I wanted to like Million Dollar Baby. If you haven’t seen the movie, and you have plans to see it, you might not want to read any further. I love movies with twists and turns. Being fooled plot-wise is a great artistic vehicle. My first encounter with the motif was with Charles Eric Maine’s science fiction novel The Man Who Owned the World,[1] a book I read when I was 13. The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, gets the audience in the end. The Sixth Sense is equally gratifying as a plot-twist movie.

When I heard Million Dollar Baby had a similar story twist, I was anxious to see it. I was disappointed, however. The meteoric rise of a female boxer seemed too good to be true. I just knew that something bad was going to happen. The pre-film hype put you on guard to look for something. While I never guessed Hillary Swank’s character (Maggie Fitzgerald) would be paralyzed after being sucker punched in a championship bout, something bad was in the cards. This was no Rocky.

There have been a number of negative reviews of Million Dollar Baby and its pro-euthanasia message. Ted Baehr of “Movie Guide” described it as Nazi propaganda. He compares Million Dollar Baby to the Nazi movie I Accuse (1941) which won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and was the propaganda that Dr. Goebbels used to convince the German people that mercy killing was a legitimate moral choice.[2] Michael Medved took a swipe at the movie and got all kinds of flack.[3] One guy even called him an “idiot” who “has a wet sock for [a] brain."[4]

I believe Million Dollar Baby could have been used by the Christian community to send a message to the world. The movie is nihilistic to be sure. While Hollywood surprises us sometimes with some good movies, blind sentimentality often becomes a substitute for a soul. Why are we startled when assisted suicide is the solution to tragedy when the dominate worldview of Hollywood is nihilistic? Not only is there nothing beyond the grave, but there’s nothing beyond the things of this world. If success is not found in the glory of the moment, the winning of a boxing championship, then life is not worth living. What else is there when hopes and dreams are dashed on the harsh reality of things gone wrong?

In the late 1970s I read a book by Philip Yancey with the title Where is God When It Hurts? It has been a bestseller for nearly 30 years. It was a personalized update of C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. Instead of being purely or even mainly philosophical, it dealt with real people who were struck down in the prime of life by unforeseen tragedy. Is there any other kind? There were two particular stories that I vividly remember. One recounted the life of Joni Eareckson. Most Christians have heard of Joni and the diving accident that made her a quadriplegic.[5] In fact, all you have to say is “Joni,” and most Christians know who you’re talking about. She became known by being able to sketch while holding a pencil with her teeth. If that’s all she did, her life would be remarkable enough but not very noteworthy. In her autobiography Joni, she recounts how she suffered with bouts of despair and even contemplated suicide. My memory’s dim on this point, but I believe she asked for help from others to assist her in suicide. Joni is recognized today as a person who has faced the hardships of the life that changed in an instant, trapped in a body that won’t do her bidding, with the assurance of a new life to come. She has become a one-woman testimony to the power of the gospel to heal and make all things new even in a condition of brokenness. Physical healing never came, but this did not stop Joni from putting her faith on the line to demonstrate the power of Christ. Some have said that Christianity is a crutch. It’s more than that. Joni Eareckson-Tada demonstrates that every day. Those of us who don’t need a wheelchair don’t know how handicapped we really are.

There was another story in Where Is God When It Hurts? Brian Sternberg was a world class pole-vaulter in the 1960s. In June of 1963, he cleared 16' 8” setting the world record for the third time that year. Sternberg and John Pennel were friendly rivals competing against one another to be the first man to clear 17 feet.[6] It all came to an end for Sternberg when he suffered a dislocated cervical vertebra in a trampoline accident on July 2, 1963,[7] two weeks before he was to travel to the former Soviet Union to compete in an international meet. Like Joni Eareckson, he is paralyzed from the neck down.

Sternberg and Eareckson had something to live for after their accidents. Their combined lives–shackled to wheel chairs and dependent on others for so many things that we take for granted–have touched millions. While many were entertained after watching Million Dollar Baby, the quick exit of Swank’s character will transform no one. If every tragedy is snuffed out as an enduring inconvenience, then there is nothing to struggle for, nothing to strengthen us, nothing to improve upon in our frailities. The only thing that was important to Maggie was boxing, success for the moment. With this now an impossibility, what was there to live for? This is the world’s dilemma. Yancey writes the following after his interview with Sternberg: “As I drove away, what struck me was not pity for Brian. It was a thick, lumpy realization that I had met strength. Strength that would endure, even if the specifics never fell into line."[8] The nihilists see strength in suicide.

That was 42 years ago. As far as I know, Sternberg is still enduring and inspiring others with his story.[9] Back in 1963, I followed the leap-frog record breaking of Sternberg and Pennel. As a thirteen year-old budding athlete, I went out for track in the pole vault because of their efforts. It was not my event–too heavy in the legs and too chicken to hang upside down on a steel pole. Along the way, I picked up an iron ball called the shot put and spent the next few years mastering the technique that would lead me to a state championship in 1968 and also a state record that year. Much of what I am today is the result of those formative competitive years. I have Brian Sternberg to thank for that. I’m sure a lot of young people today can say the same thing but for different reasons. As the Bible says, “power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Endnotes:

[1] Charles Eric Maine, The Man Who Owned the World (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1961). It also went by the title He Owned the World (1960).
[2] Ted Baehr, “‘Million Dollar Baby’ Is a Neo-Nazi Movie,” http://newsmax.com/archives/articles/2005/2/11/134857.shtml
[3] Michael Medved, “My ‘Million Dollar’ Answer,” http://www.opinionjournal.com/la/?id=110006305
[4] James Wolcott, “Michael Medved is an Idiot,” http://jameswolcott.com/archives/2005/02/michael_medved.php
[5] Joni Eareckson with Joe Musser_, Joni_ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976).
[6] http://www.athletix.org/Statistics/wrPVmen.html. Pennel was the first man to clear 17 feet on August 24, 1963. [7] http://members.cox.net/afonseca1/article6.htm
[8] Philip Yancey, _Where Is God When It Hurts?_ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), 110. [9]http://www.modbee.com/sports/relays/story/6675292p-7615885c.html; http://members.cox.net/afonseca1/article6.htm; http://members.cox.net/afonseca1/article7.htm