© 2020 Robert Osburn
The 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a favorite at Christmas: its inspirational content, beloved main actor Jimmy Stewart, and a story so very, very American (themes of hard work, family, and community). It honors the heroic individual who discovers, after his life has taken all the worst turns, Bedford Falls, New York would have been a hellish place if George Bailey had not lived.
But, I invite you to also consider the film a metaphor for the positive difference Christianity makes in a society. So, what makes this 75 year-old film a believable metaphor for the flourishing that results when the Gospel changes society?
The film obviously partakes of the biblical arc of all great moral dramas, namely, creation, fall, and redemption. Just after George Bailey’s wedding to Mary, the Great Depression and human stupidity lead to the film’s dramatic climax: George’s near-death by suicide. Instead of jumping to his death, George saves drowning Clarence, his guardian angel. The story becomes redemptive as Clarence shows him how prosperous Bedford Falls would have become slum-driven Pottersville had not George lived.
Eschewing glossy sentimentalism, the film offers stunningly obvious portraits of human beauty mixed with beastliness. Consider, for example, George’s Uncle Billy. While gloating at greedy Old Man Potter, Billy stupidly loses $8,000 and thus almost destroys Bailey Savings and Loan. George becomes desperate and suicidal.
With corruption endemic in our 21st century, the film’s devilish tempter (rich Mr. Potter, already the owner of much of the town) is utterly believable. He holds all the cards, playing them fiendishly in hopes of keeping the town under his abusively corrupt and despotic thumb. Only George Bailey, before whom he waves the temptation of a mighty salary, stands in his way.
To reiterate my point: It’s not just that a hero like George Bailey can make a profound difference to others, but it is even more so the case that Christianity makes a community better than it would otherwise be. We challenge our students to find redemptive solutions for problems in their societies, but we also remind them that Christian faith showers their societies with greater redemptive possibilities than most ever imagine. Part of the importance of seeing this film metaphorically is that, just as angel Clarence shows George how terrible the town would be without him, likewise we need to see how much worse society would be without Christianity’s leavening influence.
What are some differences Christianity makes in societies?
We are morally accountable (Romans 2:14-16). Thus, moral universalism holds each of us, as well as our communities, accountable to the same law. George knows that he must go to prison if he cannot find the funds to keep his savings and loan business solvent. Accountability to the same law builds trust, and trust leads to thriving economies.
We should not steal what is others’ (Ephesians 4:28). In the film, George Bailey loans money for a thriving neighborhood of new homes in Bailey Park. Clarence shows him that without George Bailey there would have been a cemetery instead, a place where community, trust, and beauty is buried.
Corruption is bridled and held firmly in check (Deuteronomy 10:17). In Bedford Falls, public officials don’t demand under-the-table payment for their services, but in much of the world where trust is minimal, bribes are common. Corrupt societies that justify bribery are the same societies that breed sexual corruption.
Husbands and wives pursue one another’s blessing and benefit, and that of their children as well (Ephesians 5:22-6:4). Clarence introduces George to the dissolution, alcoholism, and unfaithfulness of a Pottersville saloon, whereas the world George had helped to make in Bedford Falls understood that the family is the seedbed of society.
Public services serve the common good (Galatians 5:13). Note the contrast between the police who accommodate and serenade the newly-married couple in Bedford Falls versus the Pottersville police who crudely manhandle George Bailey when he shows up in a city that knows him not.
The imperfect is not the enemy of the good, true, and beautiful (John 1:7-10). George and Mary do live in a “drafty old barn” but they plow through in order to redeem their house and make it a home for their four children. The imperfect residents of Bedford Falls make plans to redeem and improve their neighborhoods. Those in Pottersville, however, have given up. They have no hope of redeeming their lives, houses, or neighborhoods.
You may ask: But, what about common grace, the teaching that God showers his grace and goodness even on those without Christ? Does not common grace negate the argument that Christianity makes societies better than they would otherwise be? Common grace sustains human beings in the same way that Christ sustains the Universe (Colossians 1:17), but He has given us the responsibility to fill and steward it (Genesis 1:26-28), and to also limit the effects of evil while magnifying the effects of grace (Matthew 5:13-16). Collectively, Christians should make our communities richer and better.
To some cynics, the final scene where the community generously responds and saves Bailey Savings and Loan is saccharine. But, if you have lived (as I have) in rural towns, you know what happens when a farmer falls ill. In my mind’s eye, I watch already-overworked neighboring farmers dispatch themselves to plant and harvest the crops of ill neighbors. These spontaneous mutual aid societies are a product of Christian faith that turns competitors into friends whom we serve when they are helpless.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is not just the story of the difference one person makes; it is a metaphor for the difference that Christ makes in a society. This is good news that deserves to be highlighted (Matthew 5:16).
What an incredible movie. Thanks for sharing as your metaphors describe everything I really love about the movie. When I was a 20 year-old, I was studying film at Cal State Fullerton during a gap year from Luther College (Decorah, IA) where I had just completed my sophomore year and didn’t know what I wanted to study. So, interested in the movie industry I moved to California where my sister and her husband lived. Two of the people I met while studying film were Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart. Fonda I don’t remember much about as he was quite aloof. But Stewart, was just like his character on screen – charming, friendly, personable, only married to one wife, whom I also met; a man of integrity in a corrupt business. I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to him and found that all these character traits matched up. So, I consider myself a fortunate man to have met this icon in the film industry. Thanks for sharing this article.