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Friday, May 16, 2014

Mean Girls and Mean Theology

The teen film Mean Girls (2004) is sort of a cult classic with the kids at the school where I teach. Everyone knows the story, even though the film is getting a bit old now. The star (Lindsay Lohan) is certainly no teenager anymore, as any number of her recent escapades in the press will attest. But somehow the plotline still works. On April 28th, the anniversary of its release, that bastion of fine journalism, the Toronto Sun proudly proclaimed it “still the ultimate teen movie”.

I sure hope not.

While the film mocks such ubiquitous high school phenomena as girl gangs, gossip, materialism and petty cruelty, its enduring popularity suggests more: it suggest that the old problems are still recognizable, still with us, and still a vital part of teen culture. Mean Girls still works because mean girls still thrive in teen culture.

A Really Mean Girl

I work in a school. Let me tell you about the meanest girl in it. Her name is Grace. Radiantly attractive she may be, but as the old pop tune goes, “She ain’t pretty, she just looks that way”.

She sees herself as irresistible — and maybe she is. She’s got power, to be sure. And she’s not afraid to use it. She handpicks the girls she calls friends and the boys she dates. It doesn’t matter if they want her or not; she has ways of making them want her. Then she takes over their lives, controlling their every move.

As for those she rejects, she has no more thought for them. Oh, she’ll let them think they have a chance to please her, and even invite them to hang around with her; but she has no use for them, and when it suits her, she’ll trash them without regret.

She imagines she has relationships. Yet the obvious point she has never understood is this: there’s no such thing as a relationship that’s forced. You cannot bully, swindle and manipulate people into loving you, and then call that a genuine relationship. She doesn’t get that, though: she has only slaves, drones and victims in her world. And nobody is her friend by free choice. Nobody loves her for who she is.

Teachers at the school refer to her as “Irresistible Grace”. It’s not a compliment.

How sad.

Just Kidding

But hey, get over it. I was just kidding. Actually, I made Irresistible Grace up. No such girl exists. I’ve just been having you on. The kids at my school are mostly quite nice, and none is a real monster like that.

But you might have known: after all, I was painting a cliché, wasn’t I? It really would be unlikely to find anyone who acts and thinks like I’ve described — so mean, petty, solipsistic and callous, right?

Well, except Neo-Calvinists say God does.

Think of that next time you hear the phrase “Irresistible Grace”. The Neo-Calvinists claim that God acts just like that: that he uses power rather than persuasion. That he is cruel and kind for no reason. That he uses his controlling authority rather than kindness to bring people to him. That his friends are all friends by compulsion, not because of the lovability of his character. That he approves selectively, hates arbitrarily, and blesses or damns according to his stern pleasure.

And like the Grace in my little story, their doctrine is just a figment of imagination.

Another Grace

Let me tell you another story.

There is a girl in my school. Her name is Grace. She’s not much to look at, unless you know her. But once you do, you think she’s amazing.

She loves the unlovely. She forgives those who have done things against her — even wicked, hurtful things. She heals the wounded, attends the sick and calls everyone into a right relationship with her.

She also has power; but she uses it only for good. She never bullies, controls or manipulates other people. True, she is always in full control of her situation, but she leaves other people free to make choices — even bad ones, if that’s what they are determined to do. In that case, she leaves them free to choose their own path, for she knows that she cannot deprive them of choice and make them do the right thing without leaving them stunted and infantile. And that all should come to have a right relationship with her is her goal, even if they don’t understand or accept that.

Her friends are many and genuine. They are not her friends by force, but by the sheer excellence of her kindness toward them, and by the merit of her personality. In fact, it’s true to say that those who know her at all really cannot help but love her.

Ironically, you might almost say she’s irresistible.

But let’s just call her Amazing Grace.

True Grace

Amazing Grace actually exists — though not as a human girl, of course, just as the personification of the true grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. His grace is unlimited, generous and sincere to an infinite degree. It is not based on coercion, far less on any imperious and indifferent “counsels” God has privately held in eternity past. It is premised on the sacrifice made by His Beloved Son.

Having seen the excellence of the Son, we have given up ourselves to love and serve Him. We were not forced to do it, but neither was it really at our own initiative; His greatness, not our wisdom, brought us to it. God in His grace did everything He could have done to make it clear to us how much He loves us — all of us — and yet He has stopped short of coercing us by destroying our wills and identity in order to bring us under His authority. We still must choose to act upon this grace, even when we have come to know it personally. This is why he instructs, rather than forces, us to follow through on the consequences of His grace, by presenting our all to Him as a sacrifice.

And yet it is true that having come to know Him we have surrendered our wills to Him — again, not out of our wisdom, but out of the greatness of His goodness toward us. We see we owe Him everything, and so the kindness of God calls us to repentance, and then to Himself by His own glory and excellence. Having been freed from sin, we become willing bondservants to righteousness.

The Final Point

Amazing grace is free grace. “Irresistible Grace” is not free, and those who believe in it are slaves of the philosophy of Determinism, with the word “God” merely substituted for the word “Fate”.

And if, as I believe, we actually do have a choice, then I think the choice is obvious.

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