The Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in May, here are a few of the things I’ve gained. I’ll be posting about one per day, out of order, over the next ten days. Some will be awesome. This one, #7 starts us off lightly.

#7

The best stories rule the world; and the best story is the strangely compelling narrative of Jesus.

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Try as I might to find meaningful stories to communicate the reality of God, the story God has given us is simply the most compelling story the world will ever hear. My favorite movie is Clint Eastwood’s 2008 masterpiece, Gran Torino. SPOILER ALERT: I’m about to give away the plot. If you haven’t seen the movie, go see it, and skip this post.

Anyway, I’ll make it simple. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a crotchety retired Polish-American line-worker from Highland Park which is couched within the city limits of Detroit. He’s angry that all his white neighbors have moved away to the suburbs surrounding Detroit, angry that his kids are distant, angry that his priest [he’s Catholic] is young and inexperienced, angry that his wife passed away, angry that poor Hmong refugees now surround his neighborhood, angry that crime rates are up and that Detroit is struggling.

But something happens within Kowalski. I’d say it’s nothing but the power of God. Some may say it’s an old, angry gentleman who experiences an inner revolution. But I’d say it’s the life-transforming power of God.

He takes in a young neighbor, Thao, who had attempted to steal Kowalski’s prized car, an early ’70s Ford Gran Torino. At first it’s restitution, and Thao does odd jobs to make up for his attempted crime. But soon, Kowalski becomes a real mentor to Thao. Thao needs a father, and Kowalski coaches him on how to gather tools, hob-nob with the good-ol’-boys, fix things, and even gets him a construction job.

Gran Torino

Kowalski makes the mistake of roughing up some gang members who had been trying to recruit Thao into their drug-running enterprise. Soon, the gang retaliates and shoots up the Thao’ house and rapes his sister.

Outraged, Kowalski takes things into his own hands. His priest comes over to confront him, but even though he makes a serious confession, he hides his plan from the young minister.

By this point, I’m expecting a shootout between Kowalski and the gangsters. No good outcome is really possible here, right? In the light from streetlamps, he storms in and yells at the gangsters from the sidewalk. Then, provocatively, he reaches his hand into his vest pocket. They light him up, cutting him down with automatics. As he bleeds out, the watcher learns Kowalski was unarmed the whole time; he was reaching for a lighter for his cigarette.

Instead of continuing violence, he absorbs it, laying down his life for his new and foreign neighbor, the neighbor who tried to steal his car.

Kowalski’s actions were powerful. But they were only powerful because they mirror the greatest action of all: Christ’s work on the cross. Jesus suffered and died, absorbing violence instead of continuing it. But where Kowalski did plenty of things to deserve anger–maybe not murder, but certainly anger and distrust–Jesus was a perfect sacrifice.

Kowalski discovered the deepest meaning of love: it’s laying your life down for your friend. And his story is compelling because it mirrors the greatest story-the story of Jesus.

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