Word on Fire staff member Rozann Carter reviews the recently-released film, Secretariat, relating the value of the "hero" to the spiritual journey toward Christ.
Last night, I went to see Disney’s Secretariat. The movie opens with a verse from the book of Job wherein God speaks to Job about His creation, citing the horse as an example of the majestic, twitching, untamable beauty that hearkens back to the incomprehensible mystery of its Creator:
“Do you give the horse his strength, and endow his neck with splendor? Do you make the steed to quiver while his thunderous snorting spreads terror? He jubilantly paws the plain and rushes in his might against the weapons. He laughs at fear and cannot be deterred; he turns not back from the sword. Around him rattles the quiver, flashes the spear and the javelin. Frenzied and trembling he devours the ground; he holds not back at the sound of the trumpet, but at each blast he cries, ‘Aha!’” (Job 39:19-25)
As to be expected, the goosebump-inducing theme that continually re-surfaces throughout the movie is an exhibition of this majesty and grandeur in the form of the 1973 Triple Crown winner, Secretariat. Without a doubt, the music, the physical display of athleticism, the overall magnificence of the creature and his accomplished feat-- (all of which call to mind similar themes in family-friendly movies such as Cinderella Man, Seabiscuit,Remember the Titans, Blindside, etc) -- provide for a wholesome narrative that the characters and the audience feel comfortable pouring themselves into. Filling the grandstands to support the unexpected hero-- to put one’s faith in a glorious vessel that had, at one time, gone unnoticed or underappreciated but now stands to prove wrong the doubting and haughty opposition—this is a central theme of these sometimes saccharine but always heart-warming films. Why? As opposed to a phenomenon that has often been covered on the Word on Fire Blog, namely scapegoating, this theme of “mascot-ing” or unsung-heroism has something to say about human nature and the spiritual life.
Secretariat opens with the main character, Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane), flitting about her home in the late 60’s, caring for her family while juggling pancake batter, writing down grocery and errand lists loudly dictated by her husband, and generally sacrificing-with-a-smile… and a perfectly tailored dress. Soon, a phone call whisks her away to her hometown, where her mother has just passed away and she assumes responsibility for decisions concerning her dying father’s lifelong industry and her sequestered love, racehorses. Taking somewhat of a leave-of-absence from her established role as wallflower but utterly dependable wife and mother, Penny steps into her “new” (yet old) role with gusto, determined to keep her father’s legacy alive and re-connect with her passion. Loss after loss, challenge after challenge, she firmly establishes her dreams and hope for redemption in a promising colt named Red, later re-named Secretariat.
Secretariat quickly becomes the mascot and hero, carrying not only the dreams and redemptive efforts of Penny, but of his underestimated and seemingly washed-out trainer, Lucien Laurin, his ever-faithful and unfailingly humble caretaker, Eddie Sweat, his hotheaded and determined jockey, Ronnie Turcotte, and eventually, of the rest of the townspeople and race day spectators. On Secretariat’s saddle ride countless dreams of glory, goodness, and all-that’s-right-in-the-world, but also a fair quantity of worry, regret, and grief of which his fans are eager to be rid. As opposed to a scapegoat, who assumes all blame and eventually gives his innocent life to alleviate a group’s urgent need to be in right order, this mascot or hero carries the latent suffering of a group or individual, eventually transforming them into something beyond themselves, beyond what they could achieve by their own will or power.
How, exactly, does this connect to the spiritual life?
Jesus has often been identified as the epitome of the scapegoat, an innocent man who died on the cross, persecuted by a disordered society of disordered individuals (us), carrying the weight of this sin and dysfunction to reestablish right order. As is generally the case with the scapegoating mechanism, the victim’s veiled innocence is a requirement for the scapegoating process to be efficacious. But, with the case of Jesus, the truth of this scapegoat’s innocence led to 2000+ years of worship and revelation, to the magnificent heroism of countless followers and imitators of Him as the Church moves throughout time, and to our salvation. The moment of His glorious Resurrection indicated a perceived transformation from “scapegoat” to “hero” (if such a word is even remotely appropriate). He, in the most complete way, carries the latent suffering of a group or individual, transforming them into a reality beyond themselves, far beyond what they could achieve by their own will or power. He calls them to a participation in Himself and His saving action. And, while it seems somewhat juvenile to compare Christ to Secretariat or vice versa, it is true that every proper hero serves the purpose that Christ displays at the highest pitch. In the terminology of Father Barron, they bring us out of our small selves and into a participation in the great adventure of being fully alive. The unexpected, surprising, uncanny Hero is the means to realizing our deepest desires and living out our most authentic dreams.
Rozann Carter is a Production Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.