Friday, April 24, 2009


The life of a mentally ill person is messy, and difficult, and often heart-rending. And what is interesting about such a person is that it is by no means simply a matter of some chemical imbalance in the brain, though that can be a large part of the problem. There is plenty of clinical evidence to support the view that a mentally ill person can live a much more normal life with plenty of love and friendship, indeed there is even evidence that such relationships can go some distance to change the chemical imbalances in the brain. Imagine that. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and are at the end of the day, psycho-somatic wholes, who are often far from whole. And of course as a culture gets more ill, people get more ill as well, and the ones who most often go down for the count first are the sensitive souls--- musicians, poets, artists, the one's who live out of the life of the soul and express in words or musical sounds. When the world is sick and fallened and abnormal, what then counts as normal, any more?

One such person with largeness of soul is Mr. Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. Yes, he is a real person, and the movie 'the Soloist' attempts to tell the story of some of his life, which to say the least is still a work in progress, but then that is true of all of us. Played by Jamie Foxx with empathy and sympathy and conviction (an Oscar worthy performance) this story, while hard to watch, is not hard to get emotional about. Most of us have had someone in our lives who at some juncture needed serious counseling, or medicine, or both because they were, or were becoming mentally unwell. What makes Mr. Ayers' story all the more remarkable is that he was and is a musician gifted by God with a rare talent for playing music--- in this case primarily stringed instruments. And Steve Lopez (played well by Robert Downey Jr.), exceptional columnist for the L.A. Times has chronicled his life first in columns and then in the form of a book. Here is a glimpse of the real Mr. Ayers...

The movie is as moving as such a disjointed and painful life can be, and indeed it gives glimmers of hope. I honestly don't understand those reviewers who don't get this movie simply because in form as well as continuity it seeks to tell the tale in a manner that suggests the incompleteness and messiness and troubling aspects of the story. This man has not led and is not leading a nice and tidy life, nor is it all happily ever after in the end. Authenticity rather than fantasy is what the director seems to be striving for and capturing. So, for about two hours one walks a mile with Mr. Ayers, and with his 'friend' Mr. Lopez. Mr. Lopez is not spared criticism in this movie, for indeed he did not originally set out to be a friend, he set out to write a remarkable story. And there is indeed a Christian under-current to the movie, ranging from the way the cello teacher is portrayed to the way Mr. Ayers prays the Lord's prayer, but in his less lucid moments thinks Mr. Lopez is either God or Neil Diamond (what a juxtaposition--- I can hear 'Brother Love's Salvation Show playing now in my head). There is also an interesting interview scene with an atheist where the atheist admits-- "its hard to build community around having something you don't believe in common." For sure.

Mr. Ayers has a profound and abiding love for Beethoven, and this movie shows over and over how, as Shakespeare once said, "music soothes the savage breast" even of a mentally ill person. Beauty, real beauty can do that. It can take you far from your troubles and even draw you close to God. And make no mistake, when you have become ill whilst becoming a world class cellist at Julliard, and then crashing and burning completely, you definitely need a little help from above. I must say I like Mr. Ayers taste in music. He goes for the best. But he had become a street person, a person of no fixed address, a person cast aside as the flotsam on the sea of life. This story is more about learning how to become less selfish and more loving and more friendly even towards those hard to love than it is about music however. This story reminded me of the story of a famous hymnist who lived early in the twentieth century and was incarcerated due to his mental illness. The story goes that he, Mr. F.M. Lehman, died in his confined cell, having written on the padded walls the following words...

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry.

If that verse is the mark of an unhinged mind, then we need more unhinged minds in this world.

Had Jesus lived in L.A. in my life time, Mr. Ayers is surely one of the people he would have spent time with. And so should we. Go see this movie, but take a box of kleenex with you. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for..."


Corpus Christi Outreach Ministries said...

I plan on seeing it ben. I have many homeless friends, they value true friendship more than anything else.

berean1949 said...

Dr. Witherington;

While the movie's subject may be worthwhile, one of the actors had the temerity to tell a 16 year old celebrity to "make a sex tape and grow up."

His work is NOT worthwhile.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Berean:

I completely disagree with you. If we boycotted every sinner who has done or said something stupid along the way, and failed to recognize when they had done something worthwhile, we would have almost no music to listen to, no movies to see, no political candidates to support, no sports figures to admire, and no ministers in our church. If so aspect of the work that they do is worthwhile and one approves of it, this hardly implies an endorsement of everything else they say or do, much less of their lifestyle.



Corpus Christi Outreach Ministries said...

I just read Bereans comment and wanted to respond, then i saw what Ben said and he basicaly covered it. While we dont want to promote 'wicked people' we must realise that both christian history, scripture, and sad to say MY OWN LIFE has remnants of bad things that have come with the journey.

Sally D said...

Some background to Foxx's comment is here:

Seems he's a "shock jock" and claims to be "the black Howard Stern". IOW he's part of a well paid elite group whose job is to go on the radio, abusing other celebrities and invoking atrocious stereotypes (and even he admitted to Jay Leno that he went too far with these comments).

The mental and emotional instability and personal immaturity that underscores his "talent" as a professional bully probably also informs his success as an actor playing damaged characters. He's an artist; we don't have to like him to acknowledge good work from him.

Reducing the whole issue to a Scripture-Union-Camp style discussion about "sin" and the correct Christian attitude to a public "sinner" seems like a step in the direction of utter trivial banality?

His co-star in the movie, Robert Downey Jnr, is notorious for his struggles with drug addiction which has robbed us all of years of his excellent work, so it's not likely *he'd* appreciate Foxx's so called humour much. But you have to ask questions about a culture that pays people to go on air with vile, offensive abuse, and those who listen to such shows. If people didn't find him funny, Foxx wouldn't have a job...

I wish I could be more sure that Christians would take a strong stand when he abuses black women, and not just when he attacks an icon of middle class White youth...

berean1949 said...


Before I go on, let me expose my soft spot. I am the father of three daughters and a son (all well beyond their teenage years), the grandfather of three girls and a boy, and the great grandfather of three girls. You might say that I am genetically, if not spiritually, predisposed to defend a woman. I do not apologize for that.

"Reductio ad absurdum" is an effective way to dismiss a point of view. However, in this case, to make such a reduction, you may be also making an hasty generalization to "every sinner has done or said something stupid along the way" from this one instance.

I know of no human being, save one, who has never "done or said something stupid along the way." For the purpose of example, I include myself and you in that group. You are clearly correct to say that we would have little to enjoy in life, no friends, and no causes. I would not buy, read and enjoy your books and other writings. My clients would have nothing to do with me. If all (believers) were to behave that way, it is entirely possible that neither you nor I would earn a living. While my comment here did indicate a personal boycott, I did not call for a boycott by anyone else.

From my recollection of boycotts of recent history I would say that they are usually (but not always) specific: the Montgomery Bus boycott was directed at the buses in Montgomery; the current boycott of Proposition 8 supporters is directed solely at supporters on the list of donors that is publicly available. While both of those had/have (very) apparent wider intended influence, the economic impact was/is restricted to the boycotts' targets. My personal boycott is also very restricted for exactly the reason you cite. I have learned to pick my fights and defending a young woman, even if solely and anonymously, is a hill on which I am willing to die.

My comment was very specific and about one PUBLIC incident. An apology was proffered on the Tonight Show. While it may have been politically correct, it also contained an excuse and did not indicate repentance. That is my evaluation of it. What my comment here did not say was that I hope and pray for a sincere and real apology and repentance on said actors part and acceptance of that on the part of the 16 year old and her family. For that I apologize to you and your readers.

One further observation if I may. I am sure you are aware of the hubub in the media and the blogosphere and academia about the honorary degree being presented to the President of the United States by the University of Notre Dame next month. Much of the tension is based on the perceived implication of support for all of the President's position that such an honor indicates. That perception is what the Catholic Bishops wanted to prevent by their statement in 2004: "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions." While I think the use of the word "should" is unfortunate, the statement is a clear call to maintain Catholic identity by avoiding even the mere appearance of support and/or agreement.

Perhaps individual believers can do the same kind of thing in their own lives, sometimes even through a personal boycott of selectively, judiciously and prayerfully selected targets that touch their own "identity" hot buttons.

Now, before I overstay my welcome and become (more?) annoying and or quarrelsome, the last word is yours if you so choose.

Thank you for your hospitality on your blog.


Ben Witherington said...

Devv: I quite agree that we would hope there would be a critique of Foxx's bad behavior as well as praise for his good artistic work as well. My concern is with the inability to distinguish between something that a person has done, and some other things that person has done. Value judgments should be made on a case by case basis. I am well aware however of the culture of stardom, and its problems, and the problematic influence stars can have on people in a negative way. Having said that, I would not want to lose the symphonies of Mozart just because he engaged in immoral behavior, nor the architecture and sculpting of Michaelangelo for the same reasons. The art needs to be evaluated on its own terms and in a fair way.

One theological way of seeing this is recognizing that God can produce good from a flawed person, and we would not think of criticizing God for doing so, or suggesting God needs to give talent to more moral people. But God sends his sun and rain on the just and the unjust--- he is a gracious God, and so we should evaluate good human culture prompted by God the ultimate artist as an expression of his handiwork.



Ben Witherington said...

Hi Tom:

I completely understand this point of view, though I do not entirely agree with it. I suggest you go and see the movie, and draw your own conclusions, for example as to whether you would suggest your progeny to see it or not. I would never say that going to see a movie of some redeeming value is an implicit endorsement of this or that actor's bad behavior. I would add that it is precisely the appearance of boycotting something that is good that will be a bad witness to non-Christians who already think we are too sanctimonious. If we ask what Jesus would do, I'll bet he would have gone to see this movie, and applauded some of its message.



Pat R said...

i'm not too excited about the Soloist, honestly; though "Collateral" and "The Kingdom" were good, Jamie Foxx tends have a bland acting style