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Woody Allen and the Great Checkmate

Woody Allen is best known as a prolific movie director and husband of ex-wife Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon Yi Previn.  A recent interview with Oliver Burkeman focused on his movies and his “shameful marriage,” but the article concluded with a deeply troubled Allen discussing aging and death.

Now 76 years old, Woody Allen says of ageing, “It’s a bad business. It’s a confirmation that the anxieties and terrors I’ve had all my life were accurate. There’s no advantage to ageing. You don’t get wiser, you don’t get more mellow, you don’t see life in a more glowing way. You have to fight your body decaying, and you have less options.”

Burkeman observes that Allen’s coping response to the anxieties and terrors of life is to keep his mind distracted from life’s realities.  As Allen says: “The only thing you can do is what you did when you were 20 – because you’re always walking with an abyss right under your feet; they can be hoisting a piano on Park Avenue and drop it on your head when you’re 20 – which is to distract yourself. Getting involved in a movie [occupies] all my anxiety … If I wasn’t concentrated on that, I’d be thinking of larger issues. And those are unresolvable, and you’re checkmated whichever way you go” (The Guardian, Sept. 13, 2012).

Allen’s assessment of ageing and death reveals the thinking of a thoughtful unbeliever.  His melancholy does not result from misunderstanding our existence in flesh and blood.  No, he understands things quite well.  His fear is the reasoned response of hopelessness.  And we should never forget this.  Unbelievers with whom we share Christ may not state their anxieties so clearly.  They may not admit their need for distraction from the “larger issues.” But this is where unbelief inevitably leads, to hopelessness smothered by distraction.  Or, as Allen expresses it, unbelief ends in the knowledge that you’re checkmated and there is no way to win the game of life.

As I listened to Allen’s heartbeat through his words, I thought of a favorite novelist, Ernest Hemingway.  Like Woody Allen, Hemingway lacked faith in Jesus and grew despondent as he faced death.  Rather than succumb to the “biological trap” accelerated by cancer, he chose to end his life with a shotgun blast.  This was Hemingway’s final act in determining his life through his own choices, rather than life and death being determined for him.  If death was going to checkmate him, he decided to place himself in checkmate and end the game on his terms.

Despair by “thinking unbelievers” is the reasoned response of hopelessness.  How could a thinking person not feel fearful and checkmated when they look into the eyes of their spouse and children, believing that death will separate them forever?  How does unbelief not produce unending despair when tragedy strikes?  Without Jesus the only way to cope with life’s greatest sorrows is unending “distraction.”

I have discovered that hopelessness is helpful as we share Christ.  And if an unbeliever isn’t hopeless, and doesn’t feel checkmated, we should help him feel that way!  If hopelessness is smothered by distractions, we should pierce through the distractions, and lance the boil of hopelessness so that it spills out and runs all over.  Because as Woody Allen says, when the distractions are removed, one is left with the “larger issues.”  However, Allen is wrong when he says that the “larger issues” are unresolvable.

As believers we know that death is not checkmate.  The spit and blood of the Roman Cross seemed to the world and the underworld to be the final checkmate when Jesus gave up His life. But Jesus’ death was followed by the Great Checkmate when on Sunday morning Jesus Christ rose victoriously, checkmating death and the devil.  The resurrection of Jesus, to be followed by the resurrection of the dead in Christ, resolves all of the “larger issues” that grip Woody Allen in fear.  “For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.… Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:52b-54).  This is the good news with which every thoughtful unbeliever must be confronted.

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