The Big Chill turns 40
Pragmatism, idealism, and secular theologies of a good life
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This last weekend I was in Indianapolis to close a podcast (The Happy Rant) that I’ve been a part of for ten years. The best part of going to Indianapolis is always driving by our old apartment—the one KK and I inhabited in our first two years of marriage—when we were young, broke, happy, and idealistic. We always drive to the complex (Brockton Apartments, absolute beauties), park the car, and take a nostalgic turn around the courtyard.
Concurrent with this misty-eyed backward gazing was my first viewing of The Big Chill, which is an iconic, dialogue-driven ’80s reference piece—the likes of which Hollywood isn’t making any of, anymore. The Big Chill concerns a group of college best friends who gather, in middle age, in a big house for one weekend to mourn the death of their other friend. The Amazon description of this movie is stunningly minimalist: “Ex-college friends reunite in a big house after a funeral, to play old records and talk.” Haha. It’s like they made a movie just for me.
A word on cast: this movie featured an absolute murderer’s row of 1980s heavy-hitters, including William Hurt (amazing), Tom Berenger (owned the ’80s, should have had a bigger career), Kevin Kline (ditto) and Jeff Goldblum, whose glasses in the movie worked great then and also weirdly work perfectly now.
What’s interesting about The Big Chill is that like most dramatic movies it ends up presenting various secular “theologies” of What Makes a Good Life. In it, the characters are lamenting their lost idealism (“we were gonna be revolutionaries”) while at the same time celebrating and enjoying the fruits of their successes. One character (Kline)—the one with the big house—is about to sell his niche shoe company to Nike. Another, Goldblum, writes banal features for People Magazine. Another, Berenger, is the star of an unspeakably stupid but popular Magnum PI-ish television program which features his chest hair and him jumping into convertibles without opening the door. Hurt’s character was a radio psychologist in Seattle which means he may have messed around and invented the Frasier Crane character which would come about a decade later.
They are all midly-to-severely dissatisfied with parenting (“I can’t believe some of the things that come out of my mouth”), marriage (“I haven't met that many happy people in my life. How do they act?”), and friendship (“a long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time”). They are all the picture of successful, but Christless, lives. They all had things in their lives that they counted on to bring them joy (money, creativity, sex, substances), and those things have failed.
And being that it’s 1983 we never get anything pointed or on-the-nose about their politics or idealism, we just know they had some and now it’s gone. Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter are never mentioned by name, or even in the abstract.
In a way, nothing about The Big Chill is Christian, but in another way, everything about it is, in that it illustrates the chief struggle/questions inherent in all of our lives, namely, why are certain things (good or bad) happening to me, and why don’t I feel more fulfilled by the things that were supposed to bring me fulfillment?
These are issues I really want my sons, and my students, to begin grappling with in deeply Christian ways. Ideally, we begin the grappling with a robust understanding of scripture as God-breathed and authoritative and stunningly applicable to life in the here and now. Ideally, we begin the grappling with an understanding of God’s sovereignty as tied directly to my good and His glory, even when circumstances are confusing or hard. Because if it’s my idealism or politics or charisma or ambitions steering the emotional ship, it is sure to crash, as it does for all of the characters in The Big Chill.
In a way Brockton Apartments doesn’t represent much for me except a time of life when I was blissfully unaware of how hard life would get and how untrustworthy my own dreams were. But I still miss it—the youth, the dreams. In that apartment I dreamed of publishing books, which I’ve done to moderate (at best) success. I supposed I dreamed of having a radio audience, which I’ve had to again very moderate success. I’ve also experienced fairly massive personal and professional failures.
But in a more significant way, we like looking at Brockton Apartments and reflecting on what God has brought us through, in terms of 27 years of marriage, 27 years of successes and failures, and 27 years of forgiveness and grace. Our lives have mattered, but only because of Christ.
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These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.