“The Intern” as a Theological Prop

This is a frankly theological take on Nancy Meyers’ movie, The Intern. As always, I absolve the writer, the director (both Nancy Meyers) the producers, and all the actors from having any such intention. I am writing here about the meaning that came to me as I watched this movie over and over, trying to find a name for just what it was about this story that fascinated me so deeply.

We are going to take this in three pieces. There is the theological background in general.intern 1 Then the question of what “empties himself” means, both in the case of Jesus and in the case of Ben Whittaker. Then, second, there is the question of what is actually emptied. I don’t know what that means for Jesus, but what it means for Ben is what the movie is about. Finally, there is the question of what is not–can not be?–emptied.

My overall goal is to give you a clear account of how this movie happened to me. If you can get that, I’ll feel pretty good about this essay. This is not the first movie to have affected me this way. I call it “Reel Theology.”

Theological Background

There is a well-known hymn in Philippians 2, which includes the famous “kenosis” passage.  Here are the first two of the five stanzas, verses 6—17. It goes like this. “Make your own mind [like] the mind of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the form of God
did not count equality with God
something to be grasped

But he emptied himself
taking the form of a slave
becoming as human beings are…”

Those two stanzas are the basis of a lot of Christian theology. I don’t understand it all, but I’m OK with that. What does “in the form of God” mean in verse 6 for instance or “in the form of a slave” in verse 7? Is the goal to distinguish form from substance? Too deep for me.

intern 12My problem is not with understanding it. I can’t. My problem is with not caring about it. I’m not really critical of myself for failing to care, but I think  all Christians are poorer if they fail to care about this fundamentally important mystery. I think we need to live with it and care about it. I would really like to understand it; that’s the kind of person I am. But even failing to understand it, I am not prepared to stop caring. How to do that?

One way I have approached this problem—the problem of understanding and caring— is to take a little piece of it; just a fragment. Maybe I can learn to care about the fragment. Maybe I can attach myself emotionally to the fragment and begin to engage the larger issue from a base of actually caring about it; feeling something about it.

In my view, for instance, the Muppets version of The Frog Prince is a really good treatment of this same passage. You don’t have to know what “in the form of God” means to feel a lot of sympathy with a little frog [1] who doesn’t know where he is (at the moment) or who he is (at the moment) but who is forced to say, when asked, that his name is Sir Robin the Brave. And he has to say that to Kermit, who is open, but skeptical.

I know it is suppose to be funny, but it is also humiliating and I don’t really think humiliation is funny, even when it is managed by the Muppets. I can feel a little bit of the little frog’s confusion and shame. All the other frogs have names derived from the knights of King Arthur’s time and they are big competent (they can swim) and confident frogs. And to them, the scrawny little frog must say, “They call me…Sir Robin the Brave.”  Oh, and by the way, I am really a prince.

intern 5Sir Robin’s problem is the tiniest fragment of the dilemma Jesus faced in “giving up the form of God,” but since I have no idea what “the form of God” means, I don’t really feel anything about it. I really get the little frog’s problem. I can feel that one.

I argue, below, that the dilemma Ben Whittaker faces in The Intern is similar. It is, like The Frog Prince, a tiny piece of a massive theological construct. But my mind, tuned to Paul’s theological rhetoric and the magic of the Muppets, sees in Ben Whittaker’s dilemma, an “emptying” that catches both my mind and my heart. [2]

What is to be emptied?

In the hymn, Jesus is supposed to have “emptied” his divinity. No one knows what that means, so it’s really hard to care about it. Ben has to empty his “self-importance.” Everybody know what that means. For this metaphor to work, you will need to understand that Jesus really was divine and that Ben really was (had been) important. V. P. for Sales and Advertising for a major company qualifies as “important.” But when you think about it, what Ben has done really doesn’t—or really shouldn’t—bear at all on whether he can be a successful “senior intern” with About the Fit, the online clothing company who is hiring the interns.

So Ben, in his interviews, needs to make a complete break. Yes, he used to be important, but now he is not. So the faintest breath of “I used to be a very important person” really should be called “self-importance.” And the faintest breath of it would kill his chances of doing anything worth while.

So let’s try the Philippians hymn again, hoping to keep the relationship between the statuses (form of God/form of a slave) intact, but changing the statuses themselves (VP for Sales and Advertising/intern). Here’s what that gives us.

Ben, who was really VP for Sales and Advertising
did not count “executive status”
as something to be grasped

But emptied himself
taking the form of an intern
being treated as interns are.

If divine/human are categories you care deeply about, this adaptation of the kenosis hymn is not going to be your kind of thing. I am aware that it might be offensive. But if you are like me—unable to really care about divine/human [2]—it is possible that you might really be able to feel the boss/intern dilemma. That’s what this is for: the emotions attach to the small event, the significance can be transferred to the framework of meaning.

How does the movie show that “emptying?”

Here are a few samples.  The first interviewer starts off in a very orthodox manner. “Where did you go to school?” Northwestern. “What did you major in?” Then a very short pause and …”Do you remember?” They don’t show Ben’s face after than, but take it from me, there was no expression of exasperation or impatience. None.

intern 3The second interviewer picks up at college and asks about work history. This is the first time we, as viewers, hear that Ben was V.P. for Sales and Advertising and later was in charge of the production of the physical phone book. For New York. The second interviewer wants to know why people don’t just google phone numbers. Ben is unflappable. “Well yes, but back then people needed phone books.”

His first interview with Jules goes the same way. I think you’d be much better down in “creative” or “sales.” The pace is a little slower.” Ben’s response is that he is here to learn about her world.

Throughout all this, Ben is someone who asks for no special treatment. There is not the merest vestige of “I used to be somebody important” in his words or his manner.

What does Ben keep?

I think it would be fair to say that the Jesus of the Synoptic gospels does not “keep” anything. He is, in that respect, a lot like Jason Bourne in that everybody is trying to kill him and Jason needs desperately to find out who he is so he will know why that is happening and be able to do something about it. [3] Ben isn’t like that. Ben will continue to be the kind of person in this new job that he has always been. So far as appearances go, that means he will stand out in a young-and-grubby culture. He wears a suit and tie every day. He shaves every day. He carries a briefcase that has “old things” in it: a calculator, a couple of pairs of glasses, a clock, and so on.

Ben the executive was like that and Ben the intern is like that. But Ben keeps some other things, too. He keeps his character. In his interview video he says this about himself: I’ve been a company man all my life. I’m loyal. I’m trustworthy. And I’m good in a crisis.

intern 4He doesn’t “empty” those things. They were part of his old self and they are part of his current self. And they save him. They save the company, too. And Jules Ostin, the company’s founder, whose intern he is. It is not hard to track those traits in the story. [4] Ben goes into a conference room to perform a very simple task that Becky, Jules’ secretary, has summoned him to do. While there, he hears crisis discussed—a crisis for the company and also for the founder. When he reports back to the secretary, she says, “So…what were they talking about in there.” Ben replies, “I really couldn’t say.” Becky prompts, “You were in there a long time…” Ben comes back with, “I couldn’t hear a thing.” Not true, of course, because he did hear; but also not a lie because Becky knows exactly what he means.
When he begins as Jules’ driver, she cautions him, “Whatever you hear in this car is completely confidential.” Ben waves it off, “Goes without saying.” She knows what he means and believes him.

There is a lot more story, of course, but the narrative I care most about comes to a satisfying climax somewhere around the middle of the movie. Jules and Ben are working late. Jules brings a box of pizza and a couple of beers over to Ben’s desk because she “doesn’t like to eat alone.” The payoff in this scene comes when you see Jules’ eyes register the truth and then, “No. Surely not.” [4]

Jules already knew that this old building—the one they gutted and wired for online sales—was an old factory. She knew that old factory had made phone books. As they sit there together with their pizza, she learns that Ben used to be an executive in a company that made phone books. That’s when the light of recognition comes into her eyes. That’s when she realizes that About the Fit, her brain child (her heart child too) is built in Ben’s old home and that in coming to work for her, he is coming “home.”

That brings us to the same notion, theologically speaking, but from the other side. The hymn with the Gospel of John begins, includes:

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him.

That’s good for Jesus. It’s way too much for Ben Whittaker. But if you have that language in your ears already, it is very nearly irresistible. Ben, who was once a VIP, comes back to the very place where he was a VIP and esteems that past so little that his boss has to discover it herself. She knows what it means. And she knows that if she had not discovered it, no one would ever have known.

And that is my favorite moment in the film.

[1] We know that the little frog is “really” a prince and that an evil witch has enchanted him, but in his case there is no question what “in the form of a frog” means.
[2] The Greek is heauton ekenōsen: “he emptied himself. This passage in Philippians 2 is called the kenosis passage for that reason.
[3] The Jesus of the Gospel of John is an entirely different story. There, Jesus is, for all practical purposes, a tourist here in our world. He still has his citizenship papers and his passport and he can go “home” anytime. Well…any time after his mission is accomplished.
[4] Not hard, particularly, after you have seen it a dozen times, several times just to track the virtues promised in the video to see where in the narrative they are displayed.
[5] I added a few words to this quote because the real meaning in in the way she says it and I don’t know how to convey that.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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