On December 3, Fox News personality Glenn Beck broadcast a live performance of The Christmas Sweater: A Return to Redemption to movie theaters nationwide. (Tickets were $20.) I was curious — the mention of redemption, together with bits from the YouTube trailer about people in crisis made me wonder how (and how far) Beck was going to venture into the religious realm.
The bulk of the show was Beck of Christmas present watching Beck of Christmas past — last Christmas, to be precise, when he first broadcast his one-man-show based on his book The Christmas Sweater. The story, as he once explained in an interview with radio host Don Imus, was “a fictionalized story of my childhood, my last Christmas with my mom.” The true part was that Beck got a sweater as his only Christmas present that year, and that, when his mother saw it balled up on the floor, she was deeply hurt. Recalled Beck, “I realized at that moment how much my mother had done...and that she knew it was a crappy present that I wouldn’t want but it was all that she could afford.”
The fictionalized part was pretty much everything else. In reality, Beck’s mother was an alcoholic who took her own life. In the story, she’s an exhausted saint who falls asleep at the wheel and leaves Beck (called “Eddie”) an orphan. (Except not quite — I’ll send up a SPOILER ALERT before noting that Beck of Christmas present allows as how his publisher requested that he change the ending to make it happier, whereupon he delivered a doozy of a rewrite.)
Several reviews have marveled at the show’s climactic moment, wherein Beck (as 12-year-old Eddie) goes into the fetal position on stage and sobs while a diva stands stage left in front of a small orchestra and sings, “God keep you until we meet again.” I will grant that I (twice) found my mouth hanging open in amazement, and leave it at that. I was more interested in the theology than the theatrics. What was Beck teaching about redemption?
Eddie’s grandpa to Eddie: “What happened to your mom was a stupid accident. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we live with it. If you’re not happy, Eddie, it’s not God’s fault, it’s not my fault, it’s not anybody’s fault — it’s your fault, Eddie.” (This notion of how we respond to a crisis is one of the keys to Beck’s vision — the importance of “facing your storm.”)
Eddie wasn’t buying. “Oh, really, Grandpa? Where were you and God when Mom couldn’t keep food in the house? Stop telling me how great things are and ‘Oh, Jesus loves us and God is with us.’ Because it’s all a lie, Grandpa.... There is no God. Jesus doesn’t love us! Jesus doesn’t care!”
Later, Eddie met Old Man Russell, a man covered in earth and full of wisdom. Russell told him, “Eddie, the two most powerful words in the human language — do you know what they are? I am. When Moses said to God, ‘Who shall I say sent me?’ God said, ‘I am that I am.’ It’s the name of God.” (This notion of identity is the other key for Beck. Read on!)
Eddie: “Well, I don’t believe in God.”
Russell: “Well, He’s probably sorry to hear that. But let me ask you this. When was the last time you honestly thought to yourself, ‘I am happy. I am strong! I am a good person! I am worthy!’” It’s a curious response — “You don’t believe in God? Okay, but do you believe in yourself?” But it fits with Beck’s stress on identity, and God’s interest in helping us to discover it.
Later still, Russell urged Eddie to face his storm — a literal storm, “black, deep green, and silver swirled together in a cloud that breathed and heaved in the sky.” Russell cries, “Eddie, you may not know who you are, son, but I do, and I know you were meant to walk through this storm.... There’s so much more waiting for you, and you’re worth every ounce of it. Trust in who you really are!”
Eddie pushed through to the other side, and everything was beautiful, even Russell — “no longer dirty and old but bright and ageless”(!) “Now, Eddie,” he asked, “do you know who you are?” And as he asked the question, “a light now seemed to emanate from his skin. It was almost as if he were made of light.” (cf. the Transfiguration of Jesus: “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.”) And as he shone, Russell delivered the secret of Eddie’s identity: “You’re joy, Eddie. You...are...joy!”
Cut to Beck on a couch, watching the audience give him a standing ovation at last year’s show. “A storm is coming,” he warned the audience, “and the only way you’re going to be able to survive it is if you know who you are.... What do you say we stop wasting time this Christmas? Find out who you are — either find your Russell or be a Russell. Find out how to fill that emptiness — and it ain’t with stuff. It’s something meaningful. It’s who you really are. If you want to find peace, there’s only one way to do it. To fill that hole, you can either be a victim or a victor!”
What about those people in crisis? There were four of them on stage with Beck — people who had faced their storms and come through to the other side. One was on his way to purchase enough sleeping pills to commit suicide when he heard Beck on the radio, saying, “With every failure comes the opportunity for success.” He ended up buying The Christmas Sweater instead of the pills. Another, Aleka, read The Christmas Sweater in the midst of her treatment for breast cancer. “God put me there. I knew...God was doing something to me. I’ve been asking Him since the day I was diagnosed — ‘Okay, God, you’ve stripped me down. I’m ready to go....’ I’m still asking Him. I read The Christmas Sweater, and I was rejuvenated to continue asking.”