We are part of a “Life Group” through the church in Auburn. We are four couples of similar age and circumstance who meet every other week or so for dinner, conversation, and Bible Study. The group is a great joy for us.
Several group meetings back, our study took us to Hebrews 1 and the mention of angels as “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). As our discussion unfolded, we talked about some of the popular conception (and misconception) of angels – both in the church and in the culture. Someone remembered the line from the old film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where we are told that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.
At least one member of our group did not remember the line or anything about Clarence, the guardian angel sent to help poor George Bailey in his time of despair. We decided we needed to right the wrong, so this past Tuesday night our group gathered for good food and conversation, but mostly to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Any reviews of the film coming from our group will be mixed, but I am definitely on the five-star side. Despite some dubious theology, it’s a wonderful movie. Add it to your holiday streaming list (it’s included with Prime for those so inclined).
In the movie, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is the nicest guy in Bedford Falls, and his niceness is his downfall. The family business is a building and loan firm that has helped many in town escape the clutches of Mr. Potter, the richest man in town and an evil slumlord.
George runs the building and loan and is generous and forgiving to a fault. When Uncle Billy, who drinks too much and has no business being the financial secretary for the family business but for George’s generosity and forgiveness, misplaces $8,000 ($125,000, inflation adjusted), the Building and Loan faces bankruptcy and George’s life hits bottom. With a small life insurance policy his only remaining asset, evil Mr. Potter tells him he is worth more dead than alive. Clarence, a still wingless angel second class, is sent to save George from his despair.
George thinks the world would be better off if he never had been born. Clarence shows him a Bedford Falls without George Bailey, and nothing about it is better. In the end, George Bailey comes to see that even with Uncle Billy’s foolishness and Mr. Potter’s evil, his is a wonderful life.
Find some time this week to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“It’s A Wonderful Life” is considered a holiday classic. Though the lines are blurred by its dubious theology, it definitely falls on the secular side of our schizophrenic Christmas. The townsfolk of Bedford Falls sing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” from memory, but there is little sense that by it they mean to give glory to the newborn King. The movie teaches a soteriology of niceness.
But what if the line between secular and sacred is not as firm as we think? What if it is a wonderful life whether we know to give glory to the newborn King or not?
To be sure, Christmas celebrates the incarnation, that unto us this day is born in the City of David a savior who is Christ the Lord. At Christmas we are reminded that at Bethlehem’s manger bed we see the Godhead veiled in flesh. We can change our calendars from A.D. to C.E., the common era, but still at the center of history is the year of our Lord.
Yet God is not absent from our common era. He does not withhold grace from the cultural Christians of Bedford Falls or from our world of sad and lowly plains. Common grace, the theologians call it. Calvin says that though all are in desperate need of a savior, our lives are “nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts” (Institutes 2.2.15).
Life itself is wonderful, a good gift from “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17)
This coming week, Becky and I head off for Christmas with our son and his family. It will be a long drive and a week filled with joyful chaos. It’s a wonderful life.