Thoughts on Ebert


Photo from @ebertchicago at
Photo from @ebertchicago at


 I’ve loved film as long as I can remember. Growing up I wasn’t allowed to go to the theater and there were no such things as VCRs yet. However, I can remember soaking up classic movies on PBS from my earliest years. Occasionally I got to see slightly newer films on ABC’s “Sunday Night at the Movies”. 

 There were also other ways of immersing myself in the movies. I regularly purchased novelizations of the latest films and sometimes read and reread them till the spines split. In 1977, when I was 8 years old, I discovered “Sneak Previews” with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert playing on PBS. My burgeoning love for film began to grow into a passion under their critical tutelage. The movie clips they showed formed the visual imagery for the books I was reading and their spirited banter gave me an appreciation for film as art.

 When Gene Siskel died in 1999, I felt a great sadness. As irrational as it might sound, I felt like I had lost a friend and mentor though I had never met the man. However significant the sense of loss I felt when Siskel died, it was surpassed by the news of Roger Ebert’s death on April 4, 2013. 

 Roger was always the one I identified with. Where Siskel often approached films as an intellectual sophisticate, Ebert was an intellectual who could approach films on their own terms. Rather than expecting every movie to be Citizen Cane, he was content to give a thumbs up or down based on how well the movie succeeded within its genera and how well it fulfilled its intended purpose. I remember Ebert comparing James Bond movies to haiku. Like haiku, they had a certain set structure. So the question wasn’t how good a Bond film was in comparison to the latest art house film, but how good it was within the expected structure and in comparison to other Bond movies.   He was my kind of critic, or maybe more correctly, I was his kind of critic, my opinions shaped by his.

 That’s not to say I agreed with Ebert on everything. I didn’t agree with him on every movie and I certainly didn’t agree with him on theology or many political issues. Even before becoming a fixture in the blogging and social media scene, it was apparent in his writing that Roger wasn’t a believer. He was frequently critical of various Christian positions, especially creationism. However, to his credit, critiques were usually delivered in a thoughtful and civil way. 

 Naturally, I was surprised to read the homily delivered by Rev. John F. Costello at Ebert’s funeral mass on April 8. Rev. Costello expressed a conviction that Roger’s life had not ended, but only changed thanks to the God revealed in “the moving images of celluloid salvation”. I would encourage those interested to peruse this beautifully written and enigmatic homily. After several readings, I do not claim to fully grasp all of Rev. Costello’s meanings and references, but I understand him to be saying that Ebert found Jesus in film.

 I most sincerely hope that Ebert did find the Jesus of the Bible in the art he was devoted to, but question Rev. Costello’s true meaning given the Sun Times piece he quotes from. Ebert’s piece appeared in March of this year. In it, Ebert stated that he considered himself a Catholic by virtue of his agreement on several political and social issues. He went on to explain that he was a Catholic that could not believe in God. 

 In an earlier piece, Ebert stated “Let me rule out at once any God who has personally spoken to anyone or issued instructions to men.”  He appeared to be okay with the concept of things that are beyond our current understanding, and seemed not to mind if these unknowns were referred to, by some in some sense, as “god” as long as this “god” was not personal. I believe it was most likely this “god” that Rev. Costello was referring to when he referenced “celluloid salvation”. As far as we know, Ebert’s god was not a personal being, but more an embrace of a sense of wonder, beauty and mystery. These are noble things that certainly reflect the Creator, but they are not themselves the Creator, nor did Roger believe in a Creator.

 As much as I truly hope that Ebert discovered Jesus in his last month of life, I find myself troubled by parts of the homily. First, there seems to be the assumption that identifying with the right religious organization is more important than having a personal relationship with the person of Jesus. Identifying with an organization’s social values, political positions, or culture does not assure anyone of eternal life. 

 Secondly, there is an apparent acceptance of the idea that “god” is what we make of him. In this view, it doesn’t matter what you believe about who or what God is. People who embrace this relativistic viewpoint believe you can make a god according to your own personal tastes and beliefs, even if that “god” is something other than a personal being. According to them, your view of God doesn’t matter as long as you can be said to in some way be a “spiritual” person. From a Christian perspective, salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in the Jesus revealed in the Word alone. While aspects of God may indeed be seen in art, there is no salvation in celluloid or any other created thing.

 I do hope that Roger came to know the real Jesus and a personal God. I do hope that I get to meet him in Heaven and talk about all of our favorite films. That’s in God’s hands. My responsibility is to the people still living who God has put in my life. I have friends and family who I fear are counting on their affiliation with a religious group to help save them. For them, being aligned with this organization, and at least some of its beliefs, has somehow taken on more significance in their lives than the person of Jesus. I have friends and family who have shaped a “god” in an image they can accept and are then counting on being able to make themselves acceptable to that “god”. When we create our own god, somehow it doesn’t seem so impossible to gain his favor based on how we live. What they really need though, is the authentic Good News of the authentic Jesus. There is no substitute and there is no salvation in anything else. May each of us be obedient to God’s calling when He gives us opportunity to speak the Good News of salvation by grace through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I sincerely hope someone shared the biblical Gospel of Jesus with Roger, not the works-infused counterfeit he no doubt grew up with, but the real, authentic Gospel of Grace.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Chris Lee lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife, Carmen, and daughters, Ashlyn and Alyssa. They attend the Lincoln Berean Church. Chris is a self-described “theology junkie” whose mission is to proclaim the unfathomable grace of Christ in a clear, understandable, and Biblical way. He is a contributing editor for Proclamation! Magazine and the editor of Proclamation! Blog.[/author_info] [/author]

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