Movies & Theology: Collateral Beauty – Thoughts on Death and Connectivity

Looking at the theological themes in Will Smith’s Collateral Beauty. This is a movie about loss, grief and death. However it is also a movie about how you can sometimes find beauty out of the pain. This post is a reminder that death is around you, many people are living a façade and asks the question what is your collateral beauty?

“We long for love, we wish we had more time, and we fear death”

Will Smith in Collateral Beauty

“Just be sure to notice the collateral beauty. It’s the profound connection to everything.”

Madeleine in Collateral Beauty

When they saw Job from a distance, they scarcely recognized him. Wailing loudly, they tore their robes and threw dust into the air over their heads to show their grief. 13 Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.

Job 2: 12 – 13 NLT

On Saturday night I went and saw Collateral Beauty. I am attracted to movies that deal with pain and suffering, and this wrestled with those topics. While it has been panned by some critics, it became a thought provoking movie for me. It explores issues of death, grief and loss. It talks about how we are all connected in life today. It doesn’t set out to be an easy movie, after all some scenes are quite hard to process. Will Smith does an amazing job of playing a father in deep depression overwhelmed by grief. In this movie he is stuck, and he doesn’t care if he loses everything. When I watched this movie I went home on Saturday night and I was up to about 4:00 a.m. just thinking about some of the themes in the context of my own life. I sat on the couch or walked around in my apartment just weighing what I witnessed. That is how this post came about so quickly after the previous post. Will Smith’s character writes notes to death, time and love. I do the same thing in my own way, as I sit in my kitchen and pound away on a key board in the early morning hours sharing my thoughts and pain with the world. But before I start to analyze the movie lets look at the plot. If you don’t want spoilers please stop reading. If you read this and you get angry with me consider yourself warned! 🙂


The Plot

Howard (Will Smith) works at a fast paced advertising agency. This movie starts out with him saying love, time and death are the core of successful advertising because everyone is connected to those ideas. After all people long for love, they wish they had more time and then they also fear death. Two years later Howard’s world has collapsed. His daughter died of a massive brain tumor at 6 years old. His marriage fell apart and his health is being affected. His hair is turning gray and he spends his time at work playing with dominos. His friends and partners are Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena) who are deeply troubled by his deep depression. Howard’s business is falling apart and his clients are leaving. The partners want to sell the agency to an interested buyer so that people can keep their jobs. However, Howard needs to sign off on the deal and he won’t acknowledge them or speak with them. The situation has become so dire that his partners have hired a private detective Sally Price (Ann Dawd)  to take pictures and follow him around. They are hoping he can be found to be unfit or bring him back through a private detective. Sally notices him sending letters in a mail box and she bribes a post office employee to get the key, whereby she makes a duplicate and is able to obtain the letters. She discovers that Howard is writing to love, death and time. Claire observes that he is grieving and that he writes for therapy and healing. Whit has an idea one day to get three actors at a small theatre to play the role of time, death and love and confront Howard. Those three actors are Helen Mirren as death, Kiera Knightly as love, and Jacob Lattimore as time. One by one the actors follow and meet up with Howard who is genuinely shocked by their appearance. Its important to note that while all this goes on you see that Howard’s partners are dealing with their own issues. Whit had an affair and destroyed his marriage and his 6 year old child is angry at him. Claire poured herself into the agency and missed out on the opportunity to be a mother and that haunts her. Meanwhile Simon has dealt with cancer two times in his life, and the cancer came back. Simon is in the process of dying. Howard shows up at a support group for parents who lost children. The group is led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris)  and Howard can’t open up and talk about what happened. Madeleine tells Howard about how she lost her daughter to a brain tumor. She recalls the experience and even how when her daughter was being removed from life support in a hospital a stranger told her not to miss the collateral beauty in time, which Madeleine did not understand. Howard then decides to open up to Madeleine and tell her that he has been speaking to time, death and love. She encourages Howard to talk back to them and challenge them. The film does deal with the topic of gas lighting as Howard talks with those entities he is recorded. He is confronted  at a final meeting and he realizes that the intervention was helpful. He comes to accept the fact that his child has died and she won’t come back. He also starts to date Madeleine which is how the movie ends. Here is a review in the National Catholic Reporter you can read.


Everyone is Dying in Some Form

Ecclesiasts 3:2 states that there is always a time for death.  The fact of the matter is that death is all around us. Death is everywhere and it has many faces. These are some of the many ways that death is occurring. Some people are in friendships that are dying. That has happened to me a few times in my life. Some are dealing with the death of expectations for children or other loved ones. For example maybe parent A had this goal for their child and they came to the realization that is not going to happen and they have to revise and roll back those expectations. Others are in jobs that are dying and they are dealing with career problems and challenges. That happens as well. Another form of death is failed marriages and divorces. I noticed this theme strongly in this film. Some people are dealing with spiritual death, for example this blog has written about differing churches and the people involved in them are not doing well, and spiritually they are dying. People who are trapped in difficult churches and have a hard time realizing that the place is dying. Some Christians are in the process of losing their faith and they have to contend with that dying. Some parents are dealing with a lost child either through a miscarriage or they have a child who is addicted to drugs and they are watching death unfold in front of them. Others are watching their parents age and enter the sunset of their life as they start to deal with issues such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and more.

Death is all around us, the problem is that we live in a society and a culture that denies this fact. People don’t want to face the fact that death is ongoing and a part of life. People don’t want to discuss this issue. Some people can’t face the fact that such hardship is ongoing, while others prefer to keep their head in the sand and not deal with this topic. Some people are going to be in for a shock one day, after all there is only so much that can be avoided, until this issue comes pounding on your door.


Tragedy Changes People

People should love and be more graceful to each other as you never know what is around the corner. Tragedy changes people…a visit to a doctor or a phone call at 3:00 a.m. can unravel a person’s world. If you were to ask parents who lost a child to cancer I wonder how many would say that they thought that would actually happen?  No one should bury their child, the reality is that your child should bury you. When Job’s friends sat with Job in silence that is how Christians should respond to people. It remains my fiercest contention that the problem of evil or pain and suffering become the single best reason why people reject the Christian faith. Its logical as its easy to say God is good when all is well. Where will you be when you find yourself in an Emergency Room when a loved one is fighting for their life because of a massive stroke? These events do happen.

This blog was born out of intense pain. It grew out of a false accusation. Even amidst the pain I am still sympathetic to Andrew White. Here is why…his time of pain and suffering is coming. I know of one incident that happened already to him and his wife. 10 to 20 years from now who knows what else will happen, yet I can guarantee this fact. Life is hard and its filled with pain. My hope deep down is that one day he will reach out and want to work things out. Tragedy has the means to do that to people as it changes relationships and causes people to want to get their life in order. This blog has written about a guy in Milwaukee who I call Joe Blow. Joe is a pseudonym. He was a student leader in Campus Crusade at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.  Joe struggled with his father in his life then a few years ago his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It changed his Dad’s heart and re-ordered his world. Joe’s father as I recall opened up to his son, and they had a relationship and conversations toward the end of his life that Joe longed for his entire life. Does that make the pancreatic cancer healthy or good? No…but it can change people. Tragedy and disease can change people. My story with Andrew is not over…in time I believe there will be closure in some form. Life has a way of working itself out, as life is hard.


Don’t Let Image Fool You Many People are Acting

In the movie Simon is dealing with cancer. He hides it but he is struggling. Helen Mirren realizes that he is not doing well and asks him. He finally opens up and explains that his cancer is back. When Helen asks if he has told anyone he said no. He doesn’t want to and Helen tells him that they need to know. He needs to die well, and they need to be able to say goodbye. Throughout the movie from this point forward you watch a man dealing with a terminal illness who is fooling people around him. While this context is to cancer the reality is this…many people are doing what Simon did in Collateral Beauty. You see this well in the modern evangelical church. People active in church project happy marriages. However, the shiny projected image that for many people is a façade. Behind the glitter of “all is well” is the pain for some people of alcoholism, unemployment, pain from marital infidelity, drug addiction, illness, binge eating, and so much more. People act this way to present an image that they want the world to see. The problem is that facades do not last forever and they eventually come crashing down at some point for those who invest time trying to perpetuate it. But those of you dealing with pain, struggles and heart break should take comfort because there are more people like yourself than you think. But do not be fooled by your Christian neighbor who makes you jealous. You know what comes in my mind as I type this? Its the part in Ecclesiastes where it says that there is nothing new under the sun.


Writing is Therapy

In the movie Claire comments about how writing is therapeutic when she realizes that Howard is writing to time, death and love. That comment by Claire deeply pierced me in the movie theater. In many ways that is what this blog is about, in my own way its my form of therapy. I never planned or anticipated writing a blog. The funny thing is that Andrew White loves to journal and he tried to get me into it as well. He actually gave me a journal and tried to get me writing and I dismissed it. So now here it is four years later and I write a blog that has been read far and wide. I write about trauma, issues and evangelicalism which all came about as a result of a betrayal that could have destroyed my life. My soul is intense pain even still…for those of you who know me this is why I crank out 4 to 5 posts a week, all while caught up in the Washington, D.C. rat race. This is my form of therapy its also my hope that this prevents other people from getting hurt, as the modern evangelical church is a minefield and outright dangerous I believe. That belief has been born out of my own personal experience. But when I saw that scene with Claire that hit me hard in the movie theater. For those of you in pain or hurting I would strongly recommend writing as well. That can do wonders for your soul.


What is My Collateral Beauty?

There is one risk to the movie that I want to emphasize right here and now. Not every act of pain will always result in beauty. For some people that will not happen and there are some situations that just won’t occur. Plus loss is still the end of this movie Howard lost his child. That is a loss however that he learns to live with and go forward. Basically he learns to live with the scars. What I do notice that is good is that no one in the movie is saying that Howard’s loss was ordained by God in his sovereignty. What undermines Neo-Calvinism in many ways is that it leads some to conclude that God ordered or ordained someone’s suffering.  This exacerbates the problem of evil. This movie is absent of that logic.

But let me stop for a second and ask…what is my collateral beauty? What grew out of both a faith crisis and false accusation that took aim at my name and employment? Yesterday afternoon I was in a hobby shop in Manassas, Virginia when my phone rang. It was Scott Van Sweringen from the Kansas City, Missouri area who just wanted to talk. Scott I met in my faith crisis when I was in pain, and through that experience he became a part of that collateral beauty. He is a nerd about trains (don’t take that personally Scott) and like me I am also a nerd in many ways. Scott is a part of the collateral beauty in my life…would I have met or gotten to know him had my faith crisis not happened? No I would not. How poor would my life be? There is another example that comes in the name of James Crestwood out in Salina, Kansas. A simple friendship was severely tested by a faith crisis, and yet James pursued me. What came about today as a result of that? A deeper, richer and beautiful bond that I am grateful for. When I wrote about it in this open letter to James he wept as he contemplated what transpired and the beauty of it all. That is another example of collateral beauty.

I think of the other examples that came abut through this very blog. It includes getting to know some pastors in the Evangelical Free Church in America (EFCA)  who deeply impress me with their love, tender heart and compasion for pastoring churches in the EFCA. I also think of some of the members of former EFCA churches that I have gotten to know in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the United States. Plus I think of some of the skeptics and atheists I have interacted with. I get texts by a couple and I smile and am grateful for their friendship and more. All of the above is collateral beauty…they came about in the course of time as I struggled to put together my life after it was betrayed and wrecked by a friend. Now please note I am not saying that the false accusation is good. If I could do it all over I would have avoided it all together. But I can’t undo the past, all I can do is accept is and move forward. But that is a part of my collateral beauty that exists. These are my thoughts form being up at late Saturday night after watching this movie. That is all for the day guys please know that I love you!

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