“We need never ask, ‘God, what should I do?’ Because the Lord has told us what to do. Love one another. That, my friends, is the one true Law. Love is God in action.” – Reverend Bock. From the movie, Lars and the Real Girl.
A few years ago, I watched a small indie movie that stuck with me. The film follows the story of Lars, a young man (played by Ryan Gosling, now of infinite feminist Tumblr fame) whose mother died while bringing him into the world. He is left to grow up with his older brother, Gus, who struggled to finish school and leave home as quickly as possible, and an increasingly distant father. These experiences early on in life leave Lars traumatized about childbirth and unable to build intimate and meaningful relationships with other humans, even his brother and sister-in-law. However, despite his limitations, Lars is kind, soft-spoken and caring, and he is a well-loved member of his small town community and the local congregation that he regularly attends.
One day, Lars announces to his family that he has met a friend, Bianca, on the internet, and that she is coming to visit. But when Bianca arrives, to everyone’s surprise, she is not a “real girl,” but instead is a life-like doll that Lars has ordered from an “adult website.” Concerned for his mental health, Lars’ brother and sister-in-law take him to a local doctor, who diagnoses him with a delusional disorder. But her prescribed treatment is surprising: she suggests that Lars’ family and friends should get to know Bianca and to treat her as a real woman.
The film that follows traces the story of Lars and his journey to healing within a loving, caring community. As the film progresses, members of the community and his family, because of their love and care for Lars, accept Bianca as one of their own. She begins to be invited to volunteer events, she is given a makeover by some of the local women, and she is accepted as a companion for Lars in public spaces like church. Slowly, in the awareness of this loving and caring community, Lars is able to process the events of his childhood and to replace Bianca with new, real relationships.
Lars and the Real Girl paints a picture of a community that is willing to adapt and respond to the particular needs of community members, no matter how obscure or odd. Instead of responding in judgment or fear, members of the community reached out to Lars and loved him back to wholeness. As the quote above illustrates, for the community that Lars is a part of, love is the guiding and binding principle.
Although the film centers around the actions of an entire small town, and not simply one church or congregation, its themes can certainly be extrapolated and applied to ecclesiology more broadly. According to Philip Clayton in his book, Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society, ecclesiology raises questions about the nature of the church and the ways that it is distinctive and different from its surrounding society. The type of ecclesiology embodied by this film suggests that the guiding principles of the Christian church are commitments to love and justice, which must necessarily manifest themselves differently in each unique church location and should be lived out and interpreted in consort with the voices and experiences of all members of each given community.
For me, in ways similar to eco-feminist theologian Sallie McFague in her book, Life Abundant, it is important to understand God as a being concerned primarily with love, in all of its many manifestations. As McFague writes, “If, however, God is the love that creates, sustains and transforms everything that is – if God is the declaration that reality is good – then all is changed. It is not, then, so important that ‘I believe in God’ as it is that I align my life with and toward this reality.” Although McFague is speaking as an individual, this statement can be extrapolated to include churches (the lived reality of ecclesiology) as well. Therefore, I see myself and the church as agents of that love, enmeshed and intertwined with the world and the communities around us and engaging all parts of creation with love.
In her book, God, Christ, Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology, process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki describes a process ecclesiology. Suchocki echoes this belief that the work of the church should be focused on the pursuits of deeper senses of love, and she expands this definition to include justice (an expansion that I appreciate). Suchocki describes the church’s fundamental purpose as such: “The church is called, by its identity in Christ, to be love and justice, to be openness and mutuality, and in the living dynamism of these qualities, continually to move into deeper forms that manifest these qualities.” This is both a fluid ecclesiology, and an ecclesiology that is inherently particular and meets the needs of the individual. For example, because of Lars’ particular historical experiences, and his need to work out human intimacy in a safe space (visibly represented by Bianca), his community needed to extend their love not just to Lars, but they needed to find ways to affirm his experience and Bianca’s existence, as well. Bianca was real for Lars, and the community took this very particular, and perhaps odd, reality seriously.
If you haven’t seen the film, I’d highly recommend it. It’s lighthearted, but also points to the very real challenges that churches face when they try to figure out how they will relate to members and to those outside of congregational walls, as well.
Tomorrow, I’ll be exploring ideas about Anabaptist and Mennonite ecclesiology. But in the meantime, share your thoughts. What does ecclesiology mean to you? How can communities responsibly care for one another in extreme situations? How do communities make space for healing?