Saving a World that Doesn’t Want Saving

This past weekend, Rita and I went to see The Soloist (2009), a movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. It is the chronicle of a true story of friendship between LA Times columnist Steve Lopez and street musician Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. The movie is an adaptation of Lopez’ book entitled: The Soloist: A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music.

A Lost Dream

Lopez is transfixed at his first meeting with Ayers in the park at Pershing Square as he listens to the latter playing a violin with only two strings. As the story unfolds, we learn that Ayers had been an immensely talented child prodigy. His talent and determination eventually opened the way for him to study at the famed Juilliard music school in New York. But why was Nathaniel Ayers now living rough on the streets of L.A., all his worldly possessions loaded into a shopping cart, playing a two stringed violin in the park and in the 2nd street tunnel near Hill Street?

Ayers dropped out of Juilliard in his second year because of schizophrenia. In following decades, he experienced the harsh consequences of this disease in severe social dislocation and impoverishment. He battled his mental illness–sometimes with medication, but mostly not–finding consolation and a measure of personal peace in making music on the streets.

An Unlikely Friendship

For Lopez, the combination of Ayers’ brilliant talent and his homelessness and poverty are an absolute contradiction and an offense to what is right. At first, Nathaniel Ayers is a story to be told to the readers of Lopez’ column. But it strikes a chord. Many want to help Ayers, including Lopez himself. A cello is donated for Ayers to play; Lopez arranges to get Ayers an apartment; he presses to get Ayers connected with members of the L.A. music community; and he even explores the possibility of forcing Ayers into a mental health facility so that he can receive medical and psychiatric help. Every effort and attempt by Lopez is frustrated by Ayers, however. Sometimes spectacularly so!

At one point in the movie, Lopez sits on the sofa in his ex-wife and fellow-journalist’s apartment. He laments his consistent failure as protector of his family during the earthquake, committed husband, and helper to Nathaniel Ayers and others like him on the streets of L.A.  Through tears of frustration he declares, "I resign! I resign! I resign!" His ex-wife replies that he is not a savior. Lopez couldn’t stop the earthquake and he can’t save Los Angeles or even Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. But he can be a friend.

The movie is a thoughtful piece and is bound to cause many, and especially Christians, to reflect upon the soaring joys and deep sorrows of human compassion and friendship. Its exploration of the boundary between genuine help and oppressive control and coercion in the actions of Lopez is wise and sensitive.

…and the Redemptive Power of Music?

Which brings me to the movie’s canvas of several avenues of redemption. How does one save people who don’t want to be saved?

Redemption is decidedly not to be found on offer in the hostility and heavy-handedness of the police , in the promises of slickly-portrayed politicians, nor in earlier bullying forms of Lopez’ activism the moviegoer is told.  The character of the director of the Lamp Community in L.A. offers a sensitive counterpoint as he counsels a frustrated Lopez at several points. The consistent advice in every conversation is helpfulness that is intensely personal and practical, respectful, and filled with patience and genuine friendship.

Over and over again, the moviegoer is encouraged to find "redemption" in the music. It leaves Lopez dumbstruck and awed, it soothes and relieves the troubled Ayers, and it deeply affects moviegoers. I would be the first to suggest that the music offers a kind of transport–but redemption? What happens when the music stops, as it always does?

The movie turns a disappointingly jaundiced and hostile eye toward the church in the cliched, objectionable religiosity of one musician character from whom Lopez seeks help. There are certainly places to look in justification of that shot–lamentable examples of empty, shallow, and generally inadequate Christian response to crushing physical, psychological and spiritual need.

Sadly, moviegoers will be tempted to write off the genuine article on the basis of a facile generalization.

In fact, it is Jesus with whom Lopez, in this writer’s opinion, seems most closely to want to identify, though the movie does not trace a connection. It was he who, "while we were yet sinners, … died for us." (Romans 5:8). Jesus is the astonishing demonstration of God’s love because, while desperately needed, he was unwanted; while offered without sham or hypocrisy, he was unforced; and while possessed of a quiet self-assurance and the power of majesty, he astonished the world by engaging in a "buy  back" that was appallingly costly to him. 

Those who have been thoroughly captivated and transformed by that love can be found. And they furnish in their own selfless love and practical helpfulness a foretaste of redemption in present experience which is the respectful context for gospel conversation. It is also a powerful witness to the hope of redemption’s ultimate realization in God’s Son.