I love it when this happens. I have watched Secondhand Lions maybe half a dozen times. Some parts, probably well over a dozen times. And always there is the sense that some part of my mind is receiving some really meaningful signals. It is not, I regret to say, the part of my mind that recognizes and names patterns.
Until last week.
Last week, I said, “Oh. That’s what has been jumping up and down and waving its hand. I see it now.” The element of the movie that caused all that discomfort and this belated recognition is the difference between “believing” and “believing in.”
I’m going to give you the crucial line the way I have heard it all these years. It’s wrong. I finally heard it correctly. Uncle Hub says, as I heard him, “Just because something isn’t true, that’s no reason you can’t believe it.”
Hub is such an appealing character and the scene is genuinely transformative for Walter, the confused little boy. And those things, among others, made me want to hear Hub differently than the way I was hearing him.
This movie isn’t about religion. It certainly isn’t about Christianity. Hub has a “confession of faith,” of sorts that I have appended and you will see that there is not the slightest whiff of Christian doctrine in it. On the other hand, I am a member of a religious faith that has never made any bones about the historical foundation on which it relies. Christianity is a historical religion in all the important senses. Christians say, “This happened and as a result, I am a different person than I would have been had it not happened.”
So the “true” and the “real” are mixed together as the cement that holds the major boulders of Christian doctrine together. And that’s the reason I was very surprised and also very happy to finally have heard what Hub actually said. What he said was, “Just because something isn’t true, that’s no reason you can’t believe IN it.”
In fact one of the major plot elements in the story is whether “all that Africa crap” really happened or not and that is the story I am telling today. I’ll start with an introduction to the movie. Then I’ll show you the scenes that make up this subplot. Finally, I’ll reflect little on what all that means.
Plot and Characters
Walter,(Haley Joel Osment) a hapless pre-adolescent is dropped off by his irresponsible mother, Mae,(Krya Sedgwick) to spend the summer with his uncles, Garth (Michael Caine) and Hub (Robert Duval), neither of whom Walter knows. Garth and Hub are old men who live boldly in present day rural Indiana, but the stories they tell about their adventurous pasts are scarcely credible. Hub is the principal hero of the stories; Garth is the principal teller.
Walter is drawn into the world of the stories because they are wonderful stories. First he rejects the whole idea that they happened at all. Then small fragments of the story come to seem plausible. Finally, Walter is living in the stories in the same way that Garth and Hub are.
Late in the summer, Mae returns with a boyfriend, Stan. Stan is a bully and he is in debt to people who do extreme things to recover their money. Stan tries to get Walter to say where Garth and Hub’s legendary supply of money is. When Walter refuses, Stan punches him and promises a lot more punches if Walter doesn’t give in. That’s the origin of the “friends or enemies” remark.
Walter and Uncle Garth are sitting on the porch watching Hub give his “what every boy needs to know about being a man” speech to a bunch of tough guys that Hub has just defeated in combat. Walter asks for more Africa stories.
Uncle Garth:You don’t believe all this Africa stuff.
Walter:It’s a good story.
Walter goes to stand with Uncle Hub in the middle of the night, looking over the lake. Garth has said that only Hub will tell Walter whatever happened to the legendary love of Hub’s life, the Princess Jasmine. Walter has come down to the lake to ask him.
Walter:These stories about Africa…about you. They’re true, aren’t they?
Uncle Hub:Doesn’t matter.
Walter:It does too. Around my mom, all I hear is lies. I don’t know what to believe in.
Uncle Hub:If you want to believe in somethin’, then believe in it. Just because something isn’t true, that’s no reason you can’t believe in it.
Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most.
Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things because those are the things worth believing in.
Mae and her thug boyfriend have returned, saying that Hub and Garth have all that money because they stole it from a bank back in the 1930s. Walter replies that they couldn’t have done that because they were in Africa in the 1930s.
Walter:Hub and Garth didn’t rob any banks. They were in Africa.
Mae:Africa! Oh Walter, be serious.
Walter:They were shanghaied to the French Foreign Legion and had adventures for forty years. They couldn’t have robbed any banks.
Stan: Oh come on pal, you don’t believe all that, do you?
Walter:Sure I do.
Mae:You? Mr. Doubting Thomas? Here Stan’s got actual evidence and you believe that Africa crap?
Walter:Yes. Yes I do.
Stan has taken Walter out to the barn, where he believes Garth and Hub’s money has been hidden. He is determined to scare the boy into telling him where it is. He punches Walter in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. Then he lays out this proposition.
Stan:So what’s it gonna be, pal. Friends? Or enemies?
Walter: Defend yourself.
Movie Note: A full 11 seconds elapses between the question and the answer. During that 11 seconds, Walter’s face turns from passive fear to active joy and we hear, very faintly, the theme music of Garth and Hub’s Africa adventures.
The struggle that these passages point to revolves around the nature of the stories. The first question we come across is whether they are historically valid. Walter is a skeptical kid by nature—as Mae’s comment in Scene III shows—and it seems completely beyond belief that the events that make up the stories actually occurred. That way of assessing the Africa stories returns late in the narrative when Walter tries to use the Africa stories as a way of showing that Hub and Garth are not bank robbers. It is the historical accuracy of the stories that Mae has in mind when she uses the word “believe”
But in Uncle Hub’s fullest account of the value of the stories (Scene II), he says “believe in,” rather than “believe.” When Walter says he needs to know about the Africa stories, he says he has lived a life of being lied to and he doesn’t know what to believe—he doesn’t know, he means, “what is verifiably true.” That’s important to Walter because his mother, Mae, lies to him a lot. But Uncle Hub’s response has nothing at all to do with verifiability. “If you want to believe in something,” he says, “then believe in it.” Hub is talking about asserting the supreme value of what makes life good, things like honor, courage, and virtue.
This has always been the tension of Christianity as a historical religion. We maintain that an event actually occurred. We maintain that the event is the basis of our commitment to the values that the event displays. The charm of Secondhand Lions is that Walter moves from asking the “what is true” question to committing himself to the “what is right” question over the course of the film.
So Walter’s response in Scene I indicates only that he finds Uncle Garth’s stories interesting in a time when he has nothing else to do. By Scene II, he wants to know whether Uncle Hub’s adventures actually happened—whether they are historically verifiable in principle.
Uncle Hub’s response sweeps past the question of “believing that an event really occurred” and doesn’t stop until it gets to “values that are worth our commitment.” These things are worth “believing in.” These are things Walter can choose to believe in, regardless of how unreliable his mother is; regardless of how much he has come to clutch empirical certainty as a solution. Certainty is not a solution; commitment to ultimate values is the solution and we are free to commit ourselves to them just be choosing to. In fact, as Stan will find out in Scene IV, no one can stop us.
And Hub snuffs the latent confusion in Walter’s mind by stating clearly that “actual occurrence” is not a condition of such a commitment to values. In fact, Hub lays the contradiction out in three successive statements of relationship
- Just because something isn’t true, that’s no reason you can’t believe in it;
- Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most; and
- Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things because those are the things worth believing in.
So, in order: you can believe in it even if it is not true at the level of historical occurrence. Then, this is particularly true of the most important things. It is the most important things about which we must say that “they may or may not be true.” And finally, it is the values themselves that contain worth. Our obligation to believe in them is only a recognition that they are worth believing in.
This matter of believing and believing in comes to a remarkably clear focus in Scene IV. His mother challenges Walter, “You don’t believe in all that Africa crap, do you?” It is interesting that she uses the “believe in” form, but she means “believe as a matter of historical fact.”
Notice how far Walter has come from his conversation in Scene I with Uncle Garth. Walter asks for more of the Africa story. Uncle Garth says, “You don’t believe all this Africa stuff.” This is the “believe” form; it means, you don’t believe these events actually occurred. It means, oddly, the same thing Mae means by “believe in.” Walter doesn’t answer the question. He asks for the stories on the ground that they are good stories, engaging stories. When Mae challenges him directly—You don’t believe in all this Africa crap…” —he answers directly, “Yes. I do.” And that answer is only moments away from his being punched by Stan and he is, in that way, asked the question much more directly. His answer to Stan, “Defend yourself!” is the same answer he gave his mother. Yes. I do.
This solution—the transition from “good stories” to “Yes, I do believe them” looks so good on the screen that we are tempted, as Christians, to follow that same path. We would say, as Hub did, that values like honor, courage, and virtue or their Christian equivalents, are so True that they are worth believing in whether all that stuff about Jesus of Nazareth happened or not. I think that would be a mistake.
It has never been the position of the church that the values Jesus exemplified are so
ultimately worthy that they are worth “believing in” whether there ever was a Jesus or not. It has (almost) always been the position of the church that “when the time was right, God sent his Son.” The Son lived out obedience to God and exemplified the values that characterize God’s reign, but he came in history. The church “believes” that he came and we “believe in” the values—God’s values—which he showed and for which he was willing to die.
The values by themselves are “nice.” They are good values. But if they are not God’s values, then we honor them at the cost of honoring God. We value them as if they were of ultimate worth, but it is God who is of ultimate worth and our salvation has come to us by the means God has provided. In Jesus’ appearances after his death, we see the disciples saying with wonder, “So…it was all true.”
Also…in Secondhand Lions, there is what amounts to a post-resurrection scene. The director showed good judgment in removing it from the theater version of the film. It is too long and complicated. Thank God he left it on the DVD. It relies on Josh Lucas—a face we scarcely see in the movie—as the adult Walter to bring off the final confirmatory scene. And it really doesn’t work as narrative.
But it works great as theology. Walter is making a few remarks at Hub and Garth’s funeral when a van of the French Foreign Legion shows up, their horses leaping out of the vans and assuming a formation of respect for one of their own. The old sheik shows up, scars on both cheeks, just as the story has it, and breathing through an oxygen mask. “So…” says one of Walter’s sons, “it’s all true.” And the adult Walter, just a little slower than his son, agrees in wonderment, “It’s all true.”
Uncle Hub’s Confession of Faith
That people are basically good. Honor, courage and virtue? mean everything. That power and money, money and power, mean nothin’;. That good always triumphs over evil. And I want you to remember this. Love, true love, never dies.