I recently watched the movie Stranger Than Fiction. I thought it would be profitable to practice apologetic engagement using this form of popular culture, and an ideal opportunity to explore some apologetic themes found in the movie. Most literature has echoes of the biblical storyline since it’s the foundation of understanding life in this world. As taught to the Probe Ministries Mind Games camp participants every summer, properly understood, film can be of excellent value in discerning the philosophical positions and shifts in society and can enable the Christian to better respond to his or her culture. When interpreting a film, one should ask the following questions:
1. Is there a discernible philosophical position in the film? If so, what is it, and can a case be made for your interpretation?
2. Is the subject matter of the film portrayed truthfully? Here the goal is to decide if the subject matter is being dealt with in a way that agrees with or is contrary to the experiences of daily reality.
3. Is there a discernible hostility toward particular values and beliefs? Does the film look to be offensive for the sake of sensationalism alone?
The main character, Harold, lives a strait-laced, boring, lonely life as an IRS agent, and he realizes he is the main character of a novel being written by a stranger. The novel’s plot affects his life as the author writes. He realizes this when he hears the narrator’s voice describing his nearly every move. This is how the tension starts and then he hears the narrator say something like, “Little did he know, this seemingly inconsequential action would cause his imminent death.” Obviously, death is relatively imminent for all of us, but the context implies his would be coming soon. He is an unmarried, middle-aged man; so, this is the problem of the story: he is going to die sooner than he expected, and he does not know how or when.
Being a seminary student, I wanted to know what Harold was thinking came after death. Why was a premature death (according to him) so tragic? Yet, there was no element to the movie at all that included thoughts of life after death. But, like most movies, there was reflection from Harold about life. Oddly, he did not start the reflection on his own. A literary theory professor had to be the one to ask him an apologetic type of question: “What is your life ambition?” Harold’s shockingly shallow (and sad) answer was, “I’ve always wanted to learn the guitar.” He was somehow motivated enough to be a successful IRS agent and do things like count the number of brush strokes while he brushed his teeth every morning, but he had not managed to get around to learning the guitar or answering life’s biggest questions such as, “Why is there something instead of nothing? Why am I here? What is my purpose? What must I do to be good? What is my destiny?” I wonder how many other Harolds there are out there. Surely (and hopefully) this is not a good representation of the average American.
Although the thought of death did not lead him to where I thought it should, it did lead him to a lifestyle change and new philosophy. If his old philosophy was, “I need to do well as an IRS agent,” his new philosophy was, “I need to enjoy life more and do the things I’ve always wanted to do before I die.” Now you would think this would turn into a hedonistic lifestyle but all he really did was stop counting his brush strokes, stop working, and start learning to play the guitar. However, he did turn his attention to a woman.
Her story was interesting as well because she dropped out of Harvard Law School to make the world a better place by baking cookies to make people happy. So, I suppose part of her worldview was that if people are happy, the world is a better place. No one in the movie pressed her on the issue. Harold just accepted it and continued indulging himself with her cookies.
Predictably, this relationship turned into a romance and they both fell in love and started sleeping together. Apparently, sex was not something that needed a covenant of marriage for them. Nor much of a commitment of any kind. Not once during the movie did either of them call each other boyfriend or girlfriend or say the words “I love you.”
There was no theological thought presented between the characters for most of the movie. Where some theology did occur with the characters (albeit just undertones) was with the professor thinking through Harold’s dilemma and giving him advice. At one point, he realized Harold had no control over the story the narrator was telling about his life, and he told him, “You don’t control your fate.” He meant the narrator controlled it. So, this jumped out at me as though the narrators were God and Harold, and the professor had a fatalistic theology. This is the point where Harold turned to his new philosophy thanks to the advice of the professor. With this type of theology, I think it is easy to result in the “It does not matter what I do, so I may as well stop thinking about it” mindset, which is where Harold turned.
An odd element to the story was that Harold’s wristwatch had thoughts, feelings, and was even able to communicate to Harold. It was as if the narrator was God, and the wristwatch was the Holy Spirit guiding Harold at times. Yet ironically the narrator did not know Harold was a real person, so she (there is a rabbit trail waiting to be taken) was unknowingly playing the role of God.
During the tension of Harold’s dilemma of soon-imminent death, it was easy to see Harold needed saving, but the mystery was, who was going to be his savior (playing the role of Jesus)? At first, I thought the professor was going to save Harold by telling him how to avoid death. Then I wondered if Harold was Jesus himself because he eventually became willing to face his death to allow the story to end the way they (the narrator, Harold, and the professor) all thought it ought to (they eventually all met). Then the next thing you know Harold saves a boy from begin hit by a bus and Harold is hit in his place. I thought that was the ending of the book and Harold was dead. Consequently, I thought Harold was the savior for the boy and Harold played Jesus.
Harold’s tremendously heroic act makes no sense based on the worldview he adopted, but it makes a world of sense based on a Christian worldview. It turns out Harold survived anyway, and it was the wristwatch who was the savior (part of it got lodged in his artery and stopped him from bleeding to death) because the author/narrator changed the ending. Thus, in a way, the narrator was God, the wristwatch was both the Holy Spirit and Jesus.
The redeeming moment was Harold getting to live after all his fear of dying and his life changing “for the better” (at least I think that is the movie wanted us to see). It was better in some ways, but in some ways, the word “better” is a stretch because of how shallow the changes in his life were (ignoring the deep change of falling in love because the relationship was as shallow as most romantic comedy movies). The narrator even ties a bow on it all at the end by what seemed like (especially with the montage and the dramatic music) it was supposed to be a deeply profound message of the entire movie and what everyone (including the viewers) should walk away with. Here was the long word-for-word message before the closing credits (and the end of the book in the movie):
“As Harold took a bite of a Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God [the first time He was mentioned] for Bavarian sugar cookies. And fortunately, when there aren’t any sugar cookies we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture. Or a subtle encouragement. Or a loving embrace. Or an offer of comfort . . . not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs . . . an uneaten Danish . . . a soft-spoken secret . . . and Fender Stratocasters . . . and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things: the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties . . . which are in fact here for a much larger and nobler cause, they are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just happens to be true. And so, it was: the wristwatch saved Harold Crick.”
What a load of nonsense. That is the final word and message of the story? Life is all about cookies, honorable deeds, comfort, and random material items. Nuances, anomalies, and subtleties save our lives? It is strange. How does it “just happen to be true?” In that case, how is one’s life different from someone else’s? What makes up fear, despair, routine, constancy, hopelessness, and tragedy? Is it no sugar cookies? With this philosophy, what is the point of life? Does this not claim we are all saved? Which nuances, anomalies, and subtleties save us? Are they universal or relative? Or am I not saved because I do not wear a wristwatch?
And why are we thanking God for sugar cookies, but claiming our savior is a wristwatch? What is God’s role in all of this? Why does He not get more credit? If He gave us the cookies, should He not at the very least get some praise for giving us the wristwatch also? Obviously, this was a secular movie, and it was far from Christian theology. But there was lostness, salvation, and redemption clear in the story. The worldview offered in Stranger Than Fiction is not strong enough to support the challenges of this world, but the Christian one is. But, hey, thank God for sugar cookies, right?
This blog post originally appeared at
https://probe.org/stranger-than-fiction/ on March 15, 2022.