Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Theology and Film in Dialogue: The Butterfly Effect (DVD), Part III of III.

Final installment of three-part series.

III. Critical Interaction Between The Butterfly Effect and Ecclesiastes.

As discussed above, The Butterfly Effect explores broad issues of chance versus predetermination; free-will versus fate; and nature versus nurture. In does so in the context of the “chaos theory” whereby life is subject to random events leading to unpredicatable, chaotic ends. Treborn becomes so exasperated toiling to control uncontrollable events (and their effects) on his own that he ultimately gives up and pulls himself out of the equation through a harrowing suicide scene. Ecclesiastes has much to dialogue with these messages and issues.
Qoheleth saliently says in Ecclesiastes 9:11: “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.” (NRSV; emphasis supplied.) In this observation, we see that what ultimately destroyed Treborn was his failure to accept the reality that life’s events and its unpredictable effects cannot be controlled through human toil. “What is crooked cannot be straightened, and what is lacking cannot be counted.” (Eccl. 1:15; NASB.)

Even if they hypothetically could be controlled by human effort, Ecclesiastes questions the ultimate purpose of such an enterprise. Indeed, Qoheleth questions, “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” (Eccl. 2:22-23; NRSV.)

Illustrating this point, we see Treborn extremely burdened by the destructive consequences visited on his friends from the earlier events, and this squarely interferes with his open happiness. He is unable to relax, even on a date. His mind races with his worry and self-imposed need to toil to correct the underlying causes.

Ecclesiastes 5:15 provides a poignant metaphor: “As he came naked from his mother’s womb, so he will return as he came. He will take nothing from the fruit if his labor that he can carry in his hand.” (NASB; Cf. Eccl. 4:2 [“So I congratulated the dead who are already dead….’].) While this observation that we return as we came—naked and penniless--is undeniably true, it provides especial insight into Treborn’s selected remedy of suicide. Treborn evidently recognized the ultimate futility of his efforts by returning to his mother’s womb and ending before he could begin.

By doing so, he could save all of the pain of his futile efforts. The filmmakers might not have had this verse in mind when they crafted that ultimate scene, but it is imbued with particular power when considered in the context of the film and vice versa. In other words, this is a compelling example of the two-way dialogue that theology and film can enrich each other.

One of the prime factors that drove Treborn’s fervent desire to help and his resultant despair (when he couldn’t) was that he saw the righteous were being rewarded with wickedness, and the wicked prospering or at least not being punished, such as Kayleigh’s pedophilic father. “Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness, and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.” (Eccl. 3:16; NASB.) Qoheleth echoes this theme a few chapters later: “[T]here is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness.” (Eccl. 7:15.)

For example, Kayleigh was presented as nothing short of an innocent and sweet child—until her father stole her innocence through his perversions. This soul robbery resulted, in one permutation, in her life’s circling the drain in a toxic cocktail of drugs, prostitution and other destructive behavior. However, after Evan reverses events to protect Kayleigh from her father’s exploitation (by confronting him), she becomes a well-adjusted, caring person (although Evan also changed--into a superficial simpleton).

While the movie ultimately concludes that there is no purpose in even trying to make life better as evidenced by Evan’s return to the womb to end his life, the beauty of the two-way conversation is that Ecclesiastes proffers an empathetic prescription, even after realizing the same futility that Treborn recognized. While the text underscores the absurdity of life, it simultaneously advocates that one hold on to the reality of life’s joy. (Johnston, Useless Beauty, p. 29.) This is the paradox of life, and the divine order. (Eccl. 3:13; 9:17 and 9:4.)