Blame it on being a Generation Xer.
In the 80s, we were among the first to have cable TV. And, I, having grown up in Omaha, Nebraska — a test market because of its Midwest “normality” — got access to cable television, even MTV, earlier than some of the rest of the country.
So I grew up spending summers — much to my mother’s chagrin — watching the same movies and tv shows over and over and over again. That formative experience sealed my fondness for stories told on film.
In the late 90s, while I was working as a journalist and had rejected organized religion, I worshipped at the AMC movie theater. It was common for me to spend a weekend seeing two or three movies, sometimes not even leaving the theater and simply moving from one theater to another to catch a self-made double feature. (I always bought the second ticket, but I did avail myself of the free popcorn refills.)
When I took my first tentative steps back to church, and especially when I felt my sudden, overwhelming, and unexpected call to ministry, I still retreated to the movie theater for solace and guidance. I didn’t know that was what I was doing, of course. I thought I was just going to see the movies that we might discuss in the office or the films that might get nominated for Oscars. What I was really doing was finding a way to process my own story, my own sense of call.
Take the 2001 movie “Legally Blonde,” for example.
Though I am also white and straight, the similarities between me and protagonist Elle Woods stopped there. I am certainly not a California socialite who got pigeonholed to become a Victoria Secret model. But there’s still something in this story that deeply resonated with me when I watched it. Elle finds herself unexpectedly dumped by her college boyfriend because he needs a more “serious” girlfriend as he enters Harvard Law School. She decided that she must become a serious law student at Harvard and works for months to get accepted — to win her boyfriend back. But things don’t go exactly as planned when she gets to Harvard. Being confronted with a massively different culture and higher academic expectations than she’s ever encountered before, she learns much about herself and her purpose while fumbling through her first few months at Harvard. Spoiler Alert: Her purpose is NOT to marry her elitist ex-boyfriend nor become a Victoria Secret model. She learns her aptitude for law and how she can use that to help others.
This story resonated with me because the movie came out just after I started seminary and, like Elle, I had NO IDEA what was going to come of it or even a clear sense of why I was there. But those fish out of water experiences force us to learn to swim again. They teach us who we are and how we are going to use our newly discovered ways of offering our gifts in the world.
Stories are powerful tools for helping us understand ourselves and the world we live in. This is why we’ve been telling stories since we first gathered around the campfire. It’s a primary way through which we make meaning and cultivate purpose in our lives for millennia.
This is why I include group movie watches in my new retreat — Adapting Heart, Mind, and Soul. (Sign up before July 30, 2020. Discounts still available!) Maybe in the listening to and telling of our own stories, we discover ourselves, and our callings, anew.