The Sins of the Fathers: A Theological Review of “The Place Beyond the Pines”
Earlier this week I saw Derek Cianfrance’s new film, “The Place Beyond the Pines.” With his latest film and with 2010’s “Blue Valentine,” Cianfrance is developing a well-earned reputation as a director who is capable of weaving incredibly heart-wrenching and true-to-life stories that delve deeply into incredibly heart-wrenching and true-to-life moral and relational dilemmas. He recognizes that life is messy and that there are rarely tidy endings to the stories of real people. Real stories may end well, or they may end badly, but they rarely end tidy. It’s a very well executed film and is a fine example of a director who has something valuable to say, and so crafts a film purposefully to say it.
But I don’t want to review it.
At least not in the ways films are typically reviewed. I don’t generally read film reviews—at least until after I’ve seen the film—for the same reason I don’t generally read the back covers of novels. The screenwriter (or author) has a specific way he or she wants to tell the story. He has a specific way he wants to lead you to discover and experience the main plot developments. He wants to do all of the introductions to all of the characters and intentionally shape how you feel about them. And we should let him do these things because he will tell the story best. If I let Richard Roeper tell me about the movie before I see it—or if I let some employee for Harper Collins whose job it is to sell books by writing back cover blurbs tell me about the novel—then I have robbed the storyteller of the opportunity to tell me the story the way he meant for me to hear it.
So, all of that to say, I’m not going to tell you much about the movie itself. There won’t be any spoilers here. I’m going to say very little about the plot so that Cianfrance can tell you the story himself, if you want to let him. If you want to know more about it in advance or find the parental advisory information, you can figure out where to find it. I just want to talk about what Cianfrance wanted to say, and engage with that message from a theological perspective.
The primary theme of “The Place Beyond the Pines” flows right out of the biblical book of Exodus, chapter 20, verses 5-6:
“…For I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the sins of the fathers on their children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
In other words: The life of a father inevitably ripples into the life of his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and so on. The Exodus passage is commonly misunderstood to mean that God will punish children for the sins of their fathers. But that isn’t what is meant by “visiting.” Rather, God is here telling us what we all already know: The way a father lives—whether he is good or bad, present or absent in the lives of his children—will inevitably ripple into the way they themselves live their lives.
Fathers do not have the luxury of hoping that their children will “do as I say, not as I do.” Children will inevitably have their lives shaped and formed in large part by the lives of their fathers. At least, that’s what Cianfrance is saying to his audience. In fact, Cianfrance at times seems to be saying that it is impossible for any of us to resist this inevitability. Even if we try to do good, and even if we try to break from the pattern of our fathers, eventually the tide of our fathers’ evil will overtake us and cause us to walk in his (largely evil) ways. Even the well-intended influence of good father figures in our lives will not be able to overcome the power of a father’s influence—even if he is an absent father.
So the question every serious thinker should pose after seeing this film is: Is Cianfrance right? Are his assertions true?
To the extent that I have understood him correctly, and from a biblical and theological perspective, Cianfrance is right. And he is very wrong.
So, first, Cianfrance is right. Children are deeply affected by the lives of their fathers. They are, of course, also deeply affected by the lives of their mothers. But Scripture is unequivocal: Fathers’ lives have a disproportionately powerful effect on the lives of their children.
The statistics themselves are overwhelming. They vary a bit depending on your source, but 85-90% of inmates come from father-absent homes. 80-85% of pregnant teenagers are from father-absent homes. Over 80% of felons had fathers with at least one felony. All of us—at least in our most pessimistic moments—have pitied a young boy or girl, wondering if they even have a chance in life because of who their father is. And most of us have at least a few “daddy issues” that continue to influence our thinking and behavioral patterns. It is undeniable. Fathers’ lives have a profound effect on the lives of their children.
But Cianfrance is also very wrong. Because the gospel is true.
One way to think about the good news of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection is this: God has himself provided an answer to the problem of Exodus 20:5-6. He has done it at his own cost, and given it to us by grace alone. God designed human beings such that they would be profoundly shaped by their fathers—for good or for bad. Which is what Exodus 20:5-6 is about. But in the case that a child’s father has failed to shape him for good, God has provided an opportunity for that child to receive a greater and even more influential father.
The apostle Paul writes,
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (Romans 8:13-16)
When a person trusts their life to Christ and receives the Spirit of Christ, alive and present within them, they become the son of the Father. Their new sonship does not erase or make insignificant their earthly sonship. But it does supercede it. It increasingly becomes the center of their identity and the most powerful determining factor in their thinking and choices.
It’s also important to say that Cianfrance was intentionally focusing on the ripple effects that evil fathers have. I don’t want to criticize him for not writing a film he wasn’t trying to write, but it’s worth saying here that strong and good and Christ-centered fathers also have a profound effect on their sons, daughters and grandchildren!
This is my desire for my life as a father. This is God’s design and desire for the lives of fathers!
Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the LORD your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. (Deut. 6:1-2)
But even the best fathers fail. The best fathers know this. And the best fathers are not threatened by a God who wants our children to see Him as their first father. Our role is merely to try to model Him for our children and point them to Him. The best fathers are happy to be in second place in the hearts of their children.
So may we as fathers (and mothers) recognize that we cannot play lip service in this role. We cannot tell our kids to “do as I say, not as I do.” Our lives will be a profoundly formative force in their lives. May we choose well what that influence will be. May we model for them repentance, brokenness, and recovery when we fail. And may we always remember that we will be at our best when we are happy to be in second place in the hearts of our kids, pointing them to our own Father.