Recently I watched the “The Fisher King” for the first time. For those unfamiliar with this 1991 film, it stars Jeff Bridges as a Howard Stern-esque shock jock who tells people “how it is.” One day a man called Edwin phones in. He is a repeat caller and a bit of a loser. Today he might be called an incel.
He encounters beautiful women but finds it hard to talk to them. Jack Lucas, Bridges’ character, identifies the people Edwin meets as yuppies. He tells Edwin, “They’re not human, they don’t feel love, they only negotiate ‘love moments.’ They’re evil, Edwin, they’re repulsed by imperfection, horrified by the banal, everything that America stands for, everything that you and I fight for! They must be stopped before it’s too late! It’s us or them!” To all of this, Edwin simply says, “Okay, Jack.” Later that night, Edwin goes to a diner with a shotgun and injures or kills nearly everyone in it before killing himself. Jack learns of this and is distraught.
Three years later, in a drunken stupor, Jack is being beaten by two teens who believe him to be homeless, dousing him with gasoline in order to set him on fire, when he is saved by a group of homeless individuals led by a man named Parry. It turns out that Parry, played by Robin Williams, had been in the diner the night Edwin came. His wife had been killed in Edwin’s shooting spree. Now Parry identifies himself as a knight on the quest for the Holy Grail. Jack feels responsible and tries to help Parry, going about it in all the wrong ways. He ultimately decides to steal the Holy Grail, a small trophy owned by a billionaire, for Parry.
I found this film intensely moving. It shows Parry as a real person, as someone who doesn’t need Jack’s money, which he just give away to someone else in need. What Parry needs, rather, is love, is connection. But the movie isn’t about Parry’s salvation. It is about Jack’s. Earlier in the film, Parry describes a version of the Grail story where the Fisher King is in search of the Grail and cannot find it. But when he asks his fool for a drink, the fool hands him the Grail. He can do this because he is a fool. The movie sets us up to assume Parry will retrieve the Grail. But not only does Jack do it for him, it is only when Jack delivers up the Grail to Parry that Parry is healed. Parry is not the fool, not really. Jack is.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with the way I see the world. Other times, I worry I don’t see it clearly enough. Parry is able to see the world in a way Jack cannot. And this isn’t always to Parry’s benefit. He sees a monstrous red knight, riding a monstrous horse who breathes fire. This vision, and an accompanying beating, leaves Parry catatonic, re-experiencing the trauma that caused his mental breakdown in the first place. And yet there’s no denying that just as Parry benefits from the elements of sanity (love, relationships, real human connection), Jack benefits even more from the way Parry helps him to see the world. Perhaps there are different modes of being, of seeing reality that are brought on by different mental states. If this is so, then what ought to be avoided are the extremes, not losing oneself to a purely “rational” nor a purely visionary way of seeing the world.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that the good news of Christ crucified is “foolishness to the Greeks” and that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” As followers of Christ, we’re meant to look foolish. This seems even more true in an age which tends to either deny the existence of spiritual realities or to be so enamored with them as to miss the one who made them. The life that Christ calls us to is a life that will look out of touch with “reality.”
There are days where I most certainly feel more like Parry. The world is a series of adventures leading me to the Holy Grail, a symbol and source of God’s grace on earth. But more often, I feel like Jack, lost in a life of sin, of the world wrongly conceived. It’s hard to see through the haze of the mundane, the workaday. But sometimes there are moments, half seen, of the deeper realities that God has ordered to uphold this world. And in those moments, I’m reminded that there is nothing common, there is nothing ordinary. The God who constantly wills hydrogen atoms to stay together, until we do something despicable to make them split, has also made me and everything I can perceive and comprehend. On a good day, I can get lost in that reverie. On a bad one, it can be a comfort to see me through.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. David Russell Mosley is a poet and theologian living and teaching in the Inland Northwest. He is the author of two books of poetry “The Green Man” and “Liturgical Entanglements,” both published by Resource Publications. In his spare time, Dr. Mosley likes wandering around in the woods, spending time in community and smoking a pipe.