The Greatest Gift

In 1974, 14-year-old Rod Bennett was sitting before a television set, mesmerized by an old black-and-white film called It’s a Wonderful Life.

The film, by director Frank Capra, is one of my all-time favorites. Most of you probably know the plot about one George Bailey, who dreams of leaving small town Bedford Falls and doing great things in the world. But he is trapped by a sense of obligation to his family and to the town. After enduring a long series of setbacks and disappointments, on Christmas Eve, George is standing on a bridge, contemplating suicide.

But then an angel appears and reveals to George that, instead of enduring what he had considered a failed, hum-drum existence, he really lived a wonderful life.

Watching this film for the first time, 14-year-old Rod Bennett was overwhelmed. As he writes in GodSpy, “I remember sitting stunned-battered by a bewildering rush of conflicting emotions as the closing credits finished.”

As an adult, Bennett began researching Frank Capra’s life. He discovered that Capra was raised a Catholic in a family of Sicilians who, despite grinding poverty, enjoyed great happiness. Capra “was raised to believe in the Christian faith as the way to understand man and his destiny.”

But there is another side to Capra, Bennett notes: the Capra who studied chemistry at Cal Tech, “the [hard,] science of what things are made of if you take them apart and boil them down. This schooling . . . in an atmosphere of skepticism and insistence on hard proof ensured that . . . the cinema of Frank Capra would be the cinema, not of blind faith, but of doubt”-and doubts resolved, just like science experiments.

As a director, Capra “begins dispassionately and systematically turning up the Bunsen burners of doubt, despair, and tragedy,” Bennett writes, until it’s “so hot that the test simply cannot fail to uncover whether this ‘Capra-corn’ he grew up believing can actually stand as a viable picture of the way things really are . . . or whether it [is] . . . nothing but a comforting fantasy.”

And Capra’s answer? George Bailey, like all of Capra’s heroes, “bet his life on what he believed . . . and what [he] believed was true.” The testimony of Capra, the chemist, is that his faith was not in vain-another good example of why it is so important for serious Christians to get into the media.

But it is this triumph of faith, Bennett writes, that earned Capra the scorn of reviewers-hardly surprising in this era of relativism, when there are no ultimate answers. So today, “Capra’s vision can only seem grotesque and mawkish.”

But as Bennett notes, Capra insists that if we share in his hero’s dark night of the soul, we will be rescued by the hard evidence and the fruit that will have sprung up from the seeds of faith he has planted. Defeat will be swallowed up in victory.

Maybe this is why so many of us, without quite realizing why, love It’s a Wonderful Life. I hope you will watch it this Christmas, as Patty and I do, and talk about the film’s message with your family. As Bennett reminds us, the film echoes the truth of the Gospel: “To him that overcometh I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”

[CE Editor's note: Rod Bennett, quoted here by Chuck Colson, is an occasional contributor to Catholic Exchange and the author of Four Witnessses: The Early Church In Her Own Words, a remarkable storytelling approach to the work and teaching of the Early Church Fathers.  Your purchase of this book through our online store will increase your understanding of the history of the Church and help support Catholic Exchange.]

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