For my wife’s birthday she wanted to watch The King’s Speech. How can you say no to your wife on her birthday? I submit that you can’t. Or shouldn’t.
For the record, this is a great movie. Solid performances. The historical detail in costuming and sets is luxurious without being showy, never overshadowing the performances by the trio of main characters. This is not a deep movie. It doesn’t push you to (re)consider the meaning of life or existence or God. It doesn’t ask anything of the viewer other than to allow the performers to unroll the story – and that’s fine because they do a very good job. The movie accomplishes what it sets out to do – it makes you feel good. It is uplifting and inspiring and refreshingly positive. But as I thought more about the movie, one thing struck me as rather odd.
God isn’t in it.
Now, that alone isn’t a major shock these days. But his absence is odd in this particular movie because the protagonist is King George VI of England, and as the King of England (courtesy of his predecessor nearly 400 years earlier) George VI is also the head of the Church of England.
The movie does a decent job at portraying the angst George VI deals with in terms of not feeling adequate to the task of being king. We get a feel – be it somewhat perfunctory – of the enormous weight of being the political figurehead for an empire. But we are given absolutely no idea what it must feel like to be the spiritual head of a 400-year old religious denomination. We learn only of the issues surrounding his older brother’s accession – and rapid abdication – of the throne. And we are given no idea as to what George VI’s own spiritual beliefs are.
Not only is God not present in terms of George VI’s accession of the throne, He is manifestly absent from the film’s main focus – the struggle to speak without stammering. Focus is given to physical techniques for more relaxed speech, as well as to the emotional and psychological issues that might be relevant. But nowhere is God present in this process. Not as a source of strength. Not as an encouragement towards forgiveness. Not as a call for a better self-image. Nada. Zilch. Zippo. The movie revolves slowly around a personal struggle and the role of a friend and mentor in that process. It’s as though God doesn’t exist, which would seem to be an odd state of affairs for the man who oversees the Church of England.
The movie could have been so much richer and deeper if it had theological elements added into the mix. What is the nature of forgiveness in the realm of political and family intrigue? How does one come to grip with the responsibility of theological leadership that is a matter of inheritance rather than specific training and preparation? How does one seek out sound theological guidance in personal matters as well as in public spiritual affairs? What of the nature of prayer that does not appear to be answered, or is not answered in the time frame or manner which we would prefer? How is one faithful in the midst of adversity as well as joy? Lots of potential good angles.
Only one figure in the film is demonstrably religious – the Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang. He is depicted as a rather inept flatterer and ingratiating fellow, seeking the favor of the royal family members while at the same time apparently actively undermining them in subtle ways. If he is/was a man of actual faith, we are given no insight into that through the film. He’s merely another player on an elaborate chess board. Which means that the only real representation of religion in this film is negative.
What does all of this mean?
First of all, it’s a good reminder to think and observe carefully. It isn’t always what a film or song says that should give us pause for thought, but also what it doesn’t say. The King’s Speech is a great movie – well-written, well-acted, and well-paced. But beyond the level of feeling good, it doesn’t give us a lot to take away from it other than that if we’re going to make positive changes in our lives, our best and only resources are trusted friends and our own resolve. I don’t dislike the movie because it isn’t theologically faithful, but I need to recognize what it lacks (and in this case, that this lacking is rather odd, leading one to wonder why the theological aspect is omitted). Are friends and personal strength valuable resources? You betcha! They are more examples of the good gifts that God the Father showers on his creation.
Secondly, this could be good conversation fodder for youth/young adults/no-longer-young adults, etc. What is the role of our God in self-improvement? Is God primarily concerned with (as many pop theology works imply) with self-improvement – with speaking better, weighing less, being financially wiser, etc.? What is the nature of these goals (laudable and even necessary!) within a Christian framework? Where does the Gospel come into play, both in the determining of goals and the achievement of them?
Thirdly, this film causes me to think about how things are often approached from within churches. We tend to separate in our minds spiritual things from the logistical or practical things. One goes to church on Sunday mornings and that’s a spiritual thing. The council meeting on Wednesday night is a logistical thing. While we might open in prayer, the business aspects of the meeting are governed under a different set of understandings about how things need to get done in this world.
This separation can lead to behaviors and attitudes that are inconsistent. By assuming that there are certain things that need to be a certain way simply because they don’t explicitly involve the Bible or the Sacraments is problematic. How we treat others, how we make decisions about the gifts God has given us as individuals and congregations – these are not just matters of logistics, and worldly wisdom and practice may not be the only model for how to go about them. Learning to speak better doesn’t seem like a spiritual matter, but can we rightly say that there is any aspect of our being that isn’t spiritual, that needn’t begin and end first and foremost at the cross and empty tomb, if only by way of contextualization? And from that context, do our challenges take on a different tone and nature?
Something for all of us to think and pray about.