Joe Carter has a wonderful post today, The Fountainhead of Bedford Falls: Comparing George Bailey and Howard Roark, discussing elements of the style and meaning of It’s a Wonderful Life and The Fountainhead. While I might quibble about some points in the evaluation, it’s a well written and thoughtful piece, and you should take a look at it. In fact, what I say here will not make much sense unless you read his piece first. Just be aware that I’m taking off at about a 90 degree angle rather than building directly on Carter’s comments.
But having said that, I want to ask you to think about some things that aren’t in either of these works of literature. You see, I have enjoyed both, while being fully aware of the contrasting views involved. Carter notes:
The fans of The Fountainhead are therefore not likely to appreciate Wonderful Life. Indeed, the messages are so antithetical that only a schizophrenic personality could truly appreciate both George Bailey and Howard Roark. For even though they are surprisingly similar characters, when the spell of sentimentalism has faded the contrasts become clear.
Perhaps I’m just such a schizophrenic. But I think not. Rather, I think that both these pictures give us stark contrasts that are not the day to day personalities we have to deal with. That’s not a bad thing. One of the enduring qualities of the book of Revelation (shameless plug for my study guide), beyond and timelines and specific future predictions one extracts from it, is that it clears up the good guys and the bad guys. We know which is which, we know who to hate and who to love, and we can cheer as the deserving ones get thrown into the lake. A similar fascination comes from watching Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. We know when to cheer and when not to. Evil comes along so dark and obvious that we can be certain all its allies are culpable and certainly not completely deceived.
But reality doesn’t come so clearly divided. Our morals seem closer to Isaiah 30:21 “And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.'” (NRSV), and we’re not always that clear about the voice. What I mean is that the life of sacrifice or the life of pure egotism may each look like an ideal, but they are both failing approaches. In the morning, both George Bailey and Howard Roark go on living in a crumbling world while the crowd goes on with its mediocrity.
Christians automatically jump to George Bailey as a good example. Sacrifice is the thing! Give up everything for others, just like Jesus did–kenosis (Philippians 2:5-11)! But Jesus wasn’t a George Bailey, sacrificing himself for all the mediocre people around him. And Jesus certainly was not Howard Roark, pursuing his principles no matter what it did to him and to others. Instead Jesus pursued his principles for the uplift of others, and in the end lifting himself up as well. His was a path that neither conformed to the world, nor ignored the world, but instead transformed the world.
And that is the more difficult road that Christians are called to follow. Do I pursue the thing in which I have talent, or do I pursue the career that most suits my family? It’s not a simple question of deciding between Ayn Rand and Frank Capra’s view. There’s a challenge there to live your principles for others and in concert with others. And that’s much harder than either path. It’s also no more the “everyman” route than either of these major characters. But it’s the calling of those who are and who make disciples.
Let me consider some examples. Is worship about you or about God? This is one of those pulpit pounding topics and I’ve heard the pulpit pounding go both ways. You’ve got to have worship that brings you in, involves you, leads you into the presence, or any of a number of similar phrases. (Pound! Pound!) Worship is all about God, so forget about what you want, what helps you, or being fed! Just worship under whatever circumstances. (Pound! Pound!) And I’m inconsitent enough to have agreed with both from time to time. I truly believe, however, that avoiding the “left” and the “right” in this case means finding a place where you can worship God (it’s all about God) and at the same time be healed and renewed (God makes it about you). Recently on a Sunday morning I knew I needed a certain amount of personal renewal, and that a communion service would satisfy. A church other than my home church had such a service, and so I paid a visit, and what I received was something special. Should I switch churches and go there every week? Absolutely not. I’m where God wants me to be, and my normal call on Sunday morning is to yield some of my own desires to those of others.
Should a Christian pursue his or her passion in a career or conform to the apparent needs and desires of others? The George Bailey way (popularly perceived) is to give up your own desires totally. But you may truly best serve those around you by pursuing your passion and making a success of it. Many frustrated people think they have given to God and their community by pursuing a career based on what others asked of them, but in the end have simply wasted the gifts and the talents that God has given them.
But there are Howard Roarks in the Christian community as well, the people who are so thoroughly and completely called by God to a particular ministry (at least in their own minds) that their ministry is the only one that exists. Just as Roark could design good buildings (though I find the concept of aesthetics expressed in the book just a bit odd), so these people do good ministry. They are dedicated to something that needs to be accomplished, that needs resources, but they can’t recognize that they are only part of the whole vineyard. I once visited a number of people with a gentleman who was involved in extraordinary work for the Lord. We were to try to make contacts and raise money for his work. We were never able to get a conversation going with anyone because the only thing he wanted to talk about was his ministry and the money he needed for it. One of our contacts even stopped me as we left the audience and said quietly, “Come again yourself and I’ll talk to you, but don’t bring him.”
It’s easy to get off the track because we’d like it easy. We’d like to either sacrifice ourselves every time, say yes to every request for volunteers, and write a check for every offering call or we’d like to know that we don’t have to listen to others at all, write no checks, and like Roark, construct a life our way without allowing any influence from others.
But the call of God is to stewardship, to a path that requires the constant choice. You empty yourself, but you do that to God, so he can rebuild and refill. That’s the narrow path that requires constant choice so that you empty yourself to transform, and are not simply conforming.
I don’t actually have such a negative view of George Bailey as a character as my use (or abuse) here might indicate. I’ve always thought he did a pretty good job of doing what had to be done. There will be many points in your life in which you have to make George Bailey’s choices. You may find that very little was your choice or “just between you and God.” But at the same time, if you are to be a transforming influence, which I believe is synonymous with “disciple maker,” you are going to have to make a constant choice between sacrifice to others and maintaining principles. Sacrifice to God combines those most effectively.