Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: suicide as altruistic love


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.


Barna: Finding Faith in Ireland (3): Some musings on implications and challenges for evangelical Christians

Barna Finding Faith in Ireland Some final musings on the Barna Report Finding Faith in Ireland: The Shifting Spiritual Landscape of Teens and Young Adults in the Republic of Ireland.

At the end of the Report there is a short section advocating for the need for adult spiritual guides to talk to young people about issues of faith. Two reasons are given:

i. Evidence points to the significant impact of mature spiritual guides for young people.

ii. Most young people have no older adult who talks to them about matters of faith.

Reading a bit more closely it seems that it is parents (particularly mothers) are by far the biggest influence on the spiritual development of young people. If faith is practiced at home it will be most impactful on children.  This is unsurprising.

Other people like church leaders, youth leaders or college chaplain may have some influence but it is limited in comparison with parents.

The report closes with some surprising figures (to me anyway):

  • 37% of Irish youth (14-25 yr olds – across the whole sample) say it is mostly or completely true that they would like to “find a way to follow Jesus that connects to the world they live in.” That is higher than I would have expected (the figures will be signficantly lower for 18-25 I assume).
  • This applies to 47% of ‘Christians’ (so the majority of those labelled ‘Christian’ don’t actually want to follow Jesus? What value does this term then have?).
  • And applies to 71% of ‘practising Christians’ (so 29% of ‘practising Christians’ don’t want to follow Jesus? This raises questions about the meaning of this term in the study. As mentioned in the first post, my daughters’ sense is that the broadness of the categories masks a much lower engagement with even basic Christian claims than the stats suggest).

It is not easy to know what to take away from the Report as a whole. Some musings


The Barna report necessarily focuses on people’s responses to questions and to measuring certain ‘religious’ behaviours. It’s findings are very useful and unique, but need to be treated with care. They are ‘big picture’ and general and, to some degree, reflect the legacy of Irish Christendom when 99.9% of people were ‘Christian’.


However, in thinking about the implications of the Report’s findings we must beware of looking for a ‘silver bullet’. We need, first and foremost, to think theologically about faith and discipleship.

J K A Smith nails this in his book You Are What You Love. ‘Being Christian’ is in essence, a matter of what/who we love. Biblical faith, OT and NT, is summed up in loving God wholeheartedly and loving your neighbour (who may be an enemy don’t forget).

So authentic Christianity is all about love, faith (pistis) as allegiance, loyalty, worship, commitment, obedience, relationship, being in the presence of God, knowing God as loving Father, experiencing the love of God in the Spirit – and so on.

A Christian will then shape his or her life around this primary love and live their life within the Christian story – looking forward in the here and now to the kingdom come.

So being a disciple of Jesus is much much deeper than mere external behaviour. It is about a formation of the heart – what we truly love and live for. The tragic failure of Christendom Ireland was that is concentrated on just those external behaviours. When the cultural pressure to conform was removed, religious nominalism was exposed for what is was.


This means that we need most of all to be considering places where young people can be shown, taught and nurtured in that living faith. At least two places are absolutely central:

i. The Family as a place of Christian formation

Nothing outside the church, is more significant and influential in the shaping of young people’s faith than the family home. Here’s an excerpt from a previous post on Smith’s take on the family and discipling young people:

In the last few pages of this chapter Smith then sketches his ideas and experiences of inculcating these values within family life. He asks

What does it look like to parent lovers? What does it look like to curate a household as a formative space to direct our desires? How can a home be a place to (re)calibrat our hearts? (127)

  • Love
  • worship
  • music
  • imagination
  • Christian calendar: family rituals linked to the cycle of the Christian year
  • Fasting
  • Serving others together
  • Enacted symbolism
  • Prayer
  • Eating together
  • Thankfulness
  • Creativity – a Sabbath slow down from hyper-consumerism and technology

Obviously all of this is contextual to each family. But the point is that ‘heart formation’ is far deeper than a surface bit of religion now and then ….

All of this is to build connections to the ‘liturgy of the home’ with the liturgy of the church in which the home belongs. Without this sort of integration there will be a lack of authenticity … and ‘doing a bit of church’ on a Sunday is mere nominalism unless it is embedded in daily life liturgies that flow from the gospel story that we claim to believe.

Of course, for many if not most, the family will not be a place of such formation. Which makes the community and practices of the church even more important.

ii. Churches as places of Christian formation

Christianity is nothing if not a corporate faith. At its best, the church is a community of believers on pilgrimage, following and worshipping their Lord before any other love or loyalty – come what may.

To be a Christian is to live this story. It is to be part of a body where worship and service happens. It is to be a place where our hearts and imaginations are formed by the gospel.

There are many alternative stories in Western culture (whether work, money, sex, love, pleasure, family, sport, beauty, technology etc) to which we are invited daily to commit our hearts and live to as objects of ultimate purpose.

This means that the challenges for discipling young people in a post-Christendom Ireland are complex. But at the very least such discipling has to be linked to communities of faith where the gospel story is preached and God is worshipped.

I don’t doubt that young people having a spiritual guide and mentor is a good thing. I have seen that in our own family, especially how significant slightly older adults can be. Not a parent figure, but guides and mentors giving a safe space to explore issues and questions honestly. Our family has been blessed with some great friends in this area, but the best thing was that this happened naturally within the life and worship of our local church.


So what implications?

i. The Report quantifies what many have known for a long time – that Ireland is today far from being a ‘Christian country’ – and it never was (since there is no such thing).

ii. There is no short cut silver bullet to mission and outreach. The most powerful witness of the gospel are communities of authentic love and worship – in Christian marriages and in worshipping Christian communities that embody something of the presence of the kingdom of God. Those can’t be faked.

iii. Youth ministry needs to be embedded within such local churches, not free-floating and detached from them. The body of Christ is just that – one body made up of many parts. To divide the body of Christ into generational segments is to damage the catholicity and unity of the body of Christ as described in Ephesians 4:4-6. Young people  need the wider body, the wider body needs young people.

iv. Trust, authenticity, care, love, service – these are the sorts of relational requirements for people working with a pretty savvy and rightly sceptical young Irish population, trying to navigate their way through the legacy of Irish Christendom.

v. But also required is courage and a willingness to be counter cultural in an individualist culture that says the self is king. This means holding to the foolishness of the cross and the radical demands of Jesus to come and die if someone is to be worthy to follow him – a call to love him before all others. (Matt 10:34-39). Young Irish Christians know this first hand – whether in schools or universities – they are a tiny minority and it takes guts to stand up and be counted.

vi. I would say this wouldn’t I – but critical to any renewal is good Bible teaching and education. Where Moral Therapeutic Deism reigns virtually nothing can be assumed of what young Irish people believe about God, the Bible or basic theological concepts.

Comments, as ever, welcome.








Dylan in Dublin 2017

Walked down after work on Thursday evening to the large arena that used to be called the Point. It was a short pilgrim walk to see and hear a sort of sacred relic. That’s meant in the kindest and most admiring way possible.

Saint Bob was in town.

In theological education we are always encouraging students to combine faith and worship with critical thinking. This post is going to err, unapologetically, on the side of uncritical adulation.

I’m not right over there with the Dylan fanatics to whom the great man never can put a foot wrong. But I do love the man and his music.

The arena was sold out. The show was 1 hr 50 and the set list was:

Dublin 11 May 2017


  • (intro) the foggy dew
  • Things Have Changed
  • Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
  • Highway 61 Revisited
  • Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
  • Why Try to Change Me Now (Cy Coleman cover)
  • Pay in Blood
  • Melancholy Mood (Frank Sinatracover)
  • Duquesne Whistle
  • Stormy Weather (Harold Arlen cover)
  • Tangled Up in Blue
  • Early Roman Kings
  • Spirit on the Water
  • Love Sick
  • All or Nothing at All (Frank Sinatra cover)
  • Desolation Row
  • Soon After Midnight
  • That Old Black Magic (Johnny Mercer cover)
  • Long and Wasted Years
  • Autumn Leaves (Yves Montand cover)


  • Blowin’ in the Wind
  • Ballad of a Thin Man

Dylan seems at peace. He’s having fun at 75. It was a deep pleasure to be in his company for a couple of hours and to hear those songs.

Roll on Bob.

Contested Love (5) the deadliest opponent of love?

9780300118308Getting back, eventually, to Simon May’s fascinating book Love: A History.

We are in chapter 7 on ‘Why Christian Love is not Unconditional’

We don’t tend to link thinking about money with thinking about love. They are very distinct things are they not? What has one to do with the other? We assume that wealth, and the things that go with it, are benign, if not actively good. It does not have much to say, one way or the other, about our loves lives does it?

May writes as a philosopher looking in to Christian theology and ethics from the outside. While I don’t agree with some rather sweeping generalisations, he nails the Bible’s warnings about the spiritual danger of wealth and its connection to pride.

Pride destroys our capacity for love. Thus it is the deadliest sin of all.

Jesus’ greatest enemies, he says, are money, pride and hypocrisy. They feed into vanity, greed, selfishness, a lack of concern for others, and a vain morality that pretends to be for the good of others but is about making ourselves feel good.

Love, in contrast, is a determined focus on the good of the other.

“Jesus’ tremendous focus on money and the vices of pride – hypocrisy and self-righteousness – returns us to a central theme of this book: the precondition for love … is submission to the real presence of the other; submission to her individual lawfulness and what she calls on us to do …

And this is why money and the pride and self-sufficiency it fosters, are Jesus’ main target in his prophetic denunciations within the Gospels

… pride and the some of the conditions of wealth-accumulation can be huge impediments. Pride is about self-protection, self-sufficiency, barricading oneself against one’s neighbour, absorption in, or the business of self-esteem, a myopic dedication to one’s own prestige and power that darkness the mind to the reality of others – all attitudes that exclude submission; while the pursuit of wealth necessarily places the impersonal demand of utility at the centre of our relations with those caught up in this ambition – a far cry from the attentiveness that is at the heart of love …

This theme is so overwhelmingly pervasive in Jesus, that May asks this question.

What might your answer to it be ?

Why then has Jesus’ message been so perverted? Why has Christianised civilisation been so concerned with sex, and so much less inhibited by Jesus’ preaching against pride, possessions and power? Whether we are talking about the historical Church, the ‘civilising mission’ of Victorian Britain, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the atheistic embodiment of the deeply religious Russian nation) and its unspeakable vanity of bringing revolution to the whole world, the ‘manifest  destiny’ with which American ‘Anglo-Protestantism’ dignifies itself, or the Christian fundamentalism that gives it such strident voice today – in all these cases intense sexual prudery is combined with ruthless pursuit of power and property, flaunted with the very pride, the very self-congratulatory lording it over others, to which Jesus’ whole life and death are a standing reproach …

He concludes with this stinger.

it is remarkable how often people who seek to civilise the world by force, often in the name of Christianity and with a sense of being guided by God, themselves profess a hierarchy of values so completely at variance with those of Jesus.”

pp. 105-6.

Do you agree – is pride the greatest opponent of love? What else makes the flourishing of love all but impossible?

Contested Love (3) love as the supreme virtue

9780300118308I’m skipping on in Simon May’s Love: A History to an important chapter on the evolution of love within Christianity.

A question: what is Christian love? How would you define it? What is distinctive about Christian love as compared say to love in our wider culture today?

I had quite a few quibbles with May in the this chapter. Not surprising I guess, he is venturing into detailed areas of Christian theology and painting with a broad brush. There are half-truths and generalisations, but the overall thesis is intriguing.

He argues that two major shifts in the history of love happen that are intimately linked to how love comes to be understood within Christianity.

  1. Love is elevated to become the supreme virtue. There is no better thing than to love and be loved. The idea of love as eternal and supreme is everywhere in the West.
  1. Love as divine: in love we are united to the divine. And this experience of divinity is radically democratic – open to all ordinary people.

He traces this development, beginning with Jesus. (and this is one place that it is ‘Yes, but’)

Jesus is not linked to the two developments above. He is firmly located within OT categories of love as command and obedience. May says Jesus speaks little of love – I think this is overplayed with significant elements of love within the life and teaching of Jesus passed by.

May pits Jesus against John (love as divine) and Paul (love as supreme). Again, I am not convinced that there is such a wedge between Jesus, John and Paul when it comes to love.

[And there are links here back to our discussion of the New / Old Perspective on Paul – with love in the apostle’s teaching seen in some frameworks as part of Christianity’s love / grace / freedom set over against the law / legalism / slavery of Judaism.]

May argues that the claims made for love by Paul are uniquely extravagant in the history of love – love fulfils the law. [But I would argue that love is deeply rooted within the law – Deuteronomy 6]. May sees a radical disjuncture of OT to NT (Paul) in terms of love. A sort of Old / New Perspective on Love.

“one thing that is obviously happening is the creation of a new morality – based on so great an intensification of Old Testament morality that a genuine revolution in values has occurred.” 87.

What do you think? Is love within Paul a ‘new morality’ and ‘revolution’ compared to love in the OT?

Moving on, it is Augustine, May argues, where love becomes the greatest virtue and from which all actions and morality flow.  But what happens is how love not only answers questions of flourishing and ethics, but deeper questions of existence and meaning.

“love is to be the lodestar of our lives and, if blessed with the capacity to exercise it, we can aspire to imitate God. It was only a matter of time before the outrageous conclusion was drawn that through love we, ordinary men and women, can ourselves become divine.” 87

A bit of a villain in the historical exaltation and divinisation of love is Martin Luther who he quotes as saying “we are gods through love.” He acknowledges that Luther is well aware of potential heresy here – again I think this is overplayed.

But things get really interesting in how May perceptively links Christianity’s elevation of love as the supreme virtue WITH a deep awareness of the need for humility within Christian spirituality.

To fill in what I think he means here: if we are commanded to imitate the love of God, such love is only possible because of grace, the gift of forgiveness, the Spirit and God’s enabling.  Love is always first from God.

If Augustine is the theologian of love, he is also the theologian of grace: we are not self-sufficient. “The Grace of God makes a willing man out of an unwilling one.” 90

We find our fulfilment in God (Augustine’s restless heart).  May sees Augustine as very Platonic – the ladder of ascent to the divine. It is by grace that humans can ascend to caritas (divine love, selfless love, eternal love) rather than cupiditas – lower love, without reference to God.

It is this unique combination within Christianity of an ascent to divine love combined with a deep emphasis on humility, that is so powerful and enduring. Such love is hard – it requires obedience and persistence and discipline.

The implication I think is that he means love only comes slowly, it needs character, it is a virtue that is the fruit of moral integrity and dependence on God.

“This view of love expresses the reality that exaltation and abasement are related to each other in a profound dialectic – a dialectic incomparably revealed in the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. ‘Wanting to be gods’ is inseparable from wanting to go the way of the Cross. The crucifixion of the incarnate God is not a gruesome paradox, as Nietzsche was to characterise it, but rather speaks a deep truth: if you want to be ‘Gods and Saviours of the world’ you have to be (and not merely appear) humble.   (92)

How convincing do you find this?

What are the essential requirements for love to flourish?


Contested love (2) Aristotle


We’re sketching ideas from Simon May’s Love: A History.

Another key Greek player in the history of love is Aristotle.

First, consider those whom you love – on what is your love based? Qualities in that person? Family blood and loyalty? Something indefinable? Attraction of opposites? Or attraction of like-mindeness? A decision of the ‘will to love’?

Apart from sex, is love for a friend different from love for a lover?

These are some questions raised by Aristotle’s view of love. For him the highest form of love is philia – friendship love.

Now, as a good Greek man, he means friendship with another man. A man obviously could not have a noble and equal friendship with a woman since she (along with a slave) could never be up the mark of equality with a man.

Philea is a more down to earth love than Plato’s ascent to the heavens.

Philea is most definitely not a sexual sort of love, since sex brings in all sorts of other lower motivations. It is unstable due to dependence on temporary qualities like pleasure or beauty. For Aristotle, sex is fairly irrelevant to a flourishing, virtuous life.

Aristotle also assumed that philea was conditional. It very much depends on who the other is. For example, love depends on:

1. the virtue of the friend – is he worthy of love? The two men need to be alike; to have similar virtues and interests. To both be concerned about excellence of character

2. the constant character of the friend. If he declines in virtue, love will die for you should drop an unvirtuous friend. Love can only love like.

It is through such love that we come to self-knowledge and fulfil our own potential. Philia helps us to love ourselves and know ourselves.

Love is a virtue that requires discipline and application. It is hard to know ourselves and we find it in love of another – like a mirror, the love of a friend helps us see ourselves. We should therefore choose friends wisely.

You can begin to see how the big A is pretty out of fashion these days.

Modern love is obsessed with sex as an essential requirement: for Aristotle it was pretty irrelevant to flourishing love

Modern ideas of love assume that love is unconditional; for Aristotle it is very much conditional

Modern love is often undisciplined and spontaneous – you can ‘fall in’ (and out of) love in an instant: for Aristotle it takes the discipline of a lifetime to learn and practice love.

Modern love assumes we know ourselves and ‘forget’ ourselves for the other; for Aristotle love is the key to self-knowledge

Modern love can be rooted in many things – beauty, personality, physical attraction, common interests etc: for Aristotle it is dependent on virtue in both parties

Modern love at least desires or dreams of ‘eternal togetherness’: Aristotle is more pragmatic, love can come and go dependent on virtue.

Modern love says we love ourselves first in order to love others: Aristotle says it is in philea that we find ourselves

What do you think we moderns have to learn from Aristotle when it comes to love?