American Beauty: A Lesson in Grace

Tonight, Jen and I watched the movie American Beauty.

It’s really interesting to me that I had never wanted to watch the movie
at all. In fact, when the movie first came out, I was kinda disgusted
that a movie like that had come to the American cinema at all. The theme
seemed so dark, it seemed to me that the man in the story was only
interested in having an affair with this teenage girl, and it also seemed
to me that he was actually having an affair with her. I was so disgusted
with the concept, that I basically boycotted the whole idea.

However, about a year ago, a friend of mine, Chuck, told me that it was
the greatest movie he had ever seen (or one of the greatest, I can’t
remember). He told me of how warped and neurotic all the characters
were.

Well, I finally broke down and decided to rent it and watch it with Jen.
We watched it tonight, and I have to say that I am completely impressed.
In the view of secular American movie-making, it was clearly one of the
best movies in recent decades, but what pleased me was that despite the
morality on the screen being so corrupt, the movie actually had something
good to say.

In fact, the movie is a story of redemption. The corruption in the movie
is necessary to communicate the message of redemption. No, it’s not a
Christian movie by any stretch. It’s not a story of people finding
freedom in Christ. It’s a story of how “beauty” can turn a person around
and put all of the crud of our lives into perspective.

Every character in the movie is clearly neurotic. The husband has a
dead-end job that he eventually quits, but in so doing, he blackmails his
boss with secret scandals in the company to get a year of salary with
benefits in severance. The wife is a real estate agent who pretends that
she really is something to speak of when she is in fact just a
high-strung, unsuccessful woman. The daughter is trying to be unique and
normal at the same time. The neighbor boy is dealing drugs and compulsive
about videotaping everything while his dad is a physically abusive Marine
who is secretly hiding his homosexuality.

Oh boy, these people are messed up.

It gets worse. While the mom begins an affair with the most successful
real estate agent in the town, the husband begins to fantasize about
having an affair with his daughter’s cheerleader friend, who has severe
self-esteem issues of her own. The daughter begins to build a
relationship with the drug-dealing neighbor boy.

The mother goes deeper into a hole of despair as she begins to see
herself as a victim but also believes the mantra that you can trust no
one but yourself and that to avoid being a victim, you have to rely on
yourself.

However, “beauty” saves the father. The dad, overcome with infatuation
for the beautiful teen, begins to take charge of his life again. He does
so by reverting to childishness. He quits his job, takes a job at a fast
food restaurant, buys a sports car, buys a radio controlled car, and most
of all starts working out because he heard the teen comment on how sexy
he would be if he worked out. It’s this beauty that leads him to the
climactic moment of his life in the movie. Eventually, he comes to the
point of having the teenage girl of his dreams half naked on the couch
with no one around, and he suddenly snaps back into caring father mode
when he sees how fragile this girl is. Instantly, he comes to his senses,
matures, puts clothes back on her and begins to act like a loving dad.
Seeing her physical beauty wasn’t the trick. Seeing her innocence was. He
comes to his senses once he sees the beauty of her innocence.

The man’s life dramatically changes because he has begun to grasp beauty,
while the mother’s life changes more for the worst because all she can
see is herself.

It’s beauty also that deeply affects both the neighbor boy and the
daughter. After all, it’s the neighbor boy who develops the theme of
beauty in the movie through the incessant use of his video camera. That
arm of the story really develops in the scene where he describes a
life-changing spiritual moment he had while videotaping a plastic bag
dancing in the wind.

The bottom line is that the movie has a message that “No matter how bad
your life may be, there is life-changing beauty to be seen.”


It makes me think of the song by U2 called “Grace”

Grace
She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

Grace
It's a name for a girl
It's also a thought that
Changed the world

And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness
In everything

Grace
She's got the walk
Not on a wrapper on chalk
She's got the time to talk

She travels outside
Of karma, karma
She travels outside
Of karma

When she goes to work
You can hear the strings
Grace finds beauty
In everything

Grace
She carries a world on her hips
No champagne flute for her lips
No twirls or skips
Between her fingertips

She carries a pearl
In perfect condition
What once was hers
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stains

Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace finds beauty
In everything

Grace finds goodness
In everything

Grace finds beauty and
goodness in everything. More than that. Grace makes beauty out of
ugly things!

American Beauty somehow is a story of grace. No one in the story deserved
anything. They were all inconceivably messed up, but somehow beauty finds
its way into the lives of a couple people and changes them. At the end of
the movie, the husband says that his life is “Great.”

It takes grace to really notice beauty.

The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you
were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all
peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you. –
Deuteronomy
7:7-8
a

God saw beauty in people when there was none.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still
sinners, Christ died for us. –
Romans
5:8

How hard is it to find beauty in this world? On the one hand, it
seems to be very hard. We truly live in messed up times, and sin has done
a great deal of damage. I certainly thought that way about the movie. I
had completely written off the movie as a glorification of sinfulness and
wickedness, but in reality the movie had a very beautiful aspect to it
that I never would have known if I hadn’t taken a closer look.

In fact, that’s the subtitle of the movie: “Look Closer.”

On the other hand, beauty is all around us and it is rather easy to see
it. I see beauty in the faces of my wife and kids. I see beauty in the
leaves on the trees. But that’s not the kind of beauty that matters most
to God. God, in his grace, sees the beauty that lies just beneath the
sinful surface. He sees beauty in every person. He sees the beauty that I
don’t see and frankly don’t want to see.

That’s the kind of beauty that is the most difficult for us to see. It’s
the beauty of other people. I will admit that I am one critical
individual. If you are feeling good about yourself, spend a few minutes
with me and I’m sure I’ll be able to come up with half a dozen things
that are wrong with you. (I’m sure you’d do the same for me.) But people
are beautiful. How beautiful? So beautiful that Jesus would die for
us.

What does he see in us?

For my part, whatever he sees in you, I want to see it too. I guess I’ll
just have to look closer. I guess I’ll have to look through the eyes of
grace. I want to see your beauty.