Sermon for January 10th, 2021

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Faith & Film IX - Rebel Without a Cause

Our three scripture passages today are John 14:8-11, Psalm 8:1-5, and 2 Corinthians 1:3-4. Ordinarily in a sermon like this, I would read scriptures, then I'd do a three minute synopsis of the film, show 3 or 4 film clips, and analyze some themes that connect the scriptures and the film.

Rebel Without a Cause is such a complex, groundbreaking and influential film, that I'm going to try something a little different today. I'm going to intersperse the scriptures, the synopsis and the themes, all while I talk us through a lot more clips than we usually see. But first, a little background:

Prior to the 1950s there was no such cultural concept as "adolescence." Teenagers were not a recognized group. One simply went from being a child, to being an adult--no ambiguous in between period where childhood and adulthood pulled a young person in both directions simultaneously. That began to change in the aftermath of World War II.

As a result of the war, many fathers never came home to their families. Many who lived came home changed by what they had experienced in the war. Also during the war, many women entered into the workforce for the first time, achieving a measure of independence, and they didn't exactly give that up when their husbands returned.

The 1950s were years of financial prosperity for an emerging middle class--parents spent more money on their children, but less time with them. All these things were challenges for the family unit, and particularly for the traditional concept of fatherhood. "Juvenile delinquency" became a growing concern in America at the time. This film was the first of its kind to address the issue in a realistic and sympathetic manner.

In 1944 a psychologist named Robert Lindner wrote a book called "Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath," where he defined a psychopath as someone who is "incapable of exertions for the sake of others." While the book didn't really have a lot to do with the later movie of the same name, I think the film does attempt to make the point that while this emerging class of young people faced real and complicated challenges, which could lead to delinquency and even tragedy, they were not, by and large, psychopaths. Despite some of the dark or tragic elements of the film, I find it to be incredibly optimistic in its core message.

Opening Credits (1:24)

  • Introduction of Jim Stark, a young man who is clearly drunk
  • Toy monkey with a red hat (note the red credits, too)
  • Jim wants to care for the monkey, cover it and keep it warm (things a father does)

Police Station (1:28)

  • Prologue to introduce the three principle characters and their family dysfunction.
  • Jim wails like a siren--is he mimicking authority, sounding an alarm, or crying out for help?
  • John "Plato" (Sal Mineo) has been brought in for killing a litter of puppies. We never see his parents, just his nanny. He rejects Jim's offer of a coat.
  • Judy (Natalie Wood) has been brought in for curfew violation. Red dress--red is a symbol of rebellion. She's upset that her father doesn't care enough to come get her. They have a strained relationship.

Tearing Me Apart (1:40)

  • Jim is humming Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" in anticipation of the parental battle.
  • Later, we learn that Jim is embarrassed that his father is not "strong" enough, and is dominated by Jim's mother and grandmother.

John 14:8-11

8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

  • "Show us the father" is a question people have been asking for a long time.
  • Jesus teaches that the qualities of a Father are manifest in the son, through both words and actions.

The Planetarium/Observatory (4:11)

  • This is where the real story begins...and ends.
  • The lecture is a metaphor for the story
  • Characters "observe" the stars, while we "observe" them.
  • People come and go, but stars remain fixed.
  • Three constellations represent the three main characters.
    • Orion, the hunter: Plato who killed the puppies, and later hunts with a gun, and is hunted in turn.
    • Cancer: Judy--Intuitive, sentimental, compassionate and protective.
    • Taurus: Jim--Strong, dependable (what his father is not), sensual, and creative.
  • Explosion: Red turns to blue.
  • Cycle of death and rebirth.
  • Man, existing alone, seems himself an episode of little consequence.
  • May I have your attention? Oh, what the heck!

Psalm 8:1-5

1 O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. 2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. 3 When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 4 what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? 5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor.

  • Psalm 8 teaches that man is indeed insignificant, but not alone, chosen by God.

The Knife Fight (3:21)

  • He is drawn into the fight by being called "chicken" (unmanly).
  • Notice how Jim plays the part of the bull.
  • The inside of the gang leader's coat is red.
  • Fight is designed to draw blood--a little bit of red on white shirt. Jim is becoming a rebel.
  • Dead = cold = red followed by blue (Plato is always cold).

The Chicken Run (2:28)

  • Jim is now in a fully red (iconic) jacket. He's a full fledged rebel.
  • Note Plato projecting "father roles" on Jim.
  • Judy wants the attention from Jim she doesn't get from her father.
  • The water represents the dark abyss, like the cold stars in the planetarium...the end.
  • You gotta do something (in the face of death, the abyss).

Stand up for Me (2:42)

  • Aftermath of the Chicken Run death, Jim wants to turn himself in.
  • Notice the placement of the characters on the stairs--symbolic levels.
  • Jim: "Dad, stand up for me!"
  • Predictably, Mom is the one who saves Dad.

The House (1:46)

  • Plato: "We're safe here." Lights three candles for three-person family.
  • Jim and Judy role play as a couple, later Plato role plays as their child.
  • This is the happiest point in the film, but it's still imagined, not entirely real.

Not My Father (1:38)

  • Police arrive, and gang boys are already in the house.
  • Jim and Judy left Plato asleep to be alone together.
  • Plato, feeling abandoned, desperate for "salvation" lashes out (hunter).
  • Accuses his "father figure" (Jim) and then rejects him.

Giving the Jacket (0:27)

  • The Jacket is symbolic--of rebellion (which Jim gives up) but also compassion. This time Plato accepts it.
  • Plato is a real person, not a toy monkey.
  • Jim is acting like a father, like a man. Strong, but also sensitive.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, 4 who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.

I got the bullets! (2:31)

  • Note the red light.
  • Jim grieves and comforts.
  • Plato's socks--both red and blue (hot & cold, life & death).
  • Jim and his father finally stand up together.
  • Plato's death is not the focus. Death is inevitable. The point is life.

Closing Scene (2:17)

  • Plato's nanny is incorrect--he finally had someone.
  • Jim zips up Jacket, saying goodbye to Plato and his rebelliousness.
  • Father shows kindness, puts brown jacket on Jim.
  • Jim now has a friend, he is no longer alone (and inconsequential)
  • Parents smile knowingly. Their son (and American youth) will be okay.
  • Plato had once asked Jim if the world would end at night. Jim said, no, in the morning.
  • Film ends as a new day breaks, and the planetarium curator enters the building, and life goes on.