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Sympathy for Delicious: Healing and Suffering in a Fallen World

Have you ever considered what might have happened if Jesus had come to earth not as God, but merely as a man, whose sole purpose was to heal suffering people from their infirmities?  If so, you might be intrigued by Sympathy for Delicious.  Its premise is simple: a young musician, who has lost his career and his hope after an accident leaves him paralyzed, discovers that he has the ability to heal others by laying his hands on them.  However, he cannot heal himself.

Writer Christopher Thornton and director Mark Ruffalo invite viewers to imagine what might happen to such a man and the people around him.  Thornton portrays Dean O’Dwyer, an up-and-coming DJ on the underground music scene in Los Angeles, whose paralysis renders him unable to spin turntables, thereby ending his promising career.  Homeless and depressed, sleeping in his car, Dean meets Father Joe Roselli (Ruffalo), a priest who works with down-and-outers on skid row. 

When Dean inadvertently heals a homeless man and a blind woman, he immediately lays hands upon himself, to no avail.  Word gets around, and Father Joe persuades the reluctant Dean to lay hands on the hundreds of supplicants who crowd skid row in hopes of a miraculous release from suffering.  Upon discovering that Father Joe is getting some very generous donations for the work, of which he shares only the smallest amount, Dean angrily decides he will use the healing gift to gain him entrée into a promising band.  They have a brief, successful stint as “Healapalooza,” (cut to montage of debauchery scenes).  Money, women, drugs, adulation, heavy eyeliner… Dean has it all.  First Father Joe has prostituted Dean’s gift, and now Dean is prostituting his own gift.  Of course, nobody is happy.  And when disaster occurs and Dean lands in jail, no one in the audience is surprised.  We knew it was only a matter of time.

What happens afterward is more adventures in “what if.”  What if Dean decides to take responsibility for all the bad choices he’s made?  What if Joe, no longer Father Joe, just Joe, decides to apologize?  What if Dean is offered a second chance to exercise his gift on someone he doesn’t like?

Here’s where the film gets interesting.  Instead of writing a morality tale railing against the evils of hypocritical religious people, Thornton simply focuses on one man just like us, who hasn’t got what he wanted in life, but instead got something everyone else wants and is trying to take from him.

Sympathy for Delicious is no mere fanciful intellectual exercise.  Thornton was paralyzed from the waist down in a rock climbing accident at age 25.  Ruffalo’s brother Scott was shot and killed in 2008.  Indeed, the film is dedicated to his memory.  Says Ruffalo, “A lot of that struggle had to do with ‘Why?’ Where does this come from and how do I place it in the mythology of my life?  How do I make sense of this?”  Sympathy for Delicious was obviously the result of much pain and many sleepless nights.  Does Thornton’s answer square with biblical teaching on the subject of suffering?

Clearly the doctrine of resurrection assures all believers that they will eventually live eternally in perfect bodies.  There are those who believe that all bodily infirmities are the direct result of sin, and that repentance and prayer will result in perfect physical restoration in the present.  This position leads to much grief and abuse, not a little disappointment, and even entire loss of faith when requests for healing are denied.  In Dean’s case, this denial is made worse by the fact that those around him are being healed.  It’s like your parents taking your brother to Disneyland and leaving you at home to do the chores.

 And yet, biblical accounts suggest that sometimes God allows or even causes a physical malady in order to deliver a person from a spiritual malady.  Our Heavenly Father wants the ideal for His children (perfect wholeness in all respects) and yet is dealing with fallen individuals in a fallen world.  Sure, God could wave His hand over every sickness, broken bone and tumor, and make everyone 100% well.  Yet we don’t see that often, even in cases where the victim is an innocent child, or a person who has great faith.  Why not?

God does want the ideal for everyone.  However, His offer of salvation is not immediately completed in those who accept it.  Look around you.  Presently, no one has a new body and a completely renewed mind.  Hence the New Testament promises of future “perfection” to believers, and countless exhortations to obedience and growth.

Healing is tied to obedience, which is tied to belief in Christ.  They are all of a piece.  And it takes time.  The Bible portrays God as a Heavenly Father whose priority is our spiritual/mental/emotional wholeness.  Physical wholeness is something on which we tend to place top priority, but not so with God.  “The things which are seen are temporal,” explains the Apostle Paul in 2 Cor 2:18, “but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

“Anything is possible with God.  But He may not give you what you want,” explains Father Bill (James Karen) to Dean.  There is no Jesus in this film.  The Catholic faith is represented by the well-meaning but compromised Father Joe, who only finds redemption after taking a leave of absence from the priesthood.  The [evangelical] Christian faith is represented by the buoyant and vaguely creepy Rene Faubacher (Noah Emmerich), a wheelchair-bound believer who takes Dean to healing services and exhorts him to believe.  His clean-shaven, smiling face and penchant for brightly colored sweaters marks him immediately as an evangelical Christian, even before he utters a word.

Sympathy For Delicious has a small cast of principles, including such noteworthies as Juliette Lewis portraying the band’s emotionally unstable, pill-popping bassist, Orlando Bloom as its lead vocalist, and Laura Linney as its saccharine/sleazy manager.   Ruffalo’s pacing is steady.  His camera lingers often on Thornton’s scruffy/pretty face.  While the majority of the film dwells in dark and wretched spaces, there are a few moments of grace to counterbalance this ugliness.

 Viewers with sensitive ears should be warned that the film contains more f-words than you can shake a drum stick at.  There is also some frontal nudity. The creators have spared no trouble to create a convincingly sleazy atmosphere, whether in the depths of skid row or the heights of stardom.  Clearly, film’s target audience is not people of faith, but suffering people seeking answers for the age-old questions of pain and injustice.  Thornton’s answer echoes the Rolling Stones:

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you might find
You get what you need


Susan Soesbe is a staff writer for MovieMinistry.com, a company dedicated to providing pastors, lay leaders, and ordinary Christians with the tools necessary to use movies as a way of reaching out to others with the Gospel of Christ.
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  • nickkname

    Until Hollywood stops pandering to the lower appetites of teenagers, who hunger for valgurity and sexuality, I won’t be seeing any so-called “moral” films that are simply the same story, different character: worldly redemption, rather than the Redemption offered by God. Truly Hollywood can share in the truth of Redemption, for it is run by men, who as men enjoy the Moral Law, but I don’t get my redemption stories from Hollywood anymore than I get my apologetics from non-Catholics.

  • Mary Kochan

    It is important to understand the purpose of the articles from this movie ministry. The purpose is not to get us to see the movies necessarily, nor is it to defend their portrayals of immorality. The purpose is to make us conversant with what our non-Christian friends may be seeing and the kinds of questions these movies might raise for them. In some cases the movie ministry authors will suggest that we go see a particualr movie with our non-Christian friends and sugest talking points for discussion afterwards, but they always let us know what may be offensive in the movies. These are not family viewing recommendation. Consider the fact that movies are one of the prime ways — if not THE prime way — our culture tells stories about itself and to itself. This is how a culture forms and transmits a worldview, so if we are going to make an attempt to evangleize our culture, then we need to understand these stories — at least enough to converse about them with our friends. The objective of course is to share the message of hope in Christ.

    By the way, although we are unabashedly Catholic here at Catholic Lane, we do not disdain the witness of evangelicals and seek to work alongside them in those areas where we can cooperate for the common good and the cause of Christ in our culture. Please help me welcome Susan Soesbe. We will soon be hearing more from her.

  • Avoiding forms of entertainment that may have offensive content is certainly a legitimate approach, and it is one that many people take. However I also believe it is not right to wall oneself off in a kind of self-imposed “Catholic ghetto” and avoid everything objectionable.

    We are called to engage the world, not avoid it, and moreover we are called to love the world with the same love that the Father had when He sent His only Son. This means that we love the good in everything while rejecting the evil. If seeing a particular movie is valuable for engaging your non-Catholic friends, if you will not be led into sin by it, and if you will not bring about scandal, then there is nothing wrong with seeing the good in it while acknowledging its flaws.

    God’s love is very gentle, and He judges with mercy. He knows who the real culprits are out there, and every one of them will get his just deserts. For the rest of us, we can seek to live faithful lives, trusting in God and having no fear. There is a lot that is good in this world, and by loving it we will make it last forever.

  • Thanks for your comments. Each generation of believers must tackle afresh the challenge to be in the world, but not of the world. 1 John 2:15, 16 says:

    “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.”

    While 1 Cor 5:9-11 says

    “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”

    It seems to me each man must know his own calling, his strengths and weaknesses, and the robustness of his faith, and walk accordingly.

    Peace,

    Susan Soesbe

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    Alright, here’s one: St. Francis de Girolamo, SJ, from http://catholicexchange.com/2011/05/11/97041/

    “But Francis didn’t wait for sinners to come to him, he often went in search of them himself, visiting hospitals, prisons, brothels, and even galleys of ships — on one Spanish ship, he is said to have converted 20 Turkish prisoners” (emphasis mine).

    This was an easy example, found not too deep in the results set of a Google search. There are other examples, but I don’t have time to go through my saints’ biographies just now.

    Scandal is a term given too wide a berth. Ultimately, it is a purely subjective term. It does not depend on the objective actions of an individual but on the reactions of those around him. Ultimately, anyone can argue scandal and do so for any reason whatsoever. The Catechism really isn’t much help here: “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil…. Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized” (Nos. 2284-2285).

    One can imagine the reactions of those who saw Francis de Girolamo enter brothels to convert sinners. Most would have seen only the act of entry. Some, no doubt, would have concluded that if the good Jesuit could go in there, so could they. Few would have hung around to listen to the full story. Many would have claimed scandal, and some, no doubt, protested the scandalous actions of the good priest. Yet he is a saint.

    I get the angle of “woe to he who leads the least of these into sin.” Nevertheless, the only way to speak objectively about a thing is to know it. Knowing about it is almost always less effective. So someone has to have the courage and purity of heart to engage this movie and similar cultural artifacts without the rest of us sniffing away at how nasty it all is. Of course it’s nasty. But there’s almost always something more.

    I’m tempted to go so far as to say that none has the right to take scandal at the actions of another unless he or she first discovers all the facts surrounding the other’s actions. Not tries to uncover all the facts, but actually succeeds in uncovering them. This is probably tipping the lever too far the other way. But it would be a helpful corrective to the too-routine accusation of scandal.

    There is, after all, an Eighth Commandment to deal with.

    Great article.

    • Thanks, HomeschoolNfpDad.

      Your remarks prompted me to do a word study of scandalon, the Greek word from which we get the English “scandal”. Here’s the Strong’s entry G4625:

      1) the movable stick or trigger of a trap, a trap stick

      a) a trap, snare

      b) any impediment placed in the way and causing one to stumble or fall, (a stumbling block, occasion of stumbling) i.e. a rock which is a cause of stumbling

      c) fig. applied to Jesus Christ, whose person and career were so contrary to the expectations of the Jews concerning the Messiah, that they rejected him and by their obstinacy made shipwreck of their salvation

      2) any person or thing by which one is (entrapped) drawn into error or sin

      I’ve often pondered where is the line drawn regarding responsibility for causing/tempting others to sin, especially in cases where no temptation was intended. Clearly the Holy Spirit, through St Paul, is exhorting us to pay attention and try to avoid doing anything which might draw our brother into sin. On the other hand, what if St. Francis de Girolamo had reasoned that he ought not to be seen entering brothels lest he lead others to visit them for immoral purposes?

      Interestingly, the message of the cross is referred to as a “scandalon” (1 Cor 1:23; Gal 5:11; 1 Pet 2:8). So it seems to me that the “scandal” lies more with the one offended than with the one who gives offense.

      I need to give this some more thought.

      Sometimes I wonder what it means to take offense at something. But I haven’t done any studies on that. I try not to infer any sinister motives to anyone, and not to be easily offended. But that’s perhaps a 21st century Western word/idea which merits a separate study.

      • HomeschoolNfpDad

        The Catechism, at minimum, is clearly directed at reforming the conscience of the person who knows he has attempted to lead another into sin. Insomuch as a person assents to the interior act and executes the exterior temptation, scandal is clearly present, especially when the scandalous person wields actual authority in a field of expertise. But the only thing anyone can see is the exterior act, which may or may not be an actual sin absent the interior assent. And the interior assent is between the scandalous person and God (or between the scandalous person and his confessor).

        Thus scandal per se is always an interior act — and only an interior act. The rest of us have a clear obligation to attempt to see things in the best light possible.

        Another way to look at the question is similar to the way we might look at anger. Too often, one may try to justify anger when the only person who might be defended by that anger is the angry person himself. Such anger is clearly questionable and probably sinful. But if his anger is directed toward the defense of an innocent, then there might be real justification.

        The analogy, then, is this: in the sex trade, who is more guilty? The prostitute or the client? Jesus makes clear in the Gospel that both bear the stain of grave sin. But He makes equally clear that His sympathies lie with the prostitutes, probably because they lack the sort of power that their customers can wield.

        When seen in this light, one would have to conclude that so long as St. Francis’s interior attitude was directed toward demonstrating the Truth in love, he could not plausibly be accused of scandal, no matter that some might take justification for their own sinful entry into the brothel. For who will look out for the prostitute otherwise?

        The same analogy can be carried into less grave actions, like reviewing a questionable movie in order to warn those who shouldn’t see it (e.g. pornography addicts) and engage those who might not otherwise have a positive conversation about Truth and Love and Light as Persons.

  • Here are some of the things I do when I watch PG, PG-13, or R rated movies (which is almost everything available to watch these days).

    I watch at home, on my TV, and not in public at a movie theater.

    When there is a depiction of a behavior that infringes on the dignity of the actors (your typical depraved sex scene, for example), I avert my eyes and pray for the actors.

    When there is an obscenity, particularly the taking of our Lord Jesus’ name in vain, I bless the actor uttering the oath.

    I watch genuinely wholesome movies often, too, because the stories are always better and they are emotionally more satisfying.

    When a movie is too offensive to keep up with the needed prayers, I turn it off (the Da Vinci Code was a recent example).

    Having said all that, there are really lots and lots of good-quality family films available through services like Netflix. Netflix also has all the episodes of the Andy Griffith Show, and I love watching that little kid Ronnie Howard (years before he descended into directing the Da Vinci Code!) Seeing the media from 50 years ago, I can’t believe how far we’ve sunk in two generations.

    • Yes, it is sadly remarkable. Remarkably sad.

      I like your approach. Praying, and returning a blessing. Very Biblical.

  • noelfitz

    Mary,
    you wrote:
    “By the way, although we are unabashedly Catholic here at Catholic Lane, we do not disdain the witness of evangelicals and seek to work alongside them in those areas where we can cooperate for the common good and the cause of Christ in our culture.”

    Well said. You have some great articles by non-Catholics, which are thoughtful, uplifting and affirming.

    CL is brilliant and a blessing in these difficult times.

    Recently I am enjoying old movies on DVD. I particularly like old movies, made by that Jesuit educated Catholic director, Alfred Hitchcock (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Hitchcock).

  • noelfitz

    Hello Susan,

    Thank you for a great article that encouraged a lively discussion.

    Religious films need not only be about Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby. In fact one of the best and most powerful religious films I ever saws was ‘A Serious Man’, which my wife did not enjoy. To me it is a modern Book of Job.

    The movie reminded me of Blessed John Henry Newman:

    “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.”

    • This sounds like a movie I’ll definitely want to see…. I’ll put that one in my Netflix queue. Thanks for the tip!