Great Movies Live On. Shouldn’t Great People?

by Mike Duran · 36 comments

Roger Ebert died today.

I used to watch Siskel & Ebert regularly. It changed the way I watched movies. So much so, that I purchased one of Ebert’s voluminous Movie Home Companions and followed it religiously. Under Ebert’s “tutelage,” I dug into roger-ebertthe classics, foreign films, and cult classics. I loved his take on art and film, and found myself inspired by so many of the films he recommended. So I was slightly heartbroken when I learned Roger Ebert was an agnostic. Or an atheist. Yes, he never used those labels for himself, not because he was hiding something, but because he didn’t like labels. But, as you’ll see in the quotes below, Ebert indeed was not a believer.

It’s always a bit depressing to learn that some great person, or good person, was an atheist. It’s not so much because of what I may or may not believe about the afterlife. (I’m making no judgment on Ebert’s final estate.) It’s because of how pitiless and pointlessness those beliefs are to the person’s memory. Death is THE END for the humanist. All their good deeds destined for the Void. It’s hard to celebrate a life that went… nowhere.

In Ebert’s case, it’s the incongruity of his life. Here’s a guy who reveled in good art, wrote thoughtfully and deeply about the human predicament, and how film could inspire, bring out the best in us, and live on inside us.

Only to admit we are just Cosmic accidents.

Talk about buzz-kill.

Several years back, Roger Ebert wrote a lengthy post on his thoughts about death and dying, entitled, Go gently into that good night. Here’s a few excerpts:

I know [death] is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.

I wrote an entry about the way I believe in God, which is to say that I do not. Not, at least, in the God that most people mean when they say God. I grant you that if the universe was Caused, there might have been a Causer. But that entity, or force, must by definition be outside space and time; beyond all categories of thought, or non-thought; transcending existence, or non-existence. What is the utility of arguing our “beliefs” about it? What about the awesome possibility that there was no Cause? What if everything…just happened?

…some readers have informed me, it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don’t feel that way. “Faith” is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever. The concept frightens me. I relate it to the horror of the hero of Poe’s The Premature Burial. To be in your grave and know it! Ah, but I am told, the afterlife does not involve time at all. In that case, how can it be eternal? Eternity is only thinkable in a universe that contains time. If I had but world enough, and time, I could spend time pondering a world without end. (bold, mine)

I appreciate how deeply, honestly, and eloquently Roger Ebert wrote about his beliefs. Would that all of us thought as deeply about ours! But it’s precisely Ebert’s agnostic metaphysical beliefs that tarnish his outlook on art and film and humanity.

I mean, great movies live on. Shouldn’t great people?

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, Thy will be done, and those to whom God says, in the end, Thy will be done.”

I hope, for Roger’s sake, that Lewis was wrong.

Jim Williams April 4, 2013 at 9:04 PM

“Death is THE END for the humanist. All their good deeds destined for the Void. It’s hard to celebrate a life that went… nowhere.”
I could not possible disagree more with this attitude. The only life worth living is a Christian one? I am appalled at the notion. There is arrogance here, which you may not have intended.
No person who looks into the eyes of their children can believe that Death is the end of their effect on this world.
More to the point, Roger Ebert’s life meant something. He will live on in you, in me, and in the millions of people who appreciated the man.
Even if that’s all there is, that’s quite a bit.

Mike Duran April 5, 2013 at 5:14 AM

I’m not sure what we disagree about, Jim. That, from the materialist / humanist / atheist perspective everything we do and are is destined for Nothingness, or that even in the face of Nothingness we can find meaning?

You wrote, “No person who looks into the eyes of their children can believe that Death is the end of their effect on this world.” But if you believe “this world” is a cosmic accident that is barreling toward Extinction, that we have no real Point of existence other than what we choose to make, then yes, anyone’s “effect on this world” is inconsequential. Unless, of course, you believe there IS more to life than the pure, cold, material universe. But you can’t be an atheist and believe that.

Kerry Nietz April 5, 2013 at 4:40 AM

“No person who looks into the eyes of their children can believe that Death is the end of their effect on this world.”

Question for you, Jim: How much do you know about your great-grandfather? Anything? Do you know where he was buried? Or where he lived? What he believed? Who he voted for? What sports he liked?

For me the answer is very little. So in only two generations a person that should have great significance because of his connection to me and my children is essentially a black box. Whatever impact he had is negligible. He fed my grandfather and clothed him, and obviously imparted some sense of morality (and perhaps faith) to him, but for all intents and purposes it was like he never walked the Earth.

Ultimately, the same will be true for you and I (and even for Roger Ebert). Very little that we will ever do here on Earth has permanence. It is, as Mike said, all destined for the VOID.

J.S. Clark April 5, 2013 at 7:25 AM

Well said, Kerry. The encyclopedia is filled with forgotten people who have no more bearing on life than an explosion or a falling tree in a soley material worldview.

Mark April 5, 2013 at 4:33 PM

Kerry, you may know very little about your great-grandfather, and yet, as you say, he had a great impact on the life of your grandfather. And I imagine your grandfather was quite a powerful influence in the life of his child, who in turn, profoundly affected YOU! Your grand-father is probably in the void, like you say. But the effects of his life may still be felt, even if you are not aware of them. Because of this, be careful how you live. Your great-grandchildren may not know your name, but the spirals you set in motion today may to them mean the difference between life and death, love and hate, happiness and despair.

Kerry Nietz April 5, 2013 at 5:43 PM

I agree from a spiritual and moral perspective, Mark.

In fact, I think the effects of godly men and women can be felt for generations afterwards. (In the same way I think America still reaps the blessings of past praying generations.)

Reminds me of a book I read once titled “Anchorman” by Steve Farrar. Thought-provoking. Worth checking out.

Katherine Coble April 5, 2013 at 10:59 AM

Huh? Our life can only have meaning if we have God in it?

I say, as a person in a life filled with and surrounded by God, that I don’t believe that at all. I think we are created in God’s image. That means we are able to find the beauty in the smallest of things and to feel significance in the wind.

Jim isn’t just saying that his children are what give life meaning. He’s saying that any person can look at the parts of the world they’ve invested their heartsblood in and see the meaning of her life.

Further, I think it’s tacky to take every famous person’s death (as was done with Christopher Hitchens) and use that as an opportunity to nag people into signing on to Christ’s team.

Kerry Nietz April 5, 2013 at 11:12 AM

I don’t think Mike is speculating on what gives a person purpose in their day-to-day lives. Their reason for getting up in the morning. That obviously can be different things for different people.

However, even Solomon, who accomplished and tried everything permissible to him during his time ultimately judged most of it as “meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

Jessica Thomas April 5, 2013 at 11:32 AM

We are on the same wavelength. 😉

Jessica Thomas April 5, 2013 at 11:30 AM

I’m going through a depression at the moment, which I am hoping to be short, and I think it will be because I caught it early. When I say depression, I mean the ‘slit my wrists and get me off this planet’ type, very deep, very dark, very scary. I’ve been here many times and everytime I’m shocked by how utterly horrible it is. This is absolutely true: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Everything is meaningless!”

I’m blessed because it’s this depressive state that led me to Christ. When everything in my life feels worthless and void, it is starkly apparent to me that Jesus (God/The Holy Spirit) offers the only true meaning in life, while the rest is just decoration. Some of it is very pretty decoration, but it’s not life giving or life sustaining, no matter how good or beautiful we think it is. I had forgotten that as of late, and pursued earthly goals for my fulfillment instead and now I see how foolish I’ve been. I can only hope (pray pray pray) that I don’t require anymore reminders like this in my lifetime, which means I HAVE to keep my focus on HIM. HAVE to.

How one survives an entire lifetime denying God exists, I do not know. I truly don’t.

I’m not going to speculate on where Roger Ebert is now. I can’t. But I believe in a merciful God so I pray he is at rest.

Mike Duran April 5, 2013 at 2:00 PM

Praying for you, Jessica.

Mike Duran April 5, 2013 at 11:35 AM

Katherine, I think I know what Jim’s saying. Which is why I responded like I did. If there is no God, then all meaning found in this life is temporary and fleeting. I’d suggest that the meaning Jim finds in his child’s eyes is the beauty and wisdom and power of God. Not Nature. If you believe a person can find significant meaning apart from Christ, why should anyone believe in him?

Katherine Coble April 5, 2013 at 12:52 PM

Because a life lived in Christ is wonderfully challenging, indescribably peaceful and compelling.

Jessica Thomas April 5, 2013 at 1:05 PM

I must be doing something wrong then, because I’m certainly not indescribably peaceful, not this week anyway, though I long to describe myself as such. But no, I don’t think I am doing anything wrong. I think I’ve just experienced a lot of growing pains. 🙂

Katherine Coble April 5, 2013 at 1:21 PM

Jessica, it’s not always grounded in feeling. I mean to say that just because you don’t feel peace doesn’t mean God isn’t there or that you are failing as a Christian. Life often seems meaningless no matter what one believes.

The thing about Christianity and depression is that it happens. Just like Christianity and head colds, Christianity and the flu. “The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.”

That’s why I always describe Christianity as challenging. It is so often sold as a ticket to wonderfulness, and it just plain is not that. Your life is never all smooth sailing after you sign on with this fishing crew.

That’s another reason I find death sermons (we are all mortal, get saved so you don’t end up in hell) to be less than ideal. They always feel like ambulance chasing to me.

But anyway, back to the black dogs…
As someone who periodically wrestles with depression I’d suggest
1. Finding a distractive creative pursuit. I personally colour. Others use play doh or clay.
2. Find a distractive physical pursuit that stretches but doesn’t overtax. Movement will boost adrenaline.
3. Pray a daily, or even hourly, prayer that beseeches the Holy Spirit for Great Comfort.
4. Consider seeking the help of a physician.
5. Talk about your depression with others.

Jessica Thomas April 5, 2013 at 6:18 PM

I’ve done all of the above and then some. And had my husband drive me to the ER, but that was post partum after I’d hardly slept for two months, so I don’t know if that one counts. I’m bringing such joy to the conversation aren’t I! 😉

Mike Duran April 5, 2013 at 1:16 PM

“wonderfully challenging, indescribably peaceful and compelling.”

Heh.

And then there’s that part about being “saved.”

So do you think a person is better off being an atheist or a Christian? You make it sound like there’s virtually no difference, especially the eternal kind.

Katherine Coble April 5, 2013 at 1:27 PM

Depends on what you mean by “better off”.

Being a Christian isn’t easy. It comes with unique struggles and trials.

I don’t use the word saved, generally, because I don’t like the idea that following Christ is merely about avoiding bad things. I use the word redeemed to emphasise that following Christ is about renewed communion with God.

There is a distinct appeal to atheism for humanity; that’s why there are a growing number of atheists. If one wants to live a life unchallenged by the demands of God and comfortingly limited in days then I suppose one could consider being an atheist as being “better off.”

Mike Duran April 5, 2013 at 1:59 PM

Katherine, this seems dodgy. So do you think it’s better, wiser, more beneficial, and ultimately more life-giving, for a person to receive Christ and surrender to God?

Katherine Coble April 5, 2013 at 2:12 PM

It’s NOT dodgy. It’s just not the pat Sunday School answer. Obviously the fact that I am a follower of Christ should make it clear that I think following Christ (not “receiving Christ”–that’s a passive choice that doesn’t require any personal transformation other than saying “yeah, sure, I believe.” And not all who say “Lord, Lord”, etc…) is the preferred option.

But God gave everyone free will. If people want to reject God they have that right. I’m just saying I can see why a person would make that choice.

We aren’t to follow God because it’s the easy, sunny, shiny happy thing to do. We follow God because God is awesome in all senses of the word.

Mike Duran April 5, 2013 at 2:35 PM

Well, Scripture seems to describe it as more than just the “preferred option.” More like “the path to life” or something. And about me “nagging” — I was quite fond of Ebert and Hitchens. But I also happen to think pointing out the logical flaws in a belief that may doom countless souls to hell, is a good thing. God willing, I will continue to “nag.”

Katherine Coble April 5, 2013 at 2:44 PM

It’d be nice if you waited seven days for mourning before putting something out like this, though. If for no other reason than to show respect for the families who have just lost loved ones. Sure, they may not see it but they may. And arguing what you perceive to be the faults of the deceased on the day of his or her passing is callous.

Mike Duran April 5, 2013 at 3:05 PM

Many atheist sites ( like this one http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/04/04/roger-ebert-there-is-nothing-on-the-other-side-of-death-to-fear/ ) used Ebert’s death to hail his non belief. So I dunno. What most people seem to object is not irreverence or disrespect on behalf of the deceased, but pointing out the inferences of atheism, which is what Jim objected to above.

Katherine Coble April 5, 2013 at 6:09 PM

If everyone on atheist sites were jumping off a bridge….

We’re to treat others as we would like to be treated. Would you appreciate an Atheist writing an article ON THE VERY DAY OF YOUR DEATH about what a childish joke you were for wasting your entire life believing in the Great Spaghetti Monster and how sad that was because you spent your life like a child? I somehow don’t think that’d be really great by you. You were upset that the world didn’t respect your beliefs on its arguably most sacred day last Sunday. Can’t you see how using a man’s death to proclaim what you believe to be the foolishness of his belief is so similar as to be eerily humourous?

Mark April 5, 2013 at 4:40 PM

Hi Mike,
“Great movies live on. Shouldn’t people?”
You know movies aren’t actually alive, and yet you appreciate that their influence can be felt far past their run in the theatre. In this way, great people also live on. I mean, just look at all the quotes to the right of these comments! How many of these guys are alive? Charles Dickens, like great movies, lives on. So does Chesterton. Wilde. O’Conner. Melville. Not sure Lewis and Kissinger should be in the list, though. 😉
Respectfully,
A non-christian who loves life, finds purpose, and fears only the pangs of death and not what comes afterward.

Mike Duran April 5, 2013 at 5:32 PM

Mark, if there is no god and the universe is simply the random (but lucky) dissemination of matter, to which it will return, then those quoted on this blog, this blog, the author of this blog, the reader of this blog, the histories of all blog readers, and the planet on which those blog readers lived, will be gone. Forever. You have every right to enjoy it now! However, you have no good reason to.

Mark April 6, 2013 at 12:35 AM

Hi Mike,
Thanks for replying to my comment. I agree with pretty much everything you say until the very last sentence. I think I have a good reason to enjoy life now, and that is because it is enjoyable! Not all of it, of course. And, to be sure some, people aren’t enjoying life right now because their situations are miserable (and so we can do our part to spread the joy, right?)
My wife’s analogy to your comment is this: “You get to go to Europe. You get to see the people, enjoy the cuisine, swim in the Mediterranean, wallow in history. But then you have to return to your house in Chicago. The experience you had in Europe will be gone. Forever. You have every right to enjoy it while you’re there. However, you have no good reason to.”

Mike Duran April 5, 2013 at 6:39 PM

Sorry, Katherine. We disagree. Treating people the way I want to be treated also means telling me the truth. It took, like, four follow-up questions just for you to, almost begrudgingly, admit Christianity might be a better way than atheism. Sorry, but I’m not built like that. I show no disrespect to Roger Ebert in this post. I liked him and read much of his stuff. I said he wrote “deeply, honestly, and eloquently” about his beliefs. I even hope God has mercy on him and I see him some day. But he said in his own words that he did not want to live forever and believed he had nothing to fear after death. I don’t think I show any disrespect to him. He actively and publicly debated others concerning his beliefs (as the link shows). So I’m not going to pretend his beliefs don’t matter. Sorry.

And to be clear, I was not “upset that the world didn’t respect [my] beliefs” when Google ignored Easter. If they would have publicly said that Christianity is idiocy, then MAYBE there’d be some equivalence. But “eerily humourous?” I don’t think so.

Cathy April 5, 2013 at 7:26 PM

I hadn’t posted on my blog in months (busy with a book project), but I wrote about Ebert today…that’s how much I thought of him. I appreciate the respect you displayed above. Always like reading your stuff.

Jim Williams April 5, 2013 at 8:36 PM

No one can prove there is a hereafter. No matter how many late nights I lie awake contemplating whether human beings have a soul and a further purpose beyond the obvious trial that is this life, I have found no answers.

I have felt closer to answers (at times), and I have felt despair at my spiritual loneliness, but either way, no spirit has filled me. Therefore, I must search for meaning in my life in my own fashion.

It seems Roger Ebert and I had that in common. Is it alright that I find some comfort in that? I only mourn his lack of faith in the context of whether he experienced the fear of death, because I think this might be the absolute greatest tenet of any strong faith, including many others besides traditional Christianity.

I hold to my position that the impact we make in this life is important in it’s own right. Paying it forward, voting your conscience, imparting manners and logical/critical thinking to your offspring, random acts of kindness, etc.

I think of it as a sort existential life-long performance art. It doesn’t necessarily need a purpose beyond the obvious. And if this is all there is, it’s still well worth the effort.

Katherine Coble April 5, 2013 at 10:03 PM

Oddly perhaps, I do not fear death.

I do not welcome it unduly, but I don’t fear it.

Mike Duran April 6, 2013 at 6:23 AM

Jim, not only can “No one… prove there is a hereafter,” no one can “prove” there is a here. Whether it’s having faith in scientists, scientific method, reasoning, logic, intuition, or your guru, you will still need faith in something not entirely “provable.” I encourage you to keep seeking. Someone great once said, “Seek, and ye shall find.”

Kevin Lucia April 6, 2013 at 4:22 AM

it’s precisely Ebert’s agnostic metaphysical beliefs that tarnish his outlook on art and film and humanity

Honestly, this is just your opinion, Mike, because I don’t agree at all. You’re kind of assuming that everyone feels this way, and it’s just not true. Because HUMANITY is not made up of only Christians. So I don’t see how his lack of faith – Christian faith – tarnishes his outlook on art and humanity. This is a presupposition that all art must be Christian-centered to be valuable, and, even as a Christian, I just don’t believe that.

As a Christian – and an English teacher – my day is spent keeping countless of poets and playwrights and writers “alive” in the minds of my students. And many – if not most of them – were either not religious, or outright atheists. And yet they’re much finer writers, have a much keener insight into basic humanity than any of the “Christian” writers and poets I was forced to teach in my one year at an Evangelical/Baptist high school.

Again, I’m sorry for you that you feel that way. For me, that just doesn’t fly. I’ve read dozens of Christian authors whose work was completely forgettable, shallow, and simply poorly rendered. In fact, after several years reading Christian fiction, I can’t even remember a third of these authors, or what they wrote about. And a secular author’s theological position – which, quite frankly, I don’t care about – rarely bothers me, past the fact that (letting my faith speak, for a moment) that I won’t get to see them someday, especially authors I discovered long after they passed.

Mike Duran April 6, 2013 at 6:05 AM

Of course this is my opinion, Kevin. I’m not writing the Gospel According to Mike here. But I think you’re totally misreading this. My point is not that “all art must be Christian-centered to be valuable.” Not at all. I believe all art, even atheistic art, can contain whispers of the Eternal. One need not be a Christian to sense, portray, and capture the Goodness of God. My point is that FROM AN ATHEIST’S PERSPECTIVE art is rather meaningless, channels nothing transcendent, and like everything else, is doomed to become cosmic dust. I’m simply extrapolating from what atheist’s claim to believe, although few rarely admit this. You might note, however, my post Woody Allen: The Honest Atheist, in which he said,

“…the true situation is a hopeless one because nothing does last. If we reduce it absurdly for a moment, you know the sun will burn out. You know the universe is falling apart at a fantastically accelerating rate and that at some point there won’t be anything at all. So whether you are Shakespeare or Beethoven or Michelangelo, your stuff’s not going to last.

This is my point!!! FROM AN ATHEIST’S PERSPECTIVE, because “nothing does last,” even the greatest works of art and film and stage are utterly pointless and of no more value than any other distraction. Hope that clarifies.

J.S. Clark April 6, 2013 at 6:45 AM

A lot of this discussion seems to revolve around the idea of being “better off”. Does following Messiah leave you better off? While I say absolutely, yes. Some people are looking at the issue from a mental perspective. Mentally, what benefit does holding the thought of a god-man’s sacrifice that brings forgiveness, bring over say simply holding the mental thought that you have no sins, life is just life, and just enjoy what you have?

Talking about the hereafter is useless to an unbeliever because you can’t prove it. Talking about the affect of a person’s life and them being “alive” in our hearts is useless to a believer because anyone can objectively see that that is of no benefit to the dead because they’re dead, and no benefit to the living because if they had not existed the living would not know it–so they really have no more affect than a tree growing or falling. In other words it reduces the meaning of a persons life to the same as any other thing in existence.

The only benefit that I can witness is the power of God. I speak as a man who lost his first son, while broke, in a rough marriage to woman with sexual abuse in her past, stuck in a Podunk town. I had no tangible reason to not fall apart or run away from my wife (or her from me). But somehow we endure and even find blessing, and that somehow is God.

You can throw out some other explanation involving human spirit or something like that. But the real question we’re debating here is not whether you can contemplate an answer, but whether you can live it. Sure you can “pay it forward” or find solace in the ripples after you’re dead, but does that satisfy you? Does that give you peace? Does it change your life? And if it does, since most people live that way, are you satisfied with the condition of the world? You wanna talk about ripples, what about the ripples of a murderer or a pedophile? Whose ripples flavor the world the most strongly? One guy at Sandy Hook or Mother Theresea?

I think the value of this discussion, and I thank Mike for starting it even if maybe he could have waited a couple days, is that it brings to light the question. Does my belief (in Messiah or something else) satisfy my desire not mentally, but thoroughly? A benefit? Aspirin has a benefit, it’s not an answer to the questions of life that everyone has.

Bob Avey April 6, 2013 at 9:23 AM

Interesting post, Mike. I agree that it’s sad that many people believe that “this” is all there is. I’ve never been agnostic, but I used to have a lot of doubts and questions. However, the more I observed the miracle of life, the closer I came to God.

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