2016-06-30
Beliefnet is celebrating Oscar season by sitting down with religious leaders and thinkers to talk about the movies nominated for Best Picture. This week, the Very Reverend Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, gives us his take on "Erin Brockovich."

"Erin Brockovich" is a true David-and-Goliath story of a woman who wins reparations from Pacific Gas and Electric for families harmed by pollution at a PG&E plant in Nevada. With little formal education, Erin talks her way into a job as a paralegal, and while working on a real estate case, stumbles upon records suggesting that a community's myriad illnesses have been caused by a spill near the plant. Erin's determination helps win the resulting lawsuit, and the 100 afflicted families are awarded $333 million in the largest direct-action suit in history.

What did you think of their portrayal of Erin Brockovich as a single, working mother?
Rev. Jones: Erin's a single mum, 2 husbands, but thrown into life at the end of the 20th century, feisty, and in love with life, and not afraid of being human, being sexual, being fully alive, and coping with life. On that level, it was a movie about a woman, but it could've been about a man. She was determined

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to be alive. Sometimes we take for granted that to be alive and to be aware, sometimes takes a lot of courage. Just to get up in the morning, just to function in the world. It made me think a lot about there being a lot of unacknowledged quiet courage.

A lot of the focus when Julia Roberts was on screen seemed to be her clothes. What I noticed right away was her body and the way she was dressed in every scene.
I like to see people love their bodies and enjoy and value who they are. I thought Julia Roberts did that very well. When it comes to faith issues, one of the things that Christianity in particular has been peculiar about is the body. This [movie] is really about incarnation. A particular woman, a particular situation, struggling to be as real as she knew how, and she probably would be looked down upon by certain kinds of people, not least religious people. But nevertheless with courage and convictions, there was a feisty honesty about her. She shot her mouth off, she was a pain in the ass.

Also, watching it from the point of view of faith, is the issue of judgmentalism in the culture: How many people are working under very stressful circumstances, doing the best they can, and what society's doing to support them. The movie didn't idealize people. People mess up, make mistakes, people are dishonest. But there's something quite heroic about being alive and being aware and being present to life.

I also thought there was a very touching moment when Erin said to her partner, when they were getting close to one another, "I don't' want you to be another thing I have to survive."

Beliefnet at the Oscars

Rev. Jerry Falwell on 'Gladiator'

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner on 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'

Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman on 'Traffic'

Wiccan priestess Margot Adler on 'Chocolat'


The 73rd Academy Award nominees Discuss: Which movie has deepened your spirituality?

Also: 'Chocolat' leaves a bitter aftertaste

Oscar's Unspiritual Year
That was my favorite line in the movie.
That was a great line. That touched me very much about people's endurance, the sense of trust, betrayal, struggle, how hard it is for people to relate to one another. And her boss, where to his credit, where another human being would've washed his hands of her, had a sense of participation and engagement, even when they were yelling at each other, that we're in life together. It is a film about the nature of love, the nature of integrity, what it is to be authentic.

Another thing that surprised me was this money business. You know, spiritual people often demonize money. Usually you get sleazy lawyers with all these big settlements and so on, but you felt in this case that the settlement was just. I certainly didn't begrudge any of them the money, and I was surprised at myself for feeling quite generous about that.

Every time I hear about tragedies involving companies like PG&E, I'm shocked that these crimes happen and the truth doesn't come out until a whistleblower comes forward.
The first reaction is how unreliable the cosmos is, and then that you can't trust the justice system. It may be my moral-ordered world in my head, but I'm shocked there weren't criminal charges. What happened was criminal, and all one got was a settlement! Perhaps it would be better if I were cynical. I become rather dispairing. I said to one lawyer friend of mine that I think the Department of Justice ought to become the Department of Law, and he said, `No, you've got to have something to aspire to.' It's interesting when you evaluate a movie, that it actually starts a conversation with yourself about yourself. How would you be in that situation, what do you believe about life, whether you're an optimist or a pessimist.

Definitely. Erin's boss didn't seem like a quitter, but when he said, `I'm running out of money here, I'm ready to quit,' I thought, if I owned that law practice, I would think the smartest thing would be to give up.
I think life without risk is no life at all. It's like faith. You've got to jump into the pool, but it would be a great idea to check that there's water in it first. You take risks that you've thought through. And you say, well I may lose, but it's better to be fully alive than not. Do we trust life or don't we trust life. Is the universe on our side or isn't it? Or is it indifferent? Or is it a stupid question even to ask.

Beliefnet at the Oscars

Rev. Jerry Falwell on 'Gladiator'

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner on 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'

Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman on 'Traffic'

Wiccan priestess Margot Adler on 'Chocolat'

The 73rd Academy Award nominees Discuss: Which movie has deepened your spirituality?

Also: 'Chocolat' leaves a bitter aftertaste

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She said yes to life. In spite of all her difficulties, she's engaged, she's participating, she's a player. And I think that's the faith question: are you a participant or you a spectator? Are you going to risk or are you going to stand on the sidelines? And then you can get to questions of God and all those more theological questions. Is it good to be alive? Do you feel grateful even when life is hell?

Also, what are the rewards of being a participant? You have to risk more and your odds of not succeeding are out there too. I think that's why people stay in the jobs that they're in and the relationships that they're in, and they don't change.
You sell out at some point. You ask, am I being wise? Or am I being scared, and calling it being wise? Given the uncertainty of life, you say will I come to the end of my life and look back and say, I've never lived, I've never risked. And in theological terms: I've never sinned, I've never made a mistake. It's strange to put risk and responsibility in the same sentence. If you don't risk, you're risking, because you then risk dying spiritually, you risk drying up. You may have the illusion of security, but change and movement are part of what it is to be alive. At the end of it all, what will I have left behind?

People like Erin Brockovich make me think, how will I make a difference in the world?
It encourages us, even if we make a mistake, to take sides. To risk taking sides and maybe being wrong and learning from that. Was I an enhancer of life? Iris Murdoch in one of her novels says that everyone diminishes someone. Do we make life fuller for people or do we drain it away? We're either saying yes or we're saying no. I think that's what struck me most that against enormous odds, this was a story about saying yes and participating.

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