Is America’s favorite Christmas season movie—gnostic?

Jeff W. writes:

It’s a Wonderful Gnostic Life

In the modern age, all kinds of people hold all kinds of gnostic beliefs, and VFR has been the leading website for discussing and disproving those beliefs. One gnostic belief that has been discussed at VFR in the wake of the financial disaster that began in 2008 is that home ownership improves character. This absurd belief has been used as a pretext by both liberals and conservatives in order to expand the housing bubble using government-guaranteed loans.

Where does this belief come from? Perhaps some of it comes from the 1946 Frank Capra movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. That movie can be seen as gnostic propaganda. The moral message of the movie is found in the contrast between the decent, wholesome community of Bedford Falls and seedy, low-class Pottersville. What is the difference between the two communities? In Bedford Falls, affordable mortgages were made available through Bailey Building and Loan. Because of widespread home ownership, the people of Bedford Falls exhibited improved character.

The traditional belief was that good character comes from heredity, a proper family upbringing, and Christian spiritual discipline. But gnostics, of course, strongly object to the concept that heredity determines behavior; they seek to improve children’s upbringing by replacing the family with the state; and they reject Christianity. Having rejected traditional views of the causes of good character, gnostics must propose alternate causes, and one such proposed cause is home ownership.

It is the duty of every sane citizen to resist this kind of magical thinking. We must take a stand for sanity and for traditional wisdom that has been proven by long experience. We must become more alert to gnosticism and more aggressive in denouncing it, and one small step towards that would be to reject the thesis of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life and to argue against those who claim that home ownership produces good character.

LA replies:

Original! The originality lies in seeing that the difference between the existence or non-existence of one man, George Bailey, along with the widespread homeownership he helped bring about, makes for a total, existential difference, like heaven and hell, between Bedford Falls and Pottersville. The notion that the presence or absence of that one factor completely transforms the town and the very nature of its inhabitants gives a world-making importance to that one factor which does seem gnostic.

I’m not sure I agree with your thesis. I have to think about it more. but the argument is plausible and fits the general pattern of liberal gnosticism.

Also, there are degrees of gnosticism. Is the movie mildly gnostic, or a fullj-blown case?

LA writes:

I initially went back and forth about whether I agreed with your thesis, and was leaning toward it. However, after thinking about it further and discussing it with a friend who had some good insights, I don’t think I agree with it.

For one thing, the movie is not really saying that home ownership is some all determining factor, the way gnostic theories make one factor the all ruling factor. There’s certainly no explicit statement to this effect in the movie as far as I remember. More importantly, the thing that makes for the difference between Bedford Falls and Pottersville is a more broad quality of decency, goodness, large-mindedness (in the Aristotelian sense), productiveness, and community, versus meanness, exploitation, and ruthless will. So the movie is Platonic rather than gnostic! It’s saying that a city led and exemplified by a virtuous man (George Bailey) will be very different from a city led and exemplified by a willful tyrant (Mr. Potter). (See Books VIII and IX of Plato’s Republic.)

When people are watching the movie, and especially the fantasy sequence, I don’t think they’re thinking, “Oh, boy, look how terrible the city has become because it didn’t have home ownership.” No, they’re thinking, “Look how terrible the city became when it wasn’t led by virtue and decency, but by man’s lower nature.” The view of man’s nature and the nature of society presented in the movie is not narrowly ideological (do the people in the town own their own homes or not), but holistic, based in the idea of the love of the good: is man oriented toward the good, or oriented away from the good? Which again is Platonic.

So I think I would say that the movie is traditionalist rather than gnostic. In order to see it as gnostic, one would have to tease out the home ownership idea and make it the all controlling factor of the movie in a way that is not really true to the movie.

P.S. On another point, it seems to me that it’s a stretch to blame the leftist egalitarian mortgage insanity of the ’90s and ’00s on this movie from 1946. The movie had been around, and extremely popular, for decades, without people saying, It’s a Wonderful Life is telling us that in America everyone must have his own home, and all racial groups must have the same rates of home ownership.” I don’t think we can blame the financial crisis of 2008 on Frank Capra (who by the way was a Republican).

- end of initial entry -

Jim B. writes:

I would go further in rejecting your correspondent’s thesis.

First, I do believe that, other things being equal, a community of homeowners does promote social stability. As usual the liberals and quasi-liberals like George Bush took this germ of an idea and made it into a gnostic plan for social reconstruction by eliminating every conceivable obstacle to homeownership (thus removing any “character building” component of the process), but that doesn’t mean the idea is invalid.

But the larger point about the film: It’s a Wonderful Life is just about the most “un-Gnostic” film ever to come out of Hollywood. Contrary to the standard Hollywood message (then and now) of “follow your dreams”, it shows a hero who chooses duty over “following his dreams” at every turn (and who is well aware of everything he missed out on by doing so), and shows how he created a “wonderful life,” not just for him, but for everyone around him in doing so. It’s a paean to dealing with the messy and inconvenient world as it is, not as we would have it.

LA replies:

Superb point. Thank you.

January 12

Mark P. writes:

I believe I can provide a better example of a famous Christmas movie that is Gnostic: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The essential premise of this movie is that people, especially children, should not be afraid of monsters.

Several seemingly gnostic elements converge in this movie.

1) The Grinch, an evil, misanthropic monster, is inexplicably paired with a cute, put-upon dog. The dog is designed to give the grinch a humanizing element and to suspend the disbelief in the Grinch’s eventual transformation.

2) The whole encounter between Little Cindy Lu Hu and the Grinch. LCLH is completely fooled by the Grinch’s superficial Santa outfit, his enormous size, and his thin build. She does not even notice the odd color of the Grinch’s skin.

3) The Hu’s response to the Grinch’s theft. Instead of running after him with pitchforks and torches and stringing him up in the town’s square as an example to all the other monsters, the Hu’s, instead, sing. And in the ultimate inversion of reality, the monster grows a bigger heart, returns the Hu’s presents and dines with them on Christmas.

Is it any wonder that people raised on this take the stand in the War on Terror that they do?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 11, 2010 12:58 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):