The other day, I saw the classic Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, for the first time. It’s one of those movies that’s so classic that referencing it has become a part of pop culture, such as the scene on the right when George Bailey says, “What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.” I’ve seen this in various pop culture references, but even better, George lassoing became a running inside joke between him and Mary throughout the rest of the movie.
Now that I’ve spouted enough exposition, this isn’t going to be your typical movie review where I give you the basic plot movements, some critiques, my rating, and my recommendation. Rather, this review is more of a Bible study because—though certainly unintentional by the director and writers—It’s A Wonderful Life emphasises a few important Christian theological realities.
George Bailey and His Good Works
The first has to do with George Bailey and his good works. At first—and I think this is the general impression of every viewer—George putting others before himself appears to be George’s natural selflessness getting in the way of his dreams. He wants to explore the world, then go to college, and then build things. But because of the sudden demands of his small town life—and his sense of duty to his family and home and falling in love with Mary Hatch—he ends up never pursuing his dreams while his little brother, Harry, essentially gets to do everything George ever dreamt of. Harry even becomes a war hero!
But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realise this isn’t so much George’s selflessness getting in the way of his dreams but more of what the Christian ought to do (this is arguably a Christian movie, aside from the false theology of Clarence the angel wanting to “get his wings”). By the end of the movie, I had the following section from the Lutheran Confessions in mind: “[Faith] does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them” (FC SD IV, 11).
George Bailey embodies this life of the Christian. Granted, George expresses quite openly his ambitious desire to travel and pursue his dreams, but when presented with the choice between his dreams and his desire to see the poorer people in his town prosper, George doesn’t even think twice about it and chooses the needs of his neighbour over his desires. Throughout the entire movie, he doesn’t think about whether or not he should do these good works. Instead, he simply does them and he keeps doing them.
George Bailey is a good model for the Christian in this way. Oftentimes—especially we who are better off and, quite frankly, cynical—we Christians want to think it through first before we consider helping our neighbour, especially when we give to the poor. We use rationalisations like, “Well I don’t know if he’s going to use it for drugs or alcohol” as an excuse not to give to the person. Instead of clinging to such narcissism, take a page out of George’s book.
How about instead of thinking about whether or not this poor person deserves it, you simply don’t think about it and just help them out? If you’re that concerned about your stupid money, maybe you should take them to a restaurant yourself, buy them a meal, and have a conversation with them. If, in your giving to the poor, you wonder if they “deserve” it because you miraculously have omniscient powers to “know” they’ll use it on drugs, alcohol, etc., reflect on the judgement you deserve from God, the mercy He gave you despite your addiction to sin, and repent.
It’s A Wonderful Life to be in the Church
Okay, soap box over.
My second point is really the main point of this whole article: Bedford Falls is the church, both its wonderful aspects and its messy parts. First, its ugly parts.
Bedford Falls is far from a perfect town; it’s full of sinners. So is the church. Many people—Christians and non-Christians alike—mistake churchgoing people to be exemplars of moral perfection and when there’s any sign of hypocrisy, they’re not a good Christian. That Christians are perfect people is a lie sewn by the Devil, not a tenet of orthodox Christianity. Because Christians are clearly imperfect people, this realisation leads many to stay far away from the church, which is exactly what the Devil wants.
Bedford Falls is full of sinners and so is the church. George Bailey himself teases the nakedly hidden Mary (before they’re married), Sam Wainwright wants to commit insider trading (which is illegal), George’s first boss as a kid (Gower) almost commits a fatal error due to grief over his son’s death by flu by almost giving a child poison instead of the proper medicine (George saves him from this tragedy); there are drunkards, and, of course, there’s the infamous Henry F. Potter whom the narrator describes as “the richest and meanest man in town.”
How are these people part of the church? On the one hand, they represent the various types of sinners who are in the church but who also come to church not to falsely flaunt their moral perfection before the world as people erroneously think but to repent and receive God’s promise of mercy through Jesus Christ in the Word and Sacraments.
On the other hand, even Potter, whom George calls “a warped, frustrated old man,” is part of the church, just as he is also part of the town. “How?” You might be wondering. “He has no redeemable qualities and is an enemy of the town!” This is true, but the Confessions also come in handy here: “Although the Christian church is, properly speaking, nothing else than the assembly of believers and saints, yet because in this life many false Christians, hypocrites, and even public sinners remain among the righteous” (AC VIII, 1).
The Lutheran reformers were realistic in their biblical witness that the church will include those who are pretenders, hypocrites, and licentious people (“public sinners”). Are they Christians? No. Are they part of the church? Yes, because—like the genuine Christians around them—they gather around the Word and Sacraments. Thus, Potter and the other townspeople who are simply your run-of-the-mill sinners show how messy the church can be. After all, the church is composed of sinners seeking the mercy of God in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Now to my final point: the resolution to the movie shows it’s a wonderful life to be in the church. The movie reaches its climax when, George Bailey’s Uncle Billy, accidentally misplaces $8,000. Today, this would be equal to about $147,000. Accidentally placing the $8,000 in Potter’s newspaper, Potter realises it belongs to Uncle Billy and the Building and Loan. Instead of giving it back to him like a good neighbour, he keeps it to himself and uses this as an opportunity to destroy the Building and Loan and, by extension of this, destroy George Bailey’s life as well.
When George learns of his uncle’s careless error, he panics, pleads to the devil himself (Potter) to show some mercy, gets drunk, and plans to commit suicide because, as Potter himself points out from George’s life insurance plan, he’s worth more dead than alive. So, in a false sense of heroism, he plans to kill himself in order to stay out of jail and leave $15,000 to his family (what today would be about $275,000).
This is where Clarence the angel comes in, who prevents George from committing suicide and shows him what Bedford Falls would’ve been like if he were never born, since George had expressed this wish. George eventually learns his lesson and exclaims Merry Christmas to everyone on his way home (even the devilish Mr. Potter) without a care in the world he’ll be going to jail because at least he’ll be alive.
Then the Christmas miracle happens. George’s wonderful wife (wonderful wife, wonderful life!), Mary, spreads word around town that he’s in trouble and needs a lot of help. So, what does the town do? What do all the people whom he helped—even those who were formerly poor—do? They all empty out their savings to help George. Just as George didn’t think twice about helping the people, so the people didn’t think twice about helping George. It was a good work; no thinking needs to be done about it. They end up giving him more than what was necessary—a lot more than $8,000—to make up for the lost amount. The amount everyone gave wasn’t counted, but a childhood friend of George who became wealthy—Sam Wainwright—wired him $25,000 (about $459,000 today).
What does all this have to do with the church? The people of Bedford Falls did what the church is supposed to do: when one of their people suffer, they take care of him or her. Bedford Falls did what Paul describes of the church that is one body filled with many members, “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:24-26).
When the single mother needs a babysitter while she goes to work, the church is there to provide this service. When someone is having a financial crisis, the church is there to help. When someone grieves the loss of someone they love, the church is there to grieve with them. When a wife becomes a widow, the church is there to provide for her. When a teenager gets pregnant, the church is there to help her with the baby. I could go on.
At least the church is supposed to do these things. When someone outside the church tells us we’re not doing these things—and they are telling us—we ought to repent and rethink the way we understand church. The church is not a social club to socialise with people just like you, pretending you “have it all together”; the church is the family of God that invites people who are not like you to gather together under God’s Word and Sacraments to receive His grace for the forgiveness of sins and, as we continue to live life together Monday through Saturday, comfort and support and admonish one another.
Hence the unifying heterogeneity of the church. People who are completely unlike each other all gather around the Word and Sacraments—formerly enemies and strangers—becoming actual brothers and sisters in Christ. The church is such a beautiful gift the Lord has given us! That there are Christian pretenders who think they don’t need the church is sad and we who are in the church need to reach out to these self-isolated people.
Although, like Bedford Falls, the church is full of sinners and even false believers, hypocrites, and licentious people, the people of Bedford Falls at the conclusion to the movie more importantly show what the church is: a family that genuinely loves and cares for one another. Besides teaching how suicide is never a good solution to a temporary problem, It’s A Wonderful Life illustrates, when centred on Christ the cornerstone, how wonderful life is to be in the church.