Spiritual Lessons from the Oscar Nominees

By Paul Asay

Pulpit-pounding priests. Glowering nuns. Martyrdom. Salvation. Love. Fate.

2008 was a great year for spiritual movies, and a look at this year's batch of Oscar nominees proves the point. Many have overt references to faith, be it for good or ill. And all, it seems, have spiritual lessons to impart. Our teachers were everyone from Benjamin Button to Batman, from a Nazi prison guard to an adorable robot with a fondness for musicals. And what did we learn? Read on, dear reader. Read on

Here are 11 spiritual lessons from the 2009 Oscar nominees.


'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button': Live Life With Purpose

 13 nominations, including Best Picture

Benjamin, we are told by his surrogate mother, is "a miracle ... just not the kind you wish to see." He lives his life backwards, growing younger every year. It's a curious case indeed—one that explores birth, death, and the precious points in between. While it mulls fate and ponders the nature of the soul (hummingbirds, anyone?), Button's main purpose is to exhort us to live with purpose—plowing through pain and loss along the way. Life, like Benjamin, isn't always pretty. But it's pretty miraculous all the same.

'Slumdog Millionaire': Life's Written by a Larger Hand

10 nominations, including Best Picture

India's an easy target for "I-told-you-so" atheists. The country's been torn by religious strife for decades, and "Slumdog" doesn't hide the country's sometimes messy manifestations of spirituality. Jamal, the movie's main character, loses his Muslim mother to a Hindu mob, and he tells a game-show host that, were it not for Rama (a Hindu god) and Allah, he'd still have his mother. Considering Jamal's hard-knock life, it's little wonder he questions the concept of a beneficent deity.

But each troublesome knot in Jamal's life turns out to be a stitch in a much larger fabric—a tapestry that shows him standing, center stage, in an unlikely fairy tale. In the end, the movie's makers suggest that Jamal's saga—indeed his life—was "written" by a much larger hand.

'Milk': Preach Love Over Power

8 nominations, including Best Picture

Conservative Christians are the bad guys in "Milk," a biopic of San Francisco's martyred gay-rights activist and politician, Harvey Milk. Christian crusader Anita Bryant sings hymns while condemning gays. Politician John Briggs proposes anti-gay legislation under the cover of biblical morality. The one time Milk finds himself in church, it's for the christening of the child of Dan White—Milk's eventual assassin.

But the movie doesn't fire off a blanket condemnation of Christianity, and Milk is portrayed as a Christ-like martyr—a man who preached love over power, who stood up for the disenfranchised, and who was killed for his troubles. One Christian asks just where the love of Jesus is to be found in the debate over homosexuality—a question that seems awfully pertinent today, too.

'The Dark Knight': We Need More Than a Hero

8 nominations, including Best Supporting Actor

Heath Ledger's Oscar-nominated turn as The Joker is as compelling a look at evil as you're likely to find on screen. Ledger's Joker is charismatic, convincing, and oh-so bad—the sort of person who, as Bruce Wayne's loyal butler Alfred, says, just wants to "watch the world burn." He's convinced that everyone else as rotten as he is, and he wants to prove that do-gooders are just wasting their time.

Batman isn't buying. He believes people simply need a reason to hope, a hero to believe in. And, when Harvey Dent, the guy dubbed Gotham's "white knight," tumbles from grace, Batman covers up Dent's misdeeds and takes the blame on himself. "Sometimes, truth isn't good enough," Batman says. "Sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded." Is the statement true? False? Regardless, there's enough in it—and Batman's sacrifice—to keep pastors preaching for weeks.

'WALL-E': Find Joy in an Honest Day's Work

6 nominations, including Best Animated Film

Who would've thought that an Old Testament-style tale could be quite so gentle? Like it or not (and really, who didn't like Pixar's latest fable?) it's a hardcore morality fable—a reimagining, in some ways, of Noah's Ark, when earth got a reboot after mankind made a mess of everything. There was no flood this time. No, it was our own penchant for stuff that got us into trouble in "WALL-E," and the resulting trash forced the earth's population onto astro-resorts, where they waited for the earth to regain its ability to support life.

Sure, the method of doom was pretty postmodern, but "WALL-E's" message might've been plucked straight out of Proverbs: There's joy in an honest day's labor. There's happiness in companionship. And there's something in those ancient "Hello, Dolly!" clips that makes you want to hold hands.

'Frost/Nixon': Own Up to Your Wrongdoings

5 nominations, including Best Picture

Richard Nixon wasn't thinking about confessing anything when he signed on for series of interviews with Robert Frost in 1977: He wanted to rehabilitate his career. Frost, for his part, was just looking for some juicy television ratings. But, according to this Ron Howard drama, what wound up happening was more profound—more spiritual. The California home in which the interviews took place became a makeshift, spotlight confessional, and Nixon came as close as he ever did to owning up to his political sins. "I let the American people down," Nixon says. "And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life."

Did he receive forgiveness? Not from the American people, and not for a long time. But forgiven or not, Nixon seemed more at peace with himself at the end of the film. And it makes sense: Once you admit you're broken, the patch work can begin.

'The Reader': We Need to Move Past Pain

5 nominations, including Best Picture

Sometimes, the question isn't why bad things happen to good people. It's why people do such bad things—and what we can do with the aftermath.

When Hanna Schmitz first hooks up with 15-year-old Michael Berg, she bears two secrets. One, she's illiterate. Two, she's a former Nazi—a guard at Auschwitz who participates in the murder of 300 women and children in a church. These secrets both harden and haunt her: Unable to admit her illiteracy, she confesses to writing an account of the church murder—an admission that puts her in prison. And, on the eve of her release, she kills herself.

It's hard to know what to do with Hanna's life: Several characters openly question whether we can really learn anything from the horrors of Nazi Germany—how reasonable people could commit such horrors, and just where God was in it all. The movie gently suggests that sometimes the best we can do is, very simply, move on.

'Doubt': Even the Faithful Must Doubt

5 nominations, including Best Actress

"Faith which does not doubt is dead faith," wrote philosopher-writer Miguel de Unamuno. If Unamuno is right, it must mean Sister Aloysius' own faith is plagued with rigor mortis.

Aloysius, a nun who rules her Bronx Catholic School with an iron cross, has no uncertainty about anything she believes—not in her God, not in her teaching methods, and certainly not in her belief that the school's progressive new priest, Father Flynn, is anything but a lying, lecherous pervert.

Is Father Flynn guilty? Of that the audience itself is left in doubt. But there's no question that, as Aloysius' unblinking crusade against the priest picks up, she herself steps away from God—leading, finally, to a profound crisis in faith. The movie's message might come straight out of Ecclesiastes: There is a season for everything—including humbling, gentle doubt.

'Changeling': Sometimes We Need to Get Loud

3 nominations, including Best Actress

Faith, if it's too loud, makes people uncomfortable. Spiritualized zealots are freaky, and radicalized religion is downright frightening: Faith, we say, should be soft and gentle and speak in a still, small voice.

Don't tell that to the Rev. Gustav Briegleb, a Los Angeles-area crusading pastor who uses the plight of one heartbroken mother to rail against the city's lying, corrupt, trigger-happy police force. He thunders from his radio pulpit like Moses, raining down righteous condemnation on his enemies. He pushes Collins' story to the front of public consciousness and, when the police throw Collins into an insane asylum, it's Briegleb who gets her out.

Historically, religion has often been at its best when it has stood, firmly and forcefully, against injustice. That still, small voice is great and all, but Briegleb understands that some good ol' fire and brimstone can be pretty darn effective, too.

'Revolutionary Road': A Quiet Life Can Be a Happy Life

3 nominations, including Best Supporting Actor

Frank and April Wheeler are beautiful people. They live in a beautiful house. They have beautiful children. So why are they miserable?

Turns out, their picture-perfect place on Revolutionary Road might as well be Guantanamo Bay. Frank and April don't want this 1950s-suburbian trope, with its stay-at-home moms, green lawns, and hidden repression. No, they long for a 21st-century trope—a life filled with world travel and adventure and abandon. The physical comforts of their own era don't suit them, so maybe emotional bohemianism will.

The film subtly suggests that both roads lead to a existential cul-de-sac. And for people of faith—any faith—who watch this film, it's hard not to wonder if part of the Wheelers' problem is their lack of spiritual moorings. Perhaps no-one told them there's joy to be found in a quiet life well lived, or that it takes more to cure life's woes than a timely move to France.

'The Wrestler': The Choices We Make Matter

2 nominations, including Best Actor

Shortly after we meet Randy "The Ram" Robinson someone suggests he's a near Christ-like figure—a "sacrificial Ram" who submits himself to torture and abuse to save his fans from ... boredom?

The analogy breaks down quickly. Turns out, Randy's a wayward sinner himself, longing for a touch of forgiveness, a taste of redemption. "I'm an old and broken-down piece of meat," he tells his estranged daughter. "I'm alone. I deserve to be all alone. I just don't want you to hate me." But the road to redemption proves too hard for Randy to follow.

Randy winds up sacrificing himself—not as a savior, but a gladiator. He exchanges the life of a broken man for the death of a pile-driving icon, accepting a final embrace from the shouting hordes that loved him. The choices we make matter, this movie tells us—and sometimes they can be nearly impossible to overcome.

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