The Descendants and Forgiveness


I’m a bit late in coming to the party but last week Kay and I watched The Descendants. I have been reflecting on the timing of seeing the movie and then hearing a sermon from Mark 11 by my senior pastor.

While the language is a bit on the “salty” side, the movie is an artistic juxtaposition (that’s the tip of my hat to Dan Hogan) between the paradise of Hawaii and the brokenness of humanity. The movie is on one  hand beautiful and redemptive (the soundtrack using traditional Hawaiian slack guitar adds to the simplistic feel), yet on the other incredibly sad and disturbing. The basic premise of the movie is the character George Clooney’s plays is an absentee father and husband whose wife is in a coma, slowly dying. There are moments of tension as the dysfunction of their family dynamics come to the surface – she was not a very good mother, he was not a very good father or husband. The big point of tension in the movie comes when issues of past marital infidelity surface.

The rest of the movie has the issue of forgiveness as central to the resolution. What makes the movie redemptive is it points to something about forgiveness that we all crave and realize we must give to others. What is it about forgiveness that is so central to our existence? I ended up looking for some sort of naturalistic explanation of forgiveness from Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens and they are eerily silent. In other words, I could be wrong, but forgiveness seems to be something so “other-worldly” and not something that has tremendous survival benefit. Of course, it helps us to get along, I’m not convinced that anyone deeply believes that’s the entire point of forgiveness or practices it like that.

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until we have something to forgive.” I think what Lewis is getting at is the idea that forgiveness is a fine concept, maybe even a bit quaint, until you bump up against your need to forgive. I only have to think about the times when I have chosen not forgive a person (I might have said I forgave them) that I got “stuck on” thinking or wishing ill toward the person who hurt me. I’m not particularly impressed with that “me”. How does a person actually move past uttering the word, “I forgive” to the place where the virtue of forgiving others really gets settled in your heart?

At the end of Mark 11, Jesus in sort of an odd way, ties together the kind of faith in God that can move mountains and forgiveness. After Pastor Lionel’s sermon, I have been pondering what the connection is. It has seemed to me that the kind of faith that believes the gospel (Lewis’ words in The Weight of Glory, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you”) is the kind of faith that moves mountains in your own heart. The real faith necessary is not the miraculous moving of mountains. It’s really about the kind of faith where another “mountain” is moved that blocks me from forgiving another with the kind of gospel forgiveness that is settled in my own heart.

The genius of The Descendants lies in the fact that it points to forgiveness as something “other than”, something from “another world”, that connects with the heart at its most fundamental level. We both want to give it away, settled that we really do forgive and we also want it so badly because we know how much we need it. The contours of the gospel are that it can’t get out of you unless it first gets settled in you.

3 thoughts on “The Descendants and Forgiveness

  1. Jon, I thought the beauty of the film – if I get your point – was that it forces us to accept that there is often great sadness in forgiveness before there is or can be joy… the moving of mountains often only reminds me of my personal limitations… I don’t know if I can unpack that here, but I loved “The Descendants” for its realistic portrayal of reconciliation: A painful, dirty, sloppy, process sometimes.

    • jonnitta

      If you watch the beginning of the movie with this framework of forgiveness, I think you’ll see the concept evolving. Watch Clooney’s reaction to the guy who was driving the boat, his father-in-law’s reaction to him, the older daughter retreating into herself and acting out. I hadn’t thought about including sadness in the recipe for forgiveness but I think that’s worth exploring. I use “moving mountains” figuratively because I think Jesus is drawing a parallel between exercising a kind of faith and exercising forgiveness. It’s seemed to me these past few weeks that one of the “key” ways that we follow Jesus is through entering into forgiveness. It’s the kind of stuff that “moves” the stubborn mountains even in our own hearts and without forgiveness you can’t be fully human or grow as a follower of Jesus. Just a few thoughts but I would love to hear more of yours Ty!

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