Back in 1994, Forrest Gump became an unexpected summer blockbuster and cultural phenomenon, riding the zeitgeist all the way to six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, and Actor (the second consecutive win for Tom Hanks). In honor of its digitally re-mastered 20th-anniversary one-week-only IMAX re-release on September 5 (and Blu-ray follow up on the 30th), my editors at Crosswalk asked me to write up a quick "10 Ways Forrest Gump Holds Up 20 Years Later" kind of piece.
Then I sat down to actually watch the movie again, and there’s a lot more going on here–more than I'd remembered–than a long list would allow us to contemplate and discuss. So I sought to take this article deeper instead of broader. It would be selling the film's enduring appeal and power too short to merely run a simplified list of nostalgic bullet points that we all remember anyway. Forrest Gump is about a life fully lived, and lived through very tumultuous times. That kind of story told well ends up saying not only a lot of things to us but also about us. As Forrest shares early on, "My momma always said you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes. Where they goin', where they been. I've worn lots of shoes." Indeed. Haven't we all?
So while I’m normally hesitant to dig out Christian virtues for the sake of being pop-culture relevant (especially when that's not the filmmaker’s intent), some thought-provoking scriptural themes ended up blindsiding me in significant ways. Sure, the film teaches us lessons we intuitively know, but they’re things we often lose sight of and, honestly, still struggle to fully grasp–let alone consistently live.
So, here’s a list of them that, rather than notching mere highlights, attempts to ponder some of the movie's key ideas, ones that challenge us as people and convict us as Christians.
3. FREE WILL vs. PREDESTINATION
Usually reserved for theological discussion boards and Facebook threads (Calvinists have a way of sniffing these out that’s downright impressive), Free Will vs. Predestination is found at the subtle existential core of Forrest Gump. Lieutenant Dan represents the latter ("We all have a destiny! Nothing just happens! It’s all part of a plan!") and Mama the former ("Well, I happen to believe you make your own destiny.") This debate is a universal struggle, because not only do the answers we arrive at affect our destiny but also our identity. Is there an overarching design and plan we were born into? Or are we the masters of our own fates? Or, more troubling still, are both views wrong? Are we instead simply like the floating white feather that bookends the film, randomly taken to wherever the wind wills? Forrest goes back-and-forth between these ideologies not knowing where to land, until late in the film when he has a gravesite epiphany. I believe there's truth to the conclusion he draws ("maybe both is happening at the same time"), and his story – like any life with its unexpected surprises and challenges – makes a credible case for it.
2. MAMA'S WISDOM
"Mama always had a way of explaining things so I could understand them."
There's a lot of reasons for this film's enduring appeal. I think one of the keys is how, through Forrest's mama, it nutshelled some basic but important truths about life. Some critics and sophisticated cinephiles say it's too simplistic, shelling out fortune cookie wisdom, and that may be. But it resonates. I think it does because too often we can become cynical, overcomplicating life and the reasons why things happen the way they do, or why people are the way they are. Sometimes it's good - even necessary - to cut through all of that and, as Forrest's mama did, explain things in a way so we can understand them. Forrest Gump does that, whether it's by telling us that "Stupid is as stupid does," "You have to do the best with what God gave you," or "You've got to put the past behind you before you can move on," and it does so with absolute sincerity.
Basically, this is what Jesus was doing for His disciples through parables. Kingdom matters were way too complicated and transcendent to understand, so Jesus told them stories they could actually wrap their heads around. Sure, the disciples were often confused after the telling, but not by the stories themselves. Rather, they were confused as to how they applied. "Sure, sounds great Rabbi," they might say (my paraphrase), "but why are You telling us this?" Their failure to make the connection wasn't because they were dense. It's because they were adults. Which leads me to the film's most important idea of all.
1. BECOME LIKE A CHILD
"And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, 'Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.'"– Matthew 18:2-3
Watching Forrest Gump this time around, that concept really messed with me. It's an easy connection to draw, but the implications are far-reaching, beyond some cute-and-sweet, feel-good ideal. Knowledge and sophistication aren't all they’re cracked up to be. They can make us jaded and cynical. They can cause us to lose faith. And that forms our nature into something very un-Christlike. We shouldn't feel sorry for Forrest for having a low IQ. We should be aspiring to the nature it cultivates.
The obvious traits are Forrest's kindness, gentleness, and generosity. His innocence. But the attribute we don't often connect to innocence–but which Forrest instinctively embodies–is moral clarity. At a very basic but vital level, Forrest discerns right and wrong, and quickly. And it motivates him to action. When someone's being mistreated, even beaten (as Jenny is, finding herself in abusive relationships), Forrest doesn't cower. He acts. He fights. He defends. He protects. He has no intellectual cloud of psychoanalyzing a situation. He sees a need and he responds, as he also does in Vietnam, because in the moment it's the right thing to do. His innocence isn't a weakness. It's his strength.
Conversely, while it's easy for us to sit there and judge Jenny for her bad choices–for not being able to respond to the unconditional love that Forrest so obviously offers–the truth is we're all much more like Jenny than we are Forrest. We desire not only things but dreams, turning our hoped-for identity into idols. Those passions cause us to run from the very things that truly, actually give us peace, that give us love, to the things that mess us up and lead us astray. And yet Jenny is the adult whlle Forrest is the simpleton? The same could be said of us and the troubled Lt. Dan, as he wrestles with the unfulfilled destiny of what he thinks he's earned or even been promised, and becomes angry with God as a result. We may shake our heads at Jenny and Lt. Dan, but we'd be better to consider what they reveal about our own adult selves. But to be like Forrest? Would that we all could be so naïve. The world would be much kinder, gentler, and just.
I could've easily written a whole separate article just about the powerful moments director Robert Zemeckis creates. When young Forrest breaks free from the shackles of his leg braces (that’ll preach)... when Forrest and Jenny find each other again in the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall... when Lt. Dan finally makes peace with God, and when years later he reconnects with Forrest for the first time since that moment and is a changed man. Or when, most powerfully, Forrest learns that he’s a father, and the mixed emotions overwhelm him. Each moment gives me chills and puts a lump in my throat. But for all the moments that move us, it's also good to reflect on the ways that Forrest Gump can challenge us. Which, despite my long-windedness, can really be summed up quite simply:
Stop being like Jenny. Become like Lt. Dan. Then be Forrest Gump.
And that's all I have to say about that.
Publication date: September 2, 2014