and presence in his life.

6. Language

There is a compelling attraction and power to language used creatively to express complex ideas. It is a rare gift and Peterson, I think, has it. Listening to his lectures is, for me anyway, a pleasure. Of course, such a gift can be used for good or ill. In general, Peterson is constructive rather than destructive. He values words. At one point, he said to Newman, “I’m very, very, very careful with my words.”

7. Courage

Whatever you think of Peterson’s beliefs, it is hard not to admire a person who has the courage of his convictions. He took a serious personal and professional risk in speaking out against Bill C-16. He was warned he could lose his job, was threatened with bankruptcy by the potential costs of a court process and found himself at the centre of a storm of abuse and vilification. His health suffered under the stress. He has said he will never use compelled speech even if that means going to jail – where he has claimed he will go on hunger-strike. You might think this is over-dramatic, but it is rare these days to find conviction in public life that comes with a tangible personal cost.

Concluding Clarifications and further issues

A couple of points of clarification. These are simply my takes on Peterson and as such are subjective observations that may well misrepresent things in some way. Neither do they mean I am an uncritical fan. I am trying to unpack why and how he has become an iconic cultural figure.

While there are obvious parallels to themes of Christian belief, it would take further posts to analyse and reflect critically on the theological content of Peterson’s worldview. It would also take further posts to consider what, if any, lessons can be learnt from Peterson by churches who have a heart to communicate the breadth and depth of the Christian faith to young people today.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Is it time to give up on the term ‘evangelical’?

Quite a few people think the answer to the title question is YES.

Alwyn Thomson makes the case with typical incisive analysis in a post at PS at Contemporary Christianity’s website

The word ‘evangelical’, he argues, is now theologically almost meaningless. Evangelicalism as a movement has undermined the church. And evangelicalism, especially in the USA, is fatally compromised by its alliance with political power.

Alwyn knows what he’s talking about. When research officer for Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) he developed a lot of excellent material on evangelical identity, politics and theology, and now he lives in the USA.

In America, Christianity Today is asking the same question. Scot McKnight has argued that the word is so compromised politically that it is time to give it up.

The issue is politics; the presenting painful reality is Trump. The reality is 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump. The word “evangelical” now means Trump-voter. The word “evangelical” is spoiled …

… Which now means evangelical=Republican=Conservative=populist=Trump …

… Today the term evangelical in the USA means (supposedly) conservative in politics, and hence “Votes Republican.” This definition is not going away. The political folks have won.

Let the political evangelicals have the term …

…. The one thing I despise about Christianity in the USA is its aligning with a political party. Mainliners have done it; they’re Democrats. Evangelicals have followed suit; they’re Republicans. Politicization is accomplished.

Let the rest of us call ourselves Christians.

Others, like Roger Olson, know well the difficulties associated with the word but refuse to let bad use take away right use.

Here in Ireland, evangelicals are so tiny that the vast majority of people have little or no idea what the word stands for. If they do, it is probably something like one of the following ..

  • zealous for something: ‘She was almost evangelical in her enthusiasm for sushi.’
  • fundamentalist: ‘ISIS are the evangelicals of the Muslim world’ (I heard this said by an Irish reporter on radio)
  • Intolerant, obscurantist, right-wing, Trump supporters
  • Conservative reactionaries against the emerging liberal new Ireland, particularly on sex and gender issues.

None of which are exactly complimentary definitions.

If the heartbeat of evangelicalism is an ethos that feels something like this then I don’t want to give up what it describes:

  1. A love for the Bible leading to personal transformation
  2. An emphasis on repentance and faith
  3. A focus on the cross as that which makes reconciliation with God possible
  4. Activism as living out faith in Christ with integrity and authenticity
  5. And a Christ-centered faith that issues in discipleship, obedience and good works empowered by the Spirit

And, as I’ve posted about before, this sort of evangelicalism alive and well in countless individuals’ lives across the globe.

But what to call it?

Is the word ‘evangelical’ necessary in order to describe such faith? Is it fatally compromised – mostly by an American fusion of religion and politics that has global consequences?

If we answer ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to these two questions then we need to find a different way of talking about who John Stott called ‘Bible people’ and ‘Gospel people’. Whether just ‘Christian’ or something else.

In my Irish context, it’s not a word that is very helpful. Trump and American Republican co-opting of the term plays a part, but there are other historical factors at play too. So I have no great objection to dropping it.

Or should the majority world evangelical movement – as defined by the Cape Town Commitment for example – resist being defined by the ugly politicization of what is only a relatively small sector of the global evangelical family? Can the word ‘evangelical’ be redeemed?

Comments, as ever, welcome.