Posted in Christian ethics, movies, reflections

Mirrors and transformation

hand_mirrorWhen I was young, barbers cut your hair with the customer facing away from the mirror. Then, when the cut was done, they’d dramatically spin you around for the big reveal. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a barber do that. But even if you’re sitting facing the mirror throughout the hair cut, you’ll never know what it looks like in the back unless they give you a hand miror. Then, you can tell by the reflection of the hand mirror into the larger mirror whether the cut in back is correct.

The apostle James knew something about the value of mirrors. In James 1:23-25 (NIV), he writes:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it–not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it–they will be blessed in what they do.

James lived centuries before the invention of motion pictures, but if he lived today, I think he’d agree that film can serve as a mirror, revealing the character of the one who looks in it. I was reminded of this tonight watching the 1967 masterpiece, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

John Prentice (played by Sidney Poitier) – an accomplished tropical medicine doctor – is a 39-year-old widower. On vacation to Hawaii, he meets the lovely 23-year-old Joey Drayton (played by Katharine Houghton). Together just 10 days, they fall madly in love and plan to marry. There is only one hitch. Prentice is African-American (or “Negro” as was the common label of the time) while Drayton is white. While the fiancée insists her liberal activist parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) will have no problem with the union, the fiancé is not so sure. They fly to San Francisco to meet Joey’s parents and have dinner. Suffice it to say that the daughter has naively misread her parents, particularly her father. The angst ratchets up from there and the hard lessons begin.

The movie takes me back to a Sunday dinner conversation around 1975 when I was twelve. My paternal grandmother – a fine Christian  woman now decesased – was visiting. That Sunday our pastor and the evangelist (who was at our church holding a revival) were among our dinner guests. When we were all done eating, we lingered around the table, enjoying good conversation. Somehow, we got on to the topic of so-called “interracial marriage.” When my grandmother expressed her opposition to African-Americans and white people marrying each other, she point blank asked the ministers what they thought. There was a long, awkward silence. The question clearly made them uncomfortable. Instead of answering, they changed the topic.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (GWCTD) made viewers squirm in 1967, and eight years later around my family’s dinner table, the same topic made people squirm. I wish that I could say that in 2016 we’d put race issues behind us. Sadly, they seem as alive as ever. Yet when the topic does arise, instead of talking it through and listening to each other, are we like the pastor and evangelist? Do we squirm, anxious to change the topic?

It’s not fun to look in the mirror of movies like GWCTD. They force us – indeed, they force me – to take stock of my own prejudices. Do I really believe, like Martin Luther King, Jr., that what matters most is not the color of one’s skin but the content of one’s character? And surely this is larger than skin pigmentation. What about those who are followers of other religions not my own? To adapt King’s maxim, do I truly believe that what matters most is not the “color” of one’s religion but the content of one’s character? We say as followers of Christ that loving God and loving others is the essence of our belief system (Mark 12:28-31). But are we living up to that profession when we seem ready to write off more than a billion people in our world – to “other” them – because a tiny minority among them has done heinous things? Where is the Christian love in that? 

Film is a mirror. Sometimes when we look in the mirror, we don’t like what we see. Yet the jarring realization that our attitudes are ugly can be the opportunity for change. James 1:25 holds out the hope of “freedom.” When we listen to God’s law of love and continue in it, God can liberate us from the prejudices that bind us. Only then can we be “blessed” in what we do. Using the mirrors he places in our lives, may the Lord Christ open our eyes to the hidden but deadly hatred that lies in our hearts. May he transform us into the kind of people whose love knows no boundaries!


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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