Saturday, July 31, 2010

What Does Jerry Maguire have in Common With Persian Era, Post-Exilic Hebrew Narrative? (Or: Why Nehemiah IS Tom Cruise.)

I dread the question. It often comes up when conversation between acquaintances has stalled? I suspect it is a second hour staple of blind dates.

“What are your five favorite films?

I have been asked this enough times that I have developed a fixed list.[1] And, to be honest, there is a movie on the list that I find embarrassing. But the more I think about it, the more certain I am that Jerry Maguire has to be on the list. Now Jerry Maguire is essentially a romantic comedy for dudes.[2] It doesn’t seem like it belongs on the same list as Braveheart and Fight Club. But I have thought about why I like this movie so much and figured out a one sentence answer.

“I love Jerry Maguire because the wedding happens in the middle of the movie.”

Most romantic comedies end with the wedding. In fact it is common for the wedding montage to happen during the credits as kind of an afterthought to the actual story of how these crazy kids overcame their neuroses and finally got together. The problem I have with this formula is that anyone can ‘fall in love.’ The story doesn’t get interesting until after the wedding. Sustaining love after chemistry…that is the real drama. So many romantic comedies work so hard to generate some contrived obstacle to keep the lovers apart for the second act. But the ultimate obstacle to narrative love is familiarity…time…boredom.

The thing I love about Jerry Maguire is that the wedding happens in the middle of the movie…in the second act. The wedding is part of the complication that needs to be transcended. The third act is about finding love in a problematic marriage. Instead of a wedding, the final scene of the movie is of a young family walking together in the park…it is a picture of the man who defined himself by influence and power finding a settled, domestic contentment with the people he has chosen to love.

“I love Jerry Maguire because the wedding happens in the middle of the movie.”

And this is also one of the reasons I love Nehemiah.

The First Testament book of Nehemiah is presumably about building a wall.[3] In the first half of the book the narrative tension arises from the question ‘will they complete the wall.’ Narrative tension comes in the form of threats of violence, oppression between the workers, discouragement, lack of expertise[4], and even a Law and Order style legal battle.[5] So it seems like an egregious offense to all that is axiomatic about narrative structure when we hit this verse in the middle of the book:

6:15 “So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days.”

Really? That’s it? We were building up to this all along and then it is essentially a footnote? [6] But that is the big surprise. The book of Nehemiah was never about building a wall. Like the wedding in Jerry Maguire, the wall is completed in the middle of the book as a sign that the book was never about the wall.[7] The great narrative twist of Nehemiah is that it was not the story we thought it was.[8]

The rest of the book tells the story of a greater building project. It asks the question: “Well, we built this wall to protect us from THEM…but now what is going to protect us from US[9]?” Who will save us from ourselves?

The second half of Nehemiah demonstrates that building a community and the hard work of heart formation makes building some wall look trivial in comparison. The real work is to build a people. The ultimate drama is in the fashioning of our affections.

This post was written while listening to We Are Not Alone by Breaking Benjamin

[1] Brave Heart, Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, Millions, Jerry Maguire
[2] In its defense, it is relatively well written, the acting is great and it was perfectly cast.
[3] You have got to love a book whose hero is a Civil Engineer. OK, well, maybe you don’t, but I do. On a side note, it is notable that Nehemiah is not a religious professional. He is a dude with a job. God doesn’t check where a person paycheck comes from before he chooses to use them.
[4] Chapter 3 goes out of its way to point out that some of the people wielding ‘swords and trowels’ came from such hard labor backgrounds as ‘Bible scholar, priest, goldsmith and (everyone’s favorite) perfume makers.
[5] If you read Ezra 4 and 5 (Ezra and Nehemiah are one book in the original text) on the backdrop of the historical and political milieu it reads like a serious legal drama where those trying to rebuild Jerusalem are shut down for over 10 years by what amounts to a cease and desist order.
[6] And a footnote in the classical sense, not in the way I use them in this blog.
[7] Dan, my co-teacher, said about this “If you are feeling a let down by the anti-climax of the completion of the wall…you are on the right track.”
[8] Cue Denny Green “They were(n’t) who we thought they were.”
[9] This is foreshadowed in chapter 5 where the poor of the movement are being exploited by their more resourced members of the movement to build the wall.
Next Week: Fragments and Links 8


Rebecca said...

Great Post Stan! I never thought about how having the wedding in the middle of the movie distinguished it from every other romcom I've ever watched. And I'm not surprised that you found a link with Jerry Maguire and Nehemiah. If I'm not mistaken, you were hung up on Nehemiah way back in college!

stanford said...

Thanks Rebecca. I still totally believe that Nehemiah is one of the truly underrated texts of the OT.