Frank Capra’s classic film It’s a Wonderful Life is an American Christmas icon. For many, including me, December isn’t complete without watching it at least once. I was around ten years old the first time I saw it and I was captivated. I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to live in Bedford Falls, eat ice cream at Mr. Gower’s drug store, go to the dance at the high school gym where the floor opens to reveal the swimming pool, say ‘hi’ to Bert the Cop and hear him say, “Hi, Phil!” Bert would know my name. Everybody in Bedford Falls knows everybody else by name.
No wonder we love this movie. It evokes an idyllic small town America that never really was, but isn’t that what movies are for? It’s an American morality play in which our hero George Bailey – who else could play him but Jimmy Stewart? – is pitted against the corrupting influences of greed and power personified in Old Man Potter. In the end when George triumphs, so do we, and so do our shared values of personal sacrifice, public service, and common decency.
So far so good, but It’s a Wonderful Life is also a story of personal crisis and salvation set in the context of Christmas. It is at this point that I must risk being a Grinch and say that Capra’s vision of the meaning of Christmas is not only sub-Christian, it is the polar opposite of the authentic Christmas message. If you love the movie as much as I do, you may think I’ve quit preaching and gone to meddling, but bear with me. Iconoclasm can be liberating.
Young George Bailey lived in a small town but his dreams were immense. He yearned to get out of Bedford Falls and see the world, but life seemed to cheat him at every turn. He always sacrificed his dream so that someone else could realize theirs. His pent-up frustration and resentment finally explode when his absent-minded Uncle Billy loses a large sum of cash and Bailey Bros. Building and Loan is faced with scandal and ruin. All the disappointments and unfulfilled dreams come crashing down around him. Believing his life is a waste he goes down to the river with thoughts of suicide. In desperation, he calls out for divine help.
Enter Clarence the Angel. Knowing the whole story of George’s selfless life, Clarence wants to show him that his life has counted much more than he knows. With approval from on High, Clarence takes George on a tour of what the world would be like if he had never been born. Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville, a hellish place where they don’t know your name and don’t care to. George finally sees that his simple steady goodness has affected more lives than he imagined. He really has done great things even though he never got out of Bedford Falls. George is reborn. His many friends raise the money to pay the debt. He has a joyous fresh start.
So, how can a pastor find fault? I have no quarrel with the truth that giving yourself in the service of others has a much greater influence for good than we know. My objection is that something is missing – something so crucial to the meaning of Christmas that its absence turns It’s a Wonderful Life into the opposite of the real Christmas story.
Christmas is about grace. God’s humble entry into the world in the birth of Jesus was unsought, unmerited, freely given. The world didn’t deserve such a gift. In our rebellion against God we had earned only judgment and death, but God so loved the world he would not abandon us. As the Apostle Paul put it, the eternal Son of God “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). He came not because we deserved him, but out of infinite grace and love. That is why Christmas is such astounding good news.
But in Capra’s Wonderful Life version of Christmas there is no grace to be found. George Bailey’s salvation is not a gift. In fact, the whole point of the story is that he earned it. He lived a good life, Heaven took notice, and he was duly rewarded. George Bailey was saved by his own good works. This strikes a deep chord in us because we all like to think we’re really pretty good if only the world (and God) would notice. It appeals to our vanity, but has nothing to do with Christmas. Christmas is about an undeserved gift. But in Capra’s universe nothing is given without a price tag. The George Baileys of the world are rewarded for their good deeds and the Potters of the world are punished for their evil. This moral economy is so strictly enforced that even Clarence the Angel has to earn his wings.
Charles Dickens was much closer to the heart of Christmas when he showed us the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge. The uninvited spirits that haunt Scrooge on Christmas Eve hold before him a mirror of his greed, selfishness and cruelty. The truth of his life drives him to despair, much like the Apostle Paul: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). When Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning, he realizes he’s been given a fresh start, a new birth. It was grace – unsought, unmerited, freely given, that made Scrooge feel “as giddy as a drunken man” though he hadn’t touched a drop. He had something better than alcohol. He was given new life when he knew he had earned death, and he is transformed.
“Fear not,” said the angel of Bethlehem, “for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). The first and greatest Christmas gift was this baby called Emmanuel – “God with us.” He was born helpless and vulnerable in the dark night of a broken world. He came with a love that led him all the way to a cross where he gave his life in our place, absorbing the judgment and death that should have been ours. As the old carol says, he was “born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.”
Such a gift is an affront to our pride. Something deep within us would rather earn it, because then we would not have to kneel at the manger. By definition, a gift cannot be earned. The only thing for us to do is accept him and join the angel chorus saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14).
Merry Christmas, everybody!
I came over to your blog from Chris Enoch facebook post. You make a valid point about this classic movie. Interestingly, I’ve read that the movie created a lot of stir in the 40s for some thought it was bashing capitalism and everything at the time was being read between the lens of capitalistic/communistic struggle. But I wonder if the movie may be more reflective on a nation that had become much more urban and industrial and, now the war was over, there were those who wanted to go back to what never really existed.
As for grace, the character in the movie that shows grace is George Bailey’s wife (I think her name was Mary… which is ironic, at least) who gives up her honeymoon nest-egg to save the S&L. While not divine grace, she seems to demonstrates human grace, and in many ways is the real hero of the story for George seems to, in the end, only focus on himself (even his suicide would have been for his benefit.