Pay It Forward

Last week, the movie Pay It Forward opened to box office success and mixed critical review. While some reviewers, like Variety, called the film "inspirational" and speculated that three lead actors might be up for Oscars, others called it "hokey" and "manipulative." Well, one thing is clear: Pay It Forward is a story that could only be told in a culture shaped by Christianity. The film tells the story of an eleven-year-old Las Vegas boy named Trevor McKinney. He's a poor kid being raised, literally, on the wrong side of the tracks by an alcoholic mother. On the first day of class, Trevor's social studies teacher gives him an assignment: Come up with one idea that can make the world a better place, and then put it into action. Trevor's idea is called "pay it forward." The rules are simple: Do "something big" for three people and then, instead of having them return the kindness, tell them to do the same for three other people. That is, pay it forward. By "something big," Trevor means something that the person can't do for himself. And, it must involve some sacrifice, so as to create a sense of gratitude and obligation on the part of the recipient. Although Trevor thinks that his idea doesn't work, by the end of the film, it has spawned a movement throughout the western United States. People are giving luxury cars to total strangers; they are forgiving one another -- even sacrificing their lives for one another. The film tries to explain this benevolence by using phrases from the self-help movement. But as Salon Internet magazine noted, the real source lies elsewhere: "Pay It Forward is a paranoid Christian fantasy," Salon says, "in which the world is a place of evil and ugliness that demands to be purified through the sacrifice of innocents." Well, their hysterically anti-Christian tone notwithstanding, the critic was right about the indebtedness of the film to Christianity. Like Christianity, Pay It Forward sees the world as fallen -- unsentimentally depicting the gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be. Even more, the film tells viewers that much of the evil and suffering they witness is the product of self-centeredness and folly. As the film shows, there's only one way to change the world our selfishness has created -- sacrifice, done on behalf of those who cannot do it for themselves. Sacrifice, that inspires others, out of gratitude, to do the same. In other words, grace. While Pay it Forward isn't a Christian film, it's a powerful reminder of how much our storytelling is shaped by Christianity. American culture borrows freely from Christianity's vocabulary and imagery in telling its own stories, since, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, Christianity is still the best story around. Pay it Forward is rated PG-13 for mild profanity and adult themes. You may not choose to see it. But whether you do or not, you need to know that this film serves as an example of something I often tell Breakpoint listeners: Christianity is the source of much of what is good and worthy about American culture. Our aspirations and our stories are the products of the faith we claim we no longer need -- a claim that turns out to be as fictional as anything we see at the movies. For further reading: McCarthy, Todd. "Pay It Forward.", 9 October 2000. O'Hehir, Andrew. "Pay It Forward.", 20 October 2000.


Chuck Colson


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